Thoughts filed in: Environment

09
Mar

Where there be no roads

And now for something completely different, here's an interesting question. What terra firma places in the world are completely without roads? Where in the world will you find large areas, in which there are absolutely no official vehicle routes?

A road (of sorts) slowly being extended into the vast nothingness of Siberia.

A road (of sorts) slowly being extended into the vast nothingness of Siberia.

Image source: Favourite picture: Road construction in Siberia – RoadStars.

Naturally, such places also happen to be largely bereft of any other human infrastructure, such as buildings; and to be largely bereft of any human population. These are places where, in general, nothing at all is to be encountered save for sand, ice, and rock. However, that's just coincidental. My only criteria, for the purpose of this article, is a lack of roads.

01
Mar

Five long-distance and long-way-off Australian infrastructure links

Australia. It's a big place. With only a handful of heavily populated areas. And a whole lot of nothing in between.

No, really. Nothing.

No, really. Nothing.

Image source: Australian Outback Buffalo Safaris.

Over the past century or so, much has been achieved in combating the famous Tyranny of Distance that naturally afflicts this land. High-quality road, rail, and air links now traverse the length and breadth of Oz, making journeys between most of her far-flung corners relatively easy.

Nevertheless, there remain a few key missing pieces, in the grand puzzle of a modern, well-connected Australian infrastructure system. This article presents five such missing pieces, that I personally would like to see built in my lifetime. Some of these are already in their early stages of development, while others are pure fantasies that may not even be possible with today's technology and engineering. All of them, however, would provide a new long-distance connection between regions of Australia, where there is presently only an inferior connection in place, or none at all.

11
Oct

Forgotten realms of the Oxus region

In classical antiquity, a number of advanced civilisations flourished in the area that today comprises parts of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan. Through this area runs a river most commonly known by its Persian name, as the Amu Darya. However, in antiquity it was known by its Greek name, as the Oxus (and in the interests of avoiding anachronism, I will be referring to it as the Oxus in this article).

The Oxus region is home to archaeological relics of grand civilisations, most notably of ancient Bactria, but also of Chorasmia, Sogdiana, Margiana, and Hyrcania. However, most of these ruined sites enjoy far less fame, and are far less well-studied, than comparable relics in other parts of the world.

I recently watched an excellent documentary series called Alexander's Lost World, which investigates the history of the Oxus region in-depth, focusing particularly on the areas that Alexander the Great conquered as part of his legendary military campaign. I was blown away by the gorgeous scenery, the vibrant cultural legacy, and the once-majestic ruins that the series featured. But, more than anything, I was surprised and dismayed at the extent to which most of the ruins have been neglected by the modern world – largely due to the region's turbulent history of late.

Ayaz Kala (fortress 2) of Khwarezm (Chorasmia), today desert but in ancient times green and lush.

Ayaz Kala (fortress 2) of Khwarezm (Chorasmia), today desert but in ancient times green and lush.

Image source: Stantastic: Back to Uzbekistan (Khiva).

This article has essentially the same aim as that of the documentary: to shed more light on the ancient cities and fortresses along the Oxus and nearby rivers; to get an impression of the cultures that thrived there in a bygone era; and to explore the climate change and the other forces that have dramatically affected the region between then and now.

14
Mar

Natural disaster risk levels of the world's largest cities

Every now and again, Mother Nature reminds us that despite all of our modern technological and cultural progress, we remain mere mortals, vulnerable as always to her wrath. Human lives and human infrastructure continue to regularly fall victim to natural disasters such as floods, storms, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, and droughts. At times, these catastrophes can even strike indiscriminately at our largest and most heavily-populated cities, including where we least expect them.

This article is a listing and an analysis of the world's largest cities (those with a population exceeding 10 million), and of their natural disaster risk level in a variety of categories. My list includes 23 cities, which represent a combined population of approximately 380 million people. That's roughly 5% of the world's population. Listing and population figures based on Wikipedia's list of metropolitan areas by population.

25
Oct

What are fossil fuels?

Let me begin with a little bit of high school revision. Fossil fuels are composed primarily of carbon and hydrogen. There are basically three types of fossil fuels on Earth: coal, oil, and natural gas. It's common knowledge that fossil fuels are the remains of prehistoric plants and animals. That's why they're called "fossil fuels" (although they're not literally made from prehistoric bones, or at least not in any significant amount). Over a period of millions of years, these organic remains decomposed, and they got buried deep beneath rock and sea beds. A combination of heat and pressure caused the organic material to chemically alter into the fuel resources that we're familiar with today. The fuels became trapped between layers of rock in the Earth's geological structure, thus preserving them and protecting them from the elements up to the present day.

Hang on. Let's stop right there. Fossil fuels are dead plants and animals. And we burn them in order to produce the energy that powers most of our modern world (86% of it, to be precise). In other words, modern human civilisation depends (almost exclusively) upon the incineration of the final remains of some of the earliest life on Earth. In case there weren't enough practical reasons for us to stop burning fossil fuels, surely that's one hell of a philosophical reason. Wouldn't you say so?

25
Feb

Step one: consume less

Consume less, and all else will follow. It's as simple as that. The citizens of the modern developed world are consuming far above their needs. The planet's resources are being gnawed away, and are diminishing at an alarming rate. The environmental side-effects are catastrophic. And the relentless organism that is our global 21st-century economy rolls ever on, growing fatter every year, leaving ever less pockets of the Earth unscathed, and seemingly unstoppable. But despite the apparent doom and gloom, the solution is ridiculously simple. It all begins with us. Or perhaps I have it all wrong: perhaps that's precisely why it's so complicated.

12
Jan

Robotic garbage sorting

The modern world is producing, purchasing, and disposing of consumer products at an ever-increasing rate. This is hardly news to anyone. Two other facts are also well-known, to anyone who's stopped and thought about them for even five minutes of their life. First, that our planet Earth only has a finite reservoir of raw materials, which is constantly diminishing (thanks to us). And second, that we first-world consumers are throwing the vast majority of our used-up or unwanted products straight into the rubbish bin, with the result that as much as 90% of household waste ends up in landfill. When you think about all that, it's no wonder they call it "waste" .There's really no other word to describe the process of taking billions of tonnes of manufactured goods — a significant portion of which could potentially be re-used — and tossing them into a giant hole in the ground (or into a giant patch in the ocean). I'm sorry, but it's sheer madness! And with each passing day, we are in ever more urgent need of a better solution than the current "global disposal rĂ©gime". Could robots one day help us sort our way out of this mess?

20
Dec

The bicycle-powered home

The exercise bike has been around for decades now, and its popularity is testament to the great ideas that it embodies. Want to watch TV in your living room, but feeling guilty about being inside and growing fat all day? Use an exercise bike, and you can burn up calories while enjoying your favourite on-screen entertainment. Feel like some exercise, but unable to step out your front door due to miserable weather, your sick grandma who needs taking care of, or the growing threat of fundamentalist terrorism in your neighbourhood streets? Use an exercise bike, and you can have the wind in your hair without facing the gale outside. Now, how about adding one more great idea to this collection. Want to contribute to clean energy, but still enjoy all those watt-guzzling appliances in your home? Use an electricity-generating exercise bike, and you can become a part of saving the world, by bridging the gap between your quadriceps and the TV. It may seem like a crazy idea, only within the reach of long-haired pizza-eating DIY enthusiasts; but in fact, pedal power is a perfectly logical idea: one that's available commercially for home use by anyone, as well as one that's been adopted for large and well-publicised community events.

09
Feb

You're part of this world... aren't you?

For the past century, humanity has fallen into the habit of wreaking ever-more serious havoc upon the natural environment, and of conveniently choosing to ignore any and all side-effects that this behaviour may entail. Our daily lives are a crazy black comedy of blindness: each of us is like a blind butcher who carves up his customers, thinking that they're his animal meats; or like a blind man in his house, who thinks he's outside enjoying a breeze, when he's actually feeling the blizzard blowing in through his bedroom window. Finally, however, more and more people are taking off the blindfold, and realising that they do actually exist in this world, and that closing the window isn't the answer to stopping that breeze from getting warmer.

18
Aug

The river without a river-bed

All things in nature are like a river: they flow from their source, down their long-established river-bed, until they reach their destination; they then journey until they once again reach their source, and so the cycle continues. Is humanity a river that has run astray of its river-bed, and that now follows its own course, for better or for worse?