The digital clock

Muslim teen builds device to detect islamophobes
By now, almost everyone is bound to be aware of the story of Ahmed Mohamed, the digital clock he built and brought to school, and the #IStandWithAhmed response.

The cartoon obviously portrays this as an example of Islamophobia, but is it, and how can we tell or be sure?

There was a history of Islamophobia in Irving, Texas stemming from February 2015 when right wing Christians and others stirred up fear about Shariah Law Courts being set up.  In reality, there was a non-binding, voluntary arbitration service provided by a local mosque and other mosques in the Dallas area.  Such arbitration services have been common in Jewish and Christian practice as well, so they are nothing new [1,3]

The mayor, Beth Van Duyne spoke with various conservative pundits, stating that Shariah courts had been set up and touting her support of legislation, “American laws for American courts”, that would prevent Shariah law from being applied in her community.  She gave interviews to Dana Loesch and Glenn Beck. She also spoke with Frank Gaffney on the subject, “the founder of the anti-Muslim think tank Center for Security Policy” [1] [I’m not familiar with this group’s work].   Other articles give more details, including how she benefited from increased fundraising after becoming a national figure because of this issue and how the editorial board of her local paper that had endorsed her called her out on Islamophobia [2, 3, 4].

I think the English teacher who reported the clock as a potential bomb because she was scared was within her rights and duty.  I would like to think that she shouldn’t have been scared, but apparently she was so I suppose she had to do something.  But, I don’t understand how the situation wasn’t cleared up more quickly without involving the police or at least without resorting to handcuffs, detention at a juvenile facility, and fingerprinting.  To be clear, the police said they quickly knew it wasn’t a bomb and they were instead investigating whether or not Ahmed intended to scare people with a fake bomb, which is illegal.

The Irving police chief, Larry Boyd, gave an interview on CNN and said that the police weren’t initially aware that Ahmed had told multiple people about his clock project that day and that his engineering or robotics teacher had seen it and understood what it was.  Once they had these facts, they were able to determine that there was no bomb hoax and that Ahmed did not do anything to make people afraid [5].

I’m not sure why they didn’t have these facts right away from the principal’s and other school staff’s inquiries. Quoting Police Chief Boyd:

“There were factors and details to this that for whatever reason weren’t shared with the officers who were there initially.  So as we pursued this investigation further — as you know we didn’t file any charges on him — we dropped those charges because we were able to find out those facts that you’re [the CNN host] referring to.  Yeah, he did talk to people earlier and presented it as you described [as a clock, an engineering project].  Those were the kinds of things that allowed us to settle the matter” [5].

Another interesting take on this comes from [6] which asserts that public schools all over the country are becoming too strict and paranoid, with zero tolerance laws that unfairly mete out severe punishment to both white and minority kids.  It also makes the case that liberals tend to jump to explanations for severe punishment based on race or Islamophobia when the larger problem of zero tolerance and safety paranoia is to blame.

That author writes

I accept that it’s perfectly plausible—if not yet definitively proven—racism played a role in the specific case of Ahmed Muhamed [sic]. And it’s certainly true that poor and minority youths are at greater risk of mistreatment. Studies show schools discipline black and Latino kids more harshly and more frequently than white kids who commit the same offenses. [My note: also see references 7,8]

But it would be a grave mistake to zero-in on racism as the main problem here, because ridiculous over-enforcement of school disciplinary policies is only partly a race issue. No child is safe from having his or her rights’ trampled by assertive cops at school as long as paranoia about school safety and petty rules outlawing perfectly safe, normal teen behavior remain in place. Cops arrest kids for bringing harmless toys that vaguely resemble weapons to school. Schools suspend kids for talking, writing, or merely just thinking about said weapons while on school premises, or near school premises, or even just near the bus stop on their own front lawns.” [6]

So basically this article is saying that Islamophobia or race could be a contributing factor, and I think it was.  I think it’s a distraction to argue whether this incident was purely about Islamophobia, but I just can’t fathom the thought that Islamophobia or fear of another culture, religion, or skin color played absolutely no part somewhere in the whole chain of events.

Fortunately, Ahmed has been receiving a lot of support from notable people including the President, and has even gotten some sweet swag for his troubles.

ahmed swag

Finally, I want to end on a quick note about Islamphobia and racism.  People argue over these terms as applied to cases like this, noting Islam is a religion, not a race, so Islamophobia is different from racism.  I think they’re related because some roots of Islamophobia stem from the fact that many Muslims are from the Middle East and are not white.  Fear is often based on differences between people and unconscious or conscious labeling of people as “the Other”.  People are “Others” because of differences in culture, race, appearance, religion, and other factors.









Hypocritical opposition to Iranian nuclear deal

Republican opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal is at best willfully ignorant and at worst is hypocritical, as they brand themselves champions of national security yet for political and ideological reasons oppose an excellent deal.

A huge consensus of experts praises the deal. Twenty-nine prominent nuclear scientists sent President Obama a letter praising the deal, over three dozen retired generals and admirals endorsed it in a letter, and nuclear security and nonproliferation experts also praise it.

The letter by the retired generals and admirals entitled “Iran deal benefits U.S. national security” calls the deal “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” explaining that it “provides for intrusive verification … and is not based on trust; the deal requires verifications and tough sanctions for failure to comply.”

The letter from the 29 scientists describes it as “the most comprehensive verification ever obtained,” including monitoring of uranium mining, milling, conversion to uranium hexafluoride, centrifuge manufacturing and R&D, and real-time monitoring of active centrifuges and spent fuel. Furthermore, it allows challenge inspections for any suspected clandestine operations.

Finally, “the deal includes important long-term verification procedures that last until 2040, and others that last indefinitely under the Nonproliferation Treaty and its Additional Protocol.”  The deal “will make it much easier … to know if and when Iran heads for a bomb, and the detection of a significant violation of this agreement will provide strong, internationally supported justification for intervention.” [still quoting frmo the scientists’ letter]

I feel strongly about this topic because I worked for the National Nuclear Security Administration before I began pursuing my PhD in Ecological Engineering.  I’ve heard my former colleagues’ frustration that politics threaten a deal that will increase the safety of our country.

The deal will also end the suffering of everyday Iranians under the sanctions, as they have played a major role in harming the economy and leading to massive inflation.  Some articles on this are here (AlJazeera), here (PBS), and here (NY Times).

Far too often, Republicans are proving themselves to be the party of “no,” aiming to block everything and anything Obama does in a zero-sum race to the bottom.

Finally, here’s an video an Iranian friend shared with me, showing how much everyday Iranians know about our Republican candidates for president!

Fighting climate change interfaith style: divestment, reinvestment, and personal action

Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith in a webinar about fighting climate change, interfaith style!

Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith in a webinar about fighting climate change, interfaith style!

Check out this 30-minute webinar hosted by Religions for Peace on fighting climate change with Fletcher Harper, executive director of an organization called Green Faith.  They’re focused on building practical action on climate change on both a local scale and also a national/global scale through divestment and reinvestment.  He’s a great speaker and it’s really encouraging to hear what he has to say.

I’m a young adult leader in Religions for Peace so I had to opportunity to have some conversation with him at the end!  I could use a bit more polish in my speaking 😉

Check it out!!


Day after Memorial Day reflection

It’s hard to have a rational, compassionate discussion about violence on Memorial Day, the day after, or any day in a country in which we strongly believe that violence solves problems without creating new ones.  It is uncomfortable for many when we question the role of our military in foreign affairs and the way we have supported dictators, toppled democratically elected governments, and created false pretenses for war.

The focus should never be on criticizing the rank and file of our armed forces.  They are indeed brave and courageous people, most of whom have noble reasons for joining the military such as fighting for freedom.

The questions we have to ask are those directed to our leaders.  Are our leaders’ motivations for war accurate and true?  Is the worldview their motivations stem from actually supported by evidence (i.e. do their wars actually solve problems they say they will, or any problems at all)?  Are they really just interested in establishing and broadening control over other countries?

And more broadly, how does power tend to corrupt people?  What is the role of power in bringing peace?  Is there a role?  If so, what is the potential role of armed or unarmed peacekeeping forces as opposed to invading forces?

And let’s look for parallels in our own lives, because all around the world people are people, are human beings.  So maybe people in other countries respond to violence similarly to how we might.

Does force solve disputes, problems, and differences within our families and friendships, with people who are close to us and understand us pretty well?  I don’t think so.  Will force then work in other countries, where people don’t understand us well and there are pronounced differences in race, religion, and culture?  Sounds worse to me.

It’s difficult to have our worldviews shaken, and to see that the United States has a very real dark side in addition to the freedom and prosperity many of us experience.  But recognizing and addressing this dark side is actually more patriotic than ignoring it, because we can express our love of country by making it better.


People featured in this post

People featured in this post: bonus points if you know who they all are!

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me
No more
– Haddaway, What is love (90’s song)

What is love? In this post I’ll tackle this question drawing from some of the world’s greatest thinkers and movers, and will follow up in the next post with a discussion on the relationship of love and religion.

From Mozi (ca. 400 BC), a contemporary of Confucius:
Where do disorders – the world’s ills – come from? They arise from lack of mutual love. The son loves himself but does not love his father, so he cheats his father for his own gain. The younger brother loves himself but not his brother or his father so he cheats his older brother for his own gain.

Robbers and brigands likewise love their own households, but not the homes of others and so rob these homes for their own benefit. State officers, princes, and rulers make war on other countries because they love their own country but not other countries. They seek to profit their country at the expense of others.

This is what the world calls disorder. This all comes from the lack of mutual love.

The ultimate cause of all disorders in the world is lack of mutual love.

For if everyone were to regard the persons of others as his own person, who would inflict pain and injury on others? If they regarded the homes of others as their own homes, who would rob others’ homes? In that case there would be no brigands or robbers! If the princes loved other countries as their own, who would wage war on other countries? In this case, there would be no more war.1

Paul of Tarsus (ca. 40 ad)
The commandments … are summed up in this one command: Love your neighbor as your self. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Do not take revenge, my dear friends. On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.2

Leo Tolstoy (ca. 1900):
Some people are able to foresee and point out the path of life along which humanity must move: a new theory of life that will change the whole future conduct of humanity and will be different from all that has been before. In this divine theory of life, humanity does not find the purpose of life in fulfilling his or her own desires (the animal theory of life), or in fulfilling the desires of societies of individuals (whether the family, clan, political party, or nation) but only serves the eternal source of life itself. The motor power of this life is love.

It is natural to love yourself. It is natural to love your immediate family, extended family, friends, social group, and fellow citizens. But this love gets weaker – more dilute – the farther out we go from our self. It is possible, though, to have a love that extends to all of humanity. We all have to discover it for ourselves, but there are some who can help others internalize it and experience the depth, richness, and transformation behind it.3

From Lao Tsu, in the Tao te Ching
In nature the softest overcomes the strongest. There is nothing in the world so weak as water. But nothing can surpass it in attacking the hard and the strong. There is no way to alter it. Hence weakness overcomes strength, softness overcomes hardness. The world knows this but is unable to practice it.4

There are many ways, many paths to this type of love. Yet each path is narrow, is difficult. Not enough people tread this difficult but rewarding path. Those who do are filled with the love, strength, and passion of God. This God is not a being, does not give laws or doctrine, and does not belong to any one religion. Wherever this love exists, there God is. God is love.


1 Kurlansky, Mark. Non-violence – The History of a Dangerous Idea
2 Romans 12 and 13 (Bible)
3 Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God is Within You (with some paraphrasing and summarizing from yours truly)
4 Kurlansky, Mark. Ibid

Science to dispel fear


Fear is a powerful emotion.  It can be used to control others, to gain power, to gain money, or to gain recognition as an “expert”.  It can also motivate us to action, and even to do the right thing in some cases.

Science can help us know what we should and should not fear, and what potentially to do about the things we fear.  Thus, science can help to dispel fear.  (Too much fear is not a good thing – it distracts us from other things we should give more of our attention to, and it can prevent us from enjoying the good things around us.)

What prompted my thoughts on this right now?  I just learned that on Feb. 19, there was a small release of radioactivity from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP – click to see their summary) in Carlsbad, NM.  (WIPP is a long-term storage site for nuclear waste materials related to past nuclear weapons activities – it’s not used for commercial waste produced by nuclear power plants.)

What frustrates me is that so many people have an “expert opinion” on this topic through the blogosphere, with people citing SECRET SOURCES and NEW CALCULATIONS that reveal that we’re all going to die from this event.  (I am exaggerating…barely…but you get the point.)

There are many people who consider themselves progressives, or just care about the environment and have an opinion on various nuclear issues.  But who you trust for your info means a lot.  My dad is a great and wonderful person, but he gets his news and analysis of current events through very conservative sources, so he frequently surprises me with the ideas that he absorbs and accepts when he’s otherwise also an extremely intelligent person.  I think this phenomenon is much more recognized as occurring on the far right, but it actually happens just as much (or at least a lot) on the far left, and this (in my opinion) really contributes to discrediting progressive causes and movements.

There is money to be made in fear.  Here is one example.  A blog that purports to do its own (fatally flawed) calculations on the WIPP radiation release, with a nice “Donate via Paypal” button that says the money will go to testing of food for radiation.  Yeah right.  When I click on it, its paypal label is just the name of the blogger, like any other donation link anywhere else on the site.


The first blog I saw on this topic is here.  It attracted over 90 comments, which I’m jealous of!  😉   Look at all the experts responding with new calculations, insider reports, etc. about how we’re gonna die.   Below is my response:


I’m new to your site, just having stumbled upon it doing some google searching on this WIPP incident.

One thing I find lacking in much discussion about radioactivity is context – specifically, what do the numbers cited mean, and how do they compare to other numbers related to radioactivity that we routinely experience?

A Bq (becquerel) is an absolutely minuscule measure of radioactivity. The release of a handful of Bq’s truly poses no health risks. I think we should actually feel *safer* and *more secure* knowing that WIPP can detect and respond to minuscule releases, giving us confidence that it won’t release larger quantities.

And here’s some perspective on numbers. Many radioactive materials are naturally occurring. C-14, for instance, is everywhere. That’s how we do carbon dating. Life has evolved in the presence of background radiation, so background radiation levels are not harmful. The levels cited in this WIPP incident and your article here – 0.64 Bq and 0.092 Bq – are much less than natural background, and much less even than the amount of radiation *contained in any banana*. A banana has on average 15 Bq of radioactive potassium. A banana explosion would release much more radiation than this event.

And I’m not trying to say the release of radiation is not a concern. It is! But it’s a concern for the WIPP people, too, and they managed it quite well. I haven’t read your blog, so I don’t know, but I would think you should be much more concerned about the rail accidents involving trains carrying oil from the Canadian tar sands. These have actually killed people!

As for the criticism of offering free radiation testing, this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. People hype up radiation because it’s scary. People get afraid over events like this. If WIPP does nothing and offers no concrete way of assuring people they are safe (through free testing of anyone who’s worried they were exposed) they will be criticized. If they *do* offer this testing as a means of public reassurance, people will criticize that too (as is done in many of these comments).

Here’s info on the bananas:

Looking forward to some good discussion.


We’ll see what happens.

Father Coyne: Jesuit priest and scientist extraordinaire!

fr_coyneYesterday I was honored and thrilled to meet Father Coyne, a Jesuit priest, Ph.D. in Astronomy specializing in astrophysics, and retired head of the Vatican’s research observatory located at the University of Arizona in my hometown – Tucson, AZ.   (I realized the Tucson connection when I saw he had a 520 area code for his cell phone).  I met him at his residence at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school right here in Syracuse.

A friend of mine at school told me about a series of lectures on religion at Le Moyne and looking at its website I quickly found Fr. Coyne.  He was on Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” – one of its few rational religious voices.  He was also interviewed by famous New Atheist Richard Dawkins for a TV show about Darwin, and the full interview is on youtube.  Check it out!

dawkins_coyneFr. Coyne is an ardent and passionate voice for both the (potential) depth of religion and the validity of science, including evolution.  I thoroughly (that’s an understatement!) enjoyed my time with him and I wished we had videotaped our conversation so we could put it on youtube!!  (He did say we might do this another time.)

We talked about a lot of things, but we touched on how earnest many atheists are in their critique of religion and that they have many good points based on ethical and scientific grounds.  We agreed that absent from debates on science and religion are Jesus’ own very anti-establishment and anti-religion views/teachings and his focus on experience and common sense.

We agreed that there is no dualism between the spiritual and the material.  That is, the spiritual is in the material and vice versa.  There’s not separate realms or realities, although it can be useful or inspiring to envision such things.  Here’s my little phrase that sums it up:  “We don’t need the supernatural.  The natural is super enough!”

I tried out a few of my newest thoughts and ideas on him – like my pithy saying above – which were very well-received.  For instance, we talked about faith.  St. Paul says faith is hope in that which is unseen.  For me, that includes the power of love, the depth of the human spirit, and our search for the transcendent or the divine (in a symbolic way but one that can be experienced).  He agreed, and I said I felt a lot of sympathy for those who only know of the word “faith” as belief in doctrine or dogma and criticize it as such.

But along the lines of St. Paul, there’s a huge difference between belief in what’s unseen (we believe in many things that are unseen) and belief in things that scientific evidence is strongly against.

For example, I don’t believe in the virgin birth (of Jesus).

From a scientific perspective it’s just so highly unlikely.  But adding to this, virgin births are  present in the stories and myths of other religions and cultures.  Is Christianity’s virgin birth true while all other cultures’ and religions’ virgin births aren’t?

What I conclude is that virgin births are a very dramatic element that mean “Hey!!  Listen up!!!  This person is very important!!”  And I do believe that Jesus was and is very important.  Hopefully there can be more depth and public discussion of why.  What did he teach?  How is that different from Christianity?

This was just a bit of what we talked about.  It was amazing, though, to talk with someone who thoroughly understood where I was coming from from both a religious and scientific standpoint.  Each of us experience awe, inspiration, and transcendence through both science and religion.

I look forward to getting to know Fr. Coyne more and am amazed and thankful that our paths that unknowingly overlapped for so long in Tucson now “knowingly” overlap in Syracuse, NY of all places!


Syria and international connections of young adults working for peace


It’s amazing to be connected to other young adults around the globe working for peace through the International Youth Committee (IYC) of Religions for Peace ( Especially with social media, I get to see first-hand accounts of what’s going on in other countries through people I’ve actually met. Nataliya Pylypiv had been sharing about major Ukrainian current events, and Manar from Syria (Mnary OoIoo) wrote this to the IYC just a few days ago:


“I miss you all very much and I apologize that I have not been in touch with you lately due to the sad events happening in my country. It is such a great pain. I had vowed my soul and my body to give everything and do all what I can to all my fellow citizens for the sake of my wounded country, Syria. The situation in this country is very painful and hard to describe. Men and women, children and elderly are all dying because of hunger, oppression, and expositions. Different methods of torture are used against my people and the whole world remains silent. We are exhausted and oppressed culturally and psychologically with no practical solution offered by any part of this world to get out of our crisis. There is no glimmer of hope, unfortunately, to stop the mass murder and in this part of the world. There is more and more fire and struggle in this country.

I just wanted to be in touch with you and share with a bit of my daily sufferings as a Syrian citizen.”


I don’t actually believe in supernatural intervention, but I do believe in the power of the human spirit and that amazing things happen when the collective human spirit focuses or coalesces on an issue or topic. Action springs out of conviction, love, passion, and inner peace. Prayer can cultivate all of these things. Martin Luther King, Jr said the universe bends towards justice and (Saint) Paul said that all of “creation” groans for wholeness. What I really think these mean is that the universe *wants* to bend toward justice (if you permit me to be poetic and anthropomorphize the universe), so when we work for justice with a pure heart and informed actions, we *will* see progress. We will see justice and love blossom, and deeper ties between people form … even sometimes between those who were previously enemies.

In response to Manar, Religions for Peace has put out this interfaith call to prayer for Syria (the picture at the beginning of the post). Please pass this on through your communities (or something like it adapted to your community).

We are grappling with a sense of powerlessness and asking what type of action can we take? What is the next step?

Do you have any ideas?

The world – and especially the people of Syria – are groaning in this struggle but also in hope for justice, peace, and transformation.

More on the Keystone XL

Keystone XL protest in front of the White House.  Source: National Geographic,.  Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD, AFP/GETTY

Keystone XL protest in front of the White House. Source: National Geographic,. Photographer: JEWEL SAMAD, AFP/GETTY

There’s a lot of anger and frustration toward the US State Department for its recent determination that the Keystone XL Pipeline (KXL) would not significantly increase carbon emissions. The Obama Administration promised to reject the KXL if their studies showed it would contribute significantly to global emissions. This is where science can get tricky. From the perspective that tar sands oil is being produced independently of the US and any US action on it (i.e. Canada could sell it to other countries), the State Department is technically correct. The KXL may even slightly lower emissions overall because it’s more efficient to transport oil by pipeline than by rail and shipment overseas.

But of course this is just one side of the story. The larger concern is that tar sands oil is being produced in the first place and that it’s a larger threat to climate change than many other fossil fuels. In this sense, people are justified in being upset. But is this bigger concern really the fault of the Obama Administration and the State Department? Yes and no. No, in the sense stated before: the tar sands oil will be produced, sold, and burned regardless of the KXL and American decisions. Yes, in the sense that the US could be a lot more serious about reducing our demand for oil and exerting world leadership on climate issues. Groups like Friends of the Earth, the Green Party, and so forth should think more about joining and pushing hard for movements like the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Half the Oil campaign to halve US oil demand within 20 years, which is practical and actionable. People should be talking about this like crazy because it begins to address the root problem of demand.


How to save the world

The winner of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge was recently announced, and it’s a company called Ecovative.  But before we get into how awesome it is and how it relates to saving the world, here’s a science lesson.

Have you ever heard of mycelium?  Mycelium are white strands of fungi that spread out like roots in soil or on organic material.


 Mycelium in soil 





Mycelium growing on a decaying log

Imagine a thick slab of this mycelium — it would look kind of like a block of Styrofoam, right?  It turns out it has very similar properties, too.  But instead of being made from fossil fuels and sticking around forever in our landfills, it’s made from decomposable, renewable fungi and organic material usually considered a waste.

This is where Ecovative enters in.  About 6 years ago, they realized that if they could grow mycelium in particular shapes it would be an ideal replacement for Styrofoam.  What do they need in order to do this?  Just “waste” biomass like agricultural residues (leftover cornstalks, etc.), cellulose sludge from paper mills, lobster shells and even textile wastes.  These materials would ordinarily be thrown out and cost money to be landfilled.

Ecovative instead buys these wastes products from farms and businesses, feeding them to fungi.  It’s a closed-loop system creating new value out of waste products. Ecovative has been able to make all sorts of things out of it, like packing/shipping materials, surfboards, and cups. They say the cost of their final products is cheaper than Styrofoam and other materials they replace, so hopefully we’ll be seeing Ecovative’s products everywhere soon.

Growing products we need out of fungi from "waste" biomass this company buys from farms, paper mills, etc.  A win-win for everyone and the planet, it seems!

Ecovative is using fungi to grow products we need using  “waste” biomass bought from farms, paper mills, etc.   A win-win for everyone and the planet!  The guy carrying just one Ecovative product is obviously a slacker.

How does this tie into the saving the world and the Buckminster Fuller Challenge?  The visionary architect, inventor, and systems theorist Buckminster Fuller (“Bucky”) said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Ecovative is successful because they aren’t merely fighting against our wasteful consumerist culture and lack of sustainable materials.  They are filling a niche for a new product that meets our needs in a sustainable way.  They know if they can make a desirable product for a wide range of industries and consumers then it will gain a strong foothold in the market.

In summary, Bucky tells us that change happens when a new, better alternative comes about and not just by fighting the existing system.  This insight makes me think of other environmental challenges we face.

There is significant effort directed against hydrofracking and new pipelines to carry oil from Canadian tar sands through the US.  Tar sands are a less concentrated source of oil than conventional sources, so it takes a lot more energy and effort to extract and refine it.  Thus it has a larger carbon footprint than than many other fossil fuels and is an energy-intensive and polluting process as well.

NPR recently reported that oil produced from Canadian tar sands (as well as from fracking in the US) is being shipped on trains because opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline has (so far) prevented its construction.  According to this article, in 2008 about 9,500 train cars were used to ship crude oil to refineries in the US.  In 2012, this had skyrocketed to 234,000 train cars.  There are also safety concerns associated with train derailments and aging track infrastructure like the July 2013 derailment in Quebec that killed dozens of people.

A train pulls oil tank units on its way to a refinery in Delaware. As U.S. oil production outpaces its pipeline capacity, more and more companies are looking to the railways to transport crude oil.

A train pulls oil tank units on its way to a refinery in Delaware.  As U.S. oil production outpaces its pipeline capacity, more and more companies are looking to the railways to transport crude oil.”

Many people are standing up and saying they don’t want to expand new fossil fuel sources in our already warming climate.  But how can activists, scientists, and other concerned people focus on solutions — on what to be for instead of only what to be against?

But demand is the key, say most economists. If you can get American drivers to buy less gas — by raising fuel efficiency standards … you stand a much better chance of slowing production in the oil sands.”

The key is to change the system: to focus on alternatives to fossil fuels combined with energy and fuel efficiency.  Some ways to do this are to promote local renewable energy, especially community-owned projects that keep more money and jobs local; advocate for investment, subsidies, and better policy for renewables; and to support the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Half the Oil Plan, a multi-faceted plan that will cut our oil use in half within just 20 years.

Here’s an example of the disparity in subsidies between fossil fuels and renewables.

From 2002 to 2008, the U.S. government gave the mature fossil fuel industry more than $72 billion in subsidies while investments in the emerging renewable-energy industry totaled $12.2 billion.” [underlining emphasis mine]

How much could renewables grow with equivalent (or superior) support compared to fossil fuels?

Two of my favorite groups working on these issues are the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Union of Concerned Scientists.  Check them out and read up on some of these issues.  You can use their websites to quickly write letters to Congress, the President, and so forth.  You could also bring up the idea of community-owned renewable energy with your own local officials and those running for local office.