Guest Post By Maria Ramos: How “Cli-Fi” Comments on Energy Crisis, Climate Change, and Overpopulation

Guest Post By Maria Ramos: How “Cli-Fi” Comments on Energy Crisis, Climate Change, and Overpopulation

Welcome back Maria Ramos! Today, she would like to talk to you all about another aspect of the science fiction landscape – a lesser-known subgenre known as “cli-fi”. Embracing dystopian narratives and speculative fiction that looks at the future through the lens of environmentalism and climate change, cli-fi is very similar to other sub-genres of science fiction. In the end, its all about cautionary tales and agitating for change. But I’ll let her explain it, as she’s better at this sort of thing!


Dystopian fiction has always provided a means of commenting on and critiquing the political and social statuses of the eras they were created in. From George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm to the more recent P.D. James’ The Children of Men and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the fiction changed with the prevalent issues of the times, from the cold war and communism to concerns over reproductive rights. Throughout the genre the fear of too much government control over some or all aspects of our lives has remained a central theme. More recently, focuses have turned to nature and the negative effect that humanity has on the environment.

While existing for decades, the recent upsurge in dystopian fiction has taken a turn into the newly coined sub genre of “cli-fi” or climate change fiction, which depicts current and very valid concerns over environmental, overpopulation, and global warming issues. Much of this fiction also targets a young adult audience. Perhaps this is to encourage the next generation of scientists and technology experts to work with the current generation in seeking solutions for our environmental issues. Such problems include a steady increase of the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere since 2007, creating what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported are the highest levels in 650,000 years. Some cli-fi books even tackle this very issue head on.

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Two of the best-known examples of young adult cli-fi are The Hunger Games trilogy and The Maze Runner trilogy, both with blockbuster movie counterparts. In each of these, the characters live in a world depleted of natural resources because of some sort of man-made, or at least man-assisted, environmental disaster. While The Hunger Games doesn’t provide the specifics of what caused the world to become Panem, it’s clear that a central government controls the limited resources that are left while the general population struggles. While criticized for ignoring such issues as racial tensions, it nonetheless ticks the boxes of government excess leading to suffering for the general populace.

In The Maze Runner, the cause for the world’s destruction is more specifically attributed to solar flares, which devastated the majority of the planet and left the few survivors destitute. Further government meddling then caused many of those survivors to degenerate into a crazed and animalistic existence in which they tear each other apart. While neither of these trilogies, nor many of the other works of cli-fi, provide solid solutions for fixing the world once it’s gotten to the post-apocalyptic point of the stories, they remind us that consequences will remain devastating if we do nothing now.

The term “cli-fi” is popularly attributed to Dan Bloom in 2008, but nonetheless can define works of fiction created as early as the mid-20th century. Before there was such a term, authors such as J.G. Ballard were producing works of fiction describing a post-apocalyptic world caused by the effects of global warming, works such The Wind from Nowhere in 1961, The Drowning World in 1962, and The Burning World in 1964. Describing different worlds ravaged by hurricane-force winds, melting polar ice caps, and worldwide drought, respectively, such works provide early warning of the ravaging effects of global warming if left unchecked.

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More recent examples that existed before 2008 include the first novel of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Oryx and Crake, written in 2003. Set closer to the present, this trilogy delves into the possible detrimental effects of biotechnology on both the environment and on the human inhabitants of the planet. It also takes aim at multinational corporations that ignore and/or deny their role in global warming and environmental disasters, alluding to real issues faced by today’s environmentalists worldwide. Other examples of more adult-oriented dystopian novels that address the possibility of environmental catastrophes include The Road, the excellent post-oil-crisis novel The Windup Girl, and The Children of Men.

Whether the rise in recent works of cli-fi is having any effect on our actions toward being more environmentally responsible or not, artists and writers have always found ways to provide commentary through entertainment. In the case of saving our planet, any means of getting the message across is welcome and necessary.

Climate Crisis: Where are the Bees Going?

bee_pollen_macroOne of the greatest threats to our planetary ecosystem is the threat of bees going extinct, a phenomenon that is often filed under the heading of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Because of their role in pollination, bees are an integral part of the environment, and their disappearance would mean the sudden collapse of all life on the planet in just a few years time.

Because of this, environmentalists and entomologists are looking for ways to address the disappearance of bees. One solution, as put forward by a team of Australian scientists working in Tasmania, is to outfit bees with tiny microchip trackers to monitor their movements. By turning them into an army of mobile data-collectors, the team hopes to determine why the local bees are abandoning their hives.

bee_chipsFor the past five months, this team has been capturing hundreds of bees, refrigerating them, shaving them, and gluing tiny sensors – which weigh about 1/4000th of a paperclip – to their backs. So far, the team has captured, tagged and released hundred bees, but the team plans to engineer a total of 5000 with these chips for the sake of their research.

Dr. Paulo de Souza, the lead scientist on the project, explained the capture and tagging process as follows:

The bees are very sensitive to temperature. We take the bees to the lab in a cage, we put them in a fridge with temps around 5 degrees Celsius, and in five minutes, all the bees fall asleep, because their metabolism goes down. We rub a bit of glue on them, and then attach the sensor. We carry them back, and in five minutes the bees wake up again.

colony_collapse_disorderBy monitoring their behavior, the scientists are trying to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly abandon their hives. As it stands, no one is entirely sure what causes CCD, but  biological diversity, diet, management of the hives, radiation, and pesticide use are all possible influences on the bees’ behavior.

Colony Collapse Disorder remains a mystery that not only effects bees, but entire industries. If bees don’t pollinate fruit crops well enough, production decreases, prices rise, and local ecosystems can collapse. Tasmania, who’s huge agricultural tracts accounts for 65% of all Australian crop exports, could be devastated. Hence why de Souza and his colleagues are using it as a testing ground for their research.

bee_chips1In addition to monitoring the bees movements and checking in with them via RFID readers installed near hives and feeding stations, they’ve also created an experiment which exposes some bees to environmental contaminants (like pesticides) where other hives remain pesticide-free. By examining the effect on bees’ movements, they’ll be able to determine which factors cause bee disorientation and abnormal behavior.

As DeSouza explains it, the tagging and tracking process works a lot like a swipe card:

When you go to your office, you swipe a card to gain access. We assign different numbers to the devices on the bees, so we have 5,000 of these micro-sensors with one specific number. We follow not only the swarm, but each of the individuals to see what they’re doing.

colony_collapse_disorder1The scientists will also be able to examine bee data through several generations within the hive. When the contaminated pollen turns to nectar, other bees within the hive feed on it, and pass contamination on to their offspring. To de Souza’s knowledge, this is the first time scientists have attempted to measure hive contamination on this scale.

Right now, their main goal is to understand CCD before it reaches Australia’s shores and effects its agricultural operations. But the research is expected to have far-reaching implications, helping to address a major ecological concern that effects the entire world. And in the long run, de Souza and his team are looking to refine the process and take it even further.

HoneyBeesOnYellowFlowersThis includes adding more features to the chips and applying them to other species of crucial and threatened insects. Key to this, says de Souza, is miniaturization:

As the chips go down in size, we’ll also be able to use this in other insects. Fruit flies, for example, are another insect incredibly important for biosecurity in Australia.

An interesting concept, isn’t it? Big data meets entomology meets ecology, and all for the sake of preserving a crucial part of the food industry and an integral part of our environment. Because ultimately, its not just about preventing colonies from collapsing, but the Earth’s ecosystems as well.

Source: fastcoexist.com

Climate Crisis: Population Growth in Coming Years

trafficWhen it comes to populations and environmental problems, cities are at the very heart of the issue. Not only are they where the majority of humanity lives, a reality which will only get worse as time goes on, they are also the source of most of our pollution, waste, and land use. People require space to live and work, as well as food, water and

Last year, the world’s population increased to 7 billion, which represents a seven-fold increase in the space of the last two centuries. What’s more, the proportion of people living in urban centers (as opposed to rural) shot up from 3% to almost half of the world’s people. This rate of population growth and redistribution is unprecedented, and is not likely to slow down anytime soon.

urbanworld_50Consider the following series of infographics which were released by Unicef with the help of the design studio Periscopic. Titled “An Urban World”, they illustrate the issues of population growth and distribution. This interactive, HTML5 visualization of the world covers the years of 1950-2050. But rather than showing our geographic boundaries, every country* is depicted only by their population living in urban environments.

As you can see, each country is represented by a circle that depicts the number of people living in urban environments. As these populations grow, the circles get bigger. And as urban populations get more dense, the circles shift from green to blue to yellow to fuchsia. Immediately, a glaring fact is made clear: the problem is getting worse and at an alarming rate.

urbanworld_2000In addition, there are several nuggets of info which are staggering and particularly worrisome. For example, by 2050, both China and India will have about a billion people living in cities alone. In addition, since the 1990s, more than 75% of the U.S. population has lived in cities. At one time, the US was an outlier in this regard, but found ourselves joined over the next two decades by France, Spain, the U.K., Mexico, Korea, Australia, and Brazil.

But of course, this growth need not be a bad thing. When all is said and done, humanity has a choice. One the one hand, these megacities can take the form of smartly scaled communities of loosely populated expanses and efficient agriculture. On the other, they could easily take the form of urban slums and underdeveloped countrysides that are stricken by poverty and filthy.

urbanworld_2050It’s a complex issue, no doubt about it, especially when you consider the flip side to the whole equation. As the saying goes, every new life means a new mouth to feed, but also a pair of working hands. What’s more, studies have shown that people living in cities tend to be far more energy efficient, and that energy surplus is usually directed toward more and more technological growth and innovation.

Seen in this light, the massive cities of the future could be hubs for the ongoing development of new energies and creative living solutions. And with more people living in large, connected, interdependent environments, the more business startups, ideas, and contributions were likely to get. Part of the reason we have seen so much progress in solar, piezoelectric motors, and bio-electricity is because of this trend. More growth will conversely mean more clean energy.

overpopulation Quite the paradox, really. Who knew people could be both the cause and solution to the world’s worst problem! In the meantime, feel free to head on over to the Unicef site and watch this interactive infographic. Just press play, and watch the cities of the world swell at the edges, competing for room on the page as they compete for room on this planet.

Also, be sure to take a gander at this infographic from BBC Future that demonstrates the current population of the world’s major cities per square meter, the projected population per square meter by 2050, and the livability rating of the city in question. They even provide some context at the bottom by showing the size of relative spaces – from prison cells to Olympic swimming pools, and comparing that to the average space an urban dweller enjoys.

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Sources:
bbc.com, fastcodesign.com
, unicef.org

Climate Crisis: Rising Tides and Sinking Cities

climate_changetideWith all the population, urban sprawl, and consumption that we as a species are imposing on the planet, there are those who argue that we’ve entered a new geological era – known as the Anthropocene. It’s an age we’ve lived in since the neolithic revolution and the advent of farming, one where the human race is the dominant force shaping our planet. Since the industrial revolution, this era has been accelerating and escalating, and things are not likely to get better anytime soon.

It is because of this that we need to contemplate what the near future will look like. Consider the recent floods in the Canadian Prairies, or last year’s wildfires which raged across the American midwest. Consider the famines and shortages that led to a world food price crisis in 2007-8 which had serious political consequences, especially in the Middle East (i.e. the Arab Spring).

climate_changesandyWhen you add to this the fact that rising tides and the increased risk of storms are already effecting coastal communities in severe ways, you begin to understand just how turbulent the next few decades are likely to be. Already, incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, which rocked the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard in just the past decade, have shown just how extensive the damage can be.

Historically speaking, cities have been built in fertile river valleys and at river mouths to take advantage of fertile conditions, maritime resources and trade. Agricultural run-offs of sediment, water and nutrients created rich coastal deltas that could support greater food production. This and the good maritime and river connections for trade and transport made these ideal places to live.

Population_curve.svgBut as populations grew, rivers were tapped and diverted for irrigation, industry and canal transport. They were also trapped behind dams and reservoirs for energy and water storage, and depleted by droughts and other extractions. Meanwhile groundwater is increasingly being extracted from beneath cities, and sea levels are rising because of the run-off from the melting of glaciers and thermal expansion of the oceans.

As a result of these changes, many major cities are slowly sinking into the oceans. Our rapid industrialization over the past century has sped these processes, so that now, many urban centers face inundation by storm surges, and we stand to lose many of the most economically important parts of our planet. The loss of these cities will mean a terrible loss of life, economic fallout, and a massive refugee crisis.

Population_densityCities from Bangkok to New York have already experienced emergency flood conditions, and many more are to follow. Those most at risk include Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta, New York City, Osaka-Kibe, Alexandria and New Orleans. More than 3 billion people currently live in coastal areas at risk of global warming impacts such as rising sea levels – a number expected to rise to 6 billion by 2025.

And as was recently learned, the carbon levels in the upper atmosphere have surpassed 400 ppm (parts per million). The last time the atmosphere boasted this concentration of greenhouse gases was the Pliocene Era, a time when sea levels were as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than they current are. If sea levels rise to that level again, we can say goodbye to all these major cities, as well as any that sit on major waterways.

climate_changeshanghaiIt’s not just a matter of water rising up to swallow the coastlines, you see. As the flooding in southern Alberta and the Canadian Prairies demonstrated this week, there’s also the threat of flooding due to increased precipitation and of sewage systems backing up from increased storms and rainfall. These threats make shoring up river deltas and waterways effectively useless, since its not simply a matter of blocking the tides and rivers.

In terms of solutions, a number of major cities are investing in new sea walls, dykes and polders, or high-tide gates – like London’s Thames Barrier – to hold back high waters. In poorer places, people simply endure the problem until they are forced to abandon their homes. As the problem gets worse though, coordinated efforts to rescue people caught in flood zones will need to be mounted.

climate_changedykesAnd there are those who speculate that underwriting the damage will be a waste of time, since no government will be able to afford to compensate its citizens for the untold billions in property damage. In reality, many of these place will simply have to be abandoned as they become unlivable, and those forced out resettled to higher ground or protected communities.

At this point in any lecture on the fate of our planet, people are about ready to abandon hope and hang themselves. Hence, I should take this opportunity to point out that plans for dealing with the problem at the root – cutting our carbon footprint – are well underway. In addition to clean energy becoming more and more feasible commercially, there are also some very viable concepts for carbon capture.

These include inventions like artificial trees and ecoengineering, which will no doubt become absolutely essential in coming years. At the same time though, urban planning and architecture are beginning to embrace a number of alternative and clean technology concepts as part of their design. Not only will future buildings be designed to provide for the needs of their residents – food, water, electricity – in sustainable ways, they will also incorporate devices that can trap smog and turn it into biofuels and other useful products.

Of this, I will be saying more in the next post “Thinking, Breathing Cities of the Future”. Stay tuned!

Source: bbc.com

The Future is Here: Lab-Grown Burgers!

labmeat1Artificially-created meat has long been the dream of futurists and researchers, a means of solving world hunger and improving health at the same time. Efforts to create it using 3D printing are coming along, but another research firm has offered a different approach – in vitro grown meat. And at the same time, this lab-grown alternative offers consumers the chance to improve their health by eating something more nutritionally balanced.

The breakthrough comes to us from a group of researchers led by Mark Post, a Vascular Physiology professor at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. To make the burger, he and his team began with a kind of stem cell called a myosatellite cell that is taken from a cow’s neck. These cells are then placed in growth medium that the researchers have formulated to allow them to grow and divide. The resulting cells are grown into 20,000 strips of muscle tissue which are assembled into beef.

labmeat0This is an encouraging development for a number of reasons. First of all, a 2011 joint-research study between the University of Oxford, University of Amsterdam, and a number of environmental research organizations, cultured meat required up to 45 percent less energy and up to 96 percent less water to produce, generated up to 96 percent less greenhouse gases and, without animal herds of flocks to tend to, requires 99 percent less land.

Second, Post’s recipe for a lab-grown beef burger contains no fat, compared to its rather fatty organic  counterpart. And while fat is responsible for giving a burger much of its taste, Post insists that his recipe tastes “tastes reasonably good.” In the coming weeks Post plans on cooking his burger at an event in London where participants will try the in vitro meat – adding salt and pepper to taste.

labmeatHowever, the process is not completely devoid of reliance on actual cows. As already mentioned, the original stem cells that make the process possible have to come from a living cow. In addition, the muscle cells were grown in fetal calf serum, a necessity at this point since the process is still in its infancy. It’s hoped that in the future the burger can be produced without any material of animal origin.

And of course, the technology needs to become way more scalable before it can be considered viable. For example, between the cost of extracting the fetal cow tissue and turning it into meat in a lab, a single burger took roughly $325,000 to produce. But ultimately, this feat was all about pushing the boundaries and challenging notions of what is possible.

3d_meat In addition, as technology improves and the process is refined, costs will come down. And as Post said in an interview, the point of developing this process was to demonstrate that it can be done:

Let’s make a proof of concept, and change the discussion from ‘this is never going to work’ to, ‘well, we actually showed that it works, but now we need to get funding and work on it.’

While it may be several more years before in vitro burgers replace old fashioned farmed burgers, but the feat is a delicious victory for environmentalists and scientists alike in search for alternate ways to feed the world’s addiction to meat.

Funny, all this talk of lab-grown meat is giving me a sense of deja vu. Didn’t somebody write a story about this exact kind of thing not that long ago? Oh yeah… it was me! Well that’s just great, now I got to sue J.J. Abrams and the University of Maastricht? Lord, why do you torment me so?

Sources: singularityhub.com, pubs.acs.org

Environment Alert: Atmospheric CO2 Reaches Record High

airpollutionIt’s no secret that humanity, like all terrestrial organisms, has a symbiotic relationship with the Earth’s environment. And whereas the fortunes of entire civilizations and species once depended upon the natural warming and cooling cycle, for the past few centuries, human agency has an increasingly deterministic effect on this cycle. In fact, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, just 250 years ago, human industry increased the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by more than 40 percent.

And now, it seems that humanity has reached a rather ignominious and worrisome milestone. Working at the Mauna Loa Observatory, an atmospheric research facility, scientists announced Friday that for the first time in millions of years, the level of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million on average over the course of a full 24-hour day. The last time there were these kinds of CO2 levels was approximately 3 million years ago, and that has many worried.

co2_levelsFor some time now, climatological scientists have warned of the dangers of reaching this limit, mainly because of the ecological effects it would have. The Kyoto Protocol, an attempt during the late-90s to curb fossil fuel emissions on behalf of the industrialized nations of world, specifically set this concentration as a target that was not to be surpassed. However, with nations such as Canada, the US and China expressing criticism or pulling out entirely, it was clear for some time that this target would not be met.

And as mentioned already, the planet has not seen these kind of CO2 levels since the Pliocene Era, a time of warmer temperatures, less polar ice, and sea levels as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than current levels. If conditions of this nature are permitted to return, the human race could be looking at some very serious problems in the near future.

trafficFor starters, much of the world’s population and heavy industry is built along coastlines. With sea levels reaching an additional 60-80 feet, several million people will be displaced over the course of the next few decades. What’s worse, inland areas that have river systems connected to the sea are likely to experience severe flooding, leading to more displacement and property damage.

Those areas that find themselves far from the coast are likely to experience the opposite effects, increased heat and dryness due to increased temperatures and the loss of cloud cover and precipitation. This in turn will result in widespread drought, wildfires, and a downturn in food production. And let’s not forget that rising temperatures also mean the spread of disease and parasites, ones that are typically confined to the tropical areas of the world.

china smog 2013 TV bldgIf any of this is starting to sound familiar, it’s because that is precisely what has been happening for the past few decades, and with increasing frequency. Record hot summers, food shortages in several parts of the world, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, the West Nile Virus, Avian Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS, rising sea levels – these are all symptoms of a world where increasing output of Greenhouse Gases mean increasing temperatures and ecological effects.

But of course, before anyone feels like the situation is hopeless, this news does come with a silver lining. For one, the confirmation that we have now reached 400 ppm is likely to spur governments into greater action. Clearly, our current means are not working for us, and cannot be counted on to see us into the future. What’s more, a number of clean energy concerns are well under way, providing us with viable and cost effective alternatives.

solar_array1

The growth in solar energy in just the last few years has been staggering, and carbon capture technology has been growing by leaps and bounds. What’s more, upstarts and clean energy labs no longer need government support, though public pressure has yeilded several positive returns in that area. Even so, crowd-funding is ensuring that growth and innovation that would not be possible a few years ago is now happening, so we can expect the current rate of progress to continue here as well.

And of course, geoengineering remains a viable possibility for buying our planet some time. In addition to clean energy (putting less CO2 in the air), and carbon capture (removing the CO2 there), there are also a number of possibilities for Global Dimming – the opposite of Global Warming – to slow down the process of transformation until we can get our act together. These include evaporating oceanic water to lower sea levels and ensure more cloud cover, triggering algae blooms to metabolize more CO2, and dumping sulfur dioxide (SO2) in the air to combat the warming effect.

But in the end, nothing short of serious and immediate changes will ensure that decades and centuries from now, the ecological balance – upon which all species depend – is maintained. Regardless of whether you think of humanity as the masters or the children of this planet, it’s clear we’ve done a pretty shitty job in both capacities! It’s time for a change, or the greatest natural resource in our corner of the universe, Earth itself, is likely to die out!

Source: fastcoexist.com

Towards a Cleaner Future: Generating Electricity with Steps

pavegen1

This years Boston Marathon was the site of a terrible tragedy, as runners reaching the finish line were met with the worst terrorist attack on American soil since September 11th took place. Not only was this gruesome attack an injustice of immense proportions, it also overshadowed an important story that took place overseas, one which also involved a marathon and a potential breakthrough for renewable energy.

Here, the runners and spectators who waited at the finish line were also privy to something unexpected. But in this case, it involved a series of rubber panels which turned the runners steps into actual electricity. Known as Pavegen, a material invented by 27 year-old Laurence Kemball Cook and composed of recycled tires, this demonstration was the largest test to date of the experimental technology. And though the results were modest, they do present a frightening amount of potential for clean, renewable energy.

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Essentially, a single step on a Pavegen pad is said to generate up to 8 watts of electricity per second. Based on that, and at a speed of one step a second, it would take a single pedestrian 40 minutes to charge a smartphone. However, a small army of pedestrians could generate considerably more – say for example, 50,000+ people taking part in a marathon.

Here too, the results fell short of their intended goal. Schneider Electric – who commissioned the project – held a contest on Facebook and said if they generated over 7 kilowatt-hours of energy, they would make a donation to Habitat for Humanity. As it turned out, all those runners generated more like two-thirds of that: 4.7 kilowatt-hours. Still, the potential is there.

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Already the Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys in Kent, England, has contracted with Pavegen to become the site of the first permanent installation of the material. And as the video below demonstrates, it has the ability to at least generate enough power to keep the lights on in a building where hundreds of people take thousands of steps daily.

Given time and some improvement in the yield of the pads, this technology could very well take its place alongside solar, wind, and other renewable sources of power that will bring electricity to the cities of the future. Imagine it if you will, entire sidewalks composed of electricity-generating material, turning every step its pedestrians take into clean energy. I for one think that’s the stuff of bona fide science fiction story (it’s mine, you can’t have it!).

And be sure to check out this promotional video from Pavegen who filmed their floor at work in Simon Langton:


Source:
fastcoexist.com