The Importance of Empathy in Environmental Work

In my STEM for Solar class near the beginning of the year, we read an article about empathy and design thinking.  One segment of the article mentioned the rotation of nurse shifts in Kaiser Permanente and how they could improve those shifts in order to maximize the care for the patients.  A study conducted beforehand demonstrated that the nurse would debrief the incoming staff on the status of the patients for 45 minutes, and that despite this debriefing, they would miss some of the most important aspects of the patients conditions.  Wanting to rectify this problem, they developed a piece of computer software that enable the previous nurses to jot down notes about the patients throughout the shift, rather than debriefing the incoming nurses at the end of the shift.  As a result, not only did their productivity increase, but the interconnectivity between nurses and patients increased.

I mention this article because understanding where the problem originates is the key to developing a solution.  It’s easy to state that there is a problem that needs to be fixed.  The true challenge is finding out what exactly causes the problem in the first place, and taking the steps to fix it.

This is why what we do in this class is crucial.  With guest speakers and peer teaching, our understanding of the matters at hand increases, and we use this knowledge to develop potential solutions.  Through the year-round projects, not only can we put our empathy to work, but we are able to gain a better understanding of the process of a large-scale project, which we can take into our lives in environmental work.


The True Extent On How Water Quality Isn’t That Great

Yesterday, upon doing research for my STEM for Solar class, I found a study on Virginia water reserves that was genuinely shocking for me. A study was released in 2012 that assessed the water quality of 35% of rivers, 98% of lakes, and 85% of estuaries in Virginia. Amongst those assessed areas, 71% of rivers, 83% of lakes, and 94% of estuaries were considered impaired. The most common cases of impairment of waters in general was from e. coli and bacteria from animal and human waste, as well as other nutrients and trash that we create using industrial methods. Since the 90s, the waters have been progressing to a fully or partially restored state, but if the report was any indicator, we still have a long ways to go.

On a personal note, back home, I live a couple of miles down from the Potomac Bridge. The Potomac river, to put it simply, was disgusting. Most of the pollutants in the river would come from sewage from Fairview Beach, and I’ve heard stories of people who have stayed in the river for too long and would break out into rashes as a result. It’s troubling, to me, that there are so many other bodies of water that are that badly polluted.

As I have mentioned earlier, a small percentage of these waters have been fully restored. Something that I would like to look more into is how we can keep this progress going, as well as contribute to the restoration of water ourselves.



A Genius Solar Project

In my STEM for Solar class, we were assigned to research different solar projects that’s been developed.  I came across something called the Sun Saluter, and I personally think its absolutely brilliant.

The Sun Saluter is a solar tracker that doesn’t rely on other electrical components like sensors to track the sun’s movements.  The solar panel is mounted on a single axis rotator, and it functions like a triple-beam balance; a weight is set on one end and a water container is set on the other, and the panel moves as the water container gets lighter.  The user can adjust the rate at which the water empties out so that it’s more in sync with the sun, which increases proficiency by 30%.  There’s also the option to add a water purifier where the water is being released, which produces 4 liters of clean drinking water.  The materials are relatively cheap (although the solar panel and the battery are not included in the DIY kit that the Sun Saluter organization is offering).  Thus, poor families all around the world can purchase this.  In fact, it’s already having a positive impact all around the world.  According to the Sun Saluter website, 8,000 people have been impacted, and the device is being utilized in 16 countries.

There are several other solar trackers that are similar to this.  They range from being commercially made to DIY projects like the Sun Saluter.  The key differences between these projects and the Sun Saluter is the cost and the materials utilized here.  The prices of these solar trackers range from ~$60 – $3,000.  The solar trackers used in both the DIY projects and the ones being sold online have other electronic components powering the system, such as photo-sensors.  The ones that are most commonly sold have dual-axis rotators, which allow for more movement and a increased ability to track the sun’s path.  While the dual axis component of the solar tracker does increase proficiency, the trackers themselves are very expensive compared to the Sun Saluter.

To me, this is what a truly sustainable device looks like.  It’s cheap, it’s easily accessible, it has more than one use, and it benefits those who use it.







Affordability in Sustainability

A while back ago, there was a scandal involving Martin Shkreli and his pharmaceutical company.  What happened was, he hiked up the prices for live-saving treatment for AIDS by over 5000%, from $13.50 to $750 per pill.  When faced with criticism for his price hike, he claimed on Twitter that this move was “good for business” and that it was “only logical”, considering that his company, Turing Pharmaceuticals, was relatively small, and he needed the money to keep the business going.  He faced quite a bit of backlash from this business move, ranging from individuals on Twitter to even getting critical statements from politicians such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.  While the backlash he is getting is equivalent to his crime, it’s important to look at the structures in our society and our mindset that would motivate him to attempt such a price hike in the first place.

Shkreli’s line of thought for this drastic price raise is something that almost all companies share: the need to obtain maximum profits while providing a particular service.  Shkreli’s business move is something that can be easily criticized, not only because his conducting of business here was blatantly criminal, but also because the price hike disconnected him from potential patients, which, from a business mindset, would cause a decrease in profits.  However, in a way, this conducting of business has been going on for a very long time.

It’s very common in our society to put a price tag on basic necessities.  The act of putting patents on products such as life-saving medicine itself is a phenomenon that prevents those living in poverty – and thus, the ones who will most likely need the treatment the most – from getting the treatment necessary for them.  The act of selling water bottles is capitalizing on a human necessity, with Nestlé being the most insidious, considering it’s using water in California – a place currently in a devastating drought.  Vacant houses outnumber the amount of homeless people in America, and they aren’t being used because people are unable to pay for them.  The list can go on.

With this in mind, we look towards the future.  Suppose we invest more in renewable resources and sustainable technology, and develop them to the point where they are available for public use.  With current business practices, the individual who invented them could patent them and control the price tag of the product, and thus, the accessibility of this product to the public.  It’s essentially the same situation as stated above; it’s a price tag on something that actually helps people in the long run, and it’s only aiding the people who can afford the product.

This is something to keep in mind when discussing the future of sustainability.  For those who truly want to help, patents are a ginormous obstacle, and we must find a way to bypass them and weaken their effect on business, if not get rid of them altogether.

What I Learned In Geology Today (10/26/15) And The Train of Thought That Follows.

This semester, I’m taking a Geology 101 class for my General Education requirement.  It’s about halfway through the course, and even though I’ve already taken a course like this in high school (fond memories of Earth Science), it’s a good refresher about the geological processes of Earth and how it affects us.  Something that really stuck with me ever since the beginning was how the Earth was described as a planet with interacting systems.  This statement implies that if something affects one system, it could directly affect the other systems that it interacts with, a bit like the cogs in a machine.  If one of the parts of a system gets messed up, it will mess up the rest of the systems currently in place and cause serious damage.

Something that we went over in class today is ice sheets and glaciers, and the thing that I was to briefly discuss is what would happen if they ended up melting.  Antartica and Greenland contain 90% of the world’s ice, and if they melted, it would raise the sea levels worldwide by 200 ft.  It seems unlikely that these two giant lands of ice would melt, except for the fact that climate change is happening.  According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the summer melt on the ice sheets in Greenland has increased by 30% from 1976 to 2006, and it reached a new record in 2007.  While there is some winter snow happening at the top of the mountains there, there has been less ice accumulation than there has been before, and there is increased glacier movement to the islands edges.

Another thing that I want to bring up in relation to glaciers is a map of North America that depicts the areas that would end up submerged if the present ice sheets melt.  It depicted that most of the coastlines as we know it would disappear, and while that’s slight obvious, what really shook me was the fact that in this map, not only was Florida entirely submerged, but there were also places in the midwest by way of the Mississippi River that were completely submerged as well.  Upon further research, there is a similar prediction for the rest of the world; present-day coastlines disappearing completely, with large-scale cities on major rivers risking becoming submerged as well.  This would severely damage the economies of the areas, and a large-scale amount of people would lose their homes and livelihoods.  Not only that, the submerging of the coastlines and other areas could severely affect the ecosystems that function in the conditions currently present, which, in the worst-case scenario, could ruin them entirely if they are unable to adapt to the rising water levels.

While at this present moment, it would take much higher temperatures and exacerbated climate change effects to reach a point where a full-scale ice sheets melting could possibly occur, it’s something to keep in mind when dealing with climate change.  When our activities are tinkering with the geological systems in place, it holds the potential to become disastrous for us, as well as any of the other geological systems affected by climate change.

Possibility of Increased Investment in Solar Energy

In light of the drastic climate change that is resulting from our reliance on oil and biofuels, it’s imperative that we find environmentally-friendly alternates to those sources of energy.  One of those alternatives has been staring us in the face for billions of years: the sun.  According to the Texas Solar Energy Society, the amount of energy coming from the sun in the timespan of 40 minutes is equivalent to the amount of energy humans consume in a year.  The exact amount of energy that reaches the Earth is 84 TerraWatts, and humans only use 12 TerraWatts*. With this massive amount of energy income, then our need for biofuels as a primary source of energy could become less prominent, if not entirely obsolete.

In fact, we are already on the path towards this future. Universities all over Americahave been integrating solar panels into their building structure, as well in areas suchas outdoor sitting areas and bus stops. There is a similar result in Asia; countries such as China, Bangladesh, India, and Japan areusing energy from solar panels, and China is the world leader in the production of photovoltaictechnology.  The total use of solar energy in Europe has increased from 45,314 gigawatts in 2011 to 67,084 gigawatts in 2012.  According to the report that cites those statistics, it’s inevitable that solar power will compete with more prominent forms of energy production.

If such a drastic change is inevitable, then it’s imperative that we look at previous attempts to implement solar energy into the global market, so that we may learn from the mistakes that were made.  One such attempt is the work of the Desertec foundation, which sought to utilized the vast amount of energy, particularly solar, that the Sahara desert was receiving in order to provide a clean, environmentally-friendly energy source for the increasing demands of the world.  Unfortunately, the project didn’t turn out as well as planned; the project in the Sahara desert got shut down in 2013.  The reasons for this was that it was too expensive and the methods for transporting this energy was too much of a hassle.  This is was a good idea to start off with that had good intentions, but there is more work to be done before such attempts like the Desertec project in the Sahara could be made again.  For example, a more efficient way to transport the energy needs to be developed.  Investments into the development of this technology would need to be made.

There is also the social aspects of the implementation of renewable energy to consider. The Desertec Foundation was founded by European politicians, businesspeople, and technicians, and it had an agenda for African territory.  There is a history of Africa being colonized by Europeans for profits.  Would investing in European technology in the Sahara desert be beneficial for both Europe and Africa, or would this be another case of Europeans exploiting Africa for its resources?  Would the construction and maintenance of the solar panels be used as a means for another case of European colonization?  If so, then an alternate route for finding solar energy would have to be considered.  Another variable is the social acceptance of renewable resources.  Since it’s something that is being newly explored, the technology that we have to properly harvest and utilize such energy doesn’t compare to the extraction of biofuels, and thus, negative perceptions of the process is still being perpetuated.  If progress for renewable resources is to be made, then education on renewable resources is something that would be beneficial to invest in.

Despite some of the shortcoming with the process of handling the energy that we obtain, I think that investing in this particular renewable energy source is a completely worthwhile cause, and it will be beneficial in both the present and the future.