Today I saw Star Trek for the second time. (I thoroughly enjoyed the film both times).
While it is generally not one of those movies from which one gleans new insights after a second viewing (the plot is pretty straightforward, for example), today I found myself struck by one particular shot: young Jim Kirk, still an Iowa town boy, gazing up at a partially constructed starship as he contemplates joining Starfleet.
While it is a formative moment for Jim’s character, what was most interesting to me was the notion that in the future USA– where we find ourselves leading innovation in spaceships and not, say, automobiles– that we will be doing so in Iowa.
In some ways, it makes total sense to me: rural Midwestern America has been seeing a steady depopulation for a while now. Where else could we find enough (inexpensive) land to build a 1,200-foot space ship? Some states now even offer financial incentive to college graduates who settle back in their home state (rather than accelerate both depopulation and brain drain). Other states are opening up to take former prisoners from Guantanamo.
There is, in short, plenty of space but fewer and fewer people.
When I took Prof. Richard White‘s “History of the North American West” as the last course in my major this spring, he floated the prediction that we’d someday soon see the heartlands of America filled with solar panels. It’s not a crazy idea: already, we see that Iowa passed California as the nation’s second-largest wind power producer (behind Texas). And it would be a smart way for those states to use their best asset– cheap, flat land– to provide a valuable commodity (namely, electricity) to the rest of the country.
And in general, it all fits with the idea that in between the coastal states we have lots of middle-of-nowhere flatness, corn fields in their neat rows extending out for as far as the eye can see.
But that one day may change. It could very easily soon be acres of solar panels or wind turbines covering large swaths of the land…or, if you wait long enough, even a hangar for the next USS Enterprise.
Tags: automobiles, brain drain, california, cars, corn, corn fields, depopulation, fields, guantanamo, iowa, jim kirk, midwest, richard white, rural, solar, solar energy, solar panels, space, star trek, texas, USA, wind, wind turbines
There was an interesting article today in Slate’s Green Lantern section which answered a question about biodegradable plastics. (“Breaking Down Is Hard To Do“).
The biggest challenge, it seems, is not simply getting people to recycle– after all, here was a self-proclaimed frat boy about to throw a night of debauchery asking about biodegradability.
The problem is that the term “biodegradable,” as a marketing term, is unregulated by the federal government. This means that, “manufacturers can sometimes get away with being a little squirrely in their advertising.”
Granted, the science behind it is complicated as well, since landfills have different levels of biological activity: many compact trash tightly and cover it daily with dirt and clay to reduce odor. Then there’s the question of whether biodegradability is such a laudable goal at all:
Then there’s the fact that biodegradability may not be a worthy goal in the first place! The tomblike conditions in most landfills mean that any biodegradation that occurs is going to be anaerobic. In the absence of oxygen, the process produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 21 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. So your biodegradable party-ware might end up warming the planet more than a standard plastic cup—which would at least sequester its carbon for a long, long time.
What I take away from all of this is not that sustainability is worthless, or that it is impossible for the average college student, urban dweller, suburban mom/dad, etc. to do.
This is on the same day that SF Mayor Gavin Newsom announced San Francisco now recycles 72% of all trash, making the goal of 75% by 2010 and zero waste by 2020 a distinct possibility.
Large-scale recycling efforts, then, are not out-of-reach. In fact, Newsom’s announcement shows me that the key to sustainability is in government regulation, outreach and support.
This means starting small and scaling up. Take, for example, the ASSU Green Store here on Stanford campus. The student government, with I’m sure some help from the University Administration, has made an effort to make sustainability easier for students throwing parties (like the Stanford version of the frat boy in the Slate article).
Now consider how the ASSU initiative fits into a greater Bay Area political effort, such as Gavin Newsom’s emphasis on recycling.
And if the federal government were to enact legislation imposing tougher sanctions on what “biodegradable” is (like the USDA does for “organic“), then you’d have a comprehensive set of incentives and opportunities for people to lead more sustainable lives.
While sustainability is not “cheap,” price is one clear hurdle which can be passed. I did some quick comparison shopping:
|Source||Type/Brand||Number||Price||Cost per item (in cents)|
|ASSU Green Store||Recyclable||50||$5.60||11.2|
|BevMo (online)||Solo (Jack Frost)||100||$11.99||11.9|
So while cost plays into the decision, it ultimately would dictate that buying Green Store cups is the best bet anyways.
The role of the government, then, is to take a more active stance in regulating marketing terms for consumers who may not understand but who want to make the right purchase. Correction of misinformation (and misleading advertising) when combined with community and national initiatives can result in– if not a lot of good– at least a lot less of bad.
Tags: assu, bevmo, biodegradable, costco, cups, garbage, gavin newsom, Government, great pacific garbage patch, green store, marketing, organic, party cups, recycling, regulation, san francisco, SF, slate, Stanford, sustainability, trash