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“For A Greener Planet?”

January 4, 2011 Leave a comment

New Year’s day had its share of commercials pushing the “eco” this and “green” that. In Japan, it seems the car companies are ready to roll out electric/hybrid cars. Zero emissions here we come. But is it really going to make life better?

Have you ever wondered what it takes to make these new fangled cars? Cars used to be a bucket of bolts and wires and leather (for the seats). Steel belted rubber hit the pavement and the engines were powered good ole fashioned gasoline, which is derived from environment killing fossil fuels. I’ll stay away from the fact that even though one will not have to stop at a gas station, one has to use electricity, which comes from fossil fuels, for now anyway. Let’s tackle the simplicity of constructing these wonderful machines (and most electronic items that surround our lives).

Rare Earths Unleashed
Ever hear of rare earth minerals? (Some say just rare earths.) To use the word rare is an understatement. These minerals are used in the production of parts that eventually end up in fuel efficient, no-emission producing cars. The advancement of battery technology depends on having a healthy supply of these rare earths. Japan is not rich with these minerals, or other ones for that matter, but thanks to China, Japanese companies have been getting a healthy supply of rare earths. Actually, about 50% of the rare earths mined and refined in China go to Japan. However, that situation took a real blow last fall when a Chinese fishing boat hit a Japanese Coast Guard boat near the Senkaku Islands, which lie in disputed waters. Japan arrested the fishing boat captain, and China stopped shipments of refined rare earths to Japan. Japan rather immediately released the Chinese fishing boat captain. Rare earths miraculously began arriving in Japan from China. You draw the conclusions.

Rare earth oxides, clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium and gadolinium.

Anyway, check out the periodic table of elements and you will see these wonderful minerals in “the so-called lanthanoids, from lanthanum through ytterbium, plus…scandium, yttrium and lutetium.” The New York Times Online has some great background stuff on these rare earths. I won’t go into the science of these elements because quite frankly I have zero clue about this stuff. That said, I do know China controls a lot of it, and here in lies what I believe will be major battleground for 2011, and beyond.

The Reality
Over 95% of the world’s consumable rare earths come out of Chinese mines. America, Australia, and Central Asia make up the majority of the rest of the deposits, but basically, China holds sway over the world’s supply. Why will this cause clash? Let me illustrate through simple examples.

Do you own a flat screen TV? If the answer is yes, you own rare earths. Do you own a cell phone or smart phone? If the answer is yes, again, you own rare earths. Own a computer? – made with rare earths. You want to own a hybrid car? – It will be made with rare earths. In fact, almost all the electronic devices we have in this digital age needs rare earth minerals. Without them, no more of the above. I haven’t even mentioned all the high grade medical technology that relies on this stuff. You didn’t think the MRI machine was made of aluminuum, and some duct tape?

The Environment
So, what does all that have to do with the environment? Simple, getting to the rare earths means destroying a certain environment. Some rare earth’s are really toxic, and if they seep in to the ground water, people will be adversely affected (to put it mildly). Back in the 80s a U.S. based mine had to shut down because rare earth minerals in liquid form got into the local drinking water. Since this time it has been impossible in the United States to get a permit to mine rare earths. China’s environmental regulations are far more lax than the U.S.s. This goes for most of the world outside of Europe and maybe Canada. To get at the amount of rare earths needed to develop our “Eco” or “Green” society we have to muddy some waters. What do you think is happening in China? I can tell you this, in some places, don’t drink the water, and bring your air filter.

Who To Blame?
I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming China for having resources. I just want to point out two things. One, China has a stranglehold on the world, and will not hesitate to apply pressure whenever and wherever necessary. Two, “Eco” isn’t what it appears to be. There are a lot of things to consider when advocating for a “greener” planet. Like Newton’s Law – for every action there is an equal and opposing reaction. When we wash ourselves clean the dirt has to go somewhere.

Tragic Irony
Ironically, there was a time the United States was the leader in this category, but for some reason China now has the technology and advanced techniques to mine and process the minerals. Getting them out of the ground is not so difficult, depending on your environmental stance, but refining and smelding are quite complex, apparently, and the Chinese are good at it, environmental and human health degradation being par for the course.

Why can't the U.S., and the world catch up to this?

You would think the U.S. and Europe could figure out more advanced ways to get at these minerals, but the slates seem blank. For now, China is in the driver’s seat, and taking the world for a nice ride. Hopefully other countries open mines to counteract China’s stranglehold, but that all takes time. I don’t want to deny the Chinese their prosperity, I just want to level the playing field and encourage more competition, which could raise standards for everyone involved in the process.

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Russian Bear Not Hibernating

January 10, 2009 Leave a comment

Aside from the fact that Russian bears at the Moscow Zoo really were not hibernating because of the lack of snowfall in Moscow, Russia seems to be gaining headlines for other “more serious” reasons (at least where the Europeans are concerned). In a show of power, the Russian government shut down natural gas lines running through the Ukraine, which cut off natural gas supplies to much of Eastern and Central Europe. According to Russia the government the Ukraine was “stealing Russian gas destined for Europe.” The BBC has been reporting on this, and says that since Wednesday, when the pipelines were shut down, European countries like Serbia, that run almost exclusively on gas from Russia, had been severely affected.

Apparently though, Russian and the European Union have signed an agreement that will secure the flow of gas to Europe. The only catch is that the Ukraine has to sign the agreement. But since the relationship between Russia and them have deteriorated so, I wonder if they will sign the agreement (a bit of posturing for face saving is in order here). Maybe under the weight of the European Union the Ukraine will come round and sign the agreement, thus opening up the flow of gas from Russia.

This growl by Russia just underscores why we need alternate fuel sources. How can Europe be at the mercy of Russia? It’s like The United States and oil from The Middle East. We are addicted like a junkie to heroin. Use natural gas, but don’t be a slave to it.

This is not the first time Russia has done this, and Prime Minister Vladmir Putin has asserted that the days of cheap natural gas are over. He is obviously laying the rhetoric for more gas wars with the Ukraine, Europe, and the rest of the world; agreement or no agreement.

I wonder when the growl of the Russian bear will be actively heard in the United States? And how will the U.S. government respond to such growls because this Russian bear’s growl comes with a pretty stunting bite…this is no cub we’re dealing with. Beware.

Peace

They Can Add Calf Killers to Their Resume

February 17, 2008 3 comments

In the Saturday, February 9th, 2008 online edition of the Japan Times, C. W. Nicol wrote an op-ed entitled, “Killing Calves Makes Japan’s Whaling Indefensible,” which dots Japan’s whaling resume with another marker of blood. The interesting thing about his position is that he used to be a supporter of whaling, as he says here,

In the past, I have made myself pretty unpopular abroad in speaking out in defense of Japan taking whales for food, as long as the whalers abided by a scientific quota and observed IWC rules.

But with obvious astonishment at recent events he seems to have changed his opinion.

The sight of a dead whale doesn’t shock me because I’ve seen thousands. However, to see obvious and irrefutable evidence that Japanese whalers had crossed the line to killing calves, and probably a mother and calf, was too much.

He describes, with great detail, his experiences with the Japanese whaling industry. He is very knowledgeable on this subject. Not only has he seen Japanese whaling practices up close but also the whaling practices of other cultures,

Having lived with Inuit hunters in Canada, I could see nothing wrong in taking marine mammals for food. In the Antarctic especially, there were plentiful minke whales, thousands of them, and in no way could the species be called endangered.

I gather, he feels quite strongly about the recent events within the Japanese whaling community to be writing such an article.

In a previous post entitled, “Letter to the Japanese Whaling Association,” which I actually sent, via-email, to the Japan Whaling Association, I outlined why whale hunting should be discontinued in Japan. For Japan, I gather it is less about a viable food source, and more about ego. No one likes being told what to do. But sometimes, a nation and culture must look at itself and ask, “Is this really necessary?” Hopefully they come to a ‘right’ answer.

I just want to mention, I’m not 100% opposed to whale hunting (whether that matters or not). And I actually make my home in Japan. I take part in local community events and support Japan on many fronts. I just don’t support Japan on this front.

Nicol, even though he comes down on the side of the anti-whaling group still supports a small regional hunt for cultural purposes, which I can agree as well,

Perhaps one answer would be to preserve the tradition and skills of whaling by a very limited, well-observed and controlled coastal hunt. That is a decision Japan must make for itself.

My major issue with all this is the open lie. I would have more respect for the Japanese on this issue, if they would just admit, 100%, that they want to kill whales for food, and want to make money from it. I hate smokescreens and lies in situations like this. In the guise of scientific research they will kill 1,000 whales this year (including a scheduled 50 Humpback Whales – considered by some to be as intelligent a species as we’ve ever observed). If they want to see how far we can push a species to extinction without actually making them extinct then they are doing a good job. Or if they want to see how to bring a species back from possible extinction, then they are on the right track. I gather though, those are not the goals of the Japanese scientific community. Just say, “We want to kill whales for food and money.” So much easier to defend yourself that way.

I’m not a whale expert, but one responded to my first whaling article (thank you), and after doing some extra research of my own, I was even more hardened towards whale hunting in this context. Finally, C. W. Nicol states,

However, with this new lack of judgment in taking a minke calf, which no boatswain directing the movements of the ship from the crow’s nest, and certainly no harpooner worth his salt could mistake for an adult, I feel I can no longer justify further support for Japan’s Antarctic whaling. By the way, I am British-born, but a citizen of Japan.

“With rising fuel costs, with tons of frozen whale meat stored unused in warehouses, and with anger at home and abroad with Japan’s Antarctic whaling now so intense,” I just hope someday the Japanese Whaling community listens to its “longtime friend(s)” and curtails its whaling operations.

Letter to the Japanese Whaling Association

November 29, 2007 12 comments

Dear Japan Whaling Association,

Your website is very informative with regards to Japan’s whaling and the detailed account of the history with regards to “culture” of whaling in Japan.  I actually agree with the part about imposing one’s views on another culture.  That said, hamburgers from the United States, meat pies from Australia, and fish and chips from England hardly relate/equate to slaughtering whales disguised as research.   Just say that you are going to defy the bans because you hate being told what to do.  Simple, people would have more respect this nation.

Another point, Japan’s “culture” of whaling pales in comparison to that of the Alaskan Inuit and various other indigenous populations.  Documented remains of whaling date back to 4500 BC (and they didn’t come from Japan).  Japan’s well documented whaling history comes in to play around the 12th century of the modern AD era.  Also, the drastic turn in Japan’s “culture” of whaling really began in 1906, and then during the aftermath of WWII (and by Japan’s accounts even much later) to fill a gap in meat based protein.  Understandable, but now I believe that protein gap has been filled to a great degree by a plethora of alternative choices.

I will always say that animals do not need to be killed to do research.  No human would accept the killing of another human to find out why humans live so long, or why cellular reproduction happens so rapidly, or how much energy brain impulses generate, or just how dense one’s heart really is, etc.  The reason we do not do this is because we have found much more humane ways of conducting such research.  I do not want to take away the “scientific research” of the Japanese whaling “culture,” but if your HUNTS are not about profit or supplying food for the Japanese population why not find a way to not kill the whales you HUNT?  Speaking of HUNT – last time I checked the dictionary it meant to kill something for sport or food.  I guess we can add “scientific research” to that definition.

Once again let me reiterate I do not want to stop the science-based research Japan is doing.  We need research if we want to figure out the intricacies of these animals that have roamed these oceans and Earth longer than humans.  I am sure with the cooperation of other nations Japan can find non-lethal ways to carry-out the research it needs to support its experiments.  Do the research just don’t kill the patients.

This issue is not about animal rights, although I believe animals have just as much right to life as a human.  For whatever magical reason humans were given the gift of reason.  We were given the gift to defy instinct and move through our lives with an acute awareness of logic, rationality, and hindsight (although we seem to forget this all to often).  We are thinkers.  Does that make us any more intelligent than other species?  I say no.  Body mass proportionality has nothing to do with intelligence.  That said, this issue is about one thing – honesty and ego.  Japan wants to HUNT whales to feed a population that doesn’t need it for survival.  Japan is using culture and tradition to justify keeping a dead industry alive because people have private interests in it.  In reality it helps no one – least of all the 127 million people living in Japan (or the 6 billion living on this planet).  I live in Japan, and I see what Japanese people eat every day.  Most of the menus I see at restaurants do not contain whale meat.  I walk into shopping markets and do not see “regular” people buying whale meat (unless they are rich-upper class folk). I am married to a Japanese woman and never once was served whale for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I just don’t see the argument for continuation of hunting whales. 

One might say, “Not held in check whales would eat all the fish in the ocean leaving none for humans.”  Great, then how about this novel idea – why don’t humans change their diets?  Why can’t we change?  If we are so intelligent and adaptable, and at the top of the food chain, why can’t we change?  Japan is blessed with far better conditions to live than the Inuit and other indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic Circle regions of the world.  Let them hunt the whales they need.  They’ve been doing it for thousands of years and they seem to understand how to balance it out.  I trust them far more to honestly regulate whale numbers than the nation of Japan.  They have less choice than a nation like Japan.  Japan has far more fertile land and has a greater economic diversity with which to deal with such cultural change.

Lastly, if Japan really wants to profit from whales invest in tourism – whale watching.  What better way to truly enjoy whales than to watch them in their natural habitats somewhat undisturbed.  The boats will already disturb them but at least if we keep a good distance they won’t kill them.  Various U.S. states make quite a bit of money through whale watching.  If Japan is truly committed to monitoring these animals of the deep then watch them and chart their patterns through life.  Watch how they interact with the environment around them.  What better way to teach children the harmony of nature and fruitfulness of life.  Take the families of Japan on a whale watching expedition and show them the beauty of these animals because the reality is there isn’t that many left, even by the numbers you have

Humans have done the most damage to the balance of the Earth’s oceanic ecosystem, not whales.  Humans have depleted the fisheries, not whales. We’ve polluted the oceans causing toxin levels within marine life to skyrocket making it unhealthy for us to consumer such meat in mass quantities.  

We are destroying ocean fisheries by contaminating them with heavy metals and chemical pollutants,” said Ocean Alliance president Roger Payne. “In the next few years we could lose access to many ocean fisheries; several species are already well on the way to becoming too polluted to eat. I am amazed by how few people recognize the seriousness of this issue.   

We need to study why we as a species continue to destroy our own planet, blame it on other species, and live out of balance with our global ecosystem.  Study that.

(P.S. – To see the Japanese side of this issue without my bias see this website for the Japan Whaling Association.) 

A Voice Louder In Private Than Public

October 22, 2007 2 comments

So Al Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Price, and of course calls for him to run for President of the United States ring loud. Still though the answers to these calls seem to be an even louder – “No one home.” I would like to see Gore stay where he is. Sometimes a person’s influence can be diminished by gaining “public power.” I feel this is Gore’s situation. As a private citizen he can actually get angry and say things directly not having to bite his tongue, worrying about political fallout.

Regardless of the validity of global warming Gore has raised a huge issue – environmental destruction. No one can argue that humans are destroying the natural environment via industrial waste, personal waste, and overall lack of respect for Mother Nature. From killing whales and over fishing the World’s oceans to chopping down rainforests and exploitation of natural resources humans are not helping the health of the Earth.

I for one hope that Al Gore doesn’t run for President of the United States, but instead uses his international influence to place pressure on governments, corporations and people to act responsibly towards the environment.