In a season of supreme political silliness, it’s nice to know that some of our best thinkers are focused on solving real problems. Climate change and California’s drought are among the most pressing.
So it was with great joy that I read in the current issue of The New Yorker about California architect and environmentalist David Hertz, whose penchant for repurposing all kinds of building materials is legendary. While residents grouse about the water shortage, Hertz has taken steps to alleviate its worst.
His story, reported by Sheila Marikar in the “Talk of the Town” section — ordinarily about New York doings — appeared under the headline “California Postcard.” I was hooked.
It seems a former client and general contractor, Richard Groden of Florida, has co-invented a machine called Skywater that turns air into filtered, distilled water. Having installed one in his Venice office last fall, Hertz agreed to demo the $18,000 machine to prospective clients while helping to alleviate his neighborhood’s water shortage.
The unit, which looks like an air conditioner, produces as much as 150 gallons of clean water per day from condensation in the atmosphere. (Apparently, this amount relies on the relative humidity.) Hertz has a smaller one in his office kitchen that looks like an ordinary water cooler without the plastic bottle on top, writes Marikar.
Since Hertz doesn’t need all the water produced, he directs the excess into large drums that water more than 80 vegetable boxes where people can collect free produce. The boxes will soon sport signs that say: “Watered by Skywater.” This will help the community understand the plants aren’t watered with tap water, Hertz explains.
The 150-gallon unit shares an outdoor storage space with surfboards and funnels water into a fountain that Hertz installed in an adjacent alley for homeless people to use, according to Marikar’s profile. After years of drought, many fountains and showers near the beach — key water sources for the local homeless population — had been shut off.
The second issue involves the ever-present problem of greenhouse gas emissions. An article in The Washington Post by Darryl Fears cites a study released in May calling methane from agriculture a significant source of pollution. Based on estimates, meat, dairy and crop production emit as much greenhouse gas pollution in the form of methane and nitrous oxide as automobiles emit carbon. Current regulations for agriculture will fall up to five percent short of what’s needed to accomplish global targets agreed to at the Paris climate talks last year.
The U.N.’s current solutions call for more water efficiency in rice production, better forestry practices and lowering food waste. (In this country 70 percent of food is wasted in landfills.) But these are insufficient to meet goals and the study advocates identifying specific breeds of cattle that produce less methane and a dietary inhibitor to reduce the gas by more than 25 percent.
The study, by more than 20 authors representing research institutions from around the world, was published in the journal “Global Change Biology.” Agriculture had a 300 million ton carbon footprint in 2012 from food waste alone, according to a statement by the University of Vermont.
Some innovations promise technical progress, including methane inhibitors that reduce dairy cow emissions by 30 percent without affecting milk yields, breeds of cattle that produce lower methane and varieties of cereal crops that release less nitrous oxide, the statement said.
Industry groups representing agricultural interests hold significant political sway with congress and may be able to overrule these recommendations. That would be a shame. Agriculture should be willing to shoulder its share of limiting greenhouse gas emissions, along with power plants, manufacturing and automobiles, in the interest of combating climate change.
Of course, this being an election year, and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee having publicly stated that he doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change, chances of success are slim.
The Democratic presumptive nominee at least has published a list of what she might do to “make America the world’s clean energy superpower and meet the climate challenge.”
For the record, she was willing to state: Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.
Silliness aside, the upcoming conventions may prove to be less about outrageous statements and more about problem solving. One can only hope serious voices will prevail.