A new view on specialization

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Politics at 3:27 pm by justakim

Endemic species are ones that exist in small geographic areas. The most common examples of these are creatures that live on islands, where the species adapt to life on their little plot of land and become distinct from those on the mainland, or other islands. Similarly, animals that live on the tops of mountains effectively live on an island where there may be other environments not too far away that would suit them, but there is a vast distance between mountaintops that they are not well equipped to cross through.

For a long time, the notion of an endemic species evoked some sense of pity in me. It brings to mind images of flightless birds being devoured by invasive snakes, rats, humans, or whatever else might come their way. Little chicks helpless, unable to deal with change, species so specialized they can’t live outside the bounds of their little space walled off from the rest of the world.

But another word for specialization is efficiency. Endemic species have become so effective at living and reproducing in their habitats that they’ve given up on some flexibility in order to thrive in a very specific place. I can marvel at how the Olympic marmot co-evolved with the plants in the Olympics and make homes in extreme conditions where they have to hibernate more than half the year. I have to wonder at what great evolutionary marvels the dodo developed that we will never know about. I have to be impressed that despite the many adaptations polar bears now have, they can still re-learn how to fish like grizzlies.

One can consider companies in a similar way. Some companies develop in a certain business environment, and so long as there aren’t any drastic changes, a company could be very successful by specializing to that economic environment. This is why companies hate uncertainty. Not only does a business want to be able to plan ahead, the less change there is, the more a business can focus on improving efficiency to thrive in a specific regulatory, political, and economic environment. The more things change, the more businesses have to invest in being able to change their strategies to adapt to the changes in their world. Overall, there’s a tradeoff between being extremely efficient and being adaptable.

Both extremes can be admirable.


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.


Demand Begets Recreational Supply

Posted in Conservation, Fun and Games at 11:44 pm by justakim

Have you been to REI lately?

It is amazing how quickly markets for the outdoor enthusiast are being developed. I’m sure many of you can think back to the days of the frame pack and ye olde hiking stick. Nowadays the equipment available, of things you need and things you wouldn’t have known you needed until you saw it, might have the gloss and flair of the electronics aisles. Some say it’s good. Some say it’s bad. I say it’s fascinating.

The growth in the outdoor gear market has sparked a lot of competition in improving and inventing products. The more money there is in it, the more business can be supported, the more companies wish to enter, the more they compete with each other… the better the consumer is in the end. More products, higher quality products, and cheaper products. There have been some great improvements and inventions in the recent past that would not have come about and been made available if there were no incentive to do so.

I think back to my first tent and comparing it to my current one, it reminds me of the difference between steel and aluminum bikes. Or carbon fiber.

When did this non-stick cookware show up? Ever want a titanium spork? Wicking fabrics? Gore-tex?

Can you say “personal locator beacon”?

Two things that seem to be ubiquitous on the trails these days are hydration systems and trekking poles. I never thought I could drink so much water, but how can you say no when the straw is right on your shoulder? And who would have thought that no good hike is complete without taking a pair of sticks with you. My knees have never had it so good, and it’s hard to imagine going back.

I honestly believe that there are some places that would have been inaccessible to me without trekking poles. I hear economists think at the margin. Well, I am the margin.

To the extent that I have personally gained from the quantity and quality of gear that I have used, I gladly welcome my fellow consumers. I welcome the technical-gear geeks that are always pushing for the next thing.

And to an extent, the equipment can lower the playing field in cost of entry, and sometimes in accessibility. A hardcore person might appreciate but scoff at the difference a few pounds makes, but if you’re starting out, any help you can get means you can go a little further, see a little more, and possibly enjoy your experience just a bit more. And make the next trip out easier, until suddenly you have another enthusiast.

Popularity breeds popularity. It piques the interest of the curious, it encourages the timid, it provides a topic of commonality.

I know that some worry that there are just too many people out there, loving nature to death. But there is a big difference between those who appreciate something they know, and those who will not miss the passing of something they never knew was there.

To those who enjoy the gear, go for it; you and I will benefit from each others’ business. To those who can do without, you have gained more opportunities to exercise restraint.


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.


Move or Die

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation at 6:36 pm by justakim

Endemic California plants will become climate change refugees. As the climate changes faster than the general pace of evolution, the plants unique to California will have to find new places to live, or risk extinction.

“In nearly every scenario we explored, biodiversity suffers — especially if the flora can’t disperse fast enough to keep pace with climate change,”

…an island called California. *sniff* (book ref.)


It’s All in the Words

Posted in Behavior, Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Resources at 11:03 pm by justakim

Killing critters vs culling herbivores
Researchers looked back upon a controversial hedgehog culling
and used “content analysis”, a framework used by social scientists that basically looks at diction (vocabulary, wording). They found that different stakeholders discussed the same situation with completely different language.

“The pro-hedgehog lobby wrote about killing and animal welfare issues and used emotive or informal vocabulary, whereas the pro-bird lobby used more scientific language and vocabulary concerning wildlife and the Hebrides. Interestingly, media coverage of this controversy tended to use language similar to that of the pro-hedgehog groups. Our results show how content analysis allows differences in focus between stakeholder groups to be highlighted in a quantitatively rigorous way, and that this can encourage a dialogue to develop in which all stakeholders are at least addressing the same issues.”

…quantitatively rigorous? Yeah well, I don’t think you have to run statistical tests on word counts to know they’re approaching the situation differently and using their written skills to best frame their position. it does however make it easier to identify and address differences.

Miles Per Word
Changing how fuel efficiency is described can make a difference in what cars people buy. Rather than describing efficiency in miles traveled per gallon, if one were to describe it in gallons per 100 miles traveled, it would be easier to see how much of a difference it would make to take a very low efficiency car and improve it.

At 10 mpg, it takes 10 gallons to travel 100 miles. If that were doubled to 20 mpg, it would take 5 gallons. You save 5 gallons.

A car with 25 mpg takes 4 gallons to travel the same distance. Double that to 50 mpg would take 2. You save only 2 gallons.

We’re better off by having people ditch SUV’s for average cars than replacing average cars with better ones. This may seem pretty obvious for after all the SUV is the symbol of everything anti-environmental, but perhaps moreso when presented slightly differently.


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.


Unintended Consequences

Posted in Climate Change, Conservation, Energy, Pollution at 2:27 am by justakim


I was browsing one of those various stories about an organization buying some patch of forest for carbon sequestration purposes. It occurred to me that this was a very strange thought.

Start off with a straight market in emissions, a textbook example. In the market, each company has a different cost for reducing their pollution. The ones that have a harder time reducing pollution will pay the ones better suited to it, to pollute less in their stead. Pollution is decreased efficiently where those most able, do so. Total pollution goes down. Cool.

Why stop with companies? There are other places that can emit or remove your pollutant. Some energy sources are cleaner than others; buying from the cleaner sources should count for something. Why not trees? How does this work? You assume that the trees will remove pollutants. You assume that whoever owns the trees is going to cut them down anyway. Pay the tree owners to leave the trees up so they can continue to remove the pollutant.

It sounds great! Offsetting pollution and protecting trees at the same time. But something about this extension seems flimsy. Instead of reducing pollution among firms that are polluting, this would instead pay to make another place keep doing what it was doing naturally. So, the firms keep polluting and the trees keep breathing, they are just theoretically not going to get cut down or burned. This doesn’t strike me as a very effective strategy to reduce emissions.

What’s to stop someone from taking a step further. Surely some trees are better at carbon sequestration than others. Why not cut down one forest of less ‘efficient’ trees, and replant them with a nicely ordered tree farm that has more efficient trees? Trees that can be harvested. Perhaps one day the tree farms will be replaced with algae vats.

The entire line of thinking, of finding the cheapest cost ways to alter the projected path of carbon emissions seems misleading and ineffective, providing excuses not to reduce pollution and crowding out pollution reduction technology.


The result of unintended consequences (or ulterior motives) can be seen in the car market. Here’s a story where the Postal Service buys new alternative fuel vehicles.

The U.S. Postal Service purchased more than 30,000 ethanol-capable trucks and minivans from 1999 to 2005, making it the biggest American buyer of alternative-fuel vehicles. Gasoline consumption jumped by more than 1.5 million gallons as a result.

They replaced their Jeeps with Ford Explorers and found it hard to find the alternate fuel. Since the Explorer-based cars are less fuel efficient, consumption went up and efficiency went down. Brilliant.

A limited number of stations selling ethanol and the scarcity of vehicles burning it diminish the fuel’s appeal, according to a June 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office, the research arm of Congress. Three of the 26 ethanol- capable vehicles offered in 2007 were compact or mid-size cars, and the rest were large autos, pickups, SUVs or vans.


On an odder note, it seems that cleaning up pollution can sometimes have a negative impact on a species. The murk of pollution protected the stickleback from predation. An aggressive cleanup campaign in the 1960’s transformed Lake Washington from an open sewer into a clear lake.

But the lake’s recovery put at least one species in a pickle: the three-spine stickleback.

The small fish, formerly hidden in the murky depths, found itself swimming in plain view of predators like cutthroat trout.

Researchers now think the threat of predators spurred the fish into rapid evolution toward an older version of itself, evolutionarily speaking.

In the absence of pollution, the fish was suddenly made visible to its predators. The less protected were snapped up, and the ratio of fish with armor increased.

Interestingly, there are other clear lakes where the stickleback are not heavily armored, suggesting that something different is happening here. My thinking is this: In the presence of pollution, the fish favored other traits. With the sudden removal of pollution, there was no slow return to normal. All the fish who were caught unprepared were eaten and the ones with armor survived. It may not have been the best advantage, but it worked in a pinch.

Whatever the reason for the difference, it is interesting to see such an unusual and rapid effect due to cleanup. Things aren’t going to be quite like they used to be.



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.”



Posted in Conservation, Fun and Games, Pollution, Resources at 11:31 am by justakim

Someone is compiling a list of video games with environmental themes. I forgive them for not putting in ChronoTrigger yet.

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