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Archive for the ‘The Great Outdoors’ Category

“Mad Max” Isn’t Our Dystopian Future

In Career, The Great Outdoors on April 3, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Could the United States really devolve into a Mad Max society?

Mad Max never goes into the world-building or explains its oil scarcity – it simply is – but director/writer George Miller and producer/writer Byron Kennedy developed the idea following the 1973 oil scare.

In the months leading up to the 1973 oil crisis, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced an oil embargo in retaliation for U.S. support of Israel in an ongoing Middle East conflict.  Suddenly, oil supplies to the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom disappeared.

fuel shortages in 1973, 1973 oil crisis, lines for gasoline

A massive oil shortage ensued, with lines at gas stations stretching miles.  Gas prices soared, and car makers were forced to consider making cars with higher fuel mileage rather than the gas-guzzling muscle cars of the previous decade. Many countries, suddenly aware of their energy insecurity, began rethinking their energy policies.

However, once the crisis resolved itself, those same governments pushed energy security down a lengthening list of concerns.  Oil dependency went largely forgotten, and that shows in Miller and Kennedy’s film.

The government in Mad Max didn’t consider alternate fuel sources until it was too late.  With oil scarcity making transportation difficult, essential items such as food skyrocketed in price.  Roving marauders took to the roads, interested in stripping cars for profit as much as they were in finding fuel.  Unable to contain the violence, the government began to collapse.  Anarchy ensued.

If the United States is ever hit with a sudden crisis, we might find ourselves living in a similar world.  Private transportation, food delivery and basic manufacturing rely overwhelmingly on oil supplies.  At bare minimum, an oil shortage could make food prices skyrocket.  Two fuel shortages in the 1970s and a localized fuel crisis following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 demonstrate the need for Americans to consider alternate modes of personal transportation as well as overall energy diversification.

superstorm sandy gas rationing, gas rationing 2012, hurricane sandy gasoline shortageThe problem during Sandy wasn’t a lack of fuel but a lack of access.  Gas stations were unable to pump gasoline to waiting cars.  Lines formed.  New York and New Jersey governors Cuomo and Christie imposed rationing systems, which met with criticism and resistance from aggravated drivers.

Unless he or she is a “prepper,” someone who plans ahead for potential disasters, the average U.S. citizen is unlikely to store extra fuel.  In the short term, Sandy points out vulnerabilities and gives companies incentive to diversify their investments with electric and natural gas-fueled cars.

Sudden catastrophe aside, the United States won’t devolve into a Mad Max society because, as oil supplies dwindle, economic power will shift.  Early price increases during a prolonged fuel shortage won’t hold up to truly innovative minds, those corporations flexible enough to embrace change rather than fight for the status quo.

Bike-walk trails are increasingly being woven into existing urban infrastructure.  The Maria Ignacio Creek Trail in California connects with several other trails to provide safe travel to bike-walk commuters.  Cities such as Hoboken and Pittsburgh added more bicycle lanes to city streets, making the roads safer for non-motorized transportation.

Though full or hybrid electric-powered vehicles are still viewed as an expensive luxury for personal transportation, prices are surprisingly low.  In an article on EV Obsession, green tech writer Zachary Shahan lists 11 plug-in electric cars that are cheaper than new cars fueled by gasoline.  Though not ubiquitous, the consumer who can afford a new or slightly used car can now transition easily to electric vehicle (EV) technology.

Natural gas has taken off as an energy source for heating, electricity generation and residential stove tops.  However, natural gas vehicles are hindered by a lack of existing infrastructure.  While natural gas-powered vehicles are already becoming popular in commercial fleets where vehicles can regularly return to a central fueling point, the technology is reluctant to take off in everyday uses.   Who would buy a car without knowing where to refuel it?

Still, natural gas could become the fastest-growing energy source in the world within 25 years, writes NPR correspondent Tom Gjelten in his 2012 article, The Dash for Gas.

 “The energy trade is an important determinant of the global balance of power, and the shift to natural gas will introduce a new set of winners and losers, bringing greater independence to many countries and reducing the energy leverage that oil producers have traditionally enjoyed,” Gjelten writes.

Change is difficult and unpleasant.  Perhaps that is why social collapse happened in Mad Max.  Perhaps scientists warned of a coming fuel shortage only to be ignored by officials made complacent by past success.  After all, when new information challenges our notions of the world our first act is often to discredit the source.

Since natural gas is itself a fossil fuel, it is not a final answer to energy security.  Electric cars have a fair share of faults, too.  It is human nature to want a simple answer when the truth requires articulation, so it’s fair to guess the real answer is a combination of new technology and conservation.  Relying less on the roads may be the only way to prevent this dystopian film from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mad Max explosions, Mad Max cars, Mad Max oil crisis, fuel shortages in film

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3 Galactic Tips for Would-be Gardeners

In Career, The Great Outdoors on March 20, 2014 at 11:49 am

Spring is in the air, and for me that means two things:  nosebleeds and gardening.  I enjoy balancing my unsustainable eating habits with food grown closer to home, so March 20 means it’s time to log out of Netflix and get to work on my garden. That Star Trek marathon can wait!

I have the benefit of many years’ apprenticeship to my father’s vegetable garden.  Over the years, I learned a few tips on getting the garden going once springtime rolls around.  Let me share them with you!

Find your place in the star system!

The USDA divides the United States into different hardiness zones. Based on lowest regional temperature, hardiness zones are a useful guideline for when to plant – and what will thrive (if you’re in northern Maine, I’m just sorry for you).

hardiness zone,

For example, I live in Zone 6b with an average winter minimum temperature of -5 to 0 degrees Fahrenheit. I’ll use this as an indicator of what vegetables to plant in my garden as well as when to begin seeding.

Hardiness zones increase as you move toward the equator. Someone living in Montgomery, Ala. would find themselves in Zone 8a (10-15 degrees Fahrenheit). That gardener would also have a longer growing season, making it possible to begin planting earlier.

Terra-form that garden bed!

If you’re making a new garden, you’ll need to define your garden perimeter and remove the sod. Till the ground as deep as you can to loosen the soil. If the garden is in a region with low-moderate clay content, consider spreading a few shovels of coarse sand and organic material across the garden bed and tilling it back into the soil. Using sand alone might hurt rather than help.

why till a garden, when to till the garden, how to till the garden

Spring prepping is easier when you’ve worn the garden in. Till the soil to loosen it. Add some “organic material” – manure or compost – and mix it in. This aerates the soil, builds it up and helps reduce erosion. You can buy manure from the store or pay a midnight visit to the local alpaca farm, but don’t start planting immediately after you fertilize.

Patience, young padawan. Let the fertilizer do its job. Only then will the microbial activity nourish your seedlings without interfering with seed germination.

Don’t eat purple-fleshed melon!

Okay, that last one is a Hunger Games reference and a reminder that sometimes the power of keeping a vegetable garden goes to your head. There’s an allure to making homemade salsa or experimenting with unusual foods.  Celeriac, fiddleheads and hairy cucumbers may peak your curiosity, but don’t plant exotic vegetables on the off chance that you will. Because you probably won’t.

fiddleheads, ferns, edible ferns,

Before buying seeds, take an overarching look at your diet. What do you eat most? Does it make sense to grow it in your garden?

For example: some people enjoy home-grown tomatoes, but I think they taste like the underside of Satan’s cloven hooves. My dad planted tomatoes every year because they grow well in my region, and every year the rising fumes of foul tomato sorcery would overpower the garden. Now that I’m in charge, there shall be nary a tomato in sight. Instead, I’m planting basil, thyme and rosemary.

My staple foods are spinach, avocado, peppers and zucchini. However, avocados are not on the list of best plants for Zone 6; avocado trees are subtropical plants that faint at first sign of frost. I’ll plant green beans instead because they grow well in my area and can be replanted halfway through summer for a longer growing season.

 More great gardening content (and embedded sci-fi references) coming soon!

Seeing the Irish Flora Up Close

In Career, The Great Outdoors on March 17, 2014 at 3:50 pm

I don’t know the names for any of these plants, but they took my breath away.  In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, check out some of the gorgeous plant life I encountered during my trip to Dublin, Cork and Galway!

If you are a genius who knows any of these plants (or a native of Ireland), leave a comment below!

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