Posted by Big Gav
The Times has a report called "China chokes on a coal-fired boom" which notes that a "toxic cloud of progress can be seen from space". I guess plenty of that cloud started off in a coal mine a few hours drive north of me.
A GREAT coal rush is under way across China on a scale not seen anywhere since the 19th century. Its consequences have been detected half a world away in toxic clouds so big that they can seen from space, drifting across the Pacific to California laden with microscopic particles of chemicals that cause cancer and diseases of the heart and lung.
Nonetheless, the Chinese plan to build no fewer than 500 new coal-fired power stations, adding to some 2,000, most of them unmodernised, that spew smoke, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere.
It is the political fallout of that decision that is likely to challenge the foundations on which Britain and other developed nations have built their climate change policy — even as there are signs that ordinary Chinese citizens are at last rebelling against lives spent in poisonous conditions. Cloaked in swirling mists of soot particles and smoke, cities such as China’s “coal capital” of Datong are entering the coldest period of winter in which demand for power and heating produces the worst pollution.
It is often darkness at noon in Datong, just 160 miles west of Beijing, where vehicles drive in daytime with their headlights on to grope through the miasma. One of the four filthiest towns in China, it stands at the heart of the nation’s coal belt in Shanxi province, a region that mines more coal every year than Britain, Russia and Germany combined. Cancer rates are soaring, child health is a time bomb and the population, many of whom are heavy cigarette smokers, are paying the price for China’s breakneck rush to riches and industrialisation — an estimated 400,000 premature deaths nationwide because of pollution every year.
Now, for the first time, the Chinese media have reported a revolt among the choking citizens of Shanxi. More than 90% of people surveyed by the provincial bureau for environmental protection said economic growth cannot go on at such an appalling cost. That puts them on a collision course with their rulers — the same survey, reported by the China Youth Daily, found that 90% of mayors and local cadres opposed any moves to protect the environment that might slow the economy.
It is not hard to find the reason why. One mine boss in Shanxi named Zhang owns three Rolls-Royces of different colours plus a fleet of other luxury cars for his extended family, according to the Chongqing Morning Post, a daily newspaper.
“While normal people die of polluted air and water, officials use mineral water to wash their vegetables and even their feet,” said Yue Jianguo, an analyst, commenting on the Shanxi survey. People can’t tolerate the pollution any longer but officials only care about their political achievements of hitting targets for growth. If this policy isn’t stopped, China will become a land where there are only graves, no people.”
Coal is king in China. The nation’s hunger for energy appears insatiable. Oil, costing more than $60 (£31) a barrel, is too expensive. Nuclear power is a distant option. Giant hydroelectric projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam, generate a mere fraction of the demand. Wind power and other alternative technologies make a minimum impact.
Sounds like Chinese King Coal isn't that different to King Coal elsewhere.
Erich J Knight left a comment on yesterday's post that I thought I'd promote to the front page as it has a good set of links on Terra Preta (which Tom Konrad included in his list of Top Ten Technologies for an Alternative Energy Future that I included yesterday). I liked Erich's closing paragraph "I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies. That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial society.".
This new soil technology speaks to so many different interests and disciplines that it has not been embraced fully by any. I'm sure you will see both the potential of this system and the convergence needed for it's implementation. The integrated energy strategy offered by Charcoal based Terra Preta Soil technology may provide the only path to sustain our agricultural and fossil fueled power structure without climate degradation, other than nuclear power.
I feel we should push for this Terra Preta Soils CO2 sequestration strategy as not only a global warming remedy for the first world, but to solve fertilization and transport issues for the third world. This information needs to be shared with all the state agricultural programs. The economics look good, and truly great if we had CO2 cap & trade in place. These are processes where you can have your Bio-fuels, Carbon sequestration and triple fertility too. 'Terra Preta' soils have great possibilities to revolutionize sustainable agriculture into a major CO2 sequestration strategy.
I thought, I first read about these soils in "Botany of Desire" or "Guns,Germs,&Steel" but I could not find reference to them. I finely found the reference in "1491", but I did not realize their potential. I have heard that National Geographic is preparing a big Terra Preta (TP) article.
Nature article: Putting the carbon back "Black is the new green":
Here's the Cornell page for an over view:
This Earth Science Forum thread on these soils contains further links, and has been viewed by 13,000 folks. ( I post everything I find on Amazon Dark Soils, ADS here):
The Georgia Inst. of Technology page:
There is an ecology going on in these soils that is not completely understood, and if replicated and applied at scale would have multiple benefits for farmers and environmentalist.
Terra Preta creates a terrestrial carbon reef at a microscopic level. These nanoscale structures provide safe haven to the microbes and fungus that facilitate fertile soil creation, while sequestering carbon for many hundred if not thousands of years. The combination of these two forms of sequestration would also increase the growth rate and natural sequestration effort of growing plants.
Here is a great article that high lights this pyrolysis process, ( http://www.eprida.com/hydro/ ) which could use existing infrastructure to provide Charcoal sustainable Agriculture, Syn-Fuels, and a variation of this process would also work as well for H2 , Charcoal-Fertilizer, while sequestering CO2 from Coal fired plants to build soils at large scales, be sure to read the "See an initial analysis NEW" link of this technology to clean up Coal fired power plants.
Soil erosion, energy scarcity, excess greenhouse gas all answered through regenerative carbon management
This is the first I've seen of a pyrolysis process like Dr. Danny Day's on the market:
Lehmann at Cornell points out, "systems such as Day's are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative". and that " a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions! "
The upcoming International Agrichar Initiative (IAI) conference to be held at Terrigal, NSW, Australia in 2007.
If pre-Columbian Indians could produce these soils up to 6 feet deep over 20% of the Amazon basin it seems that our energy and agricultural industries could also product them at scale.
Harnessing the work of this vast number of microbes and fungi changes the whole equation of EROEI for food and Bio fuels. I see this as the only sustainable agricultural strategy if we no longer have cheap fossil fuels for fertilizer.
We need this super community of wee beasties to work in concert with us by populating them into their proper Soil horizon Carbon Condos.
I feel Terra Preta soil technology is the greatest of Ironies. That is: an invention of pre-Columbian American culture, destroyed by western disease, may well be the savior of industrial society.
Those of you in Australia (especially Sydney) note the conference in Terrigal at the end of April mentioned above - it might be worth checking out if you are interested in the subject.
I have mentioned Terra Preta once or twice in the past (and Dave from Sydney peak Oil is a big enthusiast about it) after WorldChanging first brought it to my attention last August.
Carbon sequestration faces some major hurdles. Technical geosequestration methods could pump large amounts of CO2 deep underground but are still under development. On the other hand, natural methods that store carbon in living ecosystems may be possible in the short term but require huge swathes of land and are only as stable the ecosystems themselves. An ideal solution, however, would combine the quick fix of biological methods with the absolute potential of technical ones. Terra preta may do just that, as a recent article in the journal Nature reveals.
Amazonian Dark Earth, or terra preta do indio, has mystified science for the last hundred years. Three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous, and twenty times the carbon of normal soils, terra preta is the legacy of ancient Amazonians who predate Western civilization. Scientists who long debated the capacity of 'savages' to transform the virgin rainforest now agree that indigenous people transformed large regions of the Amazon into amazingly fertile black earth. The Amazonians' techniques remain an enigma but are believed to have used slash-and-smolder to lock half of the carbon in burnt vegetation into a stable form of biochar instead of releasing the bulk of it into the atmosphere like typical slash-and-burn practices.
The difference between terra preta and ordinary soils is immense. A hectare of meter-deep terra preta can contain 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes in unimproved soils from similar parent material, according to Bruno Glaser, of the University of Bayreuth, Germany. To understand what this means, the difference in the carbon between these soils matches all of the vegetation on top of them. Furthermore, there is no clear limit to just how much biochar can be added to the soil.
Claims for biochar's capacity to capture carbon sound almost audacious. Johannes Lehmann, soil scientist and author of Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties, Management, believes that a strategy combining biochar with biofuels could ultimately offset 9.5 billion tons of carbon per year-an amount equal to the total current fossil fuel emissions!
Indeed, there is profit to be made in this black earth, for if green is the new black, then black could be the new green. Biofuels are touted as 'carbon neutral', but biofuels and biochar together promise to be 'carbon negative'. Danny Day, the founder of a company called Eprida is already putting these concepts into motion with systems that turn farm waste into hydrogen, biofuel, and biochar.The Eprida technology uses agricultural waste biomass to produce hydrogen-rich bio-fuels and a new restorative high-carbon fertilizer (ECOSS) ...In tropical or depleted soils ECOSS fertilizer sustainably improves soil fertility, water holding and plant yield far beyond what is possible with nitrogen fertilizers alone. The hydrogen produced from biomass can be used to make ethanol, or a Fischer-Troupsch gas-to-liquids diesel (BTL diesel), as well as the ammonia used to enrich the carbon to make ECOSS fertilizer.
We don't maximize for hydrogen; we don't maximize for biodisel; we don't maximize for char...By being a little bit inefficient in each, we approximate nature and get a completely efficient cycle.
Terra preta's full beauty appears in this closed loop. Unlike traditional sequestration rates that follow diminishing marginal returns-aquifers fill up, forests mature-practices based on terra preta see increasing returns. Terra preta doubles or even triples crop yields. More growth means more terra preta, begetting a virtuous cycle. While a global rollout of terra preta is still a ways away, it heralds yet another transformation of waste into resources.
How ironic it is that ancient humans cultivated the very fertility of Earth's most pristine places so seamlessly as to be nearly invisible. Perhaps then our challenge as planetary gardeners is not to preserve nature in a bubble but to reweave ourselves into it-to invert our footprints into handprints.
TreeHugger has an explanation of the Eprida technology. Cleantech also has a post on "Marketing EPRIDA’s Terra Preta" and the Engineer-Poet mentioned it in his mammoth post on "sustainability and energy independence".
Eprida (Earth, People, Research, Innovation, Development, Acknowledgement) offers a revolutionary new sustainable energy technology that could potentially help solve several of the world's energy crises simultaneously. Their closed-loop system removes CO2 from the air by putting carbon into the topsoil where it is needed to nurture and keep it furtile. The process creates hydrogen rich bio-fuels and a restorative high-carbon fertilizer while removing net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The technology promises to transform woody biomass into a combination of a restorative high-carbon fertilizer and high-energy green diesel fuel, be carbon negative, i.e. store more long-term carbon in the soil than is released, return all of the minerals from biomass crops to the soil, improve soil fertility and restore depleted land, eliminate the need for ammonium nitrate fertilizer from expensive natural gas, provide energy independence, potentially provide additional carbon credit income to farmers and do all of this for a profit. Sounds pretty good (and kind of complicated) to us. How does it work?
The idea is based on the premise that there are four fundamental challenges facing our world:
1. Too much carbon in the air, causing global warming and climate change
2. Too little carbon in the soil, causing depletion of topsoil and loss of fertility
3. Too much nitrogen in the water, causing acidification of the oceans
4. Too little oil and gas hydrocarbon reserves underground, causing peak oil
The Eprida process is based on the synergy among three key insights. First, that charcoal can help restore and maintain healthy, productive topsoil. Based on ancient topsoil management techniques discovered in the Amazon basin, the terra preta, or “black earth,” soils produced by burying charcoal in the ground still remain bountiful five hundred years later. The charcoal acts like a coral reef for soil organisms and fungi, creating a rich micro ecosystem where organic carbon is bound to minerals to form rich soil.
With modern technology, low temperature charcoal can instead be made by a hybrid pyrolysis process whereby biomass such as wood chips or agricultural waste is heated in a sealed vessel. Once started, this process gives off heat while it drives off steam and hydrogen, which can be captured, purified and used for energy. Hydrogen can be used to make transitional fuels such as GTL biodiesel today, or used directly in a fuel cell to make electricity or power vehicles in the future. So, making a combination of less energy and charcoal from biomass is the second key breakthrough.
Just burying charcoal in the soil is beneficial. Japanese studies have found that adding up to 10% charcoal increases fertility in most soils, but adding even more charcoal won’t hurt and if nitrogen is added to the charcoal it produces an even more effective fertilizer. Most fertilizer is currently produced by using natural gas to extract nitrogen from the air to make ammonia, but this releases one molecule of CO2 for each molecule of ammonia produced. Conventional urea based fertilizers, made from this ammonia, also tend to leach out and wash off into waterways, where they become a serious pollutant causing algae bloom and ultimately dangerously acidifying the oceans.
The third breakthrough in creating the Eprida ECOSS process came with the discovery that if ammonia (NH3), carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O), are all combined in the presence of charcoal they will form a solid, ammonium bicarbonate (NH4HCO3) fertilizer inside the pores of the charcoal. About 30% of the hydrogen derived from the biomass will make enough ammonia to combine with all of the charcoal from the same biomass to scrub CO2 flue gases from a power plant, converting all of the ingredients into a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer on charcoal.
The overall process can put almost all of the carbon that was removed from the air by the biomass back into the soil in a stable form, effectively removing net CO2 from the air. When used with biomass and coal, the process will scrub about 60% of the CO2 out of the flue gases from the coal, as well as all of the sulfur and nitrogen oxides, turning these compounds, which would otherwise contribute to acid rain if released into the air, into valuable constituents in the high-carbon fertilizer.
So it all wraps up in a tight little package. There are a lot more details about this process, and even a nice flash animation explaining how it all works.
The Nature article "black is the new green" seems to be the most widely read piece on the subject - which notes there is one Australian company which has been exploring the technology and trying to commercialise it for a while.
Lehmann and his colleagues don't see biofuel as an alternative to char — they see the two developing hand in hand. Take the work of Danny Day, the founder of Eprida. This "for-profit social-purpose enterprise" in Athens, Georgia, builds contraptions that farmers can use to turn farm waste into biofuel while making char. Farm waste (or a crop designed for biofuel use) is smouldered — pyrolysed, in the jargon — and this process gives off volatile organic molecules, which can be used as a basis for biodiesel or turned into hydrogen with the help of steam. After the pyrolysation, half of the starting material will be used up and half will be char. That can then be put back on the fields, where it will sequester carbon and help grow the next crop.
The remarkable thing about this process is that, even after the fuel has been burned, more carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere than is put back. Traditional biofuels claim to be 'carbon neutral', because the carbon dioxide assimilated by the growing biomass makes up for the carbon dioxide given off by the burning of the fuel. But as Lehmann points out, systems such as Day's go one step further: "They are the only way to make a fuel that is actually carbon negative".
Day's pilot plant processes 10 to 25 kg of Georgia peanut hulls and pine pellets every hour. From 100 kg of biomass, the group gets 46 kg of carbon — half as char — and around 5 kg of hydrogen, enough to go 500 kilometres in a hydrogen-fuel-cell car (not that there are many around yet). Originally, Day was mostly interested in making biofuel; the char was just something he threw out, or used to make carbon filters. Then he discovered that his employees were reaping the culinary benefits of the enormous turnips that had sprung up on the piles of char lying around at the plant. Combining this char with ammonium bicarbonate, made using steam-recovered hydrogen, creates a soil additive that is now one of his process's selling points; the ammonium bicarbonate is a nitrogen-based fertilizer.
"We don't maximize for hydrogen; we don't maximize for biodiesel; we don't maximize for char," says Day. "By being a little bit inefficient with each, we approximate nature and get a completely efficient cycle." Robert Brown, an engineer at Iowa State University in Ames, has a $1.8-million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to fine-tune similar technology, although being in Iowa, he uses corn stalks not peanut hulls. "We are trying an integrated approach: we are trying to evaluate the agronomic value, the sequestration value, the economic value, the engineering," he says.
Brown thinks a 250-hectare farm on a char-and-ammonium-nitrate system can sequester 1,900 tonnes of carbon a year. A crude calculation on that basis suggests the US corn crop could sequester 250 million tonnes of carbon a year. At the moment, no one knows how long this could go on; no one has yet found a ceiling for char addition.
Stephen Joseph of Biomass Energy Services and Technology in New South Wales has built a number of char-producing machines in Australia that work at fairly large scales (the models have grown from an original 'Piglet' through a larger 'Daisy' to a positively bullish 'El Toro'). Joseph looks for companies with a waste problem such as a paper mill with spare scraps or a dairy with old bedding and manure, and then integrates char production into the business so that the heat produced in pyrolysis is used where the firm needs it.
So far, Joseph's company is being brought in to solve waste-management problems, but he hopes the value of the char will become a selling point in itself. For that to happen, however, he needs some help. His machines can be tuned to make char of various sorts: different sized particles with different sized pores and different amounts of other elements. Which is the best? It's a question he asks in Philadephia, and one of the things that Brown's research in Iowa aims to find out.
The right protocol
Such technical unknowns are not the only obstacles on the road to a black revolution. One problem is that the purported benefits of char do not slot easily into the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions. Lehmann hopes to see the process get going under the aegis of the protocol's Clean Development Mechanism, in which rich countries sponsor green projects in poor countries and get credit for the reduced emissions. To this end, he is amassing evidence that modern char techniques can actually keep the carbon involved locked up for centuries. His Cornell colleague John Gaunt is working on ways to present the technique as the sort of 'change in practice' that could count as a tradeable carbon-emission reduction of the sort allowed under Kyoto.
Then there are your risk-averse farmers. They haven't heard of char. And they aren't going to buy it — let alone buy a strangely named machine to make it — unless they know it will make them money. It is no good pitching it to them with a mouthful of scientific caveats about not knowing the right kind of char for each type of soil or exactly how it works. You have to be able to sell specific benefits and real attractions. "A lot of farmers are environmentalists," says John Kimble, a USDA man who has just retired from the National Soil Survey Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. "But they look at the bottom line, as we all do."
After the afternoon coffee break in Philadelphia, Kimble takes the podium and the wind out of everyone's sails. He is sympathetic to the terra pretans goals — indeed he was a good friend of Sombroek's — but that doesn't stop him asking hard questions. "Can you do this in a no-till way?" is one tricky query. Kimble and many others have been pushing no-till farming, which basically means doing without ploughs, as a partial solution to erosion, pesticide run-off and fuel costs. The idea is that the less you mess with the soil, the less its components separate and wander away. But biochar is light and fine, like the black grit left in a barbecue. If you don't physically insert it into the soil, it might just blow away.
Everyone listens politely. But while watching their responses, it was hard not to worry that the same enthusiasm that has brought them together might also trap them in a cul de sac. They obviously respect economics and pragmatic requirements. But these are not people principally moved by practical politics or bottom lines; they are people moved by ideals. They start from the basis that the answer lies in the soil, more or less whatever the question is, and can't quite understand why this isn't self-evident to everyone else. Faced, for example, with the suggestion that all corn matter be turned into ethanol, they tend simply to say "Well it could be — but we hope, of course, it will go into the soil." They know they ought to be marketing terra preta as a resource, or a policy instrument; but they can't stop seeing it as a wonder.
Policy is not always, or even often, dictated by pure rationality. Perhaps terra preta's compelling history and rich, earthy smell will go to the heads of that diffuse band of policy-makers who hand out the cash. The enthusiasts need to be more down to earth; but the policy people might benefit from getting their hands dirty.
One last article on Terra Preta - Rob from Transition Culture asking if it really is the solution to peak oil. I think its just one of a number of ways of solving the energy problem and its not the primary one (and it is more interesting in terms of its capacity to improve soil quality and sequester carbon anyway) - but its definitely an option worth exploring further on several levels.
The Eprida model is an international, decentralised, self supporting approach to carbon sequestration. Because making charcoal locks up carbon which can then be added to the soil, it is offers a method whereby agriculture can become a form of carbon sequestration. The machine they have developed for doing the charcoal burning basically takes 10 tons of any woody or plant biomass and turns it into 1 ton of charcoal and 3.2 tons of diesel. You can see a Flash animation of the process here. Because carbon credits are now bought and sold internationally, the idea is that farmers have one of these units on their farms, grow their crops, put the residues in the machine, get paid in carbon credits for doing so, make the charcoal which they add to their soils, and produce diesel for themselves and to sell. Lietaer said that a land mass the size of France using this system could lock up all the carbon the world needs to. The company they have set up is a social purpose company, with 50% of its profits going into social development work. You can read more about the technical aspects of Eprida here.
It certainly sounds good, although when he claimed that it was a solution to peak oil, I felt he really underestimated the scale and urgencyof the challenge. Eprida is about a year away from being ready to be rolled out, and initially Brazil and China are to be the pilot places. So it’ll be a few years until any units start popping up in the UK or US, so any hope of having a fallback in place for the 2007-2010 peak is just not feasible. Another concern I had was that people in the Amazon, once there is a cash incentive to obtain biomass to feed these things so as to make more money, will obtain it from all over, further threatening biodiversity and habitat. His response was at the moment people slash and burn, with Eprida they will slash and charcoal instead.
Eprida could also create a dependence on the international price of carbon credits, working well at first, but as more and more people get into it, the returns decrease and then these people are back where they started. It also, and perhaps most dangerously, creates a sense in the West that business as usual is viable again, these guys in China and Brazil are busy locking up all our carbon for us and we don’t need to do anything.
Ultimately, I feel that the best option is to reorient agriculture to become more tree based, along the lines of agroforestry, where nuts, fruit, fuels, medicines and much more can be produced using a form of agriculture that is constantly locking up carbon, along the lines put forward by the wonderful folks at Badgersett Farm in the US. This offers a truly sustainable agriculture, one that is producing useful produce for local markets, building biodiversity, locking up carbon, producing a wide range of products. I wonder about the full energy breakdown of growing the crops in the first place for the Eprida system? How much biomass would it take to produce enough diesel to run all the UK’s cars? In terms of conventional biodiesel it is said to be something like 3 times the UK land mass. As Robert Hirsch is wont to point out, peak oil is primarily a liquid fuels problem. Can Eprida be scaled up to be able to produce enough diesel for the UK car and transport fleet? I suspect not. With the addition of the fuel it takes to grow the biomass in first place, I imagine it would have a place as an on-farm source of sufficient diesel to run farm machinery, but to run our current transport based globalised economy, it wouldn’t appear to me to be a runner. As I said at the beginning, tend to think that something that looks too good to be true is generally not. What do you think?
Moving along, the New York Times has an article on Walmart's efforts to push adoption of CFL lighting.
As a way to cut energy use, it could not be simpler. Unscrew a light bulb that uses a lot of electricity and replace it with one that uses much less.
While it sounds like a promising idea, it turns out that the long-lasting, swirl-shaped light bulbs known as compact fluorescent lamps are to the nation’s energy problem what vegetables are to its obesity epidemic: a near perfect answer, if only Americans could be persuaded to swallow them.
But now Wal-Mart Stores, the giant discount retailer, is determined to push them into at least 100 million homes. And its ambitions extend even further, spurred by a sweeping commitment from its chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., to reduce energy use across the country, a move that could also improve Wal-Mart’s appeal to the more affluent consumers the chain must win over to keep growing in the United States. “The environment,” Mr. Scott said, “is begging for the Wal-Mart business model.”
It is the environmental movement’s dream: America’s biggest company, legendary for its salesmanship and influence with suppliers, encouraging 200 million shoppers to save energy.
For all its power in retailing, though, Wal-Mart is meeting plenty of resistance — from light-bulb makers, competitors and consumers. To help turn the tide, it is even reaching out to unlikely partners like Google, Home Depot and Hollywood.
A compact fluorescent has clear advantages over the widely used incandescent light — it uses 75 percent less electricity, lasts 10 times longer, produces 450 pounds fewer greenhouse gases from power plants and saves consumers $30 over the life of each bulb. But it is eight times as expensive as a traditional bulb, gives off a harsher light and has a peculiar appearance.
As a result, the bulbs have languished on store shelves for a quarter century; only 6 percent of households use the bulbs today.
Which is what makes Wal-Mart’s goal so wildly ambitious. If it succeeds in selling 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs a year by 2008, total sales of the bulbs in the United States would increase by 50 percent, saving Americans $3 billion in electricity costs and avoiding the need to build additional power plants for the equivalent of 450,000 new homes.
Also in the NYT, an article with extensive quotes from Bruce Schneier on the stupidity of the war on hair gel.
The shift began in August. That’s when an apparent terrorist plot in London to use liquid explosives on airplanes bound for the United States led security officials to proclaim bewildering new regulations. Banned were all liquids and gels. Then came modifications. Gel-filled bras were O.K. and then so was infant formula, if accompanied by an actual baby. Then it became O.K. to bring on board liquids and gels, provided each was in a container of not more than three ounces, and all containers were neatly displayed in a quart-size zipper-lock bag.
Now, the Homeland Security Department obviously believes that the vaguely outlined August plot was serious enough to justify cracking down on liquids and gels. “This was, by any measure, the most sophisticated plot against the United States that came near to fruition since Sept. 11,” the Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, said in a recent speech.
But the plot seems to have been thwarted before the bad guys reached the airport, because of intelligence and police work, not a focus on rummaging through carry-on bags for bottles of shampoo.
“If you look at the London plot, assuming it was a plot, no security measure then in place would have caught it at an airport,” said Bruce Schneier, an authority on security technology and the author of the book “Beyond Fear.” Metal detectors spot weapons — assuming the screener is not preoccupied with shampoo.
Inherent in the obsession on liquids and gels, Mr. Schneier said, “is the notion that we can stop the bad guys by focusing on tactics, which is moronic. I pick a defense, you see my defense, and then you, the bad guy, decide what to do. That’s a game we can’t win.” He added, “Screeners are so busy looking for liquids that they’ve missed decoy bombs in tests. We’ve defined success so weirdly. When T.S.A. takes away some frozen tomato sauce from grandmom because it might become a liquid, they think of it as a success. But that’s a failure. It’s a false alarm.”
It is easy to ridicule the security agency’s carry-on procedures, which are continually being revised — partly, Mr. Schneier argues, because of politics. “Did you know they have special rules for monkeys?”
They do. Like dogs, some specially trained monkeys are classified as service animals to assist handicapped people. But you really have to wonder if these sample sentences — from the security administration’s rules for how transportation security officers at walk-through metal detectors should handle monkeys — were written with a straight face:
“When the handler and the monkey go through the W.T.M.D. and the W.T.M.D. alarms, both the handler and the monkey must undergo additional screening.” The rules add that security officers “have been trained not to touch the monkey during the screening process” and that “the inspection process may require that the handler take off the monkey’s diaper as part of the visual inspection.”
Jokes are easy, like Mr. Schneier’s crack on having to remove shoes: “It’s a good thing the shoe bomber wasn’t an underwear bomber.”
But security is deadly serious, and Mr. Schneier and other experts in the field have been saying for years that the best security is smart, diligent intelligence, not confiscating snow globes or lip gels, which he derides as “security theater, not real security.” He added, “We spent billions on security to make the bad guys make minor modifications in their tactics. Focusing on the tactics only works if you happen to guess correctly.”
The Seattle PI has a columnist who went out searching for "them" in the muslim world.
Before a man who said he was Muslim unleashed gunfire this year at a Seattle Jewish center, before the pope discussed the Prophet Muhammad in ways that incensed believers of Islam, before bloodshed between Shia and Sunni Muslims worsened in Iraq, I got out from behind my desk.
A P-I reader dared me.
"You need to go see how they live over there," he huffed in a phone call at the beginning of the year.
By "they," he meant believers of Islam. "Over there" was anywhere outside of America.
"They're savages," he said. "Don't you get it?"
The journey took me to the Philippines and Malaysia -- countries the U.S. government considers part of the "second front" in the war on terror, after the Middle East. Both Southeast Asian countries are a study in contrasts. The Philippines have a Muslim minority and a Catholic majority; Malaysia has a Muslim majority with Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities. What I saw during a trip made possible through the Asia Foundation, a non-profit think tank based in San Francisco, deepened my understanding of how ignorance and monolithic views about any religion contribute to faith-fueled tensions abroad -- and back here at home.
Soon after landing in sweltering Manila, I visited a slum about 30 minutes from the heart of the Philippine capitol. The neighborhood -- in an area called Barangay 188 -- is home to impoverished Muslims and Christians consciously working to live together against a tense backdrop.
Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines waged a campaign, at times violently, to gain freedom from what they see as oppression and discrimination in a Catholic-dominated society. "Not all Muslims are bad. Not all Christians are good," sighed a slight man named Lee, who offered a tour of the slum. His community once was considered so dangerous even taxi drivers steered clear.
But change slowly came about because residents opted to work through their differences to create a safer place to live. They realized the common ground they share -- dreams of home ownership and cross-faith love, and a passion for basketball and badminton. The neighborhood safety chief and the head of the local homeowners association are Muslim men married to Christian women. "It's not impossible for us to come together and get along," Lee said, smiling as he watched a cat and dog play in a dusty alley. "Just like that."
Days later, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I sat at a table inside The Pure Life Society, which runs an orphanage. It also fosters interfaith dialogue in a country where Islam is dominant and the popular ice cream outlet is called Dairy King. A man who works for the society handed out a list showing that more than a half dozen faiths have a version of the golden rule.
Islam states: "No one of you is a believer until you desire for your neighbor that which you desire for yourself."
Judaism says: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."
Christianity offers: "Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do so to them."
"You see," the man said, "we all strive for the same thing."
Then it dawned on me: Reasonable people of all faiths recognize the common humane values that thread beliefs. This point of view is championed by moderates of most faiths, the voices that risk being drowned out when extremists sow discord or hijack religion.