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In what is becoming known as the “Earth Day Blowout,” a premier oil rig exploded and plummeted to the bottom of the ocean last week, ultimately sinking on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day.

Deepwater Horizon

Crews working to put out the flames after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

The BP-owned Deepwater Horizon was staffed with over 100 employees, 11 of whom are still missing (and presumed dead) with several others still hospitalized.  Like the coal mining accident earlier this month, this Gulf of Mexico oil spill is bringing to light the damages done by accidents on oil rigs.  From 2001 to 2007, there were over 1,400 accidents involving oil rigs.  In these accidents, 41 people died and 302 were injured.  Investigations into these previous accidents show that human error generally accounts for causation of problems.  That’s to be expected; after all, we’re only human, right?  But the question remains: do we want to continue risking the lives of workers and the integrity of our environment to perpetuate offshore drilling?

Oil spill

The oil from the Deepwater Horizon making its way towards the US coastline.

Right now, the oil spill is leaking at the rate of 42,000 gallons per day from a pipe 5,000 feet below the surface.  The spill covers an area of 1,800 square miles –  larger than the entire state of Rhode Island.  Originally, the slick of oil on the ocean’s surface measured a mere two miles by eight miles.  BP sent 32 vessels to try to contain the spill before it hits the Gulf Coast, where it has the potential to damage an already fragile Louisiana coastline.

This is not a concern to take lightly.  We’ve seen in the past that oil spills can have devastating effects.  For example, look at the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989.  That accident spewed 10.8 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound, covering 1,300 square miles.  Wildlife are still feeling the effects of that accident today.   At the time, thousands of animals perished.  Birds became soaked in oil and were unable to fly to safety.  Some otters, covered in oil, froze to death in the Arctic waters, while others tried to lick the oil off their fur and poisoned themselves to death.  Two short years later, the largest oil spill in history occurred: the Gulf War oil spill, which dumped up to 462 million gallons of oil into the Persian Gulf, covering an area 42 miles wide by 101 miles long.

Covered in oilAre we okay with this?  Are we okay with painful accidents like the Deepwater Horizon and others in the fossil fuel world, such as the loss of 29 miners in a West Virginia coal mine explosion earlier this month?  What price are we willing to pay to fuel our dependence on fossil fuels?  Accidents like these are sad and heart-wrenching.  But hopefully, they spark new ways of thinking about energy and ways of obtaining it.  There are more options and better options.  We have to pay for renewables and alternatives, and it’s up to us to decide what is more valuable: our people and our environment or cheap fuel.

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Forty years ago today, a Wisconsin politician declared a day to honor those without a voice.  He wasn’t working to give rights to unborn fetuses or the disabled or the elderly.  He was working for nature.

I know I might lose some of you car buffs right there.  “Nature,” you might scoff.  “That’s the stuff I mow down every Wednesday in the summertime.  That’s what hides its face when I fly by in my convertible.  That’s what I dominate.”  And all that might be true.

But hear this.

Woods

Nature is also what gives you your favorite pets, the food on your plate, the rain to make that godforsaken grass grow.  It gives us the breathtaking sunsets, the jaw-dropping mountains, the intricacies of a single cell.  It has the power to cause volcanic eruptions and stop air traffic for a week, to send devastating hurricanes crashing to our shores, to destroy whole towns with a single tornado.  And right now, we are hurting nature in more ways than we can count, and you can bet our actions won’t come without consequences.

This isn’t about the doom and gloom, although there’s plenty of that if you look.  It’s about having the opportunity to make a difference in some way…in your way.  I can’t design a better battery or manufacture solar panels.  But I can write and help people to know about the amazing environmental efforts going on largely behind closed doors.  Bring the skills you have to the table and use them in a positive, important way.  There are limitless opportunities out there for all skills and all people.  We are living in an era of unheard of technological and societal advances and right now is the time to make a huge difference.  How tremendously exciting is that?

Nature

At the end of the day, it’s about looking outside yourself, making decisions you can stand behind, and becoming the best version of you possible.  Nobody can control your actions but you and really, actions are what we’re after.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and sometimes, that seems like what we’re doing.  So follow the example of Gaylord Nelson or Aldo Leopold or the SMV team.  It’s not about doing what everyone else is doing or what’s fashionable.  It’s about doing what’s right.

Last weekend, the MSOE Supermileage Vehicle team had some big, important work to do: laying out the carbon fiber for the lower half of the body and the car frame (the piece the driver half sits/half lays on).  I know there are some pretty complex steps involved, so I’ll leave the explaining to the rest of the team (you can expect a video of the process soon!).  But essentially, three layers of carbon fiber are glued together and put in a giant vacuum sealer to cure for about four or five days.  And then, voila!  A gorgeous carbon fiber body!

Bottom body

There it is - the bottom of the body.

Not everyone was helping out with the body, though.  About half of the team was in the machine shop, working hard on the steering and other mechanical components of the vehicle.  I got a chance to speak with most of the team members; you can look forward to a video about the team in the future, too.

Frame

Everything is moving right along.

Frame

Not your typical driver's seat, huh?

But as the team was sitting around answering all my questions, something interesting came up.  One of the guys said he hoped people realize just how much time was put into this project.  Sven, team president, disagreed.

“Our time doesn’t matter to anyone except us,” Sven said.  “We know how much time we put in, but everyone else will just care about the finished product.”

His comment got me thinking.  Sven’s probably right; no one will care about the thousands of collective hours he and his teammates have put into this car (even though I definitely think they shoul).  But I don’t think that problem is singular to the MSOE SMV.  I think people tend to care more about the finished product and its attributes or flaws without realizing the labor and brainpower behind it.  Whether the product is a new car or a new computer or an innovative piece of technology, everything takes work.  Even the poor ideas or inventions often require copious amounts of effort.

I think if we can understand this, not just about SMVs but about everything new and different, we might be a little more accepting, a little more understanding.  Nothing happens overnight.  So if you want better cars, better computers, better anythings, acknowledge the work.  Acknowledge that people are trying and probably doing the best they can.  Do the best you can.  And put in the work, whatever else you do.

It’s pretty easy to be pessimistic about the way things are right now.  Looking ahead to the future, there doesn’t seem to be any major issue facing our country that has an easy solution.  Think about it: the economy, foreign affairs, the health of our citizens, the environment, politics.  We’ve got some big problems, and it’s pretty easy to get disheartened.

But there’s an upside (or at least I have to think there’s an upside – life would be way too depressing otherwise).    Now is an exciting time to be working on this stuff.  There is no clear answer, which means there is hopefully room for innovative, off-the-wall ideas.  I mean, you’ve seen those SMVs.  None of them will be heading out on the roadways anytime soon!  But they can help us change the rulebook we play by.

Early computer

Look familiar? As one of the first computers, probably not. But look where the computer is today!

(Speaking of those hardworking SMVers, the fiberglass molds came out beautifully and they’ll be working on laying out the carbon fiber this weekend.  I should be heading down there to get a full report, so stay tuned!)

It’s really easy to shoot down new ideas when we first hear them.  I do it myself all the time, even if I try not to.  Believing in something, trusting in something means you have to put yourself out there.  You’re opening yourself up to failure and disappointment and probably to mockery if you put your faith in something that didn’t work.  Yet this is the way forward.  It’s murky and messy with no guarantees, but think about how far we’ve come in the last hundred years and what might be possible in the next century if we can ignore the chips on our shoulders and take a chance on something that seems insane.  You’ll probably get burned and lord knows there will be a ton of people ready to pick your bones, but do it anyways, because even if you never see something tangible, even if it seems impossible, one day you’ll cross the line from unimaginable to reality.

And then it will all have been worth it.

Don’t take the simple path.  We all you’re better than that.

Keeping that in mind, we’re going to delve into some pretty unorthodox technologies in the next few days.  Don’t shut it out right away.  Just because things have been done one way for as long as you’ve known them doesn’t mean anything.Hope quote

I guess I have a thing with ice.  I put it in my water, I slip on it constantly during Wisconsin winters, but most importantly, I don’t want it to melt, at least not when it shouldn’t.  I talked about this the other day with those creepy maps showing what landmasses could go underwater if the Antarctic or Greenland ice melts like it’s supposed to due to climate change.

Greenland ice melt

I'm not sure if I'd like to go rafting on this melting ice sheet in Greenland...

As if that weren’t enough to keep you up at night, there’s more trouble up North now, too.  This article in the Huffington Post will tell you all about the rapid changes going on in the Arctic circle.  Here are some key points:

  • The Northwest passage’s 2007 opening unleashed unanticipated currents into the oceans, sending warm water coursing around the globe.
  • Major ice melts in Greenland, dumping water into the oceans.
  • Greenland’s melting causes the glaciers to essentially play massive slip’n’slide games with each other, resulting in ice quakes that register from three to five on the Richter scale.  More and more ice quakes are reported each year.
  • Ice quakes have their own fun consequences: they take pressure off the earth’s crust, causing shifts in tectonic plates and earthquakes, possibly worldwide.

Basically, this sucks.  We’ve got global environmental disasters, rising ocean levels, and loss of native wildlife in affected areas.

But the article brings up a good point: these changes might produce even more climate refugees, or people forced out of their homelands due to climate change.

Carteret Island

Massive flooding on the Carteret Islands is causing evacuation and relocation of its citizens. The islands are expected to be uninhabitable by 2015.

I think it’s easy for us to ignore or remain apathetic about others affected by climate change.  It’s not us, and we have a tendency to care about the issues directly impacting us at the current moment.  Take a look at this poll, which says that Americans are least concerned about the environment as they have been in the past twenty years.

Of course, as soon as it affects our citizens, we’ll be all over climate change and the environment.

So even if your concerns are purely selfish; even if you don’t give a crap what happens to people of other countries or animals or flora; even if you think this is all a massive hoax; please know that you cannot remain unaffected in your own little bubble for very long.  The climate refugees might move in next door.  The price of gas might rise tremendously.  You might have to cancel that trip to Florida when the state goes under.  An earthquake might shake up your town.

There’s an easier way, of course, if you can find a way to think about the environment and the rest of your worries all at the same time.  Just an idea.

As humans, we tend not to think about things until they’re thrown in our faces, figuratively speaking.  We don’t think about car accidents until we get rear-ended; maybe then we put down the cell phones and think more about the road.  We don’t think about cancer until our grandma is diagnosed; maybe then we up our antioxidant intake and slather on the sunscreen.  And here in Wisconsin, we usually don’t think much about our air quality.  We have good, clean air, and we leave the smog alerts for those big cities.

But now we too have to think about the particulate matter spewing out our tailpipes.  Over fifty counties in Wisconsin were under an air quality alert on Monday.  More or less, that means there was so much smog or particle pollution that it was unhealthy to breathe too much of it, especially if you have any heart or lung problems.  The day was foggy and thick, much like the night of the Airplane! landing (the fog is growing thicker…and Leon is growing larger!  Go see the movie if you haven’t, please!).  Except when the DNR is telling children to stay inside, it’s not so funny.

Like I said, this is Wisconsin.  Air pollution isn’t supposed to happen here.  But it does, and it will continue to.  Eventually, we’re going to run out of non-polluted places to go to, and then what?

They’re out to get you.  Okay, maybe not so much, but is this really so far-fetched?  And would it be such a bad thing?

Up next: a look at five biofuels.

Here is the question I am asking: can we, as people, as a society, change?

I know, I know.  It’s a broad, ambiguous question that doesn’t really seem to relate to cars.  But bear with me for a moment.

Climate change

Something is changing...

A a human being, you are not the same person you were as a child.  You’ve had new experiences, met different people, gone to places away from home.  But have all these things altered who you are?  Do you have new values, new attitudes, new beliefs?  Do you act in a different way now than you did five years ago?

This leads to a single question: can we change?  Can we change our ideas about the environment to accept new research and new understandings of how we interact with the world around us?  Can we change our attitudes and behavior in reaction to this information?

Here’s the thing.  Sometimes, our intentions don’t matter.  Even if we have positive feelings about the earth and our quality of life, they don’t mean anything if our actions don’t reflect our feelings.  You can care all you

Winston Churchill quote

I just like Winston Churchill, okay? Who cares if it's relevant! Just think about it for a minute...

want about pollution and carbon emissions, but the pick-up truck you’re driving won’t reflect your fluffy emotions when it spits out exhaust.  Your electric bill won’t reflect your desire to turn the lights out.  Your septic system won’t know that you didn’t mean to take a twenty-minute shower.  It’s all inthe actions.  Intentions are great; they’re a start to something better.  But to make a difference, you have to do more.

You have to change, whatever that  means for you.  Pretty soon I don’t think it will be an option.   Less dreaming, more doing.  You know what I’m talking about.

So I’m having a bit of a conflict of interest.  I’m going to try to be as honest as possible with you, and there’s something you have to know about me.

I love fast cars.  I don’t personally own one (90 mph is way faster than my car should ever be traveling), but I think fast cars are pretty fun.  Some of my favorite car memories were in a zippy little silver BMW Z3.

BMW Z3

Ahh, the memories...

I’m not the most aggressive driver, but I still think cruising around in a sporty car is a great time.  I don’t even mind riding with wild drivers, so long as they keep me (somewhat) safe.  I can understand the allure of speed, that thrill of flying on land.

Unfortunately, that kind of driving is not really helpful to the environment.  It’s inefficient, costly, and carbon-emitting.  In the end, it doesn’t save a ton of time and the actual costs probably outweigh the benefits.

But it’s a damn good time.

So where do we draw the line?  Is it still okay to buy and drive beautiful, speedy cars, even if they’re not so great for the rest of the world?  Or should we save them for special occasions?  Have we gotten to the point where the car you drive shouldn’t really be a status symbol anymore?  Is there a happy medium where driving can still be enjoyed without completely sacrificing environmental-friendliness?

Jalopy

Okay, maybe this isn't my car exactly...

Obviously, I have questions, not answers.  Maybe you can help me out.  I know what I should do, mostly because it’s the only thing I can do – keep driving my nonathletic old jalopy.

I guess that conclusion’s not overly useful to anyone.

Just something to think about…

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