A rig by any other name, could it be an artificial reef?

There are currently more than 7,500 offshore oil platforms actively probing the earth’s crust for black gold. Their relatively minimal appearance at the surface belies the shear magnitude of human construction beneath the waves. Oil platforms are among the world’s tallest man-made structures. Compliant tower platforms reach up to 900 meters in depth (in contrast, the tallest building is 828 meters). these rigs are not permanent structures. As the wells run dry and sea water corrodes steel jackets, the wells are capped and rigs decommissioned. At least 6500 offshore platforms are slated for decommission by 2025, which begs the question, what do we do with inactive oil platforms?

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Biodiversity Wednesday: Emerging Habitats

A growing number of scholars now say that we live in an era known as the Anthropocene. Yes, this means that something fundamental about how the earth and its ecosystems function has shifted because of human activities. A quick history of the term shows that admitting to this shift also means admitting to the blame that humans arguably deserve. However, step away from that finger-pointing blame stance for a minute. If humans have fundamentally changed the earth’s geology, doesn’t that mean we’re looking at all sorts of new habitats and opportunities for evolution to create new critters? Yes, yes it does.

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Assumptions on Human Behavior

Sustainability is as much about personal decisions as it is about broad social movements or top-down government rules. Those personal decisions are rooted deeply in how we behave as human beings, and that is something that science is far from understanding.

Adam Smith once said “we are not ready to suspect any person of being defective in selfishness (Smith 1804). In many neoclassical economics studies, humans are assumed to act rationally – that is, they act in their own self-interest (known as rational choice theory. Self-interest is generally calculated by financial gain, but more progressive economists will include other factors in the formation of their utility curves such as time resources. The idea spreads beyond economics, however, into other disciplines such as evolutionary biology. For example, Richard Dawkins has argued for the “selfish gene”(2006) attributing all animal behavior to propagation of their genes. He goes so far as to say that any observed “altruism” is actually benefitting individuals with shared genes, so is still essentially selfish behavior.


Hardin's original example: cows sharing a field, cred.columbia.edu

Perhaps the most cited example of the rational actor is Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (1968). Hardin describes the scenario of a common field in which people have the opportunity to graze their cows. Each person adding an additional cow degrades the field a little more, but the costs are split among all users while the benefits go solely to the owner of the cow. According to the rational choice model of human behavior, people then have the incentive to add more and more cows until the field is no longer useable. He concludes his analysis by implying only two solutions – privatization or strong central governmental control. Read More

How not to save the environment: sharks as biofuel

Successfully switching the global economy from oil and coal based energy to clean energy is one of the major goals of the modern environmental movement. No single idea will accomplish this -to succeed, we’re going to need a combination of technologies.

Many proposed solutions involve a trade-off. Reasonable people can disagree over whether the environmental benefits of wind turbines or nuclear power plants outweigh the risks, for example. Every once in a while, however, a completely ridiculous idea comes along.

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Spanning the Bordeaux Belt – what does local mean in a global economy

A small news article from Science has been taped above my desk for the last few years. I don’t remember who originally gave it to me, or why I even hung it up, but there it is, nestled between a couple XKCD cartoons. The article is titled “The Wine Divide” and it raises many questions about sustainability, inherent biases in conventional wisdom, and what the term “local” means in a global economy. And it’s about wine.

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What steps have you taken to lead a more sustainable life?

It’s the second week of Science and Sustainability month, and this time we want to know what you have done to lead a more sustainable life. Be as specific or as general as you want. Do you reuse items that you’d normally throw away, bike instead of drive, compost your trash? Have you made dramatic changes to your lifestyle in order to live more sustainably? What is your rationale behind these changes?

And more importantly, have you tried to make changes that ultimately failed, either because it was too expensive, too much extra work, or just stopped making sense? Are there changes you want to make that you can’t? How do you balance the sustainability ethic against the pressures and conveniences of modern living?