The biggest environmental threat in California?

Here’s another environmental threat to keep you up at night:

“Nitrogen deposition and pollution is [a] more acute threat than climate change. … [But] few people are paying attention.” — Dr. Stuart Weiss, Chief Scientist of Creekside Science.

Weiss’s key paper on Bay Area nitrogen deposition, written while he was at Stanford, has a great title: Cars, Cows, and Checkerspot Butterflies: Nitrogen Deposition and Management of Nutrient-Poor Grasslands for a Threatened Species (Conservation Biology, v. 13 no. 6, Dec. 1999, pp. 1476–1486).

I’m listening to Weiss talk to the California Naturalist class I’m taking right now. Weiss makes some interesting points: Smog does an amazing amount of damage, not only to human lungs but also to non-human organisms. Non-native grasses are big contributors to the increase in pollen in recent times. Free-range cattle on California grasslands can keep non-native invasive grass species under control, providing habitat for endangered species as well as reducing allergens.

Environmental destruction and COVID-19

The BBC reports that scientists are expecting more pandemics like COVID-19. Why?

“Many scientists agree that our behaviour — particularly deforestation and our encroachment on diverse wildlife habitats — is helping diseases to spread from animals into humans more frequently. According to Prof Kate Jones from University College London, evidence ‘broadly suggests that human-transformed ecosystems with lower biodiversity, such as agricultural or plantation landscapes, are often associated with increased human risk of many infections’.” 

In other words, COVID-19 is a result of environmental destruction and mismanagement. And those of us in the wealthier countries are especially culpable:

“The current crisis, Prof Eric Fevre [from the University of Liverpool and the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya] said, provides a lesson for many of us about the consequence of our own impact on the natural world. ‘All of the things we use and take for granted — the food we eat, the materials in our smart phones; the more we consume, the more someone will make money by extracting them and moving them around the world. So it’s incumbent on all of us to think about the resources we consume and the impact it has’.”

Ecojustice Avenger Theme Song

It’s been interesting watching to see what online religious education resources people actually use. How-to craft videos? Single digits for number of views. Read-aloud programs? Low double digits, if I’m lucky. It’s not a great return for my invested time.

But what about “Story for All Ages” videos that are included in the Sunday service? We typically get over a hundred log-ins to our Zoom worship services, probably representing 1.5 humans on average, and posting on other social media (Facebook Live, Youtube) might add 10-30 views to the total. Plus a lot of informal positive feedback. These videos are definitely a better return for the time I invest, and as a result that’s what I’ve been concentrating on recently.

Since the “Story for All Ages” gets the largest audience, I thought maybe I’d try a tie-in video. The current “Story for All Ages” video series is about the conflict between Ecojustice Avenger and a dastardly villain named Trashman. The Ecojustice Avenger videos have a 12 second jingle, and after two episodes some kids had memorized all the lyrics to the jingle. That inspired me to expand that 12 second jingle to a full 1:41 music video, with videography inspired by Nam June Paik:

Will this reach kids? Maybe…probably not. But doing religious education in the age of COVID-19 requires constant experimentation until we discover what we can do that will reach kids.

Biomass-burning camp stove, pt. 1

For some time, I’ve been thinking about making a lightweight portable stove that burns biomass instead of fossil fuels. Search the Web, and you’ll turn up lots of plans for such stoves — tin can rocket stoves, Canadian candle stoves, etc. But most of the plans I looked at seemed overly complicated and not particularly elegant. Then I stumbled on a video titled “How To Make a Wood Gasifier Stove”: it showed how to make a stove that was simple, even elegant. So tonight I made one.

The basic principle for the “wood gasifier stove” is the same as for a rocket stove: the solid biomass fuel (wood) burns at the bottom of the stove, with another combustion area higher up where rising gases are enabled to burn further. This is supposed to extract more heat from the fuel, and additionally the more complete combustion should result in less crud going into the air and into your lungs. However, where the rocket stove has been tested for greater efficiency by scientists, I know of no such studies for this design; we’ll just take it on faith that this design is probably more efficient than an open fire.

The biomass-burning stove
The biomass-burning stove with a fire in it

The stove requires two “tin” cans, one larger than the other: I got a 15 oz. can of pears, and a 29 oz. can of peaches. The smaller can, nested inside the larger can, is where you build the fire. Ventilation holes at the bottom of the larger, outer, can line up with ventilation holes at the bottom of the smaller, inner, can. The smaller can also has a row of ventilation holes near the top; this is where additional air is injected so to make rising gases can burn. If you look carefully at this photo of the stove I made, you can see the upper ventilation holes, with jets of flame coming out where the injected air is igniting rising gases.

Upper ventilation holes in the stove
Upper ventilation holes in the lit stove

I completed the basic stove in about an hour (including the time it took to eat the pears). The stove is reasonably practical, particularly for car campers or ordinary backpackers (i.e., not those crazy ultralight backpackers). And the stove is environmentally responsible: it’s made with recyclable materials, and it burns biomass instead of fossil fuels like white gas, butane, or propane. Plus, since it’s homemade, it doesn’t feed consumer consumption; and consumerism is a major contributing cause to the pending global environmental disaster.

I still have to make a potholder, to keep the cooking pot a couple of inches above the flames, where the greatest heat should be — but I have to wait until I eat another can of pears. Once I get the potholder made, I’ll post a photo showing something cooking on the stove (and I’ll add a sketch showing how to make one).