Friday, September 30, 2011

Should we legislate for quality of life?

In a provocative Nature essay, Charles Seaford suggests that:

  • Governments worldwide should measure and monitor well-being using national surveys.
  • An internationally accepted well-being statistic should be developed and communicated to the public.
  • Public debate around this statistic will prompt policy-makers to maximize well-being over economic growth.
A figure from the paper shows similar levels of national happiness in the US and Costa Rica, but the average American has a much, much larger ecological footprint than the average Costa Rican.  Thus, he argues, while moderate economic growth is correlated with happiness (Zimbabwe is pretty much at the bottom of the happiness chart, and loss of income is more damaging than the same amount of income gain is beneficial), substantial economic growth is not required for national happiness.

Discussion Questions
What makes you happy?
How does money factor into this?  (Be honest here...).
How can you consume less but focus on those core things that make you happy?
How would we legislate for quality of life?

externalities associated with electricity generation

Externalities--the costs that are not accounted for when a product is priced--are something discussed in both The Failure of Environmental Education and Eating Our Way to Civility.  Here's a recent paper that shows that coal-fired electricity generation produces greater externalities than some other energy generation techniques.  Muller, Nicholas Z., Robert Mendelsohn, and William Nordhaus. 2011. "Environmental Accounting for Pollution in the United States Economy." American Economic Review, 101(5): 1649–75.  This study presents a framework to include environmental externalities into a system of national accounts. The paper estimates the air pollution damages for each industry in the United States. An integrated-assessment model quantifies the marginal damages of air pollution emissions for the US which are multiplied times the quantity of emissions by industry to compute gross damages. Solid waste combustion, sewage treatment, stone quarrying, marinas, and oil and coal-fired power plants have air pollution damages larger than their value added. The largest industrial contributor to external costs is coal-fired electric generation, whose damages range from 0.8 to 5.6 times value added.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Stamp out anti-science...

An OpEd from New Scientist:

Stamp out anti-science in US politics

It is time to reject political movements that turn their backs on science, says Nobel prizewinner and Royal Society president Paul Nurse

IF YOU respect science you will probably be disturbed by the following opinions.

On the use of embryonic stem cell research to cure diseases: it should be shut down because it involves "the wholesale destruction of human life".

On climate change: variations are "natural, cyclical environmental trends". That "we can't say with assurance that human activities cause weather changes" and that climate problems in Texas are best solved through "days of prayer for rain".

You would probably be even more disturbed to be told that these are the opinions expressed by potential Republican candidates for the US presidential nomination (see "Science rears its head in Republican debates"). It's alarming that a country which leads the world in science - the home of Benjamin Franklin, Richard Feynman and Jim Watson - might be turning its back on science. How can this be happening? What can be done?

Read the rest at New Scientist

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Eating high trophic level fish may be self-limiting...

"Adults exposed to methylmercury through a fish diet have immune system changes similar to those seen in more highly exposed gold mine workers, according to a study of Brazilians living in the Amazon River Basin.

The results from the fish-eating exposures could be relevant to other places, including those in the United States where people regularly eat fish with higher mercury levels..."

Read more from The Environmental Health News

The take-home message to me is that people eating high trophic level fish (which, as I discuss in the book, are likely to have bio-concentrated methylmercury and other fat soluble contaminants), will ultimately be harmed.  In a tragic sense, the problem is self-limiting because they ultimately won't be around to keep eating those increasingly rare fish!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Wangari Maathai

It is with sadness that I read about the passing of the Nobel Prize winning environmental and human rights activist Wangari Maathai.  Charlie and I wrote about her work in Kenya in The Failure of Environmental Education.  The NY Times obit provides a nice outline of her successes.  We need more brave people like her.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

'reversed' pizza

Some friends our ours (who are OUTSTANDING cooks) make pizza a really neat way by baking the dough without any toppings and then create inventive toppings for it. The other night we stood around their kitchen, drank wine, talked, and watched them make a number of them for an impromptu dinner .  The idea is to roll out the dough (they used pre-made/pre-packaged dough that night) and lightly bake it.  The dough was cooked without being browned (essentially they made a flat yeast bread).  Then, they put various mixes of toppings; some cooked, some not.  I can't remember all of them, but ingredients included cooked portobello, goat cheese, buffalo mozzarella, uncooked tomatoes (one of the better was a buffalo mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, olive oil, and rocket, served immediately on the warm bread but otherwise uncooked), thin slices of freshly harvested zucchini, toasted pine nuts, rocket, a balsamic reduction, etc.  Really inventive. Some went back into the oven for a quick bout of cheese melting.  

Really good.  I particularly liked the mix of uncooked and cooked toppings put on top of the pre-cooked pizzas).  I'll try more of these.

Monday, September 19, 2011

boned leg of lamb...

I used to live in Australia and cooked a lot of lamb over the years.  I've eaten much less red meat over the past few years and have not cooked lamb for at least five years.  Despite its horrid carbon footprint, lamb is really tasty, it's often organically grown, and often the sheep are not finished on a feed lot.

I had a hankering for some the other day and decided to BBQ it on Sunday.  As a guest said, "this doesn't look like meat as a condiment!".  However, when served with a lot of other veggies, a little bit can go far. We purchased 3.5 lbs of boned lamb and served it to 4 adults and 4 kids and had leftovers for dinner for three tonight.  


Perhaps.  But it's certainly better to eat meat occasionally (if you're going to eat meat) than regularly, and this was a special treat.

Here's how I like to cook it.  First, I marinade it for a few hours in the following marinade (these are pretty rough and from memory; I'm not likely to make this again for a while):

cumin powder (about 4 Tbs)
black pepper (about 1 Tbs)
kosher salt (about 2 Tbs)
dried chilies (I used about about 5 1" chiles)
garlic (about 2 Tbs--or about 4-5 cloves)
cloves (about 10)
ginger (2-3" knob, peeled)
soy sauce (about 3 Tbs)
olive oil (about start with about 1/4 but add up to about 1/2 cup)

Mix all of these ingredients with a hand mixer or a small food processor until you've got a liquidy paste.  Add a bit of olive oil if it's too thick; it should pour.  

Bone the lamb (if you're not buying it boned).
Remove fat and connective tissue from the lamb and if not already done, and butterfly it so that its about 1/2" to 3/4" thick throughout.
Hammer it with a meat hammer to flatten the thick parts so as to try to make it a consistent thickness (cooks more evenly that way) and prepare it for the marinade.
Rub the marinade into the lamb and let it sit in the marinade for at least 2-3 hours.
Grill it on a hot grill, turning regularly until the meat puffs up (you'll want to move it and turn it regularly to prevent burning when the oil catches fire).  After about 10 min, move to the side and cook on indirect heat for about 5 more minutes.  Remove and let rest for about 5-10 minutes before cutting. 
Cut into thin slices on a bias and serve warm (it's also good cold on a hot day...).  I bet you could serve 12 people with this as a condiment-sized serving ("a taste of lamb").

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A sad history of US environmental failures...

In an essay in Truth-Out, Evaggelos Vallianatos paints a rather sad history of a series of continued environmental failures in the United States (that sadly continue to this very day...).

An excerpt to whet your appetite:

"Environmentalism is in crisis in the United States. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus ("The Death of Environmentalism," Grist Magazine, January 13, 2005) argue - still persuasively six years later - that environmentalists have to rethink everything they do.

Environmentalists do not fail because they don't have consistent or attractive values. They do. Environmentalists fail because their opponents - mafia-like corporate plunderers of nature, unethical academic scientists, large farmers, oil companies, power companies, mountain destroyers, developers of wetlands, loggers, industrial fishers  and other industrialists - are armed to the teeth."

Read the full article at Truth-Out and if you're suitably enraged, do something about it!

Discussion Topic
What can be done?  How would you mobilize your community to 'fight industry'?

What seafood SHOULD we eat?

I've been pondering this post for a while but will just be brief.  A recent study published in the journal Science by Anthony D.M. Smith and his colleagues reports that extensive fishing of low trophic level species (I discuss this in Eating our Way to Civility:  A Dinner Party Guide, but these are species that eat plankton directly such as sardines, mackerel, and krill) may threaten the ecosystems in which they are being harvested unless harvest rates decline. 

Here's the abstract:

Low–trophic level species account for more than 30% of global fisheries production and contribute substantially to global food security. We used a range of ecosystem models to explore the effects of fishing low–trophic level species on marine ecosystems, including marine mammals and seabirds, and on other commercially important species. In five well-studied ecosystems, we found that fishing these species at conventional maximum sustainable yield (MSY) levels can have large impacts on other parts of the ecosystem, particularly when they constitute a high proportion of the biomass in the ecosystem or are highly connected in the food web. Halving exploitation rates would result in much lower impacts on marine ecosystems while still achieving 80% of MSY.  

Why this is an alarming result is because while we've known that harvesting animals higher on the food chain, which by their very nature are less abundant, puts them at risk of extinction (and indeed has driven some species to economic extinction).  Thus, the suggestion from fisheries experts was that the seas could still provide resources if we ate lower on the food chain.  While, at some level, the Smith et al. result is expected (we really do pull a LOT of energy out of the seas!), it's still shocking because maximum sustainable yield (MSY) is a term that implies that the population will persist when harvested at that level.  The Smith et al. paper makes us consider the effects on other, non-target species in the ecosystem that rely on these low trophic level species. 

As a friend commented today:  farm-raised tilapia anyone?  (Note:  I've got some tilapia recipes in the book!).

Rational hubris?

In a paper published today in Nature, my friend and colleague Dominic Johnson and his collaborator James Fowler report the results from a model that sought to understand the conditions under which humans should be overconfident.  They found that under a wide range of conditions, engaging in a strategy where actors over-evaluated their ability to compete for a resource out performed a strategy where actors had unbiased assessments of the likelihood that they would successfully obtain that resource.  In a line it works when the  benefit of the resource is typically greater than the cost of fighting which is likely to be a common finding in nature.

So, why is this an important finding?  It suggests that it's rational to be over-confident about one's abilities.  Thus, traders are behaving rationally when they bet on low performing stocks to do well or take what look like huge risks with large sums of other people's money.  Or people buy homes when they know they're in a speculative bubble betting that they'll still be able to cash out.  But such rational behavior may ultimately lead to market crashes as we've seen over the past few years.  We get into wars rationally because we over-estimate our abilities to win them (Dominic's written extensively about this).  And, we allow environmental degredation to march on because we over-estimate our ability to solve the problems at some point in the future.

Here's the rub.  With each passing year of NOT addressing our carbon addiction we're making the problem so much harder to solve.  With each additional chemical we pump into the atmosphere we make it more difficult to figure out their true costs and make it more difficult to eliminate their costs.  And all of this may be rational behavior?

Discussion question
How do we temper our over-confidence?  How do we build this into our policy making process?  Dominic suggests in his book on Overconfidence and War that we need to put more emphasis on evaluating the true costs.  I agree.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Butternut squash Risotto

I was playing around last night and made a delicious risotto.  Here's my best reconstruction...

1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4 inch cubes tossed in olive oil and then baked at 350 F for 15 minutes and broiled for another 10 minutes or so until browned

1 red onion, 1/4 inch dice
1/4 cup olive oil
2 cups rice (I used Thai)
2 cups white wine (I used a 'too good for cooking' chardonnay)
30 oz vegetable broth
freshly ground black pepper (to taste)

After pre-cooking the squash, saute over medium high heat the onions in olive oil in a wide coverable pot.  When the onions are translucent, add the squash and rice and about half the wine.  Stir until integrated and let sit until the liquid is absorbed.  Start pouring the vegetable broth and stir and let it integrate.  Repeat until all the vegetable broth is used.  The rice should be mostly cooked. 

Depending upon how well done it is, you might need to add some water. When it's almost done, stir in the remaining wine, turn down the heat to low and let it sit covered for about 10 more minutes until you serve it.  Adding the wine at the end adds a wonderful floral finish.  Plate with freshly ground black pepper.   

While this vegan version is delicious, if I'd had some fresh Parmesan I would have considered adding that and/or butter to make it even richer.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Benefits of organic chicken

From the Union of Concerned Scientists website (

Switch to organic poultry farming reduces antibiotic resistance A blockbuster new scientific study shows that a transition to organic animal production methods that don’t use antibiotics can reduce levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria on farms. This is the first U.S. study to provide on-farm data on the impacts of removing antibiotics from large-scale poultry CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Researchers from the University of Maryland and the Food and Drug Administration measured levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in poultry litter, water, and feed samples from 10 conventional poultry operations and 10 newly-organic operations of similar size. (Under organic certification rules, producers are not allowed to use antibiotics.) The newly antibiotic-free organic farms had much lower rates of resistant bacteria compared to the conventional farms, demonstrating that the reduction in antibiotic use can immediately lower the levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria found on the farm. The study was released in the midst of a massive food safety recall of ground turkey contaminated with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. That incident, involving 36 million pounds of ground turkey produced by agribusiness giant Cargill, sickened some 111 consumers. Read the full study here, and learn more about the turkey recall here.