Sunday, May 30, 2010

Reviewed: The Caravan, A Journal of Politics and Culture

It seemed for a while that I kept running into people who wrote for Caravan, a relatively new, Delhi-based 'journal of politics and culture'.  Caravan writers seemed interesting, intelligent, and generally excited about their work—so much so, that I eventually asked my newspaper delivery man for a subscription.  

Overall, the writing is good—and in places, excellent.  Take Trisha Gupta’s review of Sukhnandi Vyam’s art, which was recently shown in Delhi.  Gupta gives us insight into the subject under review, written in prose that is itself a pleasure to read. What more can one ever really ask for from a reviewer? 

Maybe I liked this review so much because Gupta asks the same question I had when I saw this exhibit, only she asks it more articulately:

What happens when an artist’s ‘exterior visualisations’ cannot be mirrored in the minds of his public, because they share with him almost none of his cultural context? I do not know.

I don’t know either, but I wish I’d read this review before seeing the exhibit, which was, by the way, extraordinary.  

I wasn't able to make it to the exhibit of Adivasi art at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, but I did very much enjoy Mira Kamdar's review of the show.  Kamdar looks at some of the same themes we see in Gupta's review, but from a different angle:
In the contemporary Adivasi artist’s vision, it is the West and, more specifically, Westernised India—urban, rapidly industrialising and privatising, globally connected and whose Promethean trajectory is ruthlessly enforced by the police and security forces—that is the object of an active subject’s representation. In the Adivasi artist’s world, we are among the observed, the depicted, the represented, as our world crashes into theirs. The art in the exhibition presents us with our own violent reality as seen by people who live at once on the margins of this reality and at its epicentre.
It is ironic, of course, to see Adivasi art celebrated abroad while Adivasi land and people are under attack here in India.  This irony is not lost on Kamdar:
The list of peoples who no longer exist but for what is exhibited of their culture in museums is very long. In its campaign to ‘pacify’ large tracts of land, now teeming with Maoist revolutionaries, where Adivasis have lived for millennia, in order to make that territory safe for lucrative mining and industrial ventures that involve the wholesale destruction of their land and way of life, the Indian government seems to be doing everything it can to make sure that the Adivasis join this list.
Kamdar's discussion of the art itself is compelling.  But what impressed me most is her willingness engage with the questions relating to the position of this art--and the artists who created it--in world beyond the exhibit hall.  

There is a lot more packed into this issue of Caravan, including a sympathetic but critical review of Zizek's First as Tragedy Then as Farce and a photo essay from behind Maoist lines. By the time I saw this new poem by Jeet Thayil, I'd pretty much decided that my forty rupees had been well spent.

But before I sound too enthusiastic, I must say that two stories which deal with issues of central concern to environmentalists are more problematic.  One of the headlines on the cover asks: “NREGA, 4 Years. 784 Billion Rupees.  Where is India’s Landmark Welfare Scheme Taking Us?” Also on the cover, we read: “Inside the Carbon Trading Shell Game.” 

Those headlines made me cringe.  Both play on themes commonly used by right wing media: NREGA is a waste of money, and efforts to fight climate change amount to “scams.”  After the hack job Open Magazine did on climate change back in February, I was ready for the worst.

As it turned out, neither article was offensive.  In 'NREGA'a Reality Check', Mehboob Jeelani rightly criticizes NREGRA for not going far enough and for being corrupt in many places, but the article also acknowledges that the program has vastly improved rural infrastructure’ and ‘still means a lot in rural India.’  In other words, a good idea that has been poorly implemented.  Or as welfare economist and activist Jean Dreze is quoted as saying, ‘NREGA is a pro-people law implemented by an anti-people system.’ That conclusion is hard to argue with, and it's implication is clear: we need to expand and democratize NREGA, not abandon it.  But you wouldn’t know that from the cover of the magazine—which is too bad, since the cover of a magazine like this is all many people will ever see.

'The Carbon Trading Shell Game' that we read about in Mark Schapiro's 'Conning the Climate', refers to the cap-and-trade system and the related 'carbon trading' and 'carbon offset markets that cap-and-trade engenders.  The article does a reasonably good job exposing the many problems with carbon trading markets, which are difficult to regulate and open to manipulation and corruption.  But aside from a passing mention of a carbon tax, Schapiro fails to look at alternatives to cap-and-trade.  As a result, the article feeds the idea that far reaching government-led action against climate change is futile.

Another thing that seemed strangely absent in this piece was a South Asian focus.  This seemed odd, since so much is happening right here in India—both in terms of climate change and carbon offsets.  In the end, the lack of a sustained local perspective was explained by the tag line which followed the piece: “Asia Features/Harper’s Magazine.”  Apparently, here is an example of Indian media outsourcing analysis to the US.

For a simpler, better explanation of cap-and-trade, watch Annie Leonard’s The Story of Cap and Trade.  And for a more in-depth look at the alternatives to cap-and-trade—as well as a local perspective on related issues—you’d be better off reading some of the posts on the Dhaba’s own climate page, here, if I do say so myself.

Unless a magazine is exceptionally good or bad, any judgments based on one issue only are bound to be provisional.  From what I've seen, the writing in Caravan ranges from fair to excellent.  And there's certainly a lot in it to choose from.  So far, I think I like it.  If the editors could only find a way to sell the magazine without resorting to misleading, right-wing sounding headlines, I’d feel a bit less…provisional about recommending it.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Reviewed: An India That Can Say Yes

An India That Can Say Yes: A Climate Responsible Development Agenda for Copenhagen and Beyond
by Praful Bidwai

I've been reading and appreciating Praful Bidwai in Frontline for a long time;  just this week, I cited him several times in a post about the Nuclear Liability Bill.  But I didn't realize he'd written an important book about climate change, until Nagraj Adve sent me this review, a version of which was first published in the Economic and Political Weekly, 1 May 2010.

The review is well worth reading--and it sounds like the book is too.  And the price is right: you can get a free copy by contacting Mr Raghavan ( of the Heinrich Boell Foundation.  
India's Climate Policy: Development and Equity
by Nagraj Adve 

Global warming underlines myriad, interlinked issues, which play out at different levels. It’s a product of the logic of industrial capitalism. It will worsen by recent neoliberal development trajectories that rely hugely on the market. It’s enriched debates around equity and exposed the limits of nation-state frameworks in dealing with global ecological crises that have systemic roots. Given the absence of equity and justice therein, it’s exposed the poverty of both the development trajectory and climate policy of major governments. Its already severe impacts on ecosystems and people, in India (and beyond), and feedbacks at merely 0.8 degrees C of average warming, not merely exacerbates already existing crises faced by the poor but also highlights the dangers and possibility of runaway, dangerous levels of warming, and therein lies its urgency. The book under review deals for a good part with the hollowness of India’s climate policy, offers rich insights into notions of equity, comments on alternative climate proposals that have been discussed internationally, suggests low-carbon development strategies specifically in the Indian context, and much else. No secondary book on climate change and India can henceforth be written satisfactorily without reference to this one.

A nice overview of recent scientific developments is provided in chapter 1. Not so much in the Indian context – for which Sushil Kumar Dash’s Climate Change: An Indian Perspective (CUP, 2007) is a useful but more technical read – but a more general overview, one that is refreshingly up-to-date. It has few, if any, slippages: occasionally, it uses both CO2 and CO2-equivalent interchangeably, a common error; the 350 ppm target, which many countries and NGOs pushed for before and during Copenhagen as the safe level of atmospheric CO2, and which was the focus of a major demonstration worldwide in October 2009, refers not to CO2-eq but CO2.  

What’s more, though accepting 350 ppm as a safe cut-off target has James Hansen’s imprimatur, and one that many of us have endorsed in the recent past, as does Bidwai, it would be fair to say it is very much a minority view among climate scientists.

The chapters that follow subject India’s climate policy and public positions to relentless scrutiny from numerous vantage points. Bidwai analyses how the evolution of India’s climate policy has been influenced by domestic practices that recklessly promote natural resource extraction, and how it evolved within the larger frame of India’s shifting foreign policy, one that increasingly seeks a larger role in world affairs while cosying up to the world’s richer and most powerful nations particularly the United States. He points out anomalies in its strands, particularly in relation to equity. He reveals how it was arrived at completely undemocratically with little wider consultation. He demolishes the reliance on the market, both in the foregrounding of a market-led growth linked to a development trajectory that marginalizes millions and promotes deep social and regional inequality, and, more specifically, in terms of market mechanisms such as the CDM, actively being promoted in India, which do nothing but fraudulently enrich actually polluting industry.

Other parts examine specific missions that are part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC), particularly the National Solar Mission and the National Mission for Enhanced Energy Efficiency. He points out that the proposed massive expansion of solar power assumes huge unit cost reductions in photovoltaic power generation and technological breakthroughs. A penultimate chapter argues, rightly, that the only way of promoting an inclusive society in India free of hunger and gross injustice is through low-carbon, equitable development. Additionally, the preceding chapter, in the pre-Copenhagen context, which was when this book was being written, discusses various alternative proposals that have been put forward by numerous NGOs, activists, intellectuals and other, mostly non-state actors. Finally, it speaks as much for the myriad themes that global warming touches upon as for the width of Bidwai’s scholarship that the book contains a number of boxes on varied issues: looking critically at plans for carbon capture and storage; the flaws and dangers of nuclear power in India; the threshold temperature rise of 2 degrees C and the political controversy that then arose in India; the whackiness of geoengineering solutions being proposed and tested, including iron fertilization of a large patch of the southern oceans by the Indian government; why nuclear power is not a solution; the varied positions taken by different NGOs on climate change, and yet more. The extraordinarily wide range of issues discussed within makes this book an enriching one to read, but a difficult one to review. A short review can only touch upon a couple of important themes and ideas, and runs the risk of passing over others.

The only parts a bit thin on the ground were those that dealt with impacts in India. For instance, climate change impacts on agriculture, a hugely significant area, are discussed in one brief paragraph on page 27, and one wonders why. For one, some published scientific literature is available.(For example, this article by PK Aggarwal and The Hindu Survey of Indian Agriculture 2009.

Two, given the relative paucity of studies of impacts, there is a need to incorporate people’s perceptions of climate change and its impacts on their lives. This latter is a vast and tricky project, and obviously cannot be the burden of one writer alone, however accomplished. Here again though, published literature is beginning to emerge, though it is possible some of it has come out after Bidwai’s book was written. See for example, Jalvayu Parivartan, SADED and Oxfam, 2009, a compilation of testimonies at a public hearing on impacts of climate change on arid zone areas.

One of the key issues discussed, while critiquing India’s climate policy, is equity. India’s stand, he argues, is extremely limited in focusing merely on per capita emissions norms. A policy frame with a more rounded conception of equity would focus on ends, on equitable human development, on the right to live with dignity, and “therefore entitlements to the basic necessities of life. Taken in the context of India’s climate stands, one couldn’t agree with him more. But here and at different points in the book he stresses the limits of emissions rights itself: “an equal right to emit GHGs can only be a means to a higher end”. The point is well taken, but on the other hand, while discussing climate change with college students and others, we have found some merit in talking about the Earth’s absorption capacity (roughly 16-17 billion tonnes of CO2 per year currently and stagnating) and the need to divide that equitably among every person on this planet, resulting in each person being entitled to about 2-2.5 tonnes per year, thereby arguing that the poor everywhere are not the cause of the problem, but are actually entitled to more, to the very basic necessities of life that Bidwai talks about.

This also enables us to question nation-state frames of looking at and dealing with the problem, which is another key, linked issue Bidwai brings up. He discusses, rightly (pp. 65-68), how production itself has gotten fragmented and internationalized, how trade and exports make it difficult to accurately quantify ‘national’ emissions, how ecosystems – and impacts on them, one might add – transcend formal national boundaries, and, most of all, the key issue of equity within nations, not merely, as the Indian government is arguing, between nations.

This combination of the notion of foregrounding the right to development and many notions of equity, including intra-national equity is brought together in some superb passages while concluding the discussion on alternative proposals (chapter 6). A desirable alternative conceptual approach “must give primacy to the right of development … stress historical responsibility … must include intra-national equity … set clear targets for GHG reductions and peaking … explicitly recognize the importance of preventing the overuse of natural resources (p. 102).

Given all this, I’m a bit puzzled by two things: one, the foregrounding once again, at the end of the book, of the nation-state, in discussing the impasse that preceded Copenhagen. By foregrounding this very frame, political elites have ensured not just that Copenhagen was an abysmal failure but that climate negotiations have gone nowhere in 15 successive COPs, even as the Earth hurtles towards dangerous climate change. The problem is a global one, but the nation-state is a very alluring and powerful frame, and Bidwai, like most of us, at times gets caught between the two.

And two, despite a nuanced presentation of its neoliberal variant, one’s struck by the limited discussion of the centrality of capitalism and its logic, both as the cause of global warming and in limiting what might emerge as solutions to it. It is this ecologically destructive logic of capitalist growth and accumulation, to “expand without end in order to exist” that prompted Joel Kovel to write that “a remarkable yet greatly unappreciated fact (is) that the era of environmental awareness, beginning roughly in 1970, has also been the era of greatest environmental breakdown”(Koval, 2007, pp. 3, 38).  It’s debatable whether lasting solutions can be implemented on the scale necessary as long as that pernicious system holds sway.

Which does not take away from the relevance of proposals for low-carbon development and mitigation that Bidwai puts forward for India in chapter 7the need for decentralized energy generation that prioritizes basic needs of communities and local resource endowments, promotion of public transport, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), the use of locally available material and biomass, among others. Some folks may wince a bit at his mentioning run-of-the-river projects, given the considerable damage they are already causing in some Himalayan states. And there are many suggestions for energy efficiency in different contexts, though he seems to have been much more critical of energy efficiency in some earlier writing. (In passing, I’m surprised, given how much he discusses energy options, present and future, that peak oil is not mentioned even once, an issue that is discussed in a recent book by another eminent writer.

But in general, not just do most of his proposals have huge relevance for sustainability and more equitable development irrespective of climate change, they are issues that those involved in the incipient climate justice movement in this country have begun to articulate and campaign for. Or should. One is struck by how many of his positions are mirrored by stands taken by organisations, some of which were articulated in a memorandum in late November 2009 to the government of India in the context of the Copenhagen meet and endorsed by 195 organizations and a number of individuals from all over India: that the NAPCC was arrived at undemocratically and with little discussion (p. 62); that the NAPCC ignores the key issues of equity and redistribution (p. 75); the many dangers of market mechanisms such as the CDM (p. 16); that much of what the government claims as adaptation is merely a repackaging of existing programmes (p. 31); the dangerous advocacy of large dams as part of the National Water Mission (p. 85); why nuclear power is a hazardous non-solution to climate change (p. 103); the need for a more decentralized generation and use of energy, particularly in villages that have no electricity (p. 119), and that India’s growing emissions cannot be curtailed “unless India’s development model is radically restructured along egalitarian, balanced and sustainable lines which put people, not markets, at the centre” (p. 59). Praful Bidwai deals with all these and other complex themes with a lucidity, rigour and thoroughness for which he is so well known. I’d wager that no reader can come away from reading this book without being better informed or gaining deeper insights into climate change, India’s policy and development trajectory in general.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Nuclear Liability Bill: worse than stupid

Back in March, I argued that the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill was a stupid idea.  Two recent events make me rethink that position.  After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that word stupid may not strong enough to describe this bill.

Consider what we've learned from the radioactive Cobalt 60 which was sold by to a West Delhi scrap market, and which killed at least one trader and exposed many more to unsafe levels of radiation. Yes, Delhi University should get a large part of this blame--if we can't trust universities to take care of their radioactive waste, then it's hard to imagine who we can trust.

But the Cobalt 60 tragedy also revealed the utter incompetence of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) which is charged with regulating nuclear installations and equipment.  It is the job of the AERB to make sure that accidents like this don't happen.  Unfortunately, recent investigations suggest that accidents are the rule, rather than the exception when it comes to the disposal of radioactive material--which means "accident" may not be the right word to use--I'd suggest "negligence" as a place to start, but that also may not be strong enough.  

Writing in the Financial Chronicle, Praful Bidwai explains the consistent failure of the AERB to even keep track of the nuclear facilities supposedly  regulates and monitors:
Worst of all, AERB conducted a laughable total of 110 inspections in the 62,000 plus installations under its charge last financial year. AERB rarely responds to urgent requests from laboratories about final disposal of radioactive material. Nor does it have sound advice to offer them.
In an article in Frontline, Bidwai goes over the same ground in more depth.   And he adds this disturbing information:
Many scientists who handle radioactive material – and I have interviewed several from three institutes – complain that the AERB routinely ignores requests for guidance on storage and disposal. Often, inquirers are told to dump the material, “informally”, of course.

Given that, it should come as no surprise that the recent Cobalt 60 incident was not the first of it's kind. In another article in Frontline this month, we learn that shiploads full of recycled Indian steel have been rejected abroad for being radioactive.  And we've even exported recycled steel that resulted in radioactive French elevator buttons! If we are careless enough to export radioactive steel, one has to wonder about the condition of our domestic steel.  This may well be of many factors that led the Times of India to recently say, "India may truly be on the verge of a cancer epidemic."

What does the AERB's incompetence have to do with the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill? For one thing, under the Nuclear Liability Bill, the AERB would continue to be responsible for regulating nuclear facilities; and as we have seen, they are not doing a very good job at that.  (For more on the ineptitude of the AERB and the Department of Atomic Energy, read this article by Praful Bidwai--it is chilling stuff.)   Not only that, under the Nuclear Liability Bill, the AERB would be would be charged with determining whether a nuclear accident has occurred or not. Scary stuff.

It should be clear that it makes no sense to go ahead with this bill--or with an expansion of nuclear power at all--until we have a regulatory body capable of ...regulating.

The other huge problem with the Nuclear Liability Bill is that it caps  liability at ridiculously low levels.  You can read about those levels here, or in many other places. This clause was apparently required by US multinationals, who want to avoid liability in the event they sell us faulty nuclear equipment. 

The liability issue is not new. But the huge oil leak at British Petroleum's (BP) off shore oil rig in the US should give us pause for two reasons. The BP leak reminds us that the cost of major industrial accidents--like Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Exxon Valdez--can be huge.  It is clear that the BP leak has already caused billions of dollars in economic damage--not to mention wildlife habitats that may never recover. Major nuclear accidents are potentially just as expensive--and let's not forget that radiation sticks along a lot longer than oil slicks.

 Frontline reports that  BP did not install expensive backup safety equipment on this rig partly because the US regulators--operating under rules set up by Bush and Cheney--said it wasn't necessary. That goes back to weak regulation.  Of course limiting liability also encourages companies to take more risks, because they know in the worst case they'll be bailed out.

Yes, weak regulators and limited liability are two good reasons why the Nuclear Liability Bill is a disaster waiting to happen.  The PM is pushing it hard this week--and he's making a big mistake.  Let's stop it while we can!  Sign this online petition, if you haven't already. And while you are at it, sign this one from Greenpeace!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Green Poetry by Anindita Sengupta

The Ghazal of the Forest

Your love so vivid, like the red of the forest—
Now I seek your hot shade instead of the forest.

You twist the world around your finger, you say?
But in my arms, I weigh the spread of the forest.

When you’ve buried all fears, the oldest remain: 
The dread of the mountain, dread of the forest.

You shake off remembrance. It falls like dust.
Lover, if you dare, try and shed off — the forest!

That evening, they talked of god, land and bridges;
Nothing (though I waited) was said of the forest.

The sky turns grey; it’s been bled of all colour
It howls a warning: we are bred of the forest.

The glitter of cities burns like lead in your mouth.
Where, Anu, will you rest? The bed of the forest.


The smell of hashish in the air is a dancing
thing. The girl’s curved hands are

like two shells in sleep. The bartender
raises his foot and slams it down

on a crab, spilling meat on sand, a pattern
in entrails. I eat my tuna salad.

The boys on the beach turn over on their backs
and the one-eyed man in the café cups

his face. Such violence
is common on gentle shores.

In the distance, a blue boat is a blemish
I could rub away, a


The beach continues to burn
in its silent, unstoppable way.

Both of these appeared in Anindita Sengupta's first collection of poems, City of Water, which was published by the Sahitya Akademi in February, 2010.  "Arambol" has also appeared in Cha: An Asian Journal.  

You can find City of Water at Sahitya Akademi bookstores--they are promising an on-line store soon, but it's not up yet.  You may have to work a little harder to find Sahitya Akademi books, but the price is right, and they bring out some really first rate poetry--something few publishers are willing to do these days.  If you live in Delhi, you'd best hurry, because I plan to buy a few copies of this--why not give good poetry instead of sweets next Diwali? 

Sengupta's work has previously been published in several journals including Eclectica, NthPosition, Yellow Medicine Review, Origami Condom, Pratilipi, Cha: An Asian Journal, Kritya, and Muse India. It has also appeared in the anthologies Mosaic (Unisun, 2008), Not A Muse (Haven Books, 2009), and Poetry with Prakriti (Prakriti Foundation, 2010). In 2008, she received the Toto Funds the Arts Award for Creative Writing, annually given to two writers under thirty in India. In 2010, she was the Charles Wallace Fellow at the University of Kent, England. Sengupta is a freelance writer and journalist and contributes articles to The Guardian (UK), The Hindu, Outlook Traveler and Bangalore Mirror. She is also founder-editor of Ultra Violet, a site for contemporary feminism in India and her personal website is at .
Find more green poetry on voices page, here!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Greenpeace Helps Clean Up Mayapuri Market

If you are in Delhi, you know how hot it is.  So hot that I'm taking a holiday from serious essay writing for the day.   There are a lot of really serious things I've started writing about, but haven't finished, and they'll have to wait another day. 

I figured I'd just run a silly video, until I opened The Hindu this evening when I got home.  It seems the good people at Greenpeace have identified some remaining hot spots in the Mayapuri market in West Delhi.  And now they are helping the Department of Atomic Energy clean them up.  This is not as easy to do as you might think, since trying to cut open a chunk of Cobalt 60, which looks just like a lot of other kinds of scrap metal, results in tiny particles of radioactive mixed in with the regular Delhi dust.  And we all know how hard it is to clean up Delhi dust!

There is poison all around us, and it's no small matter.  Having seen lung cancer up close, I can tell you that it is no fun at all, and it has many causes--smoking is only the most popular and fashionable of them.  Someone you know will most likely get it from the Delhi air, even if they don't inhale tobacco smoke or radioactive dust. (And I'll never say this to you at a party, because nobody likes to hear it, but the fact that we all breathe poisonous air is actually NOT a good reason to continue smoking like a chimney!  That's like someone who can't swim saying, "Hey, this water feels great, and since I'm already up to my neck in it, going a little deeper won't hurt!)

Back to the latest development in our radioactive scrap markets, no big organization is perfect, but you have to admire the way these Greenpeace guys show up when you least expect it.  So hats off to them!

And if all this has been too serious for you, here is the Onion, making fun of Americans who outsource their jobs to places like India.  I'm pretty sure there must be some environmental connection in there somewhere, but I'm not going to look to hard for it. 

Read, rage, laugh. And above all, stay cool!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Saturday Special: Toys from Trash, Toilets, Farmer Suicides, Bhopal and more

Toys from Trash: this deserves it's own post, and maybe someday, I'll get around to doing it.  Hear you will find not jut photos of toys from trash, but also pictures and diagrams that explain how to make them!  

Not all trash can be safely re-used: Greenpeace says the Mayapuri scrap market is still unsafe due to improperly disposed of radioactive material. Some kinds of poison takes a long time to clean up.

Which reminds us of Bhopal.  The anniversary is over, but the Bhopal gas disaster is still with us.  Go read and discuss the latest legal developments at the I'm a Bhopali blog. Why not give them a plug or a link as well?

More bad news on the farm front.  
In The Hindu: Pest explosion leads to call for GM review.
More perspective from Devinder Sharma on the failure of GM cotton to reduce the need for pesticides.

"Their Final Letters," P. Sainath writes about farmer suicides in Counter Punch. 

In desperate times, suicide is not the only path people take.  Gladson Dung Dung asks, "Am I a Maoist?" 
Some things are more complex than they seem.  CFL bulb scheme will be the world's largest carbon credit project. But is there a plan for disposing of these wonderful mercury-containing bulbs?  (If there is, nobody seems to be talking about it.)

Nature's call isn't a dial away:  India now has more mobile phones than toilets. Sudhirendar Sharma argues that this matter is not as simple as it looks. He's right, and this article deserves to be read--but it may raise more questions than it answers.

Speaking of sanitation not being simple: In Mexico, what happens when farmers use sewage as fertilizer?

Also in Mexico, the climate summit in Cancun is not likely to produce much if things keep going . There is a lot to be depressed about, and symbolic actions are not going to solve the problem. Writing on the Indian Climate Youth Network's blog, Kabir says that what we need is "a call for all Davids to take on Goliaths."   

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Green Summer Holiday Homework Project: Hydrogen Gas Made Easy

Tuesday, I wrote about the possibility of using hydrogen as a fuel, and I tried to explain things in terms a motivated student in seventh or eighth might understand.  I admit, it was probably hard to follow all the way through, but if you went to the "Bottom Line" at the end of that post, I think my point was clear enough. 

Today, I'm doing a public service to all students looking for an excellent summer holiday homework science project, in case your teacher actually gives you a choice about what kind of project to do!  (If not, maybe you can use it next Earth Day.) (And if you are a teacher, then why not give your students a choice?  They'll learn more if they are investigating something they are curious about, no? Covering the syllabus is not the ultimate goal, it's just a means to an end! Educated, thoughtful students are what we really want, no?)

OK, the first thing you need to do to make an excellent project is to actually think.  Thinking may not give you higher marks, but it is, I believe, often the only difference between an excellent project from an utter and complete waste of time!  If you think, then you will be better off, regardless of your marks--regardless of whether your project works or not!  (Don't forget, science is about learning from failure as much as success!) 

The project I'm suggesting involves how people might--or might not--be able to use hydrogen as clean fuel someday.  I'm going to teach you how to actually make hydrogen gas safely. You can use this demonstration to support your argument that hydrogen is the fuel of the future--or you can use it to support your argument that hydrogen is a really great gas, but is unlikely to amount to much.  Which position you take depends on what you think!

OK, for starters, read my earlier post on hydrogen fuel.  Decide what you think, and state your position clearly: HYDROGEN: FUEL OF THE FUTURE or HYDROGEN, A HUGE WASTE OF MONEY, or even "HYDROGEN: FUTURE FUEL OR WASTE OF MONEY?  It's up to you! 

Whatever you do, take a few notes, and by all means follow the links I thoughtfully provided you. Make up your mind and make a poster that explains your thinking. (Or try a scrapbook, which my 12 year old finds easier.  It depends on the kind of presentation your teacher prefers.  Yes, pleasing your teacher will not make you smarter, but it doesn't hurt, does it?)  

As you explain your thinking, remember: a little bit of data goes a long way to support an argument. In science, especially, it's not enough to say, "I believe it, so it's true!"  But do yourself a favour, and don't use me as the source of your great data.  It's not that the Green Light Dhaba is unreliable; we are very reliable.  But, think about it--who is your teacher going to find more trustworthy--an on-line dhaba or a magazine with a name like New Scientist or Popular Mechanics?  Don't worry, follow the links provided and cite those as your sources--it won't hurt my feelings!

One more thing--use personal, local examples.  True stories from your own life can provide effective support to your argument. And personal connections should not be too hard to make regarding hydrogen.  Remember: hydrogen is a gas;  CNG is a gas...LPG is a gas!  Will our autos run on hydrogen some day?  Will we cook with it?  Cut out a photo of a cooking cylinder or a CNG powered bus or one of Delhi's green and yellow autorickshaws--you can find one every day or two in most Delhi papers.  If you don't live in Delhi, you can use the one on the right I took a few months back--don't worry, you have my permission!

Now for the real exciting bit.  Watch this video and learn how to safely make hydrogen gas.  If you work at it, you might even be able to fill a balloon with hydrogen gas, though this video does not show that.  The great thing about a hydrogen-filled balloon is that hydrogen is lighter than air, so it will float and this might get you high marks and the respect of your classmates.  However, beware!  Hydrogen will burn, which is why we don't use it in lighter than air flying machines--remember the Hindenburg?  Maybe it's better to stick with just making bubbles.

Now remember that this demonstration proves that hydrogen is not so hard to make--but it also shows that you need to use energy to get hydrogen from water!  There are, by the way, plenty of scams out there that purport to show how you can run an automobile on water and other such things. This site bursts some of those myths and is worth taking a look at. This demonstration can be used to argue several different points--and your teacher will like it because it's "hands on." Remember to bring an extra cell to school on the day you present it.  How embarrassing to run out of fuel!

By the way, if someone tells you how to make hydrogen by using sodium hydroxide, aluminum and water, please don't do it unless you have safety equipment and the help of an adult who knows what she or he is doing. This method of hydrogen production can be dangerous and your teacher may actually punish you for doing it.  Not to mention, it generates a lot of heat and involves extremely caustic chemicals and flammable gas--a bad combination all around. (Trust me on this, please, but if you don't, and need a reminder of the possible consequences, you can read this.)

Now you are ready to impress your teacher and your friends.  If you have more summer holiday homework questions, feel free to write the Green Light Dhaba any time: you can post a comment, or write us here. But I need a few days to reply; don't expect me to rescue you at the last minute!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Homework Helper: Hydrogen Fuel for 12 year olds

I'm a bit cynical about Earth Day school projects. Too often it seems like children just "go through the motions"  and turn in something because it's required. For example, this year my 12 year old son asked his his little brother what to do for his Earth Day Poster. "It's not for marks, but I have to turn something in tomorrow." 

His brother responded by saying, "Oh, that's easy, just draw a big earth, add legs, arms and a mouth, and have him say something like, 'protect the earth, we only have one!'"  Working together, they had the job done about 15 minutes. While I appreciated the brotherly love, the obvious lack of real thought tended to confirm my doubts about Earth Day projects.

A few days later, my 12 year old started asking me to explain how hydrogen might be used as a fuel in the future.  I put him off (kindly) a few times, before I realized he was really interested. When I asked him how he became curious about hydrogen fuel, he said, "Some kid made an interesting Earth Day poster about how we might be able to use algae to get hydrogen to power all kinds of things."  Wow! Maybe those posters are worth doing after all!

OK, so here's my best shot at a seventh standard explanation of the "hydrogen economy" some people like to talk about endlessly.  On Thursday, I'll explain how you can use this post to put together a really great summer holiday homework or Earth Day project. (It's up now, here!)  (If you are actually in seventh standard and find the reading is difficult, don't be discouraged!  The trick to reading hard stuff is to realize nobody understands everything they read--just keep working at it and try to get to the end, where I summarize things simply.)  For those who want more details, or want to check my sources, just follow the embedded links.

Hydrogen is the simplest element in the world--no the universe!  The sun and stars, for example, are mostly made of hydrogen.

Hydrogen is just one proton and one electron--see the diagram to the right.  Hydrogen contains a lot of energy, but it produces almost no pollution when it burns.  Liquid hydrogen is so powerful, it can be used to send rockets into space!  (The sun, by the way, does not burn hydrogen like this; the sun gets it's power from different process which we call nuclear fusion.  This is what powers hydrogen bombs. Unfortunately, we are a long way from figuring how to make nuclear fusion safe and cheap. Nuclear fusion, by the way is not the same as nuclear fission, which powers nuclear power plants and some atomic bombs. )

It's pretty easy to burn hydrogen.  When we do that, hydrogen combines with oxygen and gives us heat and water.  In addition to burning hydrogen, you can also get energy from it by using something called a fuel cell.  In a fuel cell, hydrogen combines with oxygen to produce electricity, heat, clean water, and almost no pollution.  Even now, fuel cells can produce useful electricity and power motor vehicles.  To create electricity, fuel cells require something called a catalyst, which we'll discuss below in a different context.

So hydrogen is plentiful, clean, and it can power our automobiles and our electrical appliances.  What more could we ask for?  Unfortunately, there are major problems that need to be solved before we can enter a Utopian "hydrogen economy," where we depend on clean-burning hydrogen instead of fossil fuels. We can group these problems into four categories: Production; Storage and Distribution; and Use. These problems are so major that we need to ask ourselves not just, "Is large scale use of hydrogen possible?" but also, "Is it worth it?"  These are important questions to ask whenever we consider technological "fixes." They are especially important when it comes to hydrogen fuel, because converting to a hydrogen economy would be extraordinarily expensive.  So it's not something we want to do unless the benefits are very high! 

Let's look at each group of problems in turn:

If the world contained massive amounts of cheap hydrogen, we'd already have a hydrogen economy!  The problem is that hydrogen is plentiful, but in it's natural state it's almost always combined with other kinds of molecules--water, for example, is just hydrogen and oxygen!  Unfortunately, to produce usable hydrogen--to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen in water, for example--you have to use lots of energy. This means we can't really look at hydrogen as an energy source, since you have to use so much energy to get it. Hydrogen is more like a way to store energy, or an energy carrier

Right now, most hydrogen comes from adding heat to natural gas.  This is the cheapest way to get hydrogen.  Unfortunately, this process emits lots of  greenhouse gases, which cause global warming.  You can also get hydrogen by adding electricity to water (electrolysis), which splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen.  In addition to electricity, you need something called a catalyst.  Catalysts are materials that speed up chemical reactions. Currently, platinum is the catalyst most often used to produce hydrogen gas from water and electricity.  That's a problem, because there isn't enough platinum in the world to support a world hydrogen economy--and platinum is expensive even now.  The good news is that scientists are developing new, cheaper catalysts

Assuming we find a cheap enough catalyst, electrolysis would be an environmentally friendly way to produce hydrogen fuel as long as the source of electricity comes from sustainable sources, such as solar or wind power.  But we can't even generate enough sustainable electricity to run our light bulbs--we've got a lot of work to do before we'll be able to produce usable hydrogen as well!  Increasing our capacity to generate electricity sustainably makes sense, but it's going to take time.

Scientists have found that under certain conditions, algae can produce hydrogen gas.  Right now, this process is too expensive to be cost effective, but many hope this will change. Currently, scientists are developing strains of mutant algae that more efficiently use photosynthesis to break down water into oxygen and hydrogen.  Sounds a little scary, but who knows?  It just might work. 

There are other ways of producing hydrogen; these include the next generation nuclear power plants and liquefied coal. These methods have advantages and disadvantages.  (Mostly disadvantages, if you ask me, but I won't go into the details of dirty mining and nuclear power here.)  Some say we should use coal and natural gas to produce hydrogen until we can figure out more sustainable methods.  Or they say we can figure out a way to capture the carbon produced and sequester, or store, it permanently someplace. This is possible, but coal companies will never invest the money it would take to sequester carbon unless they were forced to do so--and governments don't want to do that, because high energy prices are not popular.  (For an interesting article on this, read this post and this one at Rapid Uplift.  The author is a scientist, so you can quote him!)

Unless we can figure out how to produce hydrogen sustainably, I'm not sure it really makes sense to invest billions of dollars in what it takes to store, distribute, and use hydrogen. Let's look at those problems next.

Storage and Distribution
Hydrogen is tricky stuff to store and transport.  But the problems here are not insurmountable, just expensive.  Advocates of natural gas use in the US argue that natural gas fueling stations can eventually be converted to hydrogen fueling stations.  This does seem to be a strong argument for expansion of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) infrastructure, since CNG is cheaper and produces fewer emissions than petrol and diesel anyway.  But let's not forget that CNG powered automobiles are not sustainable in the long run, because even if they are better than petrol or diesel vehicles, they do produce greenhouse gases.  This is especially true if people use cars to to the extent that they do in the US--or New Delhi.  To its credit, Delhi has been using CNG to power buses and autorickshaws for years, and it did lead to less pollution--at least until the number of private diesel vehicles drastically increased.

Moving hydrogen from one place to another (distribution) is problematic, because it takes a lot of energy to transport it by truck or train.  That leads to inefficiencies--and higher emissions.  In the long run, pipelines are the cheapest way to transport hydrogen.  The problem is, pipelines are expensive because they need to be specially treated; currently in the US, every 10 km of pipeline costs over six million dollars to build.  That's not cheap.

One solution to the transport problem is the produce hydrogen locally--at or near the filling station.  So far, most efforts to do this have involved natural gas, which means carbon emissions.  If that's the best we can do, it might make sense to drive less and use natural gas directly!

As noted above, there are many ways we can use hydrogen.  Fuel cell vehicles, power generation, and rocket ship travel are three! Right now, hydrogen powered cars are very expensive, but those costs will come down with improved technology.  Large scale electricity generation from hydrogen probably doesn't make much sense unless we can figure out how to use algae to produce hydrogen cheaply.  That may or may not happen.  As for rocket ship travel, I wouldn't count on that becoming sustainable in our life time!

For a good overview of the costs associated with the different parts of the "hydrogen economy," take a look at this article in Popular Mechanics.

Bottom Line:
If we can come up with a cheap, sustainable way to produce hydrogen, it could solve a lot of our current energy problems.  I support basic research for this reason.  Failing that, it probably makes more sense to keep things simple: use solar and wind power to run light bulbs and to heat water; encourage bicycle use; replace automobiles with trains and natural gas buses; that kind of thing. The good news is that at least some of the infrastructure we use to store and distribute natural gas could eventually be converted for hydrogen use.  So if we develop a cheap, sustainable source of hydrogen, the investment we put into fleets of natural gas powered buses won't be a complete waste.  Given that, a go-slow approach doesn't close any doors.

What doesn't make sense is to invent a massively expensive infrastructure to make our unsustainable use of automobiles slightly less unsustainable.  My advice to seventh standard students?  Don't count on hydrogen to solve your future problems, but if you're passionate about science, this is one area where bright minds are required!