Showing posts with label energy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label energy. Show all posts

12 January 2012

Book Review: The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg, *****

Pollution in the Maldives

Lomborg, an associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus and a former member of Greenpeace, challenges widely held beliefs that the world environmental situation is getting worse and worse. Using statistical information from internationally recognized research institutes, Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues that feature prominently in headline news around the world, including pollution, biodiversity, fear of chemicals, and the greenhouse effect, and documents that the world has actually improved. He supports his arguments with over 2500 footnotes, allowing readers to check his sources.

05 May 2011

12. - 5 MAY: Three Gorges Dam: Disembarkation and brief visit of Yichang

Today we get to actually walk on the largest dam in the world by capacity (the second after Itaipu by production of electricity), it is more impressive than my words can ever convey. To acces the site, one is led through a checkpoint, with metal detectors and all, and must take a local shuttle bus. It rides for about fifteen minutes in a closed town where dam workers and families live, a perfectly manicured model project to showcase the new China to domestic and foreign visitors. And there the show begins...

04 May 2011

11. - 4 MAY: Cruise on the Yangtse:

The highlight of an otherwise quiet day is the Shennong stream cruise. We leave our ship for a ride on a smaller ferry up the Shennong river, and after half an hour or so we are transferred to smaller wooden pirogues where skinny rowmen start working their oars up the stream. We float by serene and green areas, some fishermen, some villages, and an impressive contruction site for a bridge of the Chongqing-Shanghai highway. The whole thing is a bit touristy, a lot in fact, but pleasant nonetheless.

Our guide for the tour is a semi-professional singer dressed in traditional costume. She is trying to keep alive some traditional music from the area, and on our way back offers a little performance to her captive audience on the raw-boat: us. She also has CDs to sell of course, very entrepreneurial of her...

In the evening, after dinner, we reach the Three Gorges Dam. At this point the ship is lowered through five ship-locks, in a little over three hours, to the lower part of the river. Read more on tomorrow’s post...

03 May 2011

10. - 3 MAY: Cruise on the Yangtse: Shibaozhai

Peaceful day of cruising down the river. The most meaningful part of the day is our visit to Shibaozhai (Stone Treasure Fortress) located in Zhong County, at the south bank of the Yangtze River, 52 km away from Wanxian, it was first built in Qing Dynasty in 1750, with a height of 56 meters.

The original village has been inundated after the completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and all inhabitants have been moved to a brand new village 56 meters higher on the nearby hill. I can’t comment on the old village, but people here say it was pretty poor, no sanitation, damp wooden houses and gardens by the waterline that were flooded every rainy season. Now I can see brick apartment buildings with electric power and sewage systems. Of course there will be those who will regret the romantic old ways, but to me this is a net improvement of huge proportions.

Late at night I talk to Li about our day and we sip baijiu on the balcony of my cabin. As we look out to the river, several towns and a couple of large cities pass by, she is not even sure of their names, but they count millions of people. Row after row of brightly lit skyscrapers stick out against the black moonless night. I can't but be impressed by the achievements of China.

13 November 2009

Recensione film: Dallo Zolfo al Carbone (2008), di Luca Vullo, *****


La storia e le sofferenze degli emigranti siciliani in Belgio che il giovane regista Luca Vullo ha voluto raccontare in Dallo zolfo al carbone, documentario di 53 minuti che prende spunto dal Patto Italo-Belga del 1946, accordo firmato dal primo Presidente della Repubblica Luigi Einaudi che con questa astuta mossa assicurava non solo un lavoro certo ai tanti disoccupati italiani, e nella fattispecie meridionali, ma anche una sicura fornitura energetica all’Italia in tempi di crisi post-bellica. La realtà dei fatti, quello che veramente è significato accettare quell’accordo, ci viene raccontata dalla viva voce, a volte rotta dalla commozione, a volte sorprendentemente energica, dei veri protagonisti della vicenda, coloro i quali nel dopoguerra erano bambini o ragazzetti e che, pane duro e coraggio, sono saliti su un treno e hanno raggiunto quelle preziose miniere di carbone.

27 February 2009

Film Review: The Threat (2008), by Silvia Luzi and Luca Bellino, *****


“Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution are the greatest threat since the time of the Soviet Union and communism”. Doctrine for Asymmetric War Against Venezuela,  U.S. Army, 2006

This is the starting point for a journey across the country which gave rise to the “red wave” in Latin America. Does Venezuela represent the dream of a new socialist society or is it just another distortion of populism and dictatorship?
A trip with President Chavez over the largest oil reserve in the world, situated beneath the Orinoco river, becomes the occasion in which to enter into the lives of Venezuelans, nine years after the beginning of the Bolivarian revolution. The government missions to fight illiteracy and hunger, the creation of a public health care system and the development of an economy based on cooperative work are some of the achievements which characterize the Chavez era.

On the other hand are the country’s 60 violent deaths a week and its collapsing hospitals, the closure of the most popular television channel, the old European immigrants in flight, the opposition black list and the ubiquitous government propaganda. Venezuela en route to socialism: is this still possible in our post-ideological times?

Luca and Silvia in Caracas

This is an excellent documentary on Chavez's Venezuela. A couple of young Italian directors went there to see with their own eyes how the Bolivarian revolution ideals were being implemented. They were disappointed but kept a cool balance throughout the making of this film. They went to the roughest neighborhoods of Caracas as well as with the richest elites. They went to see how the much boasted national health policy is implemented in the hospitals. They went to see what is available in the market for normal people. They spoke with immigrants, students and journalists. They also spent a whole day traveling around the country with Chavez himself, asking questions and thus allowing the viewer a chance to come to independent conclusions on the pros and cons of his rule.

Here is a trailer of the documentary in English.

You can buy the DVD here, in original Spanish with English subtitles.

The Cooperative Suttvuess based in Rome has been working in the field of research, audiovisual production and post-production since 2000. It was born as a post-production company for cinema and television. Over the years however, the cooperative has enlarged its field to the production of historical and inventive documentaries as well as commercial and social advertisements.

Or go to La Minaccia's blog.

Recensione Film: La Minaccia (2008), di Silvia Luzi e Luca Bellino, *****


Hugo Chávez, la rivoluzione bolivariana, il Venezuela. Un socialismo ambiguo che si oppone all'impero nordamericano in decadenza e si propone come capofila di un asse che punta a capovolgere gli equilibri mondiali.

LA MINACCIA racconta l'enigma Chávez, si infila nel segreto di un paese diviso, sospeso tra l'eccitazione di una rivoluzione in corso e la paura di una deriva totalitaria. Chávez chiede al suo popolo la presidenza illimitata, convoca un referendum e radicalizza lo scontro. Il documentario racconta 6 mesi di dura campagna elettorale, in un Paese messo di fronte ad una scelta definitiva: patria, socialismo o morte.

LA MINACCIA è un documentario che non tranquillizza, non osanna, resta distaccato: un lucido e a tratti spietato ritratto di una realtà simbolica, è lo spaccato di un panorama mondiale in mutamento diviso tra la crisi dell'imperialismo nordamericano e la ricerca di nuovi punti di riferimento. Una narrazione asciutta e pungente accompagna lo spettatore in un percorso pieno di tranelli e imboscate, lasciandolo inquieto e dubbioso: il Venezuela è davvero l'altro mondo possibile?

29 December 2006

Recensione: Energia - la sfida del secolo (2006), di Piero Angela, ****

Fonte: U.S. Energy Information Administration

L'energia è il motore della vita politica e sociale. In effetti al giorno d'oggi, appena si apre il giornale ci si imbatte in una notizia che, per un verso o per l'altro, ha a che fare che fare con la questione energetica. Sia direttamente, come l'aumento del prezzo del petrolio, gli approvvigionamenti di gas, l'opportunità delle centrali nucleari. Sia in maniera indiretta, visto che da essa dipendono buona parte delle controversie internazionali, prime fra tutte le guerre attuali nei paesi del Golfo Persico. Senza contare che la grande crescita economica di Cina e India porterà sicuramente a un aumento della domanda di energia. Il libro passa in rassegna tutte le fonti di energia, mettendo in risalto aspetti positivi e negativi di ognuna di esse e disegnando gli scenari futuri. Tutto con lo scopo di chiarire le idee su una questione che segna il presente e il futuro in modo così prepotente.


Un interessantissimo libro a carattere divulgativo per informare le nostre scelte in campo energetico. Il mondo avrà sempre più bisogno di energia, sia perché aumenta la popolazione, sia perché, mediamente, ogni essere umano ne consumerà di più. Gli idrocarburi continueranno a fare la parte del leone per molti anni, ed il Medio oriente sarà ancora per molto tempo la principale fonte. Non sono d'accordo però con Angela (e con l'opinone diffusa) che la guerra all'Iraq si sia fatta per il petrolio: Saddam Hussein ne vendeva a chiunque pagasse, e senza neanche fare politiche rialziste dei prezzi come alcuni "amici" dell'Occidente quali Arabia Saudita e Iran con lo Scià.

Angela è piuttosto favorevole al nucleare, considerando che i rischi reali (invece di quelli presunti emotivamente dall'impatto sensazionale degli incidenti) siano minori di quelli di altre fonti. Il carbone uccide tutti i giorni senza finire sulle prime pagine dei giornali, sia per estrarlo sia per l'inquinamento che produce: nella sola Cina muoiono ogni anno migliaia di minatori. Chernobyl e Three Mile Island, invece, hanno fatto molte meno vittime di quanto comunemente si creda: alcune migliaia nell'ipotesi peggiore, molte meno degli idrocarburi. (Il libro è stato pubblicato prima dello tsunami a Fukushima.)

L'autore è generalmente realista riguardo alle energie rinnovabili e "pulite", ed analizza con sangue freddo pro e contro della principali opzioni: eolico, solare, geotermico, idroelettrico.

Un libro da leggere e rileggere, e su cui riflettere per formarsi una propria idea sul problema principale del XXI secolo.

22 August 2002

15. - 22 AUG: Luang Prabang - Nong Kiaw (Muang Ngoy): against the current on a slow boat on the Nam Ou river

On a slow motor pirogue up the Mekong

Again up at dawn, at 7:00am we were at the Luang Prabang ferry harbor on the Mekong, just a five minute walk from our guesthouse. We load up and we are off. As we leave the last houses of Luang Prabang behind us, our slow boat begins to claw its way against the slow current of the Mekong. Soon, there is only virgin jungle all around us, and the impenetrable vegetation tumbles down decisively into the water from steep cliffs.

Different shades of dark green paint quick brush strokes down the uneven slopes. A few houses, sometimes on stilts, occasionally break our of the bush and suddenly come into view. On this stretch the river seems flat and quiet, no apparent current, no boulders to break its flow. Its dense clay-like water gently parts as we slide forward along the left bank.

After a good hour we reach the caves of Pak Ou, which are actually a bit disappointing. To my inexpert eye, the sculptures there are no match for what we have seen in Luang Prabang, there are too many people and too little space. When we leave the caves the boat takes a sharp turn to starboard and we leave the Mekong to begin our trip up its tributary, the Nam Ou. We are greeted by an immediate and drastic change of landscape. The Nam Ou’s river span is predictably much narrower than that of the Mekong, and the deep green of the jungle which framed our course until now is replaced by stark vertical rocky cliffs which drop several hundred meters straight down into the water, and mark the junction of the two rivers as a monumental post. The Nam Ou is perfectly flat and seemingly still here, as if frozen, with only a few minute ripples reflecting silvery shades and thus breaking the compact glossy brick-red coat of the surface.

Villages along the river

The village to which our skipper decided to take us, one a long series we meet as we motor up the river, is ready and set for the incoming tourists. Smiling ladies a their fighting stations (wooden tables on which their wares are displayed) politely invite us to examine various artifacts and cloths. I bought an opium pipe made of bone; I will never smoke it, I knew that, but the shape and engraving are endearing and I like the thought of giving a small incentive to honest artisans who use local raw materials and help preserve traditional skills. A few men are working with a scalpel, thy were trying to carve out a tree trunk to make a canoe, but their attitude made me think it was all staged for effect, they somehow do not look like carpenters or coopers.

A completely different story awaited us at another village a few kilometers upstream. This time we saw a few houses on stilts and asked the skipper to make a landing. The inhabitants were friendly and immediately welcomed us, but it was abundantly clear that they did not expect a visit that day! A few children approached and wanted to play, but most of the adults just kept going at their daily routines, weaving, washing, sawing bamboo. A couple of adolescents were curious to see through our telephoto lenses and had a ball when they did! Their interest turned into elation when I substituted a fish-eye lens (super wide angle) for the telephoto…

It’s lunch time and I am hoping for some local delicacy but at a food stall we see it’s all imported food, except Lao Beer (not even that!, bought by a Thai company). I am rather disappointed but there is no time to go and loo, around for anything else. It’s hot and we are thirsty and hungry!

Satellite dishes are ostentatiously visible on some of the roofs. A fellow traveler commented that this was really too bad, television would for ever spoil the gentle and innocent character of these peoples. They would be bombarded with useless commercials and will want things they do not need. They will see a distorted representation of reality outside their village. Children would spend hours sitting in front of their TV sets and stop socializing and playing outside. I could not disagree more. Even though I don’t watch TV personally, it seems to me that the information and education that an otherwise isolated population can receive throught the airwaves is priceless. Yes, it will change their lifestyle as it has changed ours. Not sure even about that, this generation is moving fast away from TV and toward the internet anyway. But how on earth can one wish these people did not have this channel of communication available to them is beyond me. Except the silly, selfish desire to preserve “genuine” populations, isolated from “contamination”, so as to be able to come here and photograph “real” Laos. Dumb!

Panning for Gold in Suptiem

After one sharp bend of the river out skipper steers abruptly to starboard and makes landfall on a small island of mud. In the distance further upstream we can make out people crouching by the waterfront but it is not clear what they are up to. We are told we can not really make a landfall closer and after we are all on the island the skipper uses the boats plank to bridge the mud island with the mainland and we start walking toward the crouching people.

As it turns out they were all women, many with their children playing around, but no men in sight. The women had big pans in their hands and they are panning for gold! One proudly shows us a tiny gold leaf she has found earlier in the morning. Most are panning the river water, and about one hundred of them work side by side along the beach. Some dig into the mud a few meters inland, and go carefully through the mud in search of glittering stuff. It was noon and the tropical sun, having finally broken through the cloud cover after several days, was shining with all its might, its hot rays hitting me heavily on the head. The Mekong displayed its usual brick-red intensity, the same color as the muddy river banks, the sky was a cloudless postcard blue and the deep green jungle thoroughly covered the steep mountainsides all around. Everything in sight was either blue, green or brick-red, nature looks so simple, so perfectly assembled. After several days of sailing up the river we had gained altitude, and the air began to feel thinner.

Leaving the ladies to their work we walked up a slippery mud path toward the village itself. Perhaps they did actually find lots of gold here, because Suptiem was evidently a richer, cleaner village than any other we have seen so far. The houses on stilts were neat and proper, built on a perfectly straight line along both sides of a main street. Some embryonic urban planning must have gone into the layout of Suptiem. A shining polished communal water pump (hand powered, alas, no generators!) stood by the road side, and people took turns at showering and filling up bottles for their homes. Curious children, as always, came around asking for pens; they looked quite healthy and clean. Some older ladies intervened and tried to sell their pretty embroidery.

As we continued our course Northward, the boat’s tack became uneven. Until now the skipper had kept a steady course and speed, but now he had to carefully negotiate his way among treacherous sandbanks and all kinds of floating debris. Sudden cross currents forced him to zigzag in an apparently haphazard way to port or starboard; one minute we could almost tough the vegetation on the right bank, the next we were headed straight toward a inlet on the left bank. The skipper’s assistant made me come down from the roof structure where I had climbed in search for better angles for my pictures: must lower the boat’s center of gravity to make it more stable during the sudden turns... safety first!

As the cruising hours gently went by, the dark green of the jungle all around gradually turned darker and darker. The silvery ripples on the brick-clay river surface turned blue. At dusk, it all quickly took on a light gray patina, which then turned into dark gray. The last pirogues still in the water hurriedly made for home, and the last few children interrupted their frolics in the water and disappeared behind the bush. We were obviously late, the boat should have reached Nong Khiaw by now, but the town is nowhere to be seen. At one point the large suspended bridge of Muang Ngoy appeared before us. A modern structure, if a bit run down, aesthetically out of context in the otherwise bucolic surroundings, but obviously a great bonus in terms of both time and safety for those who use it. From the bridge, we were told, it was another hour to our final destination.

At the tropics the sun sets quickly. For another thirty minutes or so, the large white clouds which had gathered above held on to a sliver of dim sunlight which reflected down from their Western rims. Then, inevitably, the clouds’ countours became one with the black sky. The moon had not risen over the mountains yet and all of a sudden it was pitch black all around: water, jungle, boat, even ourselves, everything was ink black. At one point, suddenly, the weather deteriorated dramatically and a thunderstorm announced itself with a series of loud roars as a strange hot lateral wind began to pick up and hit the boat from starboard. It blew a pungent sand. The thick downpour delivered the first chill I experienced since arriving in South East Asia, it felt strange after weeks of uninterrupted heat. We all pulled out sweaters, wind-breakers, anoraks, whatever we had (and thought we would never need) and the skipper ordered the plastic curtains which were rolled up all around the roof to be released and made fast down onto the boat’s sides to partially protect us from rain and spray, which made the wind-carried dust stick to our skin. Luckily all photographic equipment has long been stored away for the day.

At this point we were cruising full speed ahead into a Conradian darkness on our pretty solid but light-less and radio-less, not to speak of GPS-less, radar-less, horn-less and everything-else-less boat. I was not sure we had life vests on board but what I knew for sure was that, even if we did, in an emergency we would never have been able to find them and put them on. Even if we had put them on, what would have happened once we had been at the current’s mercy is anyone’s guess. That by that hour there was obviously no traffic at all on the river did not make me feel much safer. Nevertheless, it was somehow exhilarating to be there! We did not speak much at all, but deep inside I was excited. How did the skipper continue both to avoid treacherous submerged boulders and to tame the tricky currents without seeing a thing was a mystery to me; that we did not hit a major invisible floating obstacle, like a log, the kind you can hardly see even in broad daylight was, I am sure, sheer luck! Another hour or so later we finally got a glimpse, out in the distance, of the barely visible neon lights of what by then I wanted to believe was Nong Khiaw, our destination. Which it was!

Nong Khiaw (Muang Ngoi)

When we got there, the docking station was packed solid with various boats, and we must make landfall a bit further on, under a steep muddy incline just under the verandah of a guesthouse. The boat’s wooden plank was laid as usual and Barbara and I walked onto the mud looking for shelter for the night. We climbed up the embankment and were met the owner of the guesthouse above, no problems, there were double rooms available at Kip 10,000 (one dollar) per night. Again while all my friends carry their back-packs some boy comes down to the pier and takes my suitcase for me, and earns a little tip for carrying it up the embankment to the room!

Half an hour later we were around the dining table of the guesthouse’s verandah, overlooking the river – though there was not much to overlook as it was still pitch black all around. The wind and rain had stopped, however, and it was pleasant to taste different kinds of river fish with sticky rice for dinner. A few hammocks provided an ideal setting for after dinner conversations al fresco. As announced by a notice on the wall, at about 10:00 o’clock the generator became silent and all lights went out. The erratic nature of power supply was a recurring theme in our conversations.

Power to the people?

It is amazing how so many villages around Laos, even small towns, only have sporadic and unreliable access to electricity. Often the only source of power are small diesel powered generators, with the obvious inconvenience of noise and air pollution that they produce. The reason why this is amazing is that Laos is a major producer, and exporter, of hydroelectric power. The government exports electricity, most of it to Thailand, to raise cash, but it does not yet think it necessary to provide it to its own people. In the mid-nineties a fierce debate began over whether or not additional hydroelectric capacity should be built. Opinions were as divided among the Laotians as they wre, and still are, among foreigners, interest groups and environmental organizations. Again the divide between eternal romantics and modernizers became apparent. The former see hydroelectric power as a mortal threat to the environment as well as to the traditional way of life of many hill tribes who must be resettled to make room for the new dam’s reservoir. The latter see new hydropower capacity as a clean source of renewable energy, indipensable for the economic development of the region and a precious source of foreign currency from power hungry Thailand and, increasingly, Viet Nam. No one is really pushing for additional fossil fuel power generation, so the real issue at stake is whether or not Laotian villages and towns need a reliable source of electricity.

The answer is not an economic but rather a political one. Eternal romantics believe that rural communities, and certainly all hill tribes, can live very well thank you very much the way they have lived for centuries, i.e. without electricity. (And of course without TV!) They see the arrival of electricity as a curse which changes – for the worse – their traditional way of life, creating unnecessary demand for electric tools and appliances an making it possible for hordes of tourists to invade. Modernizers, for their part, consider the need for electricity as a self-evident truth, indispensable to raise the standard of living, and argue not over whether, but over how to best provide for it.

Later at night a brilliant full moon rose high in the sky. It highlighted the contours of a few small clouds and cast a pale light over the blacked-out village. Tall palm tree silhouettes stood still behind the rooftops. There is nothing whatsoever one could possible do in the village, so I retired to my room. The manager gave us each one candle to get around in the night; come to think of it a dozen candles lying on the floor of wood and rattan constructions was a pretty serious fire hazard, but I persuaded myself that was just my prejudiced Western mindset, pulled out my diary and jotted down a few notes until all of a sudden the day’s fatigue set in and I collapsed for what I naively looked forward to be a good long night’s sleep.

23 February 1980

Gasoline and the Russians

A Polish friend takes us to a gas station in town where he knows the owner and makes an introduction so we can now buy gasoline at the "Polish" price, without coupons, and pay in zloty. He charges us 25 zloty per liter instead of the official price of 16 zloty, so he pockets 9 zloty per liter but this is still a huge saving for us. Coupons cost 60 cents per liter, ie about 55 zloty.

We celebrate with a great lunch at the restaurant of the hotel Victoria. As we park Giallina in front of the hotel some guy asks us whether we'd like the car cleaned: 1.50 USD for the job. OK it's a deal. The restaurant is called "Canaletto" and two large paintings of the Venetian master are there to be admired by their patrons.

After lunch we go for a walk and some coffee in the Stare Miasto (the old city). The charming downtown has been reconstructed after having been completely destroyed by the Nazis during WW II. It is an exact replica of the original that is lost forever.

In the evening there is a party in Ann's dorm, where we meet Marta. She does not really study there, but is a friend of a friend or something, and is on the prowl for a Western boyfriend.

Most students are very happy to talk to us and their favorite topic of conversation is the Russians. They just loath the Russians and resent the system that the Soviet Union has imposed on Poland. One Arbus (Water melon?) is drunk and spends a good half hour spitting on the ground and yelling: "Russki" and then stepping on his spit. Even though we have no language in common that is communication enough.

What no one mentioned, or knows, is that gasoline in Poland is cheap because it is provided at subsidized prices by the USSR. It is a price Moscow is willing to pay to contain discontent in the satellite countries and avoid a repetition of the experience of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.