Monday, February 27, 2012

the true impact of consumption

I just stumbled on an article  

Consumption: the other side of population for development
Mata FJ, Onisto LJ, Vallentyne JR, 2012, ESEP 12:15-20.  

that nicely illustrates the effect of consumption on ecological 'impact' and ranks countries (note:  oldish data) by net impact. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Forks over knives

Just watched the film Forks Over Knives.  Worth watching because it argues that a whole foods, plant based diet enhances health, and reduces the growth of cancers and coronary heart disease.  A compelling 'natural experiment' discussed in the film:  when Germany invaded Denmark during the war, meat and milk was taken to feed German troops.  During this several year period, deaths from cardiovascular disease plummeted.  After the war, it went back up.  I'd like to see the actual studies underlying the film (many are correlative but there are some highly suggestive correlations), but as I've summarized in some of my books, you can't really believe the nutritional advice from the Department of Agriculture because, as Marion Nestle writes, they're corrupted by industrial lobbyists. 

At least one thing resonated with me while I was watching the film:  I know that we grow cancer cells in 'soups' of animal protein.  Kinda makes sense that protein in our diet may do the same thing in our body...

I met someone a few weeks ago who had cut out all animal protein he didn't catch himself (he fished, crabbed and spear fished a lot) and ate mostly plants and no oils.  I'm going to start using less oil (we eat mostly plants but have a lot of olive oil*) and see how that make me feel (I feel pretty good now anyway...).

Discussion topics
What changes in your diet might you make to enhance health? 
What would happen if you ate less meat?
What would happen if you reduced processed oils in your diet?

*Over dinner last night a friend pointed out that there are some studies that talk about the PROTECTIVE properties of olive know, sometimes it's difficult to know what to do...

deliberate dishonesty is not scientific

Peter Gleick, a well-known climate scientist and activist, has been caught engaging in a deception that duped the Heartland Institute into revealing how it supported climate skeptics.  While many well-meaning scientists are very frustrated about unscrupulous conduct by climate change deniers, I feel that it's essential to maintain a high moral standard and indeed, a transparent scientific standard.  Scientists who engage in dishonesty only play into skeptics that assert that the scientific process is filled with dishonesty and fraud.  I know that the scientific process is self-correcting and that dishonesty and fraud are not tolerated.  

Discussion topics
Why and how is the scientific process 'self-correcting'?
Contrast this with an advocacy-based approach adopted by climate-change deniers?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

scaling up renewable energy

I've been reading a lot recently about the concerns over scaling up renewable energy. New Hampshire sized pieces of land might have to be used for wind farms to produce just a small portion of our current electricity needs. Importantly, scaling up wind production to that scale will have negative ecological effects (birds and bats routinely get killed in wind turbines) and might even alter the energy balance on Earth!  

Again, the 'number' problem rears its ugly head.  We simply have to produce too much energy to support current populations and lifestyles.

However, this realization tells us that we must focus on those sources of energy that are truly renewable and solar is the biggie here. 

But what happens when we fill our deserts with solar panels? What happens when we build large-scale solar plants?  

Why not create a distributed energy system by ensuring that solar panels are on everyone's roofs? This is an idea that must be incentivized, and quickly, for several reasons. 

First, it builds in resilience.  Creating resilient communities is important because they will protect us against larger-scale crashes.  

Second, it uses existing real-estate rather than taking otherwise good (or valuable) land and converting it to an industrial solar array.  

Third, it sends an educational message:  we're all part of the solution.

Discussion Topics
What would it cost to get solar panels on your roof?  What impediments are there to doing this?  

Monday, February 20, 2012

civility please...

The LA Times had a pair of dueling OpEds about why liberals can't talk to conservatives and vice-versa.  I have to say, get over it folks!  We've got too much at stake to not talk with others. All of share a lot of common ground and we really need to find it and un-demonize those we think have different views than we do.  Talk with everyone and learn from them.  Respectfully disagree if possible but sitting around and arguing while the Titanic sinks isn't good for anyone.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Ending Oil use

Charlie and I just gave a keynote address to the annual meeting of the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Educators.  What a great bunch of people!  While there, I picked up a copy of Michael Brune's "Coming Clean:  Breaking America's Addiction to Oil and Coal" which I read on the way back.  Good read.

A factoid (as of 2010):  "Germany receives as much sunshine annually as Nome, Alaska, yet's it's become the world's top producer of solar energy".

Read that again!

C'mon US, let's get it together and put solar panels on urban roofs, not the desert.  Let's eliminate subsidies for oil and gas exploration and subsidize solar electric production.  Let's mandate higher fleet mileage in the  future and help companies develop the technology to get us there.  We can do it.  We just have to want to!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Tim O Reilly on Pascal's Wager

Tim O Reilly, founder and CEO of O Reilly Media, writing on The Edge says:

In 1661 or 1162, in his Pensees, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal articulated what would come to be known as Pascal's Wager, the question of whether or not to believe in God, in the face of the failure of reason and science to provide a definitive answer.

"You must wager. It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then?...You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is."
While this proposition of Pascal's is clothed in obscure religious language and on a religious topic, it is a significant and early expression of decision theory. And, stripped of its particulars, it provides a simple and effective way to reason about contemporary problems like climate change.

We don't need to be 100% sure that the worst fears of climate scientists are correct in order to act. All we need to think about are the consequences of being wrong.

Let's assume for a moment that there is no human-caused climate change, or that the consequences are not dire, and we've made big investments to avert it. What's the worst that happens? In order to deal with climate change:

1. We've made major investments in renewable energy. This is an urgent issue even in the absence of global warming, as the IEA has now revised the date of "peak oil" to 2020, only 11 years from now.

2. We've invested in a potent new source of jobs.

3. We've improved our national security by reducing our dependence on oil from hostile or unstable regions.

4. We've mitigated the enormous "off the books" economic losses from pollution. (China recently estimated these losses as 10% of GDP.) We currently subsidize fossil fuels in dozens of ways, by allowing power companies, auto companies, and others to keep environmental costs "off the books," by funding the infrastructure for autos at public expense while demanding that railroads build their own infrastructure, and so on.

5. We've renewed our industrial base, investing in new industries rather than propping up old ones. Climate critics like Bjorn Lomborg like to cite the cost of dealing with global warming. But the costs are similar to the "costs" incurred by record companies in the switch to digital music distribution, or the costs to newspapers implicit in the rise of the web. That is, they are costs to existing industries, but ignore the opportunities for new industries that exploit the new technology. I have yet to see a convincing case made that the costs of dealing with climate change aren't principally the costs of protecting old industries.

By contrast, let's assume that the climate skeptics are wrong. We face the displacement of millions of people, droughts, floods and other extreme weather, species loss, and economic harm that will make us long for the good old days of the current financial industry meltdown.

Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal's wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we've built a more robust economy. On the other side, the worst outcome really is hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turned out to be wrong.
But I digress. The illustration has become the entire argument. Pascal's wager is not just for mathematicians, nor for the religiously inclined. It is a useful tool for any thinking person.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Debunking Handbook

I've just stumbled upon a really nice short read that provides tools and strategies for discussing issues for which scientific evidence exists but 'anti-science' folks try to de-bunk.  It discusses 'the backfire effect' and the psychology of how people learn.

It's called The Debunking Handbook and should be of interest to anyone interested in evidence-based communication and in creating a dialog about the future.

Happy Groundhog Day to all!  Phil saw his shadow:  6 more weeks of (spring-like) winter for north americans!