Too clever by half: is technology killing the planet?

Technology Map - Tutornet
Image by steven w via Flickr

Technology is at once a hugely constructive and a hugely destructive force, and for the most part we have been content to ignore the latter while enjoying the benefits of the former. But, suggests Ian Michler, it’s high time that we begin to think seriously – and innovatively – about tempering its damaging effects. From ‘The Ecologist’.

In the course of my research for an article entitled, ‘The end of the line?’, one factor cropped up again and again: the role technology has played in our destruction of the oceans. In essence, global fishing fleets are using such advanced equipment that without the most stringent of controls, they will completely empty every marine ecosystem on earth. And it’s not only the oceans. The same applies to almost every facet of humankind’s development over the past century or more. As much as any other contributing factor, technology is responsible for the predicament our planet finds itself in. But say that out loud and most people will baulk at the idea. To admit the truth of it would mean having to change the way we think, behave and, ultimately, live. This is a very uncomfortable message for most of the middle and upper economic classes around the world.

Let’s look at some of the high-tech developments that we take for granted, like the combustion engine, super-tankers, plastic products, splitting the atom, deep mining techniques, drug manufacture and space travel. When they arrived on the scene they were all major advances, technologies that would make our lives easier and more successful. And, if we ignore everything but the direct impact they have had on individual lives, mostly they have done that. As time has passed, though, we now know that when viewed collectively as the primary components of our means of production and consumption – in other words, our global footprint – their impact on the planet has been hugely significant and ultimately negative.

Driven by the notion that a constantly increasing rate of economic growth is the overriding marker of a successful society, developing or purchasing more  advanced technologies has become fundamental to fulfilling this aim. And with the array of new tools at our disposal, we have been able to reach further, deeper and higher into every imaginable ecosystem and exploit more effectively every possible resource. History indicates that most engineers or scientists side with the vested interests of the day, and it is also apparent that each generation of innovators has failed to consider the contraindications or long-term consequences of their technologies. Spare a thought for the generation 50 years hence and what it may have to deal with because of today’s scientists who are forging ahead with genetic engineering. After well over a century of this developmental model, it is now difficult to argue that the world’s natural systems – so vital for our survival – are not faltering.


Earthquake Updates

Sanitation concerns in post-quake Christchurch

Wendy Zukerman, Australasia reporter

In the New Zealand city of Christchurch authorities are scrambling to restore water supplies and sewage systems which were severely damaged by last week’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake.

Canterbury medical officer of health Alistair Humphrey told New Zealand Doctor that 40 per cent of Christchurch doesn’t have running water and the entire city’s water supply is “compromised”.


(Image: Jamie Ball/Rex Features)

Isolated cases of measles and gastroenteritis have been reported. According to Humphrey the gastro cases were likely to have been water-borne and the result of people brushing their teeth with contaminated water – rather than spread through human contact.

But, a Canterbury District Health Board spokeswoman told the New Zealand Herald: “There is an underlying potential for there to be a measles outbreak. There’s a chance of an outbreak of gastro diseases.”

Many residents are living in camps, where the poor sanitation and cramped living conditions are perfect for disease outbreaks.

On Friday, Cowles Stadium welfare centre – which provided accommodation for Christchurch earthquake evacuees – was forced to close because its water and sewage services were not considered reliable.

Radio New Zealand reported that the Christchurch City Council was “worried about disease” at the stadium, and said it could not “afford an outbreak of diarrhoea.”

All citizens are being encouraged to boil their water before consuming it.

At 12.51 pm local time today – precisely one week from when the earthquake struck, burying as many as 200 people – the city stood silent for 2 minutes.

Mental health is seen as a growing concern in the city, too. A doctor from a nearby hospital that has been helping patients told the New Zealand Herald, “We had walking wounded coming in initially on Tuesday – people with cuts, minor injuries and things like that. We are starting to get more people with shock coming in and I expect that to increase.”

The tectonic forces that are shredding New Zealand

The week of 22 February the New Zealand city of Christchurch felt the force of a 6.3-magnitude earthquake. The quake came just five months after an even larger one struck 40 kilometres west of Christchurch, near the town of Darfield. In fact New Zealand experiences around 14,000 tremors each year, although most are too small to be felt. They are a sign of the tectonic processes that are gradually shredding the country.

Why is New Zealand so prone to earthquakes?
Regions that lie close to a boundary between tectonic plates tend to feel more quakes than areas in the middle of a plate. New Zealand may have a total land area of just 27,000 square kilometres, but that area happens to coincide with the margin between the Pacific and Australian plates, leaving parts of the island very seismically active.

Which areas are most vulnerable?
Large areas of both North and South Islands have felt earthquakes with a magnitude greater than 5 within the past 200 years. This is because of New Zealand’s unique tectonic regime: despite its small size, the country feels the impact of three distinct regions of tectonic activity.

The relatively low-density continental crust of the North Island, which sits on the Australian plate, is forcing the dense oceanic crust on the Pacific plate beneath it in a process called subduction. This creates a so-called destructive plate margin that is nibbling away at the Pacific plate. Earthquakes are common where a subducting plate grinds against the underside of an overriding plate.

Something similar is occurring to the south-west of South Island. But here the sliver of continental crust lies on the Pacific plate, and it is the Australian plate that is being destroyed through subduction.

In between, the continental crust on the Pacific and Australian plates slide past one another on South Island, creating a conservative plate margin where crust is neither created nor destroyed. This area is still prone to earthquakes, most notably along the Alpine fault. Further away from these fault zones the ground is generally more quiescent. Christchurch is over 100 kilometres from the Alpine fault.

So what caused the Christchurch quake?
It was caused by a new fault – or, to be more precise, a previously unrecognised fault.

“The fault is likely to have existed previously – and possibly produced earthquakes before – but they have not ruptured recently, in a geological sense,” says John Townend at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. The unrecognised fault appears to be an offshoot from the Alpine fault. Unfortunately for the residents of Christchurch, that offshoot passes very near South Island’s largest city.

Are more quakes on the fault likely?
Earthquake prediction is an inexact science, despite tantalising evidence thatearly warning systems may be possible in some cases. But some seismologists are cautiously optimistic.

“An earthquake of this magnitude does a good job of releasing stress,” says Gary Gibson, a seismologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Townend agrees: “My interpretation of what we are seeing near Christchurch is temporary, albeit harrowing, activity in what is generally a relatively low-seismicity part of the broad plate boundary.”

What’s the long-term prognosis for New Zealand?
Even if Christchurch dodges major seismic activity in the near future, tectonic forces will continue to act on New Zealand. Hamish Campbell at the research consultancy GNS Science in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, says it’s “very unlikely” that the newly recognised fault will have any serious effect on the country’s geography, but activity on the Alpine fault may well do so.

The rocks on either side of the Alpine fault are grinding past each other quickly – at around 30 millimetres per year. The southern part of South Island has moved at least 480 kilometres relative to the northern part within the past 25 million years. That rate of movement is “colossal”, says Campbell – and not far off the displacement seen on the world-famous San Andreas fault in California, which is itself a conservative plate margin.

Fast forward several million years and New Zealand will continue to twist and turn. The activity that is already shredding the country will ultimately see South Island “split in two along the Alpine boundary”, says Campbell. The town of Kaikoura would be at the northern tip of one island, with Greymouth at the southern tip of the other, he predicts.


Earthquake: The unknown fault that caught out Christchurch


NEW ZEALAND is riddled with major active faults, but it seems the fatal 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Christchurch this week was caused by one that was not on the list.

“Christchurch has never been identified as a major earthquake zone, because no one knew this fault ran beneath,” says Roger Musson, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

The Alpine fault that runs along the mountainous spine of South Island marks the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates. It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from a previously unknown fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault.

It first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quake shook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Seismologists believe the latest quake resulted from …

Full article

Today’s fatal earthquake near Christchurch in New Zealand confirms that a country already riddled with major fault lines has gained another one, say seismologists.

“Christchurch has never been identified as a major earthquake zone, because no one knew this fault ran beneath,” says Roger Musson, a seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh.

New Zealand experiences thousands of earthquakes each year, because it lies on the boundary between the Pacific and the Australian tectonic plates. To the north-east, the Pacific plate is subducting beneath New Zealand’s North Island, and to the south-west, the Australian plate is subducting beneath the South Island. Between these two subduction zones lies theAlpine fault, running along the mountainous spine of the South Island.

It now appears likely that the Christchurch quake resulted from activity on a fault extending directly eastward from the Alpine fault that remained unknown until last year, says Musson.

The new fault first came to light last September when a stronger but less calamitous quakeshook Darfield, 40 kilometres west of Christchurch. Musson says the latest quake probably resulted from an eastward continuation of activity on the same fault. “It has probably not moved for tens of thousands of years, so lots of strain built up,” says Musson.

Christchurch was understandably unprepared for activity on a fault that is only now making its presence known. But two factors made today’s damage worse. The quake was just 5 kilometres down, limiting the amount of energy it dissipated before reaching Christchurch from its epicentre just 10 kilometres away. Also, the rock on either side of the fault accelerated almost three times as fast as in a typical quake, says Musson, so the shaking was extra violent – and significantly greater than the levels Christchurch’s structures have been designed to withstand



China plan aims to reduce pollution… Will it succeed?

BEIJING — China’s leaders unwrapped a new five-year economic blueprint on Saturday that set ambitious goals to raise ordinary people’s incomes, rein in pollution and energy use, and build advanced-science industries in fields like biotechnology and environmental protection.

After five years of scorching growth, averaging 11.2 percent a year, the plan projected an average 7 percent annual rise in the gross domestic product through 2015. The government also pledged a war on inflation, officially pegged at 4.9 percent in January but believed by experts to be considerably higher.

The moves are crucial to shifting China’s economic base away from factory exports toward one rooted in demand for goods and services by increasingly affluent consumers. And that is crucial to the Communist Party’s central aim: keeping the allegiance of a society that wants a bigger share of the nation’s prosperity.

The new plan was the centerpiece of an annual report on the government’s work that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao presented on Saturday to the National People’s Congress, China’s quasi-legislature. Past reports have set broadly similar targets for China’s development, which the report frankly acknowledged had not always been met.

“We are keenly aware that we still have a serious problem in that our development is not yet well-balanced, coordinated or sustainable,” the report said. Among the shortcomings it cited were a widening gap between the rich and poor, an “irrational industrial structure,” sharply rising land and housing prices, and illegal seizures of people’s land and the demolition of their homes by state-backed developers.

Some main economic goals may be especially hard to attain.

Mr. Wen set an 8 percent target for gross domestic product growth this year, implying slower growth in succeeding years. But many economists believe the economy will grow faster, just as growth in 2010 exceeded the government’s target. Soaring land and home prices have also proved difficult to curb.

But the report claimed impressive gains on other important fronts that are at the head of plans for the next five years, including a 19.1 percent cut in the amount of energy used per unit of economic growth, a rapidly expanding service economy and a boom in the high-technology sector. The government opened a national nanotechnology research center and is building 50 engineering centers, 32 national engineering laboratories and 56 other labs focusing on technologies like digital television and high-speed Internet, the report said.

Software sales, integrated circuit production and other advanced products like microcomputers all logged double-digit increases last year.

In the next five years, raising standards of living appears to be perhaps the government’s main priority.

The government pledged to keep prices “basically stable” through 2015, limiting inflation to 4 percent this year, and to raise household income by an annual average of 7 percent, roughly in line with economic growth.

That would break from the past 20 years, in which the growth of ordinary workers’ income has regularly lagged behind the growth in gross domestic product, and consumer spending as a share of the economy has dropped to a record low.

The report called expanding domestic demand “a long-term strategic principle” and pledged to increase subsidies to low-income households, extend broadband Internet to rural areas and smaller cities, and expand retail sectors like chain stores and online commerce.

Retail sales of consumer goods should grow 16 percent in 2011 alone, it stated.

Environmental protection, energy conservation and technology also are allotted ambitious goals: in technology, for example, laying a million kilometers, or 621,000 miles, of new fiber optic cable; and adding 35 million new broadband internet ports, to a total of 223 million; and drafting a plan to support emerging high-technology industries.

The report pledges to further reduce energy consumption per unit of G.D.P. by 16 percent, and carbon dioxide emissions per unit by 17 percent. And for the first time, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported, the government will place a cap on total energy use, limiting consumption to the equivalent of four billion tons of coal by 2015.

New environmentally friendly search engine launched

Nonprofit organization announced on March 2 the launch of, a new ‘environmentally friendlysearch engine.

Launched by, which supports third-party renewable energy and reforestation projects around the world, the free online search engine is powered by Bing and hosts sponsored advertisements through Yahoo!.

The revenue generated by these advertisements is then donated by to environmental projects around the world, including the Haiti Reforestation Initiative, and the India Mangrove Project. 

The green nature of the search engine does not appear to change results in any way; for instance typing “BP” into produces the energy company’s homepage as the top result rather than information regarding the recent oil spill in which it was involved – the same results that are returned on

‘Green’ search engines have been in existence for several years and are growing in popularity; perhaps one of the biggest is the Google-powered which buys carbon offsets to make searches carbon neutral.  

Search engine claims to generate 90 percent of its energy usage from wind energy and the Yahoo! powered allows users to choose one of the participating charities – including many dedicated to the environment – to sponsor with their searches; US$0.01 is then donated to the charity of the user’s choice. 

Other business models of ‘green’ search engines include which, rather than donating profits, filters results and only returns hits from those from sites that are environmentally friendly or promote a green cause; and which searches for environmentally friendly products.


Climate change challenge – the next crucial step….

The Big Question : From Mexico, to South Africa – ‘Can humanity afford NOT to take a leap of faith?’

From China Daily today

Cancun progress on second commitment period and global emission cuts should be furthered at Durban

Climate change is one of the issues of crucial importance to the interests of human beings and the national development of every country. It requires the collaborative efforts of all countries.

Thanks to the joint efforts of all parties, the Cancun Agreements were adopted at Cancun, Mexico, in December last year. They are of significant importance to furthering mutual understanding and advancing the negotiating process.

China’s contribution to the Cancun Conference

The Copenhagen Conference in 2009 caused a certain amount of skepticism among parties about the effectiveness of the multilateral mechanism under the United Nations framework. Under such circumstances, along with other developing countries, China strongly supported the multilateral negotiation mechanism of the United Nations by pressing for more ad hoc working group meetings in 2010, in order to achieve concrete progress and practical results in Cancun, as well as guaranteeing the negotiations got back on track.

In the meantime, by exchanging opinions with all parties on important issues at the Cancun Conference, China enhanced mutual understanding with all parties, so as to overcome divergences and boost mutual trust. China reinforced coordination and cooperation among developing countries through BASIC and the “Group of 77 and China“, and had constructive dialogues with developed countries to enhance mutual confidence. This paved the way for success in Cancun.

In communications with the Mexican Presidency of COP-16/CMP6, China put forward constructive proposals and extended its full support. China hosted the last climate change conference before the Cancun Conference in Tianjin last October. The Tianjin Conference succeeded in building a solid foundation for a successful Cancun Conference by creating a consensus “seeking a set of balanced outcomes from elements within and between the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol“.

China also carried out a series of practical actions to accomplish the targets of energy-saving and emission reductions set up for the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). During this period, China reduced its energy consumption per unit of GDP by 19.06 percent on the 2005 levels, which is equivalent to reducing 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) attaches even more strategic importance to the work of addressing climate change and green low-carbon development. The international community has recognized China’s efforts in tackling climate change, which has bolstered the confidence of all parties in their future cooperation to combat climate change.

During the Cancun Conference, the Chinese delegation was fully engaged in the negotiations, adhering to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and endeavored to ensure openness, transparency and inclusiveness. On important issues, such as long-term global goals, the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, international consultation and analysis of mitigation actions by developing countries, as well as emission reduction commitments by developed countries, China, with its flexibility, communicated with all parties to formulate a plan that could be accepted by all and that protects the interests of developing countries.

The Government of Mexico and Mexican President Felipe Calderon have publicly appreciated China’s support and contribution to the Cancun Conference many times, and this has been echoed by the wider international community.

International negotiations on climate change: an arduous task

The COP17/CMP7 will be held in Durban, South Africa, at the end of this year. No doubt the talks will be arduous, but participants should seek to translate the challenges into opportunities in order to preserve the current achievements and reach a new consensus.

The Durban Conference should strictly follow the mandate of the Bali Road Map, carry out the Cancun Agreements, and enhance implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol to achieve a comprehensive and balanced outcome by accomplishing the following four major tasks:

First, the Durban Conference should determine deeper quantified emission reduction targets for developed countries in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto Protocol is one of two negotiating tracks, its first commitment period ends in 2012. The Cancun Agreements require that there is no gap between the first and the second commitment periods of the Kyoto Protocol, thus, the Durban Conference should fix the targets as soon as possible. This is the most urgent task of the Durban Conference.

The Kyoto Protocol is an integral part of the legal framework for the international community to address climate change. Having a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is a firm demand by developing countries and is a continuation of the existing legal framework and political trust among and between developed and developing countries.

In the meantime, based on the Cancun Agreements, developed countries should raise the level of their emission reduction commitments. Only if developed countries conduct ambitious mid-term emission reductions, can the possibility of limiting global warming to a 2 degrees Celsius rise in global temperature be realized. Moreover, only if the emission reduction targets of developed countries in the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol be determined, can the emission reduction targets of developed countries that are not parties to the Kyoto Protocol be compared.

Second, the Durban Conference shall also determine the emission reduction targets of developed countries that are not parties to the Kyoto Protocol comparable with the commitments of other developed countries, and the autonomous mitigation actions of developing countries.

In accordance with the mandate of the Bali Road Map, developed countries that are parties to the Kyoto Protocol shall undertake emission reduction targets under the Kyoto Protocol, while developed countries that are not parties to the Kyoto Protocol shall undertake comparable emission reduction targets under the Convention. The comparability of emission reduction efforts shall include comparability in nature, magnitude and compliance.

Developing countries should, in the context of sustainable development, actively carry out mitigation actions with the financial and technological support from developed countries. Many developing countries have set up targets for their autonomous emission reduction actions. As long as developed countries carry out international legally binding emission reduction targets by 2020, in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, we can, in a proper legal form, define the mitigation actions of developing countries and recognize their efforts to reduce emissions.

Third, we should implement the relevant financial and technology transfer arrangements.

Most developing countries have taken active actions to address climate change. However, the developed countries are lagging far behind in providing effective financial and technological support to developing countries. Only by establishing effective mechanisms, and providing adequate financial and technological support, can developing countries effectively implement mitigation actions, and make a positive contribution to holding the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius as a long-term global goal.

Fourth, we need to further elaborate on the MRV (measurable, reportable and verifiable) and transparency related issues that were included in the Cancun Agreements.

The Cancun Agreements have clearly defined the principles for MRV and transparency. At the upcoming Durban Conference, China will support detailed arrangements for the MRVs of emission reduction commitments for developed countries, as well as financial and technology support to developing countries from developed countries. Such arrangements shall fully reflect the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities between developing and developed countries.

The international negotiations on climate change are a long-term and arduous task. The Cancun Conference showed that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol, as a United Nations multilateral process, are still full of vigor and play an irreplaceable role after 20 years of negotiations. So long as each of our countries takes the interests of human beings as the priority, shows its spirit in cooperation and compromise and unswervingly adheres to the basic framework and principles of the Convention and its Kyoto Protocol, we can further the process of international cooperation on climate change.

China has been, is, and will always be, a constructive force advancing international negotiations on climate change. China will work with all parties to make active efforts to achieve a positive outcome at the Durban Conference.

The author is vice-minister of the National Development and Reform Commission.

Conference of Parties

Christchurch time capsules provide flicker of hope


From The Independent

As New Zealanders observed two minutes’ silence in memory of those killed in last week’s Christchurch earthquake, rescue workers made a remarkable discovery among the rubble: two time capsules from up to 144 years ago.

A metal cylinder and a bottle containing rolled-up parchment were found beneath the plinth of a statue of Christchurch‘s Irish founder, John Robert Godley, which toppled during the magnitude 6.3 quake.

The city’s Mayor, Bob Parker, said the parchment appeared to bear a message expressing the vision of Godley and his contemporaries for the city.

With the final death toll expected to reach about 240, and one-third of Christchurch’s buildings facing demolition, Mr Parker described the discovery of the capsules in the main square, near the cathedral, as “a miracle”. He said: “It seems almost providential that they have come to light now, to provide the inspiration we need in this most difficult time.”

The bottle and cylinder were unearthed shortly before the nation halted at 12.51pm, exactly a week after the quake struck. Throughout the country, flags were lowered to half-mast, muffled church bells pealed and groups of people gathered outside to bow their heads.

In Christchurch itself, jackhammers fell quiet and hundreds of rescue workers paused, turning their dusty faces to the ground or the sky. Traffic stopped, and friends and neighbours embraced. Mike Cochrane got out of his car at one of the city’s busiest intersections and observed the two minutes’ silence under a tree. “It’s my home, and it hurts so much to see it this way,” he said.

In the capital, Wellington, which yesterday experienced its own minor earthquake, a traditional Maori lament rang out over the parliament building.

In central Christchurch, the Prime Minister, John Key – who had urged New Zealanders to join together for people “enduring tragedy beyond what most of us can imagine” – led a tribute in front of a collection of bricks from the worst-hit sites, crossed with ferns, the national emblem.

With hopes of finding any more survivors having evaporated, efforts are now focused on retrieving the dead. By last night 155 bodies had been pulled from the wreckage of New Zealand’s second-worst natural disaster, after an earthquake that killed 256 people in Napier in 1931.

But even as Christchurch residents grieved, they were asking why so many had died, particularly in the worst-affected Canterbury Television (CTV) and Pyne Gould Guinness buildings.

Mr Key, who has ordered a commission of inquiry, said there were legitimate questions about why office blocks had collapsed in a place with supposedly quake-proof building standards, and six months after a previous big tremor.

“We need to get answers about why those buildings failed, if there was something unique about them,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation television.

Mr Key noted that both blocks were built before substantial changes were made to the New Zealand building code in 1976.

The owners of the CTV building – where scores of English-language students died – said a detailed structural engineering report commissioned after September’s quake had found only superficial damage.

The time capsules – believed to have been buried either in 1867, when the statue was put up, or in 1933, when it was returned to its original site after being removed in 1918 – are being examined before being opened in a humidity-controlled environment. Two words – “by” and “erected” – are visible on the document inside the partly smashed bottle.

Noting the timing of the find, exactly a week after the quake, Mr Parker said: “It’s a miracle that these guys found this thing this morning under the statue of a man who was the founder of the city.

“I don’t know what the words are, but I imagine it will tell us of the hopes and aspirations of the people of this city when it was founded. Is there a better time to have that refreshed?”

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