Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sushi potatoes with herring

I've modified this from Marcus Samuelsson's inventive Aquavit cookbook.  It's an easy and refreshing appetizer that pairs wonderfully with Aalborg's Jubilaeums Akvavit--a coriander and dill flavored akvavit.  Herring can be a sustainable fishery, and potatoes don't quickly spoil and thus waste is minimized.  Any extra potatoes taste great when mashed with these flavors.

2 lbs yellow (ideally Yukon gold) potatoes
5 tsp rice vinegar
4 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp wasabi powder
2 tsp kosher salt
herring, pickled in wine, rinsed before use 
greens from fresh dill or fresh fennel

Wash and cook the potatoes.  Cool and peel.  Mash the potatoes and mix in the rice vinegar, mustard, wasabi and salt.  Mix well.  Form the seasoned potatoes into little sushi sized balls.  Place a piece of herring over the potato ball and garnish with the greens from fresh dill or fennel.  

Serve with a sip of akvavit.  

Angostura bitters and carbonated water

I was tracking down some good aquavit the other day to pair with a potato-herring appetizer I'm making for New Years (see next entry) and found myself in the 'bitters' isle of a really good neighborhood wine/spirits shop.  I'd never purchased bitters before but have been reading a lot about them recently and figured, what the heck, let's try the classic Angostura bitters.

Bitters are aromatic botanicals in an alcohol base.  You only need to use a few dashes.  I'm just starting my exploration of cooking with them, but here's the absolutely most simple recipe you can imagine...just mix with carbonated water (hopefully made with your own machine rather than purchasing bottled water!), ice, and consider adding a squeeze of lime.  Very refreshing.  I've been drinking this all afternoon while cooking!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

How we are motivated

Drop the 'e' in emotion and you've got motion.  Add a few letters and you've got motivated.  Any way you look at it, emotions and motivation are closely related. And they should be because they're all about motivating action. 

A few weeks ago I read Drew Westen's "The Political Brain" which argues that the way to people's votes (which in some sense is a way to get people to act) is through their emotions.  Faulting the Democratic Party's logic of fact-based reasoning he writes, in the lead up to the election that got President Obama elected, that elections are won by telling compelling stories that engage people's hearts, not their logical minds.

Transferred to thinking about how we can create a more sustainable future, we need to work even harder to create compelling, emotional images of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I still remember "The Day After"--a post-apocalyptic film about what happens after a nuclear exchange.  Presented on TV during the height of the Cold War, these horrible images seemed to motivate even more people to urge our politicians to shift us from the brink.  I think we need more films like this.  Realistic ones, not those where the Earth freezes over in hours, but ones that engage our senses and force us to think about choices.  Fear motivates us all.

We also need create positive emotions and positive images.  There ARE ways to engineer softer landings and we need to show folks that these ARE possible; if only we work.  But, if Westen is correct, data alone will not be the solution to our problems; vibrant imagery that captures our senses will.

Discussion Questions
What captures your senses?  What sorts of books, films, discussions do you think can help nudge us to a better future?

Mixed nuts

At a holiday party the other night I couldn't keep my hands off these delicious mixed nuts.  Our hostess, Jackie, generously shared her recipe.

2 cups pecans
2 cups walnuts
2 cups almonds
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 tsp red pepper
1/2 tsp salt

Mix well together and spread across a baking sheet.  Heat at 350°F for about 30 minutes.  Stir so that they neither stick nor burn.  Consider adding more pepper and salt to taste.  Serve warm or cold.  

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Lessons from Seasonal Letters...

Ahh, tis the season for seasonal letters.  I really like reading how friends have been doing and I really like learning from what they share.  An old friend included a link to the Nature Conservancy's carbon calculator in her annual letter.  It's good, but I think it must be a bit on the optimistic side because the 'long' flights to meetings I made in the past year didn't completely break our family's carbon budget.  However, it does show you the impacts of your actions and compares them to 'world' and 'US' average carbon consumption.  Check it out and see how you can improve your carbon consumption in this next year!

caprese scallops

The other night we had an interesting app at a restaurant...caprese scallops.  

Given that diver scallops are a good seafood alternative, I'm always looking for new ways to eat them.  This wasn't 'magical' but it was good.  My deconstruction of the recipe was:

Slices of heirloom tomatoes, alternated with freshly pan seared scallops (my recipe is in a previous blog post), warm caramelized onions (I would consider adding caramelized fennel to the onions; recipe in the book), and covered with a drizzle of a balsamic reduction (wine and balsamic vinegar, cooked down to a thick syrup in a saucepan).

I'll play around with this in the future, but it's an idea worth sharing...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The bugs that ate Monsanto

Grist reports that superbugs and superweeds have evolved to combat superfoods...GMOs that would be expected from first (evolutionary) principles.

Read more in this interesting article by Tom Laskawy.

Vegetable oils and deforestation

I just read the following in 3 December New Scientist:

"Growing demand for vegetable oil is destroying tropical forests by driving the expansion of oilseed plantations.  If everyone in Europe and the US cut their daily consumption of the oil by 25 grams--equivilant to one large helping of fries--70 per cent less forest would be lost (Biological Conservation, DOI: 10.1016/j.biocons.2011.10.029)."


Just wait till we're growing more oil to feed our cars!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The news is not so good...

OK, I've been depressed recently.  The failure of Durban and a quite scary article I read in Grist the other week about the Brutal Logic of Climate Change has silenced me...or at least made me want to write recipes.  

I was talking with Charlie the other night, who gave me an appropriate reproach for the tuna recipe!  He jokingly suggested I come up with what I'll call an extinction tasting menu:  Chilean sea bass, swordfish, and tuna.  I might take him up on that...

But seriously, you read the Brutal Logic of Climate Change and not come away depressed.  I think it's in times like this that we need to build even stronger personal and community relations.  It's in times like this that we really need to sit down and roll up our sleeves.  It's in times like this that we really do need to have a dinner party. 

I don't say this trivially.  We all must talk about this brutal logic.  Our society has done nothing to stop the rise of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and there is essentially no foreseeable way to keep the increased global temperature to 2°C.  My, what a slight warmer world you think, but don't forget, the last ice age was *only* 2-3°C cooler!  And, we're going to be much hotter than 2°C.  Where?  We're not sure.  But uncontrollable physical processes are more likely to take off when we exceed say 4-6C.  

In this holiday season, talk about all those things you're not supposed about the societal changes we're going to have to make so that we can all prosper and live rewarding lives.  Share your fears (I have a bucket full of them) and share your hopes (which, David Orr reminds us is a verb that means to roll up your sleeves and get to work!).

Friday, December 9, 2011

And where are our duties?

Two weeks ago Daniel wrote about a costumer who sprayed pepper on the face of other people to be the first to get the products she wanted at a Black Friday sale. As he pointed out, it seems we are losing our civility.

My guess is that many people are giving too much value for their rights at a point in which the rights of others value nothing. “My”, “me”, or “I”, are the favorite words for many of us: “I have to be the first”, “the government needs to work for me”, “I can do what I want”, and so on. I don’t know how American society is structured, but here in Brazil I feel we are experiencing an epidemic of “my things first”. It is deeply sad to see even children behaving this way.

Frans de Waal wrote that if he could be God for a moment, he would give people the gift of empathy, the ability to see the lives of others from the same perspective we see our own. There cannot be cooperation without empathy. We need to understand that our interests are similar to those of our friends, neighbors, relatives, and even enemies.

We are used to having our lives according to the legal system, but certain moral decisions we must take in our daily lives are not regulated by law. So, we should realize that our responsibilities to other people (and to the environment, too) go far beyond law.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The crash of marine fisheries...

It's ironic that I developed a recipe for ahi/big eye tuna the other day.  Today I read about a University of British Colombia study that talks about how Norther hemispheric marine fisheries that have been actively managed have suffered a 90% decline in the past 60 years! I wonder what the ahi/big-eye recipe tastes like when cooked with tilapia?  Something I'll likely try in the future!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ahi with a panko wasabi crust served with coconut jasmine rice

Eating most populations of tuna isn't so sustainable.  Fisheries vary in their population status and harvest methods vary in their direct and indirect impacts (see, for instance NOAA's site).  According to NOAA and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Atlantic pole-caught ahi/big-eye is the fish to look for but most of the ahi/big-eye sold in the US comes from Pacific fisheries, which, if harvested incorrectly (sein nets) isn't sustainable.  Yet, you can't always believe what you read:  thus, an additional problem is knowing, with any certainty, whether or not the labeling is accurate (much is not, as I've written before).  Finally, tuna, particularly ahi/big-eye is high in mercury:  eat at your own risk. 

So, it was with some irony that Janice and I independently looked at some fresh ahi and thought we should get some, particularly since we've not cooked it in years and even try to not to eat it in sushi.  Thus, I wanted to make something new (for me). It turned out pretty well and is festive.  If you know you've got pole-caught, Atlantic ahi/big-eye, enjoy!  Otherwise, consider passing on it.  Either way, eat tuna modestly.

3/4 cup mayonaise
1 Tbs wasabi powder
3/4 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
1.25 lbs ahi/big-eye 1" thick tuna steaks (cut into 3 pieces)
black sesame seeds

Mix the mayonaise and wasabi together well, drag the tuna steaks through it, and then pat them onto a plate filled with pakno to create a nice crust on all sides.  Put the well-breaded steaks into a baking dish (I used a metal baking pan with a silicon mat).  Bake at 350°F for 15-20 min (typically you cook about 15 min per inch).

Drizzling sauce
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tsp wasabi

Mix together, heat in microwave for 30 sec and ensure that it's fully mixed.  Serve with tuna. The wasabi-mayo would also be a good sauce...consider putting some soy in that.

1 1/2 cup jasmine rice
1 small can (5.6 oz) coconut milk

Cook in a rice cooker with appropriate amount of water mixed with the full can of coconut milk.  Serve sprinkled with seaweed seasoning.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Kale, garlic, and Creole seasoning...

A friend brought over some home-grown kale the other week.  We didn't get to cook it that night, but for a pot luck a few days later, and inspired by a recent meal we had, I decided to make it with potatoes.  I cooked my normal pan fried potatoes with Zatarain's Creole seasoning and was considering mixing the kale with it at the end. However, I needed to make it separately. I tried to keep a similar flavor profile and discovered that the kale, alone, was delicious.  It was delicious served separately.

3 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs olive oil
1 bunch kale, chopped
Zatarain's Creole seasoning (to taste)

Into a hot wok place the oil and garlic and cook for a minute or so.  Add the kale and toss until it starts to wilt.  Season liberally with the Zatarin's seasoning and serve wilted. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mussels with sun dried tomatoes and sake

Some of my best recipes are made from necessity (read:  we're out of food, what can we salvage from the freezer and fridge!).  Here's one we made tonight that turned out pretty well.  

1/2 stick butter (4 Tbs)
3 garlic cloves (minced)
1/2 cup sun dried tomatoes (cut into thin slices)
2 Tbs capers (strained and rinsed)
1 lb of mussels (I used frozen, pre-shelled ones that I thawed in cool water)
1 bottle (300 ml) dry sake
1/2 cup chopped Parmigiano-Reggiano
freshly ground black pepper to taste

Saute the garlic in the butter over medium-high heat until the butter melts and begins to bubble.  Add the tomatoes, capers and mussels and mix; saute for a few minutes.  Add the sake, reduce the heat to medium, cover, and cook for about about 5-10 min.  Add the cheese and cook for 5 more min until it is well integrated and the entire mixture is a luscious orange.  Sprinkle freshly ground pepper over the sauce, mix and serve over spaghetti.

I find that the sake adds a delicate flavor different from the Chardonay that I usually cook mussels in.  Yum. Enjoy.  Mussels can be sustainably grown and by eating them, we're supporting efforts to control water pollution.

Friday, November 25, 2011

We've lost our moral compass

I just woke up to read about a customer at a Wallmart pepper-sprayed other customers to gain a shopping advantage at a 'black-friday' (post-Thanksgiving) sale.  

Read that again.

Say what?!

On top of this, there were shootings in parking lots and robberies near stores.  C'mon America.  This is appalling   We've not just lost civility, we've lost humanity!  

How do we work towards respecting others?  How do we wean ourselves from our orgyistic consumerism which is both a blessing (it drives our economy) and a clear and present danger for our future (it drives our carbon consumption).  How do we re-learn manners and civility?  How do we create a national conversation that doesn't end it pepper-spray?  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving thanks for our environment

This Thanksgiving, pause and give thanks for our environment.  Our environment that provides the oxygen that we breathe and the clean water that we drink and use for irrigation.  Our environment that provides the soil in which we grow crops.  Our environment that provides the pollinators that pollinate our produce and the flowers that we enjoy in our gardens.  Our environment that provides the wood that we build with and the trees that give us shelter.  Our environment in which we recreate.  Our environment that is filled with unknown diversity and which, when you pause and really see what is going on around you, is simply magical.

Give thanks for our environment because it is threatened.  It is threatened by our use of carbon.  It is threatened by our own ingenuity—the chemicals that we have created pollute it in unknown and perhaps (given the diversity of chemicals) unknowable ways. It is threatened by our use of fertilizers and insecticides. It is threatened by over-harvesting—both in the sea and on land. 

Give thanks to those teachers and environmental educators without whom we wouldn’t know what is at stake if we continue to burn carbon, pollute, over-fertilize, and create toxins.  For these teachers are a key link in understanding and are those that must teach us not only what is at stake, but also to help facilitate our search for solutions.

Give thanks to those teachers and support them in wise curriculum development.  Curriculum that inspires our students to solve problems rather than simply parrot answers on government-mandated standardized tests.  Curriculum that teaches our students to be citizens, with all of the knowledge about civics and politics, history and social studies, art and literature, and science that this entails.  Curriculum that empowers rather than bores.  Curriculum that can effect a change.

And give thanks to those around you, with whom you must work to create this change.  We’re at an important crossroads in history where inaction can lead to unknowable destruction.  As John F. Kennedy, extending the thoughts of the Babylonian Jewish leader Hillel the Elder, said:  “If not us, who?  And if not now, when?”

Daniel T. Blumstein & Charles Saylan

Thursday, November 17, 2011

New Scientist on the loss of scientific reason in the US

The 1 November 2011 issue of New Scientist has an outstanding series of essays on the loss of scientific reasoning in the US and the horrible consequences of it.  Refuting the widely-held recent claims that the US was founded as a Christian nation, Shawn Lawrence Otto reminds us that:

"The early settlers were Puritians seeking freedom from authoritarian Chrisianity.  To be a Puritan was to study both the Bible adn the book of nature in order to discern God's laws, a process called "natural philosophy", which today we call "science"."

He goes on to note that science is politics and that it's not just the religious right that is non-scientific.  For instance, liberal San Francisco legislators "passed an ordinance requiring cellphone shops to warn customers about radiation hazards such as brain cancer, despite no scientific evidence." and think about how childhood vaccination rates are often lower in highly educated, liberal neighborhoods.

Peter Aldhous writes about how 'the deficit model' is often assumed; if people are dispassionately told the facts, they'll come around to making the right decisions.  Despite the Obama Administrations attempts to do that with climate change, it just doesn't work that way, in part because people don't make decisions that way.  Aldhous reviews research showing that people make decisions in different ways and that to convince them, you've got to tap into the ways that the are making decisions.  Turns out that liberals tend to be more swayed by what Yale's Dan Kahan calls 'egalitarian-communitarian' processes and messengers, while conservatives respond better to what Kahan calls 'hierarchical-individualists'.

I highly recommend reading this article.  Depressing, but at least it lays out some starting points for change.

Paul Anastas: words of encouragement

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a small lunch for, and a larger-public lecture by, Professor Paul Anastas--Yale professor, 'father' of green chemistry, and currently the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development and Science Advisor to the EPA.

WOW!  This guy was positive.  Using wise quotes from Einstein (you're not going to solve a problem with the same thinking that created it...) and others, and excellent examples, he talked about why we have to break away from thinking about incremental improvements and focus more on truly transformative technological innovation.  Indeed, he kept saying that the best solution to a problem doesn't involve technology, it involves not using technology at all.  

For example, what's better:  a gas-powered lawn mower, a solar-powered lawn mower, an electric lawn mower, or a push mower?  Thinking only about energy use, you can develop arguments and ways to incrementally improve the efficiency of lawn mowers.  However, that's not the point. What if you planted grass that didn't require cutting because it didn't grow long blades.  No technology is required.  

Or consider phones.  Where should phone lines be?  How can they be made more efficient.  What about not using phone lines at all and have cell-phone towers. 

He talked in general terms about bio-mimicry and how many toxic industrial processes use heat, and dangerous chemicals to catalyze reactions, but nature builds things that are useful to us without the heat and toxic chemicals. These ideas are ripe for the pickin'.

He also talked broadly about the importance of systems thinking.  Despite our best intentions, if we're too focused on a single problem, we may cause more problems in the long-term.  We have to think about the entire system--the Earth's environment in this case.

The salience of transformative thinking was just hammered into me in a discussion I had after the talk.  

Have you seen those new 'green' plastic bottles...the ones that say they are made from natural products?  Turns out that they use plant products (which is as bad as running cars on plants because it takes food out of people's mouths) AND to make the plastics, many of the same toxic chemicals that are used to make regular plastics are used to make so-called 'vegetable' plastics.  UG.  We really need an alternative (recyclable bottles anyone?)!

Small versus big business

Back from Belize, I’m still catching up with a stack of journals and magazines (yes, I still do read things on paper…).  One really interesting essay was written by James Surowiecki in the 31 October issue of The New Yorker and noted that one key characteristic of successful national economies was that there were a lot of large employers.  He noted that this is in stark contrast to a widely held political view that by helping small businesses we’ll help our country’s economy.  He pointed out that small businesses are inefficient and are likely to fail whereas big business have buying power and can help more people in both the short and long run.
This got me thinking about  the role of small versus big businesses for driving innovation. What is the role of small business?  At a party the other week I met two entrepreneurs with two very different and very promising businesses that they were trying to get off the ground. I asked one, who did they want to sell their internet-based business too in the best of circumstances.  Thus, when I later read the Surowiecki piece, I resonated to the power of big business. 
Small business are necessary, in a Darwinian sense, to drive innovation.  But the real money is made by the big businesses who have the power to take successful ideas and package them into something bigger. 
How does this help us solve our environmental problems?  I think we need to support research and innovation, but we also have to ensure that we have an infrastructure that can take these great ideas and scale them up.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What does Marine Stewardship Council labelling protect?

A recent study, discussed in the 11 November issue of Science, shows that while an MSC label (the Marine Stewardship Council is the largest eco-label for seafood) can protect fisheries, fisheries, even with an MSC label do not necessarily have beneficial consequences on the ecosystem that extend beyond the fishery itself.  In part, the failure to find larger effects reflects the difficulty of studying these indirect links.  However, it is important that by taking a lot of energy from the sea to eat, we're going to effect things that naturally rely on that energy.

What if cooperation doesn’t scale up to nation states?

Here’s a bad thought.  What if cooperation doesn’t scale.  What if what works for interpersonal relationships doesn’t work for nation states. 

Why did I wake up with a start thinking about this?  Well, we know that (as I’ve written about here and elsewhere before) that cooperation requires some degree of recognition and memory (you need to identify those who cooperate and those who don’t) and you need some mechanisms for incentivizing cooperation, detecting those who do not cooperate and then and punishing those who cheat.  All of this can, when properly, employed lead to stable, cooperative systems.

However, what works at for individuals or small groups may be more difficult to scale up to nation states.  And this woke me up with a jolt because the major environmental problems we face now are ALL about cooperation between sovereign states. 

Consider the whole Euro-zone crisis.  Just because Germany has it’s house in good financial order doesn’t mean that they can force other Euro-zone countries to comply—even when the cost of failure is an economic collapse that is too terrifying to consider.  Or consider the screams for protectionism that accompany each economic downturn.  These make sense in that politicians must represent their constituents, but again, when the scale of our problems is global, we need new political mechanisms that answer to the Earth to create this global cooperation.

Discussion questions

Given that many claim the UN as a governing body has failed to create the sort of system required to manage global environmental problems, what are the elements of the UN that have been responsible for this failure.  After identifying those shortcomings, then discuss what attributes you’d want for an effective international cooperative system charged with helping us prevent a catastrophic environmental collapse.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

LA Times OpEd on time of use electricity pricing

Capitalism versus the climate

Naomi Klein has written a hard-hitting piece in 28 Nov 2011 issue of The Nation about the relationships between capitalism and the climate/environment.  Long, scary, but worth reading and discussing.  Yes, we should probably be scared...

Basil hummus

My friend Paul made a delicious fresh basil hummus and this is my attempt to recreate it.  I think it turned out pretty well.
1 can garbanzo beans (strained and rinsed off with fresh water)
1 Tbs cumin

3 big garlic cloves

several large leafy stems of fresh basil

1/8 cup water

juice of 1 large lemon

1/8 cup olive oil (plus another 1/8th cup in reserve)

freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

Place all but pepper into a food processor and mix well.  Add more olive oil (up to one more 1/8th cup) to smooth out the texture.  Grind in black pepper to taste.  If the taste of basil is not strong enough for you, add more fresh basil.  The dish should have a greenish color.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Paying for Ecosystem Services

Nature provides us benefits and the idea of trying to quantify these benefits occupies the days of environmental economists.  

In a fascinating essay in the 4 November 2011 Science, Ann Kinzig and colleagues write:

"The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concluded that over the past 50 years, 60% of all ecosystem services (ES) had declined as a direct result of the growth of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, industries, and urban areas ( 1). This is not surprising: We get what we pay for. Markets exist for the products of agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry. But the benefits of watershed protection ( 2), habitat provision ( 3), pest and disease regulation ( 4), climatic regulation ( 5), and hazard protection ( 6) are largely unpriced. Because existing markets seldom refl ect the full social cost of production, we have incorrect measures of the scarcity of some ES and no measures for the rest."

They go on to discuss how we must do more than simply have governments buy land or protect watersheds if we want to preserve these ecosystem services and they go on to highlight trade-offs that emerge when trying to protect the variety of ecosystem services.   For instance, if one country reduces carbon production with a cap-and-trade scheme, manufacturing may shift to another place. Incentives to produce biofuels, may cause rainforest destruction that reduces biodiversity.  And, creating corridors to connect various patches of habitat may increase disease risk caused by wild animals encountering domestic animals.

Fascinating reading and the stimulus for a variety of dinner party conversations...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Tom Whipple on Peak Oil

The Peak Oil Crisis: The German Army Report

By Tom Whipple

Wednesday, September 21 2011 06:49:43 PM

In the last five or six years at least 20 major studies have been
published by governmental and non-governmental organizations that
either deal with or touch upon the possibility of severe energy
shortages developing in the near future.

Studies done by governmental entities, however, are rare for nearly
all of the world's governments still prefer to wait as long as
possible before confronting the myriad of problems that will
accompany declining oil production. Exceptions to this phenomenon of
denial, however, seem to be military organizations that have
realistic planning baked into their DNA. All professional military
services know that in the last century they have become so dependent
on liquid fuels that their effectiveness would be severely degraded
should shortages or extremely high oil prices develop.

Last year two military planning organizations went public with
studies predicting that serious consequences from oil depletion will
befall us shortly. In the U.S. the Joint Forces Command concluded,
without saying how they arrived at their dates, that by 2012 surplus
oil production capacity could entirely disappear and that by 2015 the
global shortfall in oil production could be as much as 10 million
b/d. Later in the year a draft of a German army study, which went
into greater detail in analyzing the consequences of peaking world
oil production, was leaked to the press. The German study which was
released recently is unique for the frankness with which it explores
the dire consequences which may be in store for us.

The Bundeswehr Transformation Center, the organization that prepared
the study, starts with the assertion that as there are so many forces
in play, it is impossible to determine an exact date for peak oil,
but that it will become obvious in hindsight. The Germans also
believe that it is already too late to complete a comprehensive
global transition to a post fossil fuel economy. They introduce the
notion of a peak oil induced economic "tipping point" that would
trigger so much economic damage that it is impossible to evaluate the
possible outcomes.

For the near future the study foresees that a very large increase in
oil prices would harm the energy-intensive agricultural systems that
produce much of our food. Not only could the costs of fertilizers and
pesticides become prohibitive, but the massive amount of
oil-dependent transportation needed to move agricultural products
long distances could make food unaffordable for many.

The study goes on to postulate a "mobility crisis" that would arise
from substantial increases in the costs of operating private cars and
trucks. Although sudden shortages could be relieved by volunteer and
regulatory measures, ultimately the mobility crisis would feed into
and add to the worsening economic situation.

As oil is used either directly or indirectly in almost 90 percent of
industrial production, major increases in the price of oil would
change most price relationships. Domestic and foreign trade will have
to adapt to these new relationships but doing so will likely lead to
economic upheavals. As businesses transform to less oil-dependent
forms of services and production, there would likely be an extended
period of "transformation unemployment" that will become a major
economic problem. A case could be made that our current "jobs" crisis
is simply the leading edge of the "transformation unemployment" that
could go on for decades.

The German study maintains that all countries on earth will sooner or
later be faced with the problem of transitioning to a post-fossil
fuel age. As such a transition has never happened before, there are
no guidelines for how it is to be accomplished. Of great significance
is the willingness of nations to implement the economic policies
necessary to effect the transformation to the post fossil fuel age.
Forms of government will be sorely tested. The Germans who have much
experience in these matters note that only continuous improvement in
individual living conditions forms the basis for tolerant and open
societies. Given the widespread unemployment and high mobility costs
that are almost certain to accompany the transition to a post fossil
fuel world, democratic forms of government are likely to face severe
challenges. We all remember the Weimar Republic. Also of note are
recent studies within the OECD that show that voting for extremist
and nationalist political parties tends to increase with economic setbacks.

For the immediate future, however, the German Army study foresees: 1.
increasing oil prices that will reduce consumption and economic
output (i.e. a recession or worse); 2. increasing transportation
costs that will lead to lower trade volumes - less income for many
and unaffordable food for some; and 3. pressure on government budgets
as they must keep populations fed, deal with the social consequences
of mass unemployment, and attempt to invest in sustainable sources of
energy. Governmental revenues are bound to fall as unemployment
increases along with resistance to further taxation.

In the medium term, most companies would come to realize that the
global economy is going to be shrinking for a long time and act
accordingly. In an indefinitely shrinking economy, savings would not
be invested as profits could no longer be made or borrowing costs
paid. In this environment, the banking system, stock exchanges and
financial markets would have a hard time surviving.

Banks would be left with no reason to exist as they would not be able
to pay interest on deposits or find credit-worthy companies or
individuals. The final step would be the loss of confidence in
currencies and with them the ability to carry on normal economic
transactions outside of barter.

If all this sounds extreme to American ears, remember the Germans
have been through far more than we have in the last century. What is
interesting is the way they are telling it like they see it - no
pulling of punches here.

Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following
the peak oil issue for several years.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Creating memories in nature

A friend of mine spent a couple of years in the state of Bahia, northeastern Brazil, to map the distribution of monkeys of the genus Callicebus in that state. He had to talk to a lot of people to get information about the localization of the monkeys, and then check if they were still living in that area. Some people indicated an old man as a source of great knowledge about the fauna and flora of the region, and my friend went to a small community to interview him. By the end of the talk, my friend played the sound of a monkey vocalization and asked the man if he could recognize what sound was that. When the old man heard it, he stood up and started crying: “this was the sound of the forest! The sound of the forest! This does not exist anymore, people destroyed it! But it was not me!” His daughter, who was hearing the talk, asked my friend to stop the interview because his father needed to go home and rest. He was very excited and his body was shaking.

The old man didn’t know that sound was the vocalization of a monkey. For him, it was the forest. And the forest must have played an important role in his life. I wonder what he remembered when he heard “the forest”. Perhaps his youth, his family, friends, the social life in his community, good and bad things, all of them happened in that place, surrounded by the forest. The forest had been the background for life in that place. And the forest was not there anymore.

This kind of situation is an example that indicates we have to defend nature not only for the material things it supplies us. We need to conserve nature for the sake of our peace of mind. Forests, animals, and every other aspect of nature are inside us, are part of what we are. In a world where financial values are the central part of many discussions, even those related to environmental questions, cultural, ethical and spiritual values must not be forgotten, and we can incorporate some of these values living close to natural things.

Discussion topics: Does nature evoke good memories in you? Is there a special landscape that reminds you of good things that happened in you life?

Paul Ehrlich on population


Population growth sees myths reborn

Paul Ehrlich

November 1, 2011

The news that the human population now numbers more than 7 billion -
and the projection that it may grow to 15 billion - has caused the
re-emergence of many ancient population fallacies.

Australia is a centre of one of the most dangerous myths to infect
civilisation: that population and economic growth have no limits. The
"big Australia" fallacy is pushed by unscrupulous developers,
politicians, media moguls and their buddies, who will personally
profit from growth.

In fact, Australian population growth will promote further
destruction of the fragile environment of Australia. And it will
attack global life-support systems by adding more greenhouse
gas-emitting super-consumers to the human population.

Fortunately, most poor and middle-class Australians realise that the
growth boosters will push the costs of further overpopulation onto
them and the rest of Earth's people, while reaping the benefits for
themselves. Indeed, Australia leads all the rich countries in at
least having a debate about population and consumption, and having a
leader such as Dick Smith to galvanise it.

Let's look at some of the silliest ideas. There's the half-baked idea
that overpopulation isn't the problem - it's overconsumption. Yes,
most of humanity's environmental problems trace to too much total
consumption, but that consumption is due to population size and
per-capita consumption.

Population and consumption are no more separable in producing
environmental damage than the length and width of a rectangle can be
separated in producing its area - both are equally important.

It's also wrong to say that there is not a "population bomb" but a
"cluster bomb" of rapidly growing countries. This claim focuses on
the plight of some poor countries struggling with rapid population
growth and increasing hunger.

However, it ignores the role of rich countries in worsening that
plight and, more importantly, in contributing to the most important
population-related problems that are global: climate disruption,
toxification of the entire planet, limited fossil fuels and
increasing risk of pandemics and nuclear war.

Likewise, it is silly to suggest that the additional 2 billion people
projected to arrive by 2050 will have the same environmental impact
as the last 2 billion. No, they won't. Each person added to the
population in the future will likely, on average, cause more damage
to humanity's critical life-support systems than did the previous person.

It will be necessary to farm ever poorer lands, use more dangerous
and expensive agricultural inputs, win metals from ever-poorer ores,
drill wells deeper or tap increasingly remote or more contaminated
sources to obtain water, then spend more energy to transport that
water ever-greater distances, and so on. Of course, if humanity got
serious about protecting the environment the next 2 billion could do
less damage.

The idea that there is a big problem with ageing populations is
beloved of innumerate European politicians, but it is idiotic. The
shift of age composition towards a higher proportion of old people
who will need support is inevitable when a growing population moves
to zero population growth. But there will be a smaller proportion of
children to be supported, and it is much easier to make a 70-year-old
economically productive than a seven-year-old.

Only if the population were to grow forever could making the obvious
minor adjustments to changing population age structure be avoided.

The most widespread folly may be the idea that "healthy" economies
can grow forever at 3.5 per cent a year. It actually implies that in
20 years the capacity of Earth's environment to support us could be
roughly cut in half, and in a couple of centuries, that capacity
could be reduced to something like one-100th of today's. Perpetual
growth is the creed of the cancer cell. The human enterprise is
already too large to be sustained.

Perhaps the most dangerous fallacy of all is that the hazardous
consequences of population growth can sensibly be examined one at a
time. For example, in many discussions of the problems of feeding a
burgeoning population, the implications of climate disruption for
food production are not mentioned at all. The fact that agriculture
is utterly dependent on precipitation, patterns of which are already
changing with the rise of greenhouse gases, is rarely explained - let
alone that agriculture is one of the main emitters of those gases.

Finally, there's the idea that leaders and decision-makers understand
these fallacies. All one needs to do is listen to a political debate
among US Republican presidential candidates today, or note the
general absence of population and consumption from political
discourse, to know this is nonsense.

The debate about population and consumption should include what is
known of human evolution - which provides essential background on
human behaviour - and an understanding of what humanity is doing to
undermine its own life-support systems. If we don't change how we
treat each other and those vital systems, society almost certainly
will collapse.

Paul Ehrlich is the Bing professor of population studies at Stanford
University. This is an edited version of the Jack Beale Lecture on
the Global Environment delivered at University of NSW last night.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Two catalytic moments

I think it's reasonable to say that because of global warming, I was able to hang with David Orr.  Turns out that I should have still be in Belize but had to evacuate my class ("cut and run", in my vocab!) to avoid a hurricane that was building and bearing down on our remote caye in the Caribbean.  

But stepping back a moment, more and stronger hurricanes are expected because of global warming.  Why?  Because hurricanes form and strengthen over hot water and the Caribbean has been exceptionally hot recently.  Hurricanes are not to be messed with.  While NOAA does a wonderful job trying to predict their tracks, they're somewhat unpredictable and can be devastating (remember Katrina?).  A year before our class, the island we were on had a direct hit from a category 1 and this caused a lot of damage (in addition to washing plastic junk all over the island).  I was told that in 1961 a hurricane hit the island, cut it up and killed people.  Shape of things to come?  You betcha. 

I've already written about the second catalytic event: watching the reef bleach.  I still can't shake the image of swimming over a reasonably healthy coral reef one day and the next swimming through slimy water filled with zozanthellae.  Turns out that we didn't lose the whole reef but two weeks after the bleaching event, the corals that lost their zozanthellae, had not recovered.  Such damage may be cumulative.  Lose a bit this year.  A bit more next year.  Before you know it, no reef.  And this ratcheting down of the reef condition illustrates something called 'shifting baselines'.  

Shifting baselines are seen when we look at something now and use that as our reference for 'natural', 'healthy', or 'quality'. The trouble is if you go back far enough, what we see now is anything but natural, healthy or quality.

What can be done?  Help create that sustainable future I've been writing and blogging about.  Talk about catalytic events you've had.  And, consider sharing them here!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Insights from David Orr

I had the pleasure of spending some time with Oberlin Professor and Environmental leader David Orr last night.  He's a personal hero, a master of great prose, and always fun to hang with.  Coupla words that will be immediately incorporated into my vocabulary.

Promiscuous chemistry:  We were talking about the problems from what really only can be called a chemical revolution over the past 50 or so years.  Trouble is that this revolution is probably going to kill us.  We have no idea how many of these petro-chemical derived chemicals function alone or together.  We do know that since the rise of plastics and other industrial and consumer chemicals, male sperm counts have declined throughout the 'developed' world combined with a concomitant drop in testes size.  And, there have been major reductions in the age of puberty for girls, and reproductive cancers are more common.

Hope is a verb, with its sleeves rolled up:  David was talking about the ways one can address the current major threats to our environment and civilization.  He said one be optimistic and can ignore the truth and think that others will work it out (which won't happen), or once can be pessimistic which he views as morally repugnant because it involves no personal action.  Rather, he says we all have to work hard and have hope.

Some thoughts for tonight's dinner?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

We are all the 100%

Regardless of where you fall on the current 'occupy' movement, the environmental problems we face will require ALL of us working together to solve.  Sure businesses produce products and the production of these products uses energy and creates waste, but we, the consumers are those that demand these products. And, even if we're not demanding them (do we really need the diversity of products currently created?) we permit ourselves to be duped into thinking we need them.  Thus, all 100% of us are, to some extent, culpable, for the current environmental problems.

Consumption control is the easiest way for us to address this.  Indeed, if you're opposed to a particular business, just don't use their products.  Don't like wall street banks--join a credit union or a bank at a community bank.  Better yet, try to use less.  

Food decisions are a great place to start.  Try to buy less processed food because processed food = additional energy.  Cook your own meals from fresh ingredients.  Your body and your soul will be rewarded.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Fast for 7 billion?

On Monday, 31 October 2011, I suggest we consider having a foodless dinner party.  Foodless?  Why?  

Because it is on this day that the UN will 'celebrate' the birth of the 7 billionth living person on Earth.  7 billion is a lot of people on this crowded planet and rather than celebrating, we should probably mourn and prepare for a future with less.  

7 billion people who hope to have a life that depends on resources (a synonym for 'development' or 'an advanced lifestyle') will further deplete our natural resources, increase the amount of toxic wastes, greenhouse gases, and ultimately, many of these people will suffer.  Of course, as Charlie and I (and many others) have written, a person isn't a person isn't a person.  It's their ecological footprint that matters.  A single person in a developed country has a much greater ecological and carbon footprint than someone living in a very poor country.  Thus, the intention (dare I say 'right') to develop is a double-edged sword; particularly when you have 7 billion people whose lives you're hoping to improve.

And, while in many places energy is much more efficiently created and used, and while there is a bright future for those who can figure out how to develop more sustainable sources of energy, 7 billion creates a huge barrier to equitable sharing of those energy resources and 7 billion creates a lot of waste and stresses on natural ecosystems.

A few years ago the UN predicted that the population would level off in the next few decades.  But now, some current predictions toy with the idea that the world will soon have 10 billion people.  Pause and imagine this for a moment.  10 billion mouths to feed.  10 billion people to warm and cool and clothe and support.  That's even more pollution, greenhouse gas production, and, ultimately, suffering.

So, this weekend over dinner, talk about a world with 7 billion.  And then think about what a world with 10 billion would look like.  Is it a world that you would want to live in?  Is that amount of global suffering acceptable to you?  What can you do to help prevent that?  What can we all do to better help share the resources with others?  Should we really skip a meal on Monday?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meatless dinner parties

Melissa Clark, writing in the NY Times, has a nice essay about meatless dinner parties.

Creating competition to stimulate environmental legislation

Here’s a really interesting claim by E. Donald Elliot (  Writing in the September/October 2011 issue of “The Environmental Forum” he claims that
“Environmentalists have made three tactical mistakes of historic proportions since 1990.  First, they have consistently supported Democrats, thereby undermining the competition between the two parties on environmental issues that characterized the more productive 1970 to 1992 period.  Second, they have focused almost exclusively on climate change, thereby sucking the oxygen out of other issues (such as updating our chemical management system) on which bipartisan progress would have been possible.  And third, they made a tactical blunder of historic proportions by taking the position that climate science was beyond debate, thereby abandoning public discourse in the United States on climate science to the antis.”

Discussion topics:
How can we nudge our politicians to focus on issues common to both ‘sides of the aisle’ and important to all of us?  Elliot suggests that we repeal the 17th Amendment (direct election of Senators) to break the cycle of electioneering.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Eating quandries

Belize is one of the few places that still has viable populations of queen conch.  I've been swimming by them every day in the seagrass on my commute to the reef.  Today, I swam down and looked one in the eyes (which are found at the tip of eye-stalks that extend out of the bottom of the shell) before putting out my hand and scaring it back into its creamy brown shell.

Trouble is that conch taste good.  Really good. (Google some recipes for conch ceviche for starters!)
Populations throughout the Caribbean have been hunted to local extinction and they are threatened or endangered all over.  Conch poachers are prosecuted.  Conch conservation is touted. 

So what's the problem.  The problem is I wonder if it's ethical to eat them here.
Conservation is often a very local issue.  What's threatened in one location may be abundant in another.  Consider wolves, or grizzly bears:  less common in the lower 48 US States than Canada or Alaska.  It's legal to hunt these magnificent carnivores in Canada and Alaska, but there's much controversy over hunting them in the lower 48.

So, if you know that a fish (or conch, in this case) is mostly endangered, should you eat it from a place where it is not?  Even this is a more complex problem that it may first seem.  

Consider salmon.  You can't make a general statement saying that eating wild salmon is sustainable because many salmon fisheries are not sustainable.  So, it is a bit of a dilemma about making general statements.

And even here, we're clearly not on a marine reserve where they are protected and consequently  I'm not seeing the small conch in sufficient numbers to tell me that this bays population is sustainable. 

So, will I eat them if our captain gets us some (he's a fisherman in addition to the captain of the boat that takes us here and back)?  Yes, I think I will...but only here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Power Outage: Using less electricity...

If you've been following my Belize saga, let me report that the train stopped, this time, and fortunately.  The wind came up and blew in colder water which drove down the water temperature to the high 80°'s.  Then it started raining (we're in the middle of a large low pressure system that is leading to periodic downpours and squalls).  This has further cooled the water and the coral bleaching has stopped--for now.

But then again, so has the electricity made by our solar panels!  This morning the power went out.  

The marine lab has both a wind turbine and a number of large solar panels to generate electricity.  As we were introduced to the place by the station manager he told us about their conservation ethic.  There are few lights (all compact florescent or florescent) and no hot water (it's not needed).  Fans are used sparingly.  

We did however bring a lot of iPods, speakers, and computers (all required for research--several of my student groups are doing playback experiments to lizards and birds to study communication and predation risk assessment) and some more fans (to keep us cool) and somehow, for the first time in recent history, used up all the power!

Ironically, we're really doing a good job conserving power (using fans sparingly--OK not that sparingly when it felt like 100°F, but generally sparingly, using few lights) so this is a real wake-up to me and is a wake-up call to the power that computers and fans can use!

Discussion Topic
What, if anything, are you doing to conserve power?  What can you easily do to use even less?  Have you thought about solar panels?  How would they work to help you generate power?  How would you use power if you were generating it all yourself.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What is necessary for people to change?

The word that we use the most in environmental discussion is “change”. People have to change the way they perceive things, change their attitude towards the environment, change the way they use resources, change many things. Change seems to be a magic word. But if things were so easy, we would be living in an almost perfect world.

Changing habits is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Sometimes we don’t change because we don’t want to lose comfort, because we’re quite lazy, or we’re afraid of what can happen. Maybe we don’t change because we are used to so many good things and never tried to live without them.

Irvin Yalom wrote about change in his interesting book Staring at the Sun. The book is about how people perceive death, and how it can change their lives. When people face what Yalom calls an “awakening experience”, they start to see life in a different way. An awakening experience can be the loss of a loved-one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, a trauma, an illness, the loss of a job, retirement, and other situations in which the person seems to lose control of his or her life. To help overcoming this kind of situation, some people start doing what they thought was necessary before, but they never did, maybe because of the reasons written above. Some people donate their time, and money, to help other people and animals, some of them help environmental organizations, some stop eating meat, some get involved in politics, and so on.

We always hear about a person who changed his or her life suddenly because of an awakening experience (to see recent examples of that, click here, and here). No one has any doubt that a way to change one’s life is having a hard time. Being aware of that, we may think: is it really necessary to wait for such experiences to behave differently? Why not start doing today what we always thought to be the best for us, for other people, and for the environment?

Questions for discussion: Do you have something you’ve always wanted to do regarding environmental issues? Are you motivated to change?