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.