02.08.09

Green Should Not Be Wasteful

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy, Resources at 1:50 am by justakim

A while back, Thomas L. Friedman was on the Daily Show to advertise his new book Hot Flat, and Crowded. It may be that he oversimplified his explanation for the show, but I am terribly unimpressed. He said we should overinvest in green technologies, cause a bubble, and reap the benefits.

He said that the dot-com bubble left us internet infrastructure and the financial crisis left us with overpriced condos, and now we need a green bubble to get us out of the financial crisis.

The definition of a bubble is putting in more money than it’s worth. Period. If it is going to pay off in the future, that would be called an investment. So this guy wants us to throw more money into an industry’s R&D than it’s worth, he wants us to lure people into investing in the training, experience, and time that is going to dump their job when the bubble comes due. Ask those bankers and financial analysts if there’s too many to go around. He wants us to do it right now so that we can solve or past excesses, not by learning from our mistakes but by repeating them.

The money that Friedman advocates wasting could be better used in making bigger differences on other problems. Those people who are now considering their careers possibly for the rest of their lives may have been more valuable to society learning and performing in other industries. Our current opportunities as they are, to make investments, could be better spent on less ridiculous schemes.

We did not have to overindulge in internet startups to benefit from investing in IT infrastructure. We didn’t have to make ludicrous choices about home ownership in order to gain what dubious benefits we will get out of this mess. And we certainly don’t have to do it again.

To recognize underinvestment is one thing. To deliberately waste money when there are better uses is absurd.

09.10.08

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee

Posted in Book, Conservation, Economic Development, Resources at 10:37 pm by justakim

Excellent journalist.

I’d first like to say that this author is amazing. In the first few pages, I was struck by how he could present these real figures with the familiarity one would expect of a fiction writer the characters they designed. This is my first McPhee book and it probably won’t be my last. If you’re at all interested in a good story and a glimpse at the environmental scene in the past, stop reading right now and go get that book. If you’re not likely to read this book, read on.

As many of you know, David Brower is a prominent environmentalist best known for his campaign to prevent a dam that would flood parts of the Grand Canyon. McPhee has arranged an elegant setup. He takes Brower out into the field with three of his adversaries. He uses these encounters to portray the nuances of the issues and beautifully illustrates the depth of these four people with background information along the way.

Round 1: Charles Park; geologist, professor, conservationist
Round 2: Charles Fraser; sustainable developer
Round 3: Floyd Dominy; farmer, dam builder, improver of farmland

There are some very remarkable things about these matches that really give the story a lot of depth and much to consider. One is that they all believed that they were doing good. Park thought that mined resources will benefit humanity and not using those resources would result in suffering. Fraser wanted to make nature available to a large number of people and to create something beautiful. Dominy saw the suffering of those hard working people who’d moved out west and could not make a living on their homestead and so from an early age, he built dams so that pioneers could survive. Brower himself wanted to preserve the land for its own sake and saw his cause as a war of attrition.

What was also intriguing was the amount of knowledge the opponents had. Park spent large portions of his year prospecting all over the world, and spends more time outdoors than any of them. Fraser, while not an outdoorsman, has already built a successful development with many environmentally friendly features way ahead of its time, and he has done his background research with an interest in history, recognizing the long record of human use in the area in question. Dominy is a native of the drought-prone areas and knows the needs and desires of the people.

The other thing that was so striking in these comparisons was how they all appreciated nature. No matter how vehemently they may be arguing, no matter how much they may irreconcilably disagree, when faced with the beauty of their surroundings, they would all pause, and enjoy the sight together. They all appreciated and admired the same thing. There is no ruthless destruction. There is no raping of the earth as it were. There were just different priorities.

It was very touching to have this vision of the environmental discussion of the past, and to be able to see the changes and similarities with the discourse of the present day. This portrayal brought respect and humanity to both sides that often gets washed out in the us-vs.-them mentality that often arises. And aside from being useful, it was beautifully written.

07.02.08

Food Fiascoes

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development at 11:09 am by justakim

This little blurb from the Economist suggests that increasing organic farming will be detrimental to the poor because organic farming is more expensive, less productive, and uses more land. Combine that with sensationalist titles such as “Some 1.5 bln people may starve due to land erosion” and you have a disaster in the making, right?

That’s a very simplistic view of the situation.

One would think that by definition, intensive agricultural production would be more detrimental to the land than less-intensive practices. Perhaps you may have lower yield, or require more work to harvest, but in the long run it is better to preserve the land being used. Add to this the costs of seeds and rising cost of fertilizer (which is tied to the energy market, and monocultural practices that necessitate shipping food around while strangling local farmers, and one must wonder how the poor can afford to live with conventional industrial agriculture.

Distribution prices are going up. And who knows about distribution better than Wal-Mart? Over the last two years, Wal-Mart has been sourcing more produce locally. Not only are they in on the game, they’ve been anticipating it. The forward-thinking is brilliant and profitable.

Wal-Mart said that in the United States, produce travels an average 1,500 miles from farms to consumers’ homes, and it should be able to save millions of “food miles” — the distance food travels from farm to plate — through local sourcing, better packing of its trucks and improved logistics.

In an example, Wal-Mart said that by sourcing peaches in 18 states instead of just two, as it did before, it saves 672,000 food miles and 112,000 gallons of diesel fuel — or more than $1.4 million dollars in transportation costs per season.

Meanwhile, our available fish stocks are changing due to climate change and overfishing. Lobster, crab, and squid are increasing while bottom fish are decreasing. Bad news for some perhaps, but that just means more squid for me!

But Nils Stolpe, communications manager for the Garden State Seafood Association in New Jersey, argues that people’s seafood diets change for reasons apart from availability.

“The reason we’re getting more calamari is because we’re getting more sophisticated as seafood eaters,” he said.

“Ten, fifteen years ago nobody ate salmon, because we weren’t in tune with eating salmon. Now everyone’s growing it, and we’re a lot more familiar with it.”

…say what? All my Northwest brethren understand the inferiority of farmed Atlantic salmon. Where was this guy ten years ago, in a shack? Everyone growing salmon would indicate it has to do with availability. Whatever. It doesn’t matter to me if people eat squid because it’s the popular food, the price, or because they are inspired to diversity. Squid is good. Lobster is good. Crab is real good. Changes are not so good, but tasty.

Onto more bad food news… I picked up some ice cream. I accidentally picked up the wrong kind (cinnamon dulce de leche != chocolate) and in my disappointment, I was pondering the Haagen-Dazs lid and discover they are out to save the bees. They are donating funding to reserach into the mysterious disappearance of the bees.

In case you’ve missed their disapperaance,

Bustling colonies, tens of thousands strong, were emptying in a matter of days. Systematic searches for dead bees around the colonies mostly drew a blank… “Imagine waking one morning to find 80 per cent of the people in your community are just gone,” says May Berenbaum of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

There is no shortage of potential culprits; European honeybees make up the vast majority of commercial stocks in the US and they are susceptible to myriad viral and fungal blights and two forms of parasitic mites, one of which wiped out about half of the American honeybee population in the 1980s. Yet, in this instance, the precise cause of the sudden decline, dubbed “colony collapse disorder”, remains elusive. The pattern of disappearance offers few clues, since CCD appears to be widespread and plagues non-migrating colonies as well as those that are moved from place to place to pollinate crops.

Diversity loss could be catching up to us as well. A larger diversity in pollinators leads to more successful pollination. Researchers found that diversity in time of day, and pollination height of pollnators leads to more effective pollination. Different pollinators come by at different times of day, and prefer a different height off the ground to pollinate, so they hit a certain band. Similar groups share similar body types. Some plants specialize and work with a specific pollinator and their success is linked with that one species. Others attract a diversity and benefit from diversity.

The aforementioned European honeybees have threatened many native bee species in the US, including (probably especially) kinds that don’t sting. Great choice, folks.

05.25.08

Local Amenities

Posted in Conservation, Economic Development at 3:38 pm by justakim

In Regional Economic Development I was told that some areas have an advantage over others because of the local amenities. There are some places that are just never going to have the draw of others. Who doesn’t like a view of the ocean? Who doesn’t appreciate trees? A temperate climate. Sunshine.

But I don’t buy this. I don’t believe that some places are completely out of luck. Plenty of people–plenty of growing cities!–are located in places I wouldn’t dream of living. Not everyone has the same priority order of amenities that I do. Certainly, too many people like what I like (Mediterranean climate with ocean, mountain, and desert within an hour), but not everyone.

And there are plenty of places in the US where no one lives, which could appeal to me, except for the fact that no one else lives there. There are parts of Wyoming and Montana where I bet you could own your own mesa. I could live with that, if there happened to be a big city nearby. When I crossed the country, I saw many empty places that I’d love to explore, had I the resources nearby to make it worth living there, not the other way around.

Think of all the desert cities in Arizona and New Mexico. The sun is a draw, and only so if there’s air conditioning, but does every resident look out upon the deserts and see a harsh and uninviting place, or do they perhaps see something to be proud of, or to admire? Surely, there are few places in the lower 48 that are less welcoming to human life.

Appeal changes. Amenities can be enhanced or destroyed. LA might have nice weather, but I don’t imagine many people considered it a beautiful place to live in the beginning. Did you think the San Francisco Peninsula had trees? Some places develop from historical accident, from the needs of transportation or technology, but the nature outdoors does not seem to me such a limiting factor.

Still, I understand that people are willing to pay more for certain natural amenities than others. I live in a beautiful place. And all those amenities are fully enhanced, supported, and advertised. I am paying for the view, the forests, and the trails. The farms, the local markets, the nearness of the sea, and all that the city provides. I intend to get more than my money’s worth.

In the past, I have not utilized the local amenities. I used to live with Mt. Rainier in my backyard. I would observe it. I would admire it. I would occasionally visit and I would never stay. It was distant, aloof, indifferent.

I flew past it on my way home one day, and wrote this:

Mountain King

arising from mysteries, robed in fog
an island of certainty in a sea of clouds
commanding the landscape like no other
the mountain king presides over his dominion
while change lurks beneath the foamy surface
the high kingdom of snow and cloud remains serene

The thought of hiking up to a glacier, sleeping on it, and climbing to the top never appealed to me.

And then I moved, and then there was another mountain in my backyard.

At first I thought Mt. Hood was nice, but it was just another mountain. Anything that required equipment was scenery and not something to stand on. Every so often, we’d go up to Timberline Lodge, sip a drink, and observe the peak from a comfortable distance. On one of our first trips, there was a search and rescue going on, in a window of clear weather. I watched the clouds rolling in. It was like a shroud of death.

People die up there. There’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to Mt. Hood accidents.

About 10,000 climbers attempt Mount Hood every year, the mountain claiming one to three lives annually.

And yet, as time went on, the mountain beckoned. There was something so enticing about it, luminous and pristine on every clear day. “You’ll take the challenge.” it said. “Yes, people die on my slopes… that’s not going to stop you.”

Next year, I’m taking classes and I’m going with a group. All the resources are there to make it possible. The summit will be mine.

There are few creatures more ill-suited to climbing than I, but I won’t ignore an opportunity so tidiliy laid out before me.

05.16.08

Sensitivity or Lack Thereof

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy at 9:43 am by justakim

China quake may cut carbon offset supply

I did a double-take when I read that title. It seemed a little insensitive given the 40,000 still missing. That seems a little more important than the lost revenue from carbon offsets and the rise in offset prices for everyone else.

Here’s Marketplace on the attempt to shore up 400 damaged dams.

On a brighter note, this chart in the Economist piqued my interest. US private giving is off the chart. To put that into context, I browsed the source, the Index of Global Philanthropy. Total per capita giving is among the highest following Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. However, total giving is huge; $129.8 billion with the UK following at $20.7 billion while Norway’s at $3.7. We have a lot of money, and we give a lot of it. Good deal.

I also noticed that private overseas giving is closely related to the US business cycle.

Speaking of giving, thanks for taking my survey. I’m still taking responses.

FinAid bunny

05.09.08

Lakes

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Health, Pollution at 9:15 am by justakim

There have been a slew of stories lately related to different bodies of water.

For instance, there is a report on the rapid warming of Lake Baikal, the largest lake in the world. There have been changes to the plankton communities and it is causing concern for all the other, particularly endemic, life in the lake. This includes the Baikal seal.

There are also concerns about the impacts of a soda plant planned in Tanzania. Despite its move to 22 miles away from Lake Natron, there are still worries that the facility will impact the population of lesser flamingo. 3/4 of them migrate here to breed.

In Canada, hundreds of ducks died by settling into a wastewater pond of an oil sands plant. Apparently, the ‘sound cannon’ which is supposed to scare off birds by simulating gunshots was not put into place. I have my doubts as to the effectiveness of these devices.

On Sunday, another oil sands developer, ConocoPhillips, said its workers noticed a growing number of waterfowl on a settling pond at its Surmont project, south of Syncrude, last week.

After trying unsuccessfully to scare them away with air horns, two were captured and taken to a veterinarian in Fort McMurray, Alberta, for examination.

Sinking deeper into the gutter, traces of drugs can be found in sewage water, giving a surprising amount of detail on drug use.

The Milanese are partial to a line or two of cocaine. The same goes for many drug users in London, although they dabble in heroin more than their Italian counterparts. Both cities like ecstasy at the weekends and cannabis pretty much every day. Welcome to the results from a new branch of public health: sewage epidemiology.

But wait! It gets better. All sorts of chemicals can be found in our water systems.

Think Zoloft and other mood-enhancers. Anti-depressants are some of the compounds found in treated wastewater. Scientists have also discovered trace amounts of everything from Ibuprofen to antibiotics. Dana Kolpin, of the U.S. Geological Survey, says the government is just beginning to study the effects of this drug cocktail on marine life, and we don’t know a lot yet, but the risks of not finding out are huge.

As of February, Teleosis has collected 700 lb of pharmaceuticals in 6 months…. And what is the pharmaceutical response to that?

According to the Marketplace interview:

“We think that’s a solution that’s actually looking for a problem.”

Marjorie Powell represents the industry’s main lobbying group. Powell says one, pill-flushing is a minor contributor to pharmaceuticals in the waterways. Two, she argues, consumers can safely dispose of unused drugs by throwing them in the garbage in tightly sealed containers.

“Therefore, we think that focusing on creating a take-back program is establishing an enormous level of effort for very little return.”

04.27.08

Notes on Biodiversity

Posted in Book, Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Pollution at 12:29 pm by justakim

There is a new book explaining how the loss of biodiversity will impact the discovery and development of new drugs. What makes this notable is that this is not just E.O. Wilson’s Discovery of Life. This book, Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity is composed not by environmentalists or entomologists, but by medical doctors at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

The book demonstrates the value of biodiversity in previous discoveries, and covers several areas that show promise for new drugs, including cases where the species went extinct before the drug potential could be realized, and more cases where this may yet happen. Time to put a few frogs aside. It looks like it has a solid overview of what biodiversity is, why it matters, and what affects it. The book will be out in June.

One species that was not on the list for drug potential is the finless porpoise. While it has a pretty wide range along the coast, there is only one freshwater population that lives in the Yangtze River and two connected Poyang and Dongting Lakes. In addition to habitat degradation, a recent study finds that they are suffering from high levels of pollution.

While the focus of this study was on pollution, the situation is quite precarious. Dongting Lake relies on overflow from the Yangtze River and it swells and shrinks with the seasons. The Three Gorges Dam, which was built upstream of the lake, also has the function of flood control. Regulated flow and trapping of sediment must have drastically changed the functioning of the lake.

What makes this news so unpleasant to me is that I didn’t even know they existed. The extinction of the Yangtze river dolphin was pretty much expected when the Three Gorges Dam project began. It is probably more significant to lose a species than a population, but I was not aware there was much else of note. To lose something only as you learn it is there…

04.22.08

Food Craze

Posted in Climate Change, Economic Development, Energy at 4:50 pm by justakim

Farm aid and fair trade are what the leader of the UN Conference on Trade And Development is calling for. Local farmers have to compete with food aid as well as subsidized agricultural products from the US and Europe, leaving countries vulnerable to changes in the market with underdeveloped agriculture at home.

Panitchpakdi said speculators on commodities futures markets were worsening the problem of high food prices, and he hoped the April 20-25UNCTAD meeting in Ghana would address this.

And if that’s not sensationalist enough for you, we can call it “silent mass murder”.

Meanwhile, Bolivia’s president blames biofuels.

The US Foreign Agricultural Service advises countries against stopping exports.

“Firstly it is restricting trade and tends to make people think of hoarding. Secondly, domestic producers are sending the wrong signal –don’t produce, don’t invest in new technology, additional fertilizers or new genetics.”

What good will investing in agriculture do if you cannot compete with subsidized farming?

Case in point: USDA celebrates Earth Day by preserving farmland..

Happy Earth Day?

It seems like a great irony that places so lacking in biodiversity–places that are used for the purpose of monoculture, are being protected as if it were of environmental benefit. They could not protect the land from farming, nor could they set aside some other more environmentally valuable land to offset farming. Instead, let us go all the way to perverting environmental easements in the name of environmentalism, to create another farming subsidy.

We here in the US are affected by soaring prices, even if to a much lesser degree. Some places in the US are rationing grain.

The New York Sun reported Monday that “major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply.”


Rice is especially hard-hit, as shortages have led to dramatically increased prices. In some cases, a 25-pound bag is selling for more than $30.

Well, I hope that doesn’t last long. Our last 20lb bag of rice is probably going to last us ’til winter.

Also, as an alternative to burning food, the seeds of weeds are back.

I am probably lacking in environmental enthusiasm today. I’ll leave that to the pros.

05.23.07

Biodiesel From Weeds

Posted in Economic Development, Energy at 10:39 am by justakim

While other projects raise corn and sugar beet, Mali villages are gathering the seeds of a common weed to fuel lamp posts, a millet grinder, and a dehusker. While the project is modest, it must be a marked improvement to these people.

This plant is being used at a larger scale in India, and while there have been proposals for private investment and export, Mali seems set on meeting the needs of its rural populations first.

While I have reservations of using an invasive weed, there is no point in not using what you already have. And there are far less efficient means of reaching the same end.

At any rate, using a once-weed seems like a pretty novel example of polyculture!

1. Jatropha in Mali
2. Jatropha curcas
3. When oil grows on trees

05.09.07

Water Woes: What California and China have in common

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Economic Development, Energy, Health, Politics, Pollution, Resources at 8:21 pm by justakim

California could lose a vast amount of its snowpack due to global warming by the end of the century. The percentage ranges are so wide, that I will leave those to the article.

Right on the heels of this interview, with the knowledge of snowpack being at its lowest point in 20 years, Governor Schwarzenegger requests $5.9 billion in bonds for water related projects including two dams.

Where could you possibly put the dams and have them be effective? We’ve damed all the good places where the geography lends itself to a stable structure and an opportunity for hydropower exploitation. Not too long ago, the project to dam the American River was buried. It is hard to believe that there are any better options.

Meanwhile, China is investing a little shy of $4 billion to reinforce reservoirs and improve drinking water while pondering projects to transfer water from the wet south to the parched north. Investing in current dams is a different story. Dams with high levels of siltation may have a lifespan, depending on how fast they can keep up with the dredging. That could obviously be cut short if the dam fails before dredging becomes an issue. The concern for drinking water is a good sign.

It is of little surprise that there are also complaints about dams in recent news as well. For instance, a group lawsuit vs. PacifiCorp over Klamath dams where just about everyone except the farmers have banded together, addressing toxic algae blooms, recreation, and fishing.

The U.S. Department of the Interior last year recommended removing the dams or building “ladders” for the spawning fish if PacifiCorp wants to keep them.

China has its own problems as they encounter problems while trying to protect the endangered Yangtze alligator. The article makes mention of the Yangtze river dolphin, which had been declared functionally extinct. Few of these unique creatures existed even before the Three Gorges Dam was built. That was merely the nail in the coffin.

It feels like we are stuck in some sort of time warp, returning to the days when it was not widely known that all the good dam spots had been taken and additional dams were often not worth the bother. We need to better allocate the water that we have, rather than pretend that if you build [the dam], [water] will come.

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