Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Don't Give Away Carbon Permits

© 2009 Joshua Stark

I need to be blunt with this title, so forgive the lack of imagination.

Basically, here is a short article from the authors of a report on the impacts of free allocation of carbon permits through grandfathering, in which they say it's a bad idea. Additional comments on the issue and the report from Jim Roumasset (occasional guest blogger at Environmental Economics) can be found here, and they are well worth the read.
"Grandfathering" in pollution terms is where you let older equipment pollute more for free because it's older. The ethical foundation of this concept is that the impact to such older equipment and facilities will be too difficult for them, and so they would more likely shut down than re-tool, thus causing horrible unintended consequences to these communities. The ethical scales, then, weigh more heavily on jobs and community financial security than they do on the physical health of the community and/or global warming.

Matt Kahn posted a fascinating take on durable equipment and it's damaging environmental impacts, which I unfortunately cannot link straight to, because he doesn't separate his comments into pages (dang it), but you can read his blog here, which is generally good, except for the parts about famous people (unless you like that sort of thing). His entry is on November 23rd. Basically, he said that durable equipment, because of longer lifespans, drag our move towards less pollution, because they are dirtier than newer equipment. It's an interesting notion, even though I'm not completely convinced that making things break down faster is necessarily a good idea. It is also a notion that is exacerbated by incentives, like grandfathering, that encourage people to keep the older stuff around.

However, the costs of global warming are going to be borne, and putting a price tag on carbon is a good, huge step towards lessening it, but only if it is done right! What is right? First, it can't be cheap; second, its revenue has to be redistributed in a way to alleviate the regressive nature of its impact on poor folks.

Grandfathering fails both of those tests. In fact, the purpose of grandfathering is to make the process cheap, and this creates horrible distortions. Consider the two possible scenarios: 1) Carbon pricing is made cheap for everybody, or 2) carbon pricing is made expensive, but grandfathering is included.

In the first scenario, carbon is still emitted into the atmosphere, while revenues are collected either by the government or by private companies who got free permits. Conclusion: Consumers pay companies or the government more through what is effectively a sales tax, while more carbon is emitted into the atmosphere. Presumably, we are trying to cut carbon emissions, so this is a big, fat failure.

In the second scenario, free permits are given to companies, but the emissions have a lot of value because carbon is made expensive (through cutting the total amount allowed). If it is true that the older equipment cannot be made cleaner, then the company, very soon, will have a huge incentive to cease operations and sell off their permits, effectively pocketing the carbon tax from consumers AND leaving the communities stranded. The carbon price would come from the economy, which, considering that oligopolies/monopolies account for the vast majority of our markets, means that consumers would pay a disproportionate amount, and poorer people paying a disproportionate amount of that.

In the end, if we put a price on carbon, it's a tax - it is a government-mandated price and cap. If its purpose is to cut carbon emissions into the atmosphere, then it is going to have to be expensive. The first ethical question then, is: Should companies collect tax revenue, or should your government collect it?

Now the title of my post should be clear.

Environmentally damaging connections

© 2009 Joshua Stark

A couple of unfortunate stories to point out here, but the eye-opening is important.

Emily Green has a great blog, in general (check it out), and a few weeks back posted an amazing story on the connection between a well-known California Senator and a powerful "farming" family. Amazing, and sad on at least three levels for me, because pomegranates are my favorite fruit.
Today, Capitol Weekly and Capitol Alert both reported on recent campaign donations to a group called "Californians for a Fresh Start", which is supporting a change in term-limits laws. Specifically, the change in the law would lower the limit from 14 years (two Senate terms and three Assembly terms) to 12 years, while allowing all the time to be served in one house. My guess is that it would also include a "fresh start" for currently-serving legislators. The three contributors are the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, the L.A. County Federation of Labor, and Majestic Realty.

Why is this an environmental & ethics concern? It just so happens that Majestic Realty directly benefited from a last-minute law which exempted its proposed NFL stadium from state environmental regulations (CEQA, to be specific). So, don't be offended if one sees this as Majestic Realty spending $300k (it's donation) to a proposition that would exempt current legislators from a law that everybody else has to abide by as a token of its appreciation for being exempted from laws that everybody else has to abide by. Of course, the other two organizations benefit from the exemption (temporarily), but they all lose (along with the rest of us) by creating a horrible precedent, further poisoned by this new twist.

CEQA, by the way, is billed as an environmental law, and its focus is environment, but it is really a good-governance law, because it creates a process by which institutions and businesses must be clear about their impacts, and it offers the public the opportunity to weigh in on decisions that may impact them.

This is another story that is sad to me on a few levels. First, I like football, and I treat folks who don't with suspicion. Second, I love CEQA, and this precedent means that a serious fight is coming over a good law that gives regular folks a voice. Third, I'll just come right out and say it: I don't like term limits, because they create bad distortions in public representation, and (more importantly) they infringe on my right to representation as expressed through the 1st Amendment's freedoms of speech, petition, and assembly.

I won't be voting for the "new" idea because it doesn't eliminate term limits, it just further ensconces one particular group of individuals, while reinforcing the appearance of impropriety between large financial interests and our representative form of government. But, it's sad that is has had to come about the way it did.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A landowner's take on the ESA

© 2009 Joshua Stark

A great post over at Rich Fletcher's blog on conservation, the Endangered Species Act, and the concept of "highest and best use", one of those driving forces that have, historically, pushed lands to develop into suburbs and the like. It's a good read, I highly recommend it.

What I really like about it is that it comes from a landowner. The pressures these folks must feel whenever they try to do real conservation on their land must be tremendous. Remember, conservation is the noun form of "to use sparingly", and that is the proper definition when it comes to folks who have land that they can put to various uses. Farming, especially for the landowner who doesn't have tens of thousands of acres, can be a frightening business, because you are on the bleeding edge of margins, smack between the Scylla of oligopoly and the Charybdis of oligopsony*.
Mr. Fletcher's point is that laws like the Endangered Species Act help to re-define the highest and best use of a property. I'll second that, and say thanks for pointing it out.

*An oligopoly is a market with few producers, an oligopsony is a market with few buyers, and Scylla and Charybdis are the proverbial "rock and hard place" from Greek myth.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Problem with Pigou

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Nowdays, there is a movement afoot in economics right at the junction of economics, ethics, and the environment, based on the works of an obscure (to normal humans) economist.
Arthur Cecil Pigou was a prominent economist of the early to mid-20th century, and his work has influenced a number of studies in economics, but the one that is coming to prominence in recent years is the push to "internalize externalities." Pigou proposed a tax on transactions with negative externalities, because they are cases of market inefficiency.

There are two ethical claims here: 1) Economists believe it is unfair for someone to be hurt by other people's transactions; and 2) economists believe that market inefficiencies are wrong behaviors. The second one is a little more debatable, but I believe that the first one is just about as universally held a belief as one will find on Earth.

What a Pigouvian tax is, then, is a tax on a transaction intended to help mitigate the effects of its negative externality. Here is an example:

Say you buy 50 gallons of diesel fuel for your truck. As you drive off, the exhaust from your truck aggravates a kid's asthma. That child is rushed to the hospital, and her life is saved.

Who paid for the hospital trip? Who should pay? The visceral reaction is to feel at least partially responsible for the problem. Of course, in the real world, we pretend that we can't really determine these causes and effects so cleanly, but it's really because we can't determine whose specific particle aggravated the asthma, not because we don't think the situation is wrong.

But we do know that diesel exhaust is bad. We, as a society, are picking up the tabs for diesel's effects (called social costs), especially when the child doesn't have health care. This is a negative externality resulting from the purchase of diesel; the deal was between you and Chevron, the kid had nothing to do with it, and yet, she goes to the hospital, and I have to help pay.

Economists see this as a market failure, and some have proposed that, to help alleviate that failure, we should tax the item. The tax will raise the price of the item, lowering its quantity demanded in the market. In the case of diesel, this means that less diesel exhaust will occur in the air, because people will buy less of it.

The Pigouvian tax is widely accepted in economic circles, it crosses ideological lines, and in fact, there exists a Pigou Club of economists and wonks who believe in its use.

So, what's my beef with it? Well, first, it's a regressive tax, like all sales taxes. A regressive tax is one that has a larger percentage impact on poorer people than richer people. In our example, a person making $10k/year would pay a higher percentage of her income to the diesel tax than a person making $100k/year. My ethical claim is that poorer people should not pay a higher percentage of tax than richer people. Worse yet, some are calling for Pigouvian taxes to take the place of income taxes, which are progressive taxes (that is, the rich pay a higher percentage than the poor). This is an untenable long-term revenue situation for government, and it's bad macroeconomic thinking, too, for a couple of reasons.

Last, there is no guarantee that the revenues will not ruin the impact of the tax on externalities. Consider this: The construction industry lobbies for an exemption to the tax, on the grounds that it impacts jobs; the government exempts the insurance industry by providing an income tax exemption or a subsidy; the company bosses tell their folks to fill up, because they can just write it off at the end of the year. A person can conceive of a situation where more diesel gets consumed than previously (look at ag. subsidies now, if you don't believe that's a possibility).

But, in order for people to have the incentives to make honest economic choices, we need some way to internalize these externalities. We are all paying the social costs, so not having a price tag on their impacts at the diesel pump gives us a false price for diesel when we buy it. Since we can't ask for people's income statements at the pump, what do we do?

The solution I agree with is to help ensure that the tax (placement and revenue) helps alleviate the externality. This can be accomplished through a rebate of the Pigou tax to everybody, a combination of flat-out equal checks to every citizen of the country of a portion of the tax, and improving health care and non-citizen third-party impacts like air and water pollution problems in the wild lands. The rebate takes care of the regressive tax problem, and the projects to improve wild lands will help alleviate externalities there, too.

So, don't go asking me to join the Pigou Club until it comes with these fixes. Though, I doubt seriously that I'd be asked, anyway.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where I'm From

© 2009 Joshua Stark

The Sacramento Bee has a great article on concerns over the Peripheral Canal (or tunnel, or Isolated Conveyance, same thing) from folks down in the Delta. But, what I mostly like about it is the slant in which it is written. It's a tad fluffy, but that's okay - I've spent my life reading condescending, patronizing, and downright derogatory articles about the Delta my entire life, so it's nice to get more of an insider's feel.

And for the record, there is no sun-tan line on this wrist, either.

Into the weeds a bit on economics & ethics

© 2009 Joshua Stark

I've received a few questions on my post about carbon sequestration and reforestation, mostly regarding the idea of "internalizing externalities". I wrote about externalities here, if anybody is interested, but here is a quick definition of "externalities":

Externalities are effects upon a third party from an economic transaction of two other parties.
Economists are trying hard to figure out ways to alleviate negative externalities, because they are an inherent market inefficiency (the econ term for failure). So, starting from the beginning (the ethics), most economists believe that individuals in a transaction should be responsible for all the effects of that transaction. If somebody's purchase hurts somebody who wasn't even involved, then the purchaser and seller should have to pay for the damage.

Many economists are trying to figure out market-like ways to most efficiently alleviate the problem of negative externalities. One idea has been to create a market-like mechanism for the thing that causes the externality. In the case of carbon, this is putting a price on carbon emissions because they cause global warming (externality), and then requiring the participants to play in the market-like mechanism. This idea is called "internalizing the externality", because it forces a price into the transaction as a way to both reduce the amount of, and possibly provide revenue to, help mitigate the problems of the externality.

In the past two weeks, however, I've identified a few potential problems with this. First, I've always been leery of made-up markets like carbon, where you really aren't selling a good or service, you are selling the privilege to pollute. However, the polluters (both buyers and sellers) have had this privilege for free for years and years, so getting them to accept a new payment is very difficult. This is a problem when pricing in any externality.

Second, picking and choosing which externalities get priced is tough, too. In my earlier post on reforestation in Europe, I pointed out that if you don't/can't price in every externality, then you create incentives that worsen the remaining, un-priced externalities.

A third problem became apparent in my head after reading this from David Zetland's blog:

"Even if there was a market, we would only know the value "on the margin," which does not capture the (inframarginal) benefits that accrue to users."

Mr. Zetland was speaking about (the lack of) water markets, but the same concept can be applied to carbon, too.

Let me step back and explain: If we were to give carbon a price, what would that price be? Would it be the cost of its effects on the environment? Or, would it be based on the demand and supply for carbon? (Hint: it's the second one.)

This I see as a serious flaw when pricing externalities with a market-like mechanism like cap & trade. Markets work on supply and demand of the good being offered, but the problem we are trying to solve is the effect of an externality. Companies will only pay for carbon up until they would find it cheaper to just stop polluting (there's a great lesson on this at a fun & interesting site here). That price is determined by the company, not by the cost of damage from carbon to the atmosphere.

This price does not make enforcement any cheaper, either, but, sadly, it does help eliminate the stigma associated with being a polluter, while hiding a regulation over a pollutant in a pretend market.

To alleviate this, the cap & trade mechanism has the "cap" part that tightens over time. As this cap tightens, and fewer and fewer credits are allowed into the system, the price for carbon will increase. Can you see some downstream effects? Like, serious lobbying to loosen that cap, or postpone it just a little bit longer (see here for a great contemporary example)?

Ultimately, what this shows is that we are bending over backwards trying to make the transition to a low-carbon infrastructure as efficient and kind on businesses as possible. Unfortunately, what we might have done by this is:

A) create a decision-making process that favors problems where a market-looking solution is feasible, thus creating new distortions;
B) create a climate where we can call something a market if it appears to be a market, even when it is, in reality, a regulation; and
C) eliminate the stigma attached to paying a fine for polluting by hiding it in a pretend market, or in the case of giving away carbon credits, making taxpayers pay the fine for the companies in addition to helping pay the additional carbon costs whenever we buy anything.

And I'm in favor of a strong Cap & Trade! Weird, huh?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Humans, labeling, and the Precautionary Principle

© 2009, Joshua Stark

Yesterday, while looking for a Christmas ornament for the top of our tree, my wife pointed out to me, on one of the boxes, the Prop. 65 warning label that came with it: a warning that the wires on the star contain lead, a substance known to cause birth defects. We both expressed our incredulity at the idea, this symbol of life and love during our darkest and coldest days, covered in a substance that we should only handle if we know we aren't going to have babies. And if we don't have young children. And if we have children who know for sure that they aren't going to have babies in the future.
Now, I'm not overly fanatical about lead, as I grew up hunting and fishing ("just bite down on the tips of the split-shot to open it up"), and I turned out alright. Maybe not all right, but alright. However, I try not to play around with God's dice, to ruin a great metaphor. So we moved on & bought another star.

This morning, I remembered the conversation, and then a story I'd heard struck me as I considered the ramifications of our decision. The story: folks fishing in backwoods lakes in Montana are finding signs at some of the lakes warning them of high mercury levels. When people are given this information, some stop fishing there, a wise decision. Instead, they drive up a few miles to the next lake, the one without a sign. Do you see where this is going?

The lake up the road has no sign because it has not been tested. The tested lake had high levels of mercury, and now the responsible agency must tell the public, but if they'd never tested it, then they cannot say anything, for a number of reasons.

Are they truly making fishing safer for the folks who eat their catch? My guess is that many, many lakes in the region are contaminated from mercury due to mining operations.

Folks get incomplete information, which is bad enough, but the nature of our responses to information given in such an open manner, via signs and warnings on packages, is to assume that we now have complete information, when we don't. What if the star we purchased has one of the hundreds of chemicals that have never been studied, but that causes some physical harm? What if the lake down the road has more mercury?

The precautionary principle would offer a solution here. The chemical one is easy: Require manufacturers to show no harm before they use a chemical. That is not only easy (though expensive), it is something I would expect conservatives and liberals to agree to - complete information before buying something. We are far beyond the ability to personally know who made our products (knowing the local salesman for the made-in-China product doesn't count) or how they are made, so putting the onus on the maker to reasonably show no harm makes sense.

The lake issue is tougher. Personally, I think the long-term damages of mercury poisoning are worth the economic risk to small communities, and I think forcing the issue would pressure folks in positions of authority to get the testing done more quickly. I'm not suggesting shutting down lakes, but instead understanding the nature of mercury on a larger scale, and then posting signs that say this lake has or hasn't been tested, and the results if it had been tested. Again, a bit more expensive. But hey, you can't outsource those jobs.

I will still buy things the origins and contents of which I don't completely know, but that is because, right now, I have to. I have no other options, except for food, which we've been working on improving in this household. This isn't good economic decisionmaking (rewarding the status quo by buying it), and it's ethically dubious, too, but the options are so limited right now, that I really don't have a choice. Over time, however, I anticipate we will move away from those far-away purchases, and buy more and more locally produced goods and services, where we can at least have a better sense of (and some control over) the regulations which guide production.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Where are all the big greenhouse gas emitters?

© 2009 Joshua Stark

In California, we now know. Last week, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published the list of the biggest GHG (greenhouse gas) emitters in the state. This article from the San Jose' Mercury News does a good job talking to its importance. Unfortunately, it ends with a not-completely-true quotation:
"The low-hanging fruit is to increase your efficiencies," he said. "Any time you can get more use out of natural gas, that will result in reduced greenhouse gas."

The "he" from that quotation is Tupper Hull, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association. Although I understand what he is trying to say, it does not capture the whole truth, and I thought it important to remind folks that more use out of natural gas will result in reduced GHG emissions only if it replaces higher-emitting fuels.

Now, if you were to ask Mr. Hull if he was suggesting cutting our use of petroleum in order to make his statement true, I suspect (though I don't know) that he'd have a difficult time agreeing, seeing as he is the spokesman for a petroleum association.

It's also important to note (as the Mercury News does) that the fifth largest GHG emitter in the state is a natural gas power plant at Monterey Bay.

Beware suggestions for increasing our consumption as a way to save the planet.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My little suggestion for next year's state-level work

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Yesterday, I was able to attend the California League of Conservation Voters' Green California Summit. It was well-organized, as usual, with relevant topics and great discussions.
Of course, the looming concern for this group of folks is next year's legislative and regulatory climates in the face of a nearly $21 billion projected budget deficit. One strategy (and one that comes up annually) is to consider alliances with other communities (labor, business, etc.) when our goals align. In this light, and considering the "Jobs!Jobs!Jobs!" mantra that EVERY interest group touts for their projects, I have proposed one idea: Be brutally, brutally honest about the jobs.

Environmental groups have wrapped the "jobs" tag around quite a few projects, and I've been guilty of this, myself, where I think it's true in places. But, now is the time to open up about how and where those jobs will hit, and what the true opportunity costs will be if we enact projects that will build "green" jobs, vs. the status quo.

First, define your terms. The community needs a good, solid definition of "green" jobs. My suggestion: Any job that produces net carbon negative without too many impacts on other ecosystem values, and provides wages above the poverty threshold (or even prevailing wages?) should be "green". Remember, we are looking to build sustainable communities that make enough money to afford to leave some land/resources aside, in addition to lessening our environmental impacts. If we don't define this term in some way, however, it will so completely lose its value as to be potentially damaging.

Along with defining "green", define the opposite (hint: Don't call them "brown" or "black", please - maybe something like "bad", or "crappy", as I'm guessing "dirty jobs" is copyrighted).

Then, do an A+B+C=D equation, where A = Green Jobs, B = Crappy Jobs, C = unemployed people, and D = total workforce in the community (I kinda "stole" this from the folks at Env-Econ). I suggest doing this by region, and starting in the Central Valley, not because it's taking water from my community, but because it's economic conditions are as bad as Appalachia.

In this comparison, be honest: More green jobs will mean fewer other jobs. But, define those other jobs, which in the context of the Central Valley, looks good for green, local communities, and labor. Yes, massive solar installations on denuded and fallowed lands will lose farm labor jobs, but they will gain full-time, year-round solar industry employment. In addition, consider how these jobs will cut into unemployment. Mendota claims to be freaked out because its official unemployment rate is over 30%, which is sad and awful, but not much worse than it was during good economic times. Mendotans should be screaming mad at their infrastructure and local government for never trying to get good, steady work developed in its region, but now, with the potential for farming solar, they should be demanding space for these full-time jobs with better wages and benefits.

So, show the math. In the best of times you may lose, say, 2000 ag. jobs to a particular project, but gain 500 green jobs. However, the 500 jobs we'd support would be at, say $15-20/hr., + benefits + full-time work, vs. the current $8-10/hr. seasonal work without benefits. In addition, your ag. jobs aren't there right now, anyway, due to drought and a bad economy, so note that turning fallowed lands benefits locals without driving away current agriculture.

If you add an honest conversation about the created jobs to the benefits of carbon-negative projects and lower impacts on ecosystems, you speak not only to the current budget crisis and economic climate, but also to future quality of life issues for local communities.

Last, attack opponents by pointing out that the status quo vis a vis bad jobs and unsustainable environmental practices is what got us into our current economic crisis. For example, if first-time homebuyers in the Central Valley had full-time work with good wages, they would have been much less susceptible to predatory lending practices. They also would have been more able and willing to help with diesel truck retro-fits to improve air quality. Had they been given access to sustainable and alternative energy sources for transportation, or even mass transit, we would have been able to weather the oil market instability which helped drive down the consumer economy just before the financial crisis hit. We have been good at telling people what will happen, but maybe its time to explain what just happened in light of bad environmental and jobs practices, and then offer the alternative in the form of sustainable jobs with good wages and benefits.

It's just a couple of small suggestions.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Carbon sequestration & European reforestation

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Don't let the title scare you off, I'll bring it down a notch, and talk about that issue in a bit.

Last week, I was able to attend a lecture by a researcher from Spain, Dr. Alejandro Caparrós of the Institute of Public Goods & Policies at the Spanish National Research Council. The good doctor gave a fine presentation, even while interrupted mid-lecture by rude Americans with questions. He was well-versed in the actual effects of carbon regulation, because the EU has been actually implementing them for a few years now.
So, a definition, to get everybody up to speed: Carbon sequestration is the physical act of pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it. Many folks are working on an engineered sequestration, but we have an elegantly designed method in plant life, esp. in trees and other slower-growing plants. Now that you know this (if you hadn't before), you can see the obvious interest in reforestation or avoided degradation of existing forest lands. You can also see the dollar signs appearing in many folks' eyeballs as they look out no longer at pristine forests, but at miles and miles of giant carbon stands and the money they might hold.

I won't go into the weeds too deep over actual reforestation vs. avoided degradation, or the comparisons between a largely free market (Spain) and a controlled market (Tunisia). I want to point out a surprising finding he mentioned as an aside, and two conclusions that I reached from this lecture.

First, the little gem that Dr. Caparrós pointed out: Paying farmers to reforest or avoid degradation is seen as a way to wean the EU off a large portion of its farm subsidies, and it looks like it may work. He said that the EU is attempting to eliminate its farm subsidies over the next 20 years, and is offering a way to pay for carbon sequestration as an alternative for farmers. For this reason, they are looking at the best way to ease farmers into agreeing to these subsidies. Surprisingly, with carbon market prices, it may be possible to reforest about 10% of Europe through pricing in the value of carbon.

As for my conclusions, they are a tad disturbing, but hopefully more enlightening in the long run.
As Dr. Caparrós talked about different ways to "internalize" the price of carbon, he narrowed the subsidy/payment down to two methods, which he named the Carbon Flow Method (CFM), and the Ton Year Allocation Method (TYAM). CFM is easiest: You get a check for the amount of carbon you sequester in a year, and you pay that amount when you lose that carbon. Ideally, this means that a farmer grows oaks for twenty years, and receives a check for his additional carbon every year. When he harvests his oaks, he pays for the carbon that leaves his property. Realistically, a certain percentage of farmers will lose their trees to catastrophic wildfire every year, but will probably be quite unwilling to pay for their carbon loss immediately after losing everything.

TYAM tries to alleviate the fire problem by allocating a smaller amount to the farmer for sequestering carbon each year, but not requiring payment if the farmer loses carbon to a fire or harvest. It seems like an insurance plan to me, but it also has the effect of incentives for farmers to keep trees longer, thus rehabilitating native Spanish cork oaks and their habitats.

These are all well and good, point to an economics concept really pushed lately, which is to try to internalize (make a price for) market externalities. So when I had a chance, I asked a question about this idea, because I saw a looming hole growing in the carbon pricing mechanism, and one that worries me as a conservationist/environmentalist.

I asked him if he anticipates any pressures to encourage reforestation in habitats which provide strong carbon sequestration, and degradation of habitats where not so much carbon is sequestered, but where we have other ecosystem values. His answer was illuminating: He said yes, he anticipates that market distortion, and that we would all love to be able to internalize every externality to alleviate that problem.

Which brings me to an "if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" conclusion. Economists, in order to prove the ultimate efficiency of market systems, are looking to internalize every externality. But, you can't do it to everything, so we are going to see some serious distortions, until economics as a study again accepts the necessity of direct public involvement to alleviate these problems.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

New blog on the Environmental Ethics list

© 2009 Joshua Stark

The circles that the internet spins can really be fascinating, but I'm sure they relate to the little, nerdy worlds we build for ourselves. At the very least, it provides us nerds the ability to find each other, though we live thousands of miles away, or move parallel to each other in the same communities.

While at Environmental Economics, I found them linking to a gentleman at Davis (now at Berkeley), one David Zetland. His blog, Aguanomics, is a great blog on economics and water issues, and he also seems to have a great experiment going with his students (?), letting them blog economics issues. The students' works offer great real-world economics perspectives on various human enterprises - my current favorite, of course, is the entry on hunting.

Another bonus the students' writings provide for non-economics types are examples of the style of analysis economics brings to various issues. I've been trying to organize, in my head, a way to defend economics as an analysis such that folks reading economics analyses can understand the conclusions without automatically shutting down or yelling at the paper. It's hard to do, but these students are doing it.

Take that hunting blurb. The author, Ms. Riggs, does not take a side about the ethics of hunting. She explains the sides in the context of the usefulness (joy, food, etc.) of hunting to the individual, and then uses that explanation to draw some economic conclusions. However, I believe that people who both love and hate hunting will read through it, and argue with Ms. Riggs at times, because she either doesn't completely get the argument, or she missed something, etc. But, that isn't the point of this analysis. Although the ethics of the concept are important (and a major reason why economics shouldn't be the only way to look at issues), she focuses on the utility, or usefulness, of the activity to the individual.

So, if you get a chance, read the various economic analyses from the students, and comment on them. Hopefully, these real-world examples will help illuminate some basic concepts of economics.

As for Mr. Zetland's work, I think it's great. His perspectives on water are sorely needed in California's State Capitol as well as in D.C. Read his stuff, too.

Monday, October 26, 2009


© 2009 Joshua Stark

My brain often looks for connections. The training for my first major vocation, as a high school teacher, required that I try to make as many connections between the students and the subjects as I possibly could fabricate. I'm being a tad silly, but it was true, and a large part of my work involved honestly looking at my kids' lives and their futures, and finding that information which most moved them to learn more.
This has stayed with me through my other professions, and now, looking at environmental and conservation issues, I often find myself taking the perspective of all sides, and then looking for connections. In this, I come across some interesting facts pertaining to connectedness. To whit:

The Endangered Species Act and our military.

Did you know that the peregrine falcon has provided a wealth of technological advancements to our fighter and reconnaissance aircraft? From air intake cones to variable-wing technologies, engineers have studied and applied many aspects of the fastest animal on Earth.

Now, what would have happened if it had gone extinct?

Now, what will we learn tomorrow from another example in nature, to help improve our lives? Lately, the ESA has taken some hits on both sides, because it focuses on individual species. But, maybe Aldo Leopold was right, and the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to keep all the pieces.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Anticipating shifting energy patterns

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Dr. Kahn at UCLA has a quick post up about plug-in Prius hybrids coming in 2012. Of course, GM says its Volt will arrive late next year (call me a doubting Thomas, that thing has been just about to come out for four years now), and Nissan and possibly Ford have electric vehicles coming out next year or 2011. Tesla Motors has ripped them all up, as they've had an all-electric roadster (0-60 in 3.9 seconds) out for two years now, and offer a sedan next year that I would love to get for my next birthday.
This is all good news, but Dr. Kahn's question was one of capacity in the state. Can California provide enough power through our grid in such a way as to make this transition possible?

In my humble opinion, yes. There are two major transformations that can (and probably will) quickly take place to help this transition:

1) Water conservation! About one-fifth of California's energy consumption goes to water transport and purification in the state. Currently, there is a strong movement to get a 20% reduction in residential water use by 2020, and this will translate into energy savings. If the State were to grow a spine and include agriculture, we could experience dramatic energy savings;

2) Distributed generation! That's the fancy term for you producing electricity, either by wind or, more often, solar power. Barring any unforseen bad events, within three years I predict changes that will make it much more cost-effective (and even lucrative) for folks to install solar panels and windmills at home. If you could sell excess energy back into the grid for fair market value, while at the same time utilities are required to procure larger percentages of their electricity from renewable resources, I'd be willing to bet that break-even points for solar panels would drop from the current 8 years or so to 4 or 5 years, especially if tax rebates continue. At the same time, individuals would be insulating themselves from higher electricity rates by producing their own.

Of course, obstacles exist, the primary one being the centralized ability of big utilities (and ag.) to lobby hard to get what they want. One prime example is an attempt by PG & E to require 2/3rd's voter approval if a community tries to create its own, public utility. At the state level, this usually means that companies go along with 'green' ideas so long as they maintain their current, government supported lock on production/distribution. In this light, expect big pushes for those huge solar developments in the Southern California wilderness. My own two cents is to compromise, and let them develop huge solar projects in the Central Valley at the same time you require them to pay fair market value for electricity from individuals. If it is true that only about four or five percent of homes are cost-effective for good solar generation, then why are the utilities reticent to push for as much of it as we can make?

We all know that the transition will have costs and consequences. Every change does. However, like Professor Kahn, I believe our electricity generation can and will make a fairly smooth transition to providing more energy for transportation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

For my blogger friends out there making money

Or at least, showing ads. on their blogs:

Please note that the FTC now has regulations on advertising that includes blogging, especially where the blogger is posting reviews from merchandise given by the manufacturer:

I just thought you might want to know.

Monday, September 28, 2009

More on Economics as a Study, then some Ethics

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Paul Krugman has a good post today breaking down the real costs and benefits of some kind of CO2 emissions price. Unfortunately, his post gives two good reasons why economics is labeled the "dismal science."
First, he immediately flies off into econo-babble-speak, which is a very logical place for him to be, Nobel winning economist that he is, and is also a logical language in and of itself. However, outside of the nerd-camp, it becomes nearly meaningless. I have a few reasons as to why, and I'll give you my kindest one:
1) Technical studies require special definitions;
2) Economics is a technical study of mundane human behavior;
3) Therefore, economics uses mundane words with specialized meanings, and also makes up words to describe things that are so common or mundane to humanity that we hadn't named them.

I have other, more conspiracy-minded ideas, too, but I'll leave those for another post.

Here I've decided to clarify Prof. Krugman's description in good standard English, as much as I can - which is funny, because I have to start off by giving a nerdy name to a very mundane concept: When somebody sells something to somebody else, sometimes things happen that affect people outside of this transaction. For example, when you drive to the grocery store, your car pollutes a tiny bit. That tiny bit may aggravate somebody's asthma, somebody not even at the store. That external thing there is called an 'externality'. There are good ones and bad ones.

Now that externalities are understood, here's Krugman's post, in easy speak and without the comments about other people (which is probably the only reason why Krugman gets the NY Times and I have to settle for a poorly edited "letter of the week" in a local alternative weekly... yeah, right):

Carbon emissions cause negative externalities. We can put a price on them to make people polluting them realize the true cost of that pollution. We can do this by taxing carbon emissions, or by creating a market for trading carbon emissions while limiting the amount of total carbon allowed. When we do this, the cost of these things will go up, and so will the benefits of not polluting. The true cost or benefit of putting a price on pollution, then, is benefit-cost.

Thank you.

Okay, now that this is clarified, I want to point out the ethical causes and implications of pricing externalities. The ethical statement being made here is that people should pay for the true costs of their economic activities. If you believe that (I do), then you should consider the best ways to accomplish that goal. The second ethical consideration is over who, exactly, should get the money from the new, true price: Government, producers, or consumers. I'll leave that for another post, too.

I don't mean to belittle Prof. Krugman's post, and if you love Harberger Triangles and debates between the freshwater and saltwater schools, or if you even just want to get a basic understanding of economics from within, he's a good writer. I just think that some reasonable people get left out of much of economics talk, and that hurts economics as a topic.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Now, imagine if they required locally grown, grass-fed beef!

© 2009 Joshua Stark

A quick snap-shot, from Stephen Von Worley's blog Weather Sealed, on the location of every McDonald's in the Lower 48:

Besides my title post, I'll leave the commentary up to you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Climate change and impacts on the bottom line

© 2009 Joshua Stark

Very, very often these days, government management conversations must include "economics", a series of arguments around the costs and benefits of particular programs in terms of direct dollars and jobs. Unfortunately, the "economics" to which I refer isn't real economics, but more akin to a quotation attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, that there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics."
Economics is real. It is not mathematics, it is not a hard science, and in those cases it is therefore much more like the real world than the previous two. However, humans use boxes and models and discrete hypotheses to help us understand the world, while recognizing the truth of what, for example, Magritte is saying here:

Sadly, most conversations around proposed and existing programs are merely ways to use the public perception of economics as a hard science and math, poorly apply a theoretical model from economics, and pass it off as an A + B = C argument. Then, they roll that argument up into a tight cylindrical object, glue it together with pathos, and hit their opponent with it as hard as they can.

So it is with great happiness that I offer some refreshing examples of real economics.

The first is a report on a University of California study about rents and 'green' buildings. The Fresno Bee's opinion does a good job of capturing the idea, and it is something to consider if you own rental property. Basically, the article points out the financial benefits of improving the energy efficiency of property, but it includes what it calls the "intangible value of the Energy Star label." It's funny, because the previous paragraph made tangible, financially, the Energy Star label, and yet this comment is still true, and it goes to a point I made over and over when I taught economics: Trust is as vital to a well-functioning economy as informed self-interest.

Really, Adam Smith's hand isn't invisible, it's the one you just shook when you made the deal. If you don't trust that hand, you won't shake it. What Energy Star and other government programs can do is help ensure that trust. For example, why do we keep our money in banks right now, during the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and with 94 bank failures this year alone? The FDIC, that's why.

In Energy Star's case, we get a guarantee that the product has met certain conservation requirements, and that is important in increasing value, not just for the environment, but for people's costs, too.

The next one is a report from the Washington Post on the flip-side of climate change: Not fixing it will hurt many companies.

Of course, many other companies may benefit from climate change, and there will be people trying to create wealth from what we'll have (life and lemons and all that), but the biggest problem of climate change for most companies is the uncertainty of it all. Trust is vital for individual transactions, but it is also important for the overall climate, and that goes for the economic, social and political climates as well as the physical one. A prime example of this is shipping, which many say has benefited from climate change opening up the Northern Passage. However, since we aren't sure what will happen in the future, imagine putting all your boats into those waters, and then getting an ice-up the next year, crushing all those boats and cargo. Kinda dampens your guarantees for timely delivery of merchandise, no?

The last is an entry at Prof. Kahn's blog, Environmental and Urban Economics (another witty title, like mine!), where the good professor quotes the President of Hamilton College, Joan Stewart. This is a small story, but it provides a great example of the intersection of macro- and microeconomic thought.

President Stewart argues that it is not in the best interest of the college to put solar panels on a particular building during renovation, and she gives a wonderful list of reasons. Now, what would encourage her to either put those in, or at least obtain clean energy from another source? The bottom line. She explains very succinctly the costs and benefits of those particular panels, and I applaud her for these efforts. On the broader scope, then, it is vital for us to include the additional costs we've been dodging in our personal lives, but it's hard for us to understand the individual economic impacts of climate change, or bad air quality or water quality. Perhaps we have asthma (1 in five kids in California's Central Valley does), or we farm and realize lower yields with dimmer sunlight (also a problem in the Central Valley). These effects help to quantify it for some, but beyond them, we don't grasp the weight of bad environmental choices upon our lives.

This is where macroeconomics and democratic institutions step in. We don't have to understand the individual impacts, we can try to grasp their totality instead, and then try to alleviate them by, for example, making the costs of bad air quality a financial matter up-front, rather than a health and financial matter after the fact.

It's good to see some solid economics around these issues, but it's also important to understand the limitations of economics. It is a tool, like others, to be used for us: Think of it as the study of trade-offs. But, it is not a pipe. It is only a picture.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

You can't sell Conservation

©2009 Joshua Stark

It's a fact: You can't sell, "buy less."

This sounds silly, but frankly, this is a huge hurdle for the conservation/environmental community, because the overwhelming majority of our communication is funded by advertising and marketing.
Consider newspapers, magazines, television, the internet. Ironically, the proliferation of 'free' advice, news articles, recipes, etc., has had a magnifying effect on advertising and marketing. Everywhere we go, from computers to urinals, we see advertisements, to help cover the costs for the advice you get when you google "how to hunt wild pigs" or some such thing.

This is understandable. People's time is worth something, and so is their expertise. However, this becomes problematic for a community whose name means "to use sparingly".

This idea struck me as I was standing in line at a local grocery store. I noticed a number of magazines whose purpose was to teach frugality, budgeting and such things. The first thing that popped into my head was, "okay, I'll start being frugal by not buying a magazine." As I was driving home, it really came home (this happens because I often drive a car with no radio) that conservationists and environmentalists have a problem here. Our community has realized that a huge part of our impact is our disposable economy, the number of single-use, individually wrapped items in our markets.

Nowhere is this dichotomy more present than in the hunting industry. From actual hunting implements to scent eliminators and wind detectors, hunters are inundated with new products each year, and every hunting magazine spends inordinate column-space on the top 50 products, or the year's newest and best. At the same time, many hunters choose hunting as an atavistic activity, a way to take their food honestly and with skill, while hoping to 'get back to nature' in their endeavors.

Let's face it: Most of the new stuff is cool (with the exception of a "Euro" look I've seen on some shotguns, which is hideous). Designers do a good job in using packaging, fashion, politics, and other ways to sway folks towards a purchase. But, most of the new stuff has also been manufactured where labor is cheapest, and shipped thousands of miles.

Meanwhile, we worry about impacts on the habitat and resource, and we get really angry when we come across blatant littering and waste.

Well, my one, small suggestion when considering this dilemma, at least for hunters, is to consider exactly what we admire. We often appreciate the older guns, the leather and oilskin products whose wear and scars don't come at the factory, but from years of reliable use. We admire maintaining and becoming familiar with our equipment. We strive for self-sufficiency.

Which of these traits is compatible with buying a new one every year? Which do we usually hold in higher regard, the hunter who just bought a brand new over/under, or the hunter who has hunted with the same old pump gun for 25 years and has limited out most times?

Folks have to make a living, this is true, and with our economy in its current shape, retailers are hit especially hard. But, for these reasons, for the long-term health of a sustainable economy as well as helping habitat, we should consider practicing with our current equipment, waiting and buying only those pieces of equipment that will foster those traits we admire most about hunting and good hunters, and also seriously trying to purchase American made products when we do decide a purchase, even if it costs a few dollars more.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The end of a California session with some looming good news

© 2009 Joshua Stark

If the Governor will sign them, we will have some good news in California over renewable energy.

Heading to the Governor's desk:

Two bills (AB 64 & SB 14) that would require 33% renewable energy from electrical utilities by 2020;
a bill (AB 920) that would force utilities to pay individuals for surplus solar energy created in their homes (right now, companies don't pay for much of the extra energy, but certainly charge folks for its use);

and a bill (SB 32) that would allow individuals to produce more energy in their homes for sale to utilities (right now, they are capped; this would raise the cap).

So, I'm a bit happier about this year, especially because of the last two bills. The first one will create some habitat pressures in the California desert, which I'm hoping will be alleviated by the other two bills as well as the force of the Endangered Species Act causing big changes in the way the Central Valley of California does business. I'm hoping, in particular, that the Central Valley will see that it's best chance for re-invention, renewal, and growth will be in 'farming' solar power, which will necessitate and aid better air quality, as well as create better paying and permanent jobs, and lessen their "need" for Delta water.

Also, the Governor has the chance to sign AB 1404, which caps the use of offsets in any carbon market California uses to 10% of total emissions. Offsets are things companies can buy instead of cutting their emissions, such as renewable energy credits or Amazon carbon sequesters (trees in a rainforest). This is great because offsets really get to be easy ways out, and over-complicate our attempts at actually cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

So, it's up to our Governor, and I'll leave it at that.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Not a victory, but not a catastrophe, either

© 2009 Joshua Stark

The Delta water bills the State of California did not pass yesterday (or this morning).

I am relieved at this. The environmental community is torn over this issue, with normally-allied groups taking different sides. But, it is a controversial issue, and a big issue.
For those of you lucky enough to be out of the loop, let me sum it up: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is in Northern California, just East of San Francisco Bay. The entire Sierra Nevada's West slope, in addition to much of the Trinity Alps and some of the Cascades, drains into the Delta. It provides water for 25-30 million Californians on any given day, in addition to watering the richest agricultural zone in the country, as well as the largest metropolitan area in the country, both of which hundreds of miles away.

To sum up the history of California's water issues, I'll quote Mark Twain: Whiskey is for drinkin', and water is for fighting over. That's how long this has lasted.

In recent years, some have advocated for a new canal to be built around the Delta, because of problems associated with water pollution, salinity, and old levees in the Delta. Recently (coinciding with a nearly 80% increase in pumping to the South in 2001), the Delta ecosystem has almost completely collapsed.

The new canal would avoid these problems for water users in the South by diverting clean Northern California water around the Delta. Can you see the problems a Delta-born River Rat like me might have with a canal? We need fresh water to deal with all the pollution problems Central California sends our way from their rivers, in addition to supporting our own ecosystem and agriculture.

Proponents of a canal believe that, so long as it is "eco-friendly", a canal is the only way to go. The real problem, however, is that too much water is dedicated for places other than the Delta. It needs a certain amount of fresh water, and it doesn't get it. My counter to folks who claim there can be an eco-friendly canal is to ask them to support a dam with similar impacts and costs; but, none in the environmental community will support anything called a dam. I respond, then do not support any canal that equates to a dam in its impacts (downstream flow, construction, land & energy used, etc.). If I had the money, I'd buy billboard space to make this claim.

I hear from canal-proponents that if we don't do something, the Delta will collapse, and people will also not get the water they need. I contend that we are doing something, we are carrying out the Endangered Species Act, and stopping pumping during critical times of the year. As a response to other regulatory actions, people have been forced to better conserve water (Look at the aftermath of Mono Lake), and these results should be no different.

There are many political machinations at work on these water deals, the worst an attempt to give decision-making authority to pro-canal forces through a tiny group of appointees (seven) who would get to decide water policy for upwards of 30 million of us, and millions of acres of habitat and ag. land. But before I, or other voices from the Delta, will give one more acre-inch of water, we want to see everybody doing all they can to conserve our water.

For starters, the city of Fresno can cut its water consumption from 280 gallons per person per day (the US average is around 100).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

One Big Ethical Problem in Government

© 2009 Joshua Stark

And it's not what you think. I'm no anti-government individual; my Uncle suffered through Bataan for something, and the only thing that makes America is its free and active, democratic, political institutions, which provide us the framework for everything else.

I've been unable to add to this blog, recently, not because we lack environmental ethics issues, but because I've been inundated with them at work and through friends & family. For example, I just got off the phone with my cousin, who had an encounter with a hunting guide who just leaves his empties because the river will flush them out. And that's the smallest one. So, when I get home, the last thing I want to do is hash out some ethical or environmental problem.
This last week, I've been in a back-and-forth at the Sacramento Bee's website, in a debate with an anti-hunter about the nature of hunting, killing, and wounding. It comes in response to an article by Holly Heyser over at NorCalCazadora. The article is here, and if you scroll down to the bottom, you'll come across my comments (as JStark7777) opposing one MonicaZ. She is civil, and has some strong feelings. I feel good about what I've written. Also, Holly's article is great!

But the biggest issue on my mind lately has come from the looming doom over the California Delta, and just how badly the Legislature will screw it up in the hopes of doing something this year. The last few weeks, the Senate President pro tem, known for banning water meters in Sacramento, removed from "debate" the only Senator representing the Primary Zone of the Delta, or what we folks from the Delta like to call THE DELTA. Our Senator Wolk had authored a bill in the mix, but she wasn't allowed to work on its final appearance, because, says the Contra Costa times, "Steinberg said he could not be assured she would vote for the final product. As a Sacramento lawmaker, he said, he would represent Delta interests." How's that little, refreshing bit of truth in politics and reporting? Well, half of it, anyway. It's interesting to note that he could be assured of his own vote, without even knowing what the 'final product' would look like.

This issue has taken a lot out of me. I've had a conversation with a prominent political writer who mistook "upstream" for "North of". I've had conversations with farm labor organizers leading groups of concerned workers into the Capitol, wanting more water for the parched Central Valley (and, some say, who had been threatened into attending), but who have never spoken with farm labor in the Delta. But, the worst conversations I've had have been with "special interests", in particular environmental groups, who think that the only politically feasible thing to do is to back the majority, and accept a peripheral canal. It's this last point where I dive into the realm of applied ethics and politics, and tangentially, environment.

In my time, I've had a lot of "political feasibility" conversations, and though they have often left a sour taste in my mouth, I hadn't really stopped to ask why, except to note that advocates for a cause shouldn't concern themselves so much with political feasibility. Political feasibility is the reason we vote representatives; it's their job to make the deals and decide yes or no.

And, that's it. Last week, driving home alone from my last day of bow season, it struck me: Political advocates, what many derisively call "special interests" should not concern themselves with political feasibility.

First off, I do not deride special interests. We are a democracy, and to condemn those who participate makes no sense. In fact, if one reads the Federalist papers, one comes away with a profound sense that democracy only works when folks make their interests plainly known, and so I applaud organizing for one's interests. However, to point out again that democracy only works when folks make their interests plainly known, it is imperative that organizations created for particular causes be completely honest and plain in defending those causes.

For years, environmental organizations had been brow-beaten because of their staunch, unyielding support for what some thought were wacky ideals. However, over time, some of these organizations became successful, and organized political actions that gave them the ability to wheel-and-deal. Now, a few of these groups are multi-million dollar outfits, with authority and responsibility. Unfortunately, this means that they do not always passionately advocate their cause (from the oath lawyers take), and sometimes give up the "perfect" for the "good."

I offer that this is not only not their role, but that when political advocates pursue political feasibility instead of their stated goals, they actually damage democratic institutions. Political deal-making for general progress is the role of politicians, this is why we elect representatives; this is not why we join organizations. When those power-broker organizations self-censor, they remove from the public discourse information vital to democratic institutions, they warp the understanding of subjects (because they are often experts in their subjects), they warp the perception of their constituents' desires for protection, and, in time, they lose their own goals.

If you've made it this far, please comment.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Puttin yer money where yer mouth is

© 2009 Joshua Stark

A recent post over at Albert Rasch's blog, on the amount gun-purchasers put into conservation efforts through excise taxes on firearms and ammunition ($109 million 1st quarter) got me to thinking. The first thing I thought about was this recent letter (scroll down a bit for the letter) from the California Fish & Game Wardens' Association, asking that a particularly large conservation effort be tabled due to funding restrictions around enforcement.
What really stuck out for me was this section:

"Poaching and environmental law violations are an everyday occurrence as we continue to provide the ''thin green line" of protection in spite of the ongoing statewide budget crisis and a requirement for taking three furlough days each month. With only a little over 200 field game wardens, the furloughs create a situation where we lose the time equivalent to 28 wardens."

For those of you living outside California: California is suffering through a horrible budget crisis, and one solution put forth by the Governator was to furlough state employees. Several law enforcement agencies are exempt from furloughs, but not game wardens. Additionally, California has the fewest game wardens per capita of any state in the union. 200 wardens for 158,706 square miles. 1 warden for every 183,800 people; 1 warden for every half-million acres. Last, for those outside California who tend to think of us as palm trees, L.A. and San Francisco, I can only point out that there were parts of California even Jedediah Smith couldn't go (namely, the Trinity Alps). It's harsh, rugged, and probably has the most varied habitat conditions of any state in the Union, from craggy beaches & 1,100 miles of ocean coastline, to the Mojave Desert, to Mt. Whitney(!). 40% of our plants are endemic. We also have the single most important watershed in the Nation, moving water about 1,000 miles, through a delta with 1,000 miles of waterways, and supplying 2/3rd's of our population, or roughly 8% of the population of the entire U.S. And only 3% of the land in California is urban.

So, to say that we have a warden shortage isn't the same as saying that Rhode Island has a warden shortage.

Now that I've removed folks a bit from their stereotypical image of California, I'd like you to return to it. What are California politics? Left-of-center comes to mind, yes? And on environmental issues, you'd be mostly right. If you wave a proposed offshore oil rig concept in front of us, we get all crazy-eyed (myself included). However, it seems that oftentimes, once we get a bill passed through the Legislature and signed by the governor, we move on to the Next Big Thing. We don't try to follow through. And we end up with little regulatory oversight.

This makes me particularly angry over wardens. Californians often profess a true love for the wild, yet we won't put up the money to protect it. Californians profess a disdain for pollution, but we won't pay to enforce clean air and water rules. And wardens are left running around after some real kooks: This is the one law enforcement group that knows the person they are pulling over is armed, and probably with a loaded weapon.

Now, I am 90% sure that if we had no excise tax on firearms to go to conservation, but it were put to a vote by gun owners this year, or even, say, 2005, we would assemble en masse to vote it down, with shouts about the 2nd Amendment and hippy tree-hugging enviros come to take our money. However, these taxes were passed back when hunters were the front line in conservation, and because they passed when they did, we can continue to claim that front line. But, we still have a responsibility to the place, beyond our politics. Californians prove that, these days, very few will step up and offer to pay for our wildlife and habitat. We parse management and impact and political intent until we justify our opposition, rather than taking the mature route of hiring someone to do a job, and then letting them do it.

So, hunters, I encourage you to find a program that your money is funding and volunteer for it. And Californians: demand that your fish, wildlife, habitat and water be protected through our game wardens. It's funny how we expect to pay for good service everywhere but with government. It's also amazing how requiring oneself to pay for a government service leads to pride in that service and payment, regardless of politics.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cluck Life

© 2009, Joshua Stark

As this is my first year raising ducks, I've come across some interesting folks, and a way of life that seems to be a growing interest for many, raising animals that also provide food. However, our legal system is a slowly-evolving one, and although usually that's a good thing, communities are finding themselves stuck in early- and mid-20th Century city ordinances that tried to strictly delineate rural, suburban, and urban living. Sacramento, touted as Cow Town, for example, doesn't allow backyard chicken-keeping, much less actual cows.
We are lucky to live in the more civilized West Sacramento, over the river and in a different county, and where home-buyers must recognize the right to farm. But Sacramento is stuck in the Tyson Age, where all meat and animal products must come from hundreds of miles away, double-sealed and processed so as to eliminate any living thing's desire to get any sustenance out of it.

But times are changing, and raising small food animals is one place where there can be seen a great convergence in the four major environmental communities: hunting groups, conservationists, environmentalists, and environmental justice folks. In particular, enviros who hope to decrease the carbon footprint in our food industry and eat more seasonally and geographically appropriate foods, and environmental justice folks who raise animals because it is a part of their cultures and traditions, can find real common ground on this issue. Enter the folks at the Campaign to Legalize Urban Chicken Keeping.


Funded through Pesticide Watch's EAT Sacramento program, CLUCK is trying to change chicken laws in Sacramento. They have a relatively new blog, and are currently drumming up support for changes that would allow Sacramento residents to raise laying hens. Right now, they are trying to allay councilmemebers' fears that if Sacramento relents and allows people more freedom to choose their pets, it will quickly regress to a backwater podunk. Born and raised in a podunk, I think there are worse things to fear, like a 25% high-school dropout rate, but that's just me. However, such holes-in-the-wall as San Francisco and Denver currently allow laying hens, so perhaps fears are a tad out of place. I think I'm arguing here that, in fact, a city's acceptance of local food and self-reliance among its residents is actually a symbol of progress. After many years of trying to sterilize our urban environs, and with the results being greater fear of super-resistant bacteria, obesity, and no connection to the outdoors, this one small step may be just what we need.

I know that since we've started raising ducks, various neighbors have purchased chickens, roosters, and quail, and the little kids in the neighborhood are excited and interested in real animals. We are off to a great start to this century, I think, in West Sacramento. Good luck, CLUCKERs, hopefully you can get our sister city to the East to join us.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

My other blog

© 2009, Joshua Stark

If you notice, I've changed one of my blogs on list from my "Josh's Reviews", where I don't post anymore (it's too expensive to review new things, and I don't think people care to hear how well my 20 year old stuff is working out), to a blog on which I've been posting for the past few months, but mostly for family. It's titled 'Agrarianista', and is more of some notes and ideas for my evolving back yard.
We have a tiny parcel of land in a city just outside of Sacramento (1/10th of an acre, to be precise), but I am hoping to use this land to grow more and more of our own food each season. Though my original goal of one meal per week from our own (growing, hunting, fishing, etc.) proved too much for us this year, it stays on my horizon. In the meantime, I try out interesting new ideas and directions, like raising ducks, and making things out of green walnuts (sort of the life and lemons problem, where life=tree squirrels and lemons=green walnuts), blackberries, and the like.

This attempt at living differently also applies to ethics and the environment, in that I see our food culture as the single largest negative current impact to our environment, but also as the place where the single largest amount of change can occur relatively quickly and easily. Naive, I know. But as Martin Luther said, "if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I'd still plant a tree today."

Now, I am nowhere near the culinary calibre of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, nor am I the gardening genius of the fellow leading the one trowel revolution, nor have I the animal husbandry of someone like Joel Salatin or the horse whisperer (though I sorely wish ducks would whisper sometimes). And maybe that can make for some interesting writing, especially if I study my Patrick McManus a while. I can only hope.

But in my short time learning the ropes of an agrarian life, I've learned quite a bit already, and I'm gearing up for all the new mistakes to make next year, as well as repeating some of the more interesting ones, if that keeps folks' interest. So, if you get a chance, shoot on over there and take a look-see, and (please, please) if you do (please), leave me some advice.

A quick note on a possible academic route

© 2009, Joshua Stark

In trying to broaden my horizons, I'm considering writing a piece to try to get published in an academic journal or some such thing (I think I'm finally coming to terms with my stuffy writing).
Right now, I'd like it to be an ethics essay, and I have a couple of directions to possibly take, but the one I'd really like to pursue, I think, is on the concept of animal rights. I have a thumbnail opposition to animal rights, in that I don't think it possible (or therefore fair) for a non-human entity to fully enter into a social contract, and I also think that attempting to grant animals our libertarian form of rights is an immature, and ultimately nature-damaging idea.

So, dear reader(s, I hope), please shoot me some ideas of your own. Is there a particular line of thinking that can support/destroy this idea of mine? Do you know of any good journals to which I should write? Do you think I should write about something else, or stop writing completely, and take up something non-verbal? Let me know.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's the habitat, stupid

© Joshua Stark, 2009

One of the most-paraphrased line in the past16 years, so I thought I'd get in on it. Anyway...

I just stumbled upon a piece at a blog named Aquanomics that I found interesting. It is about concerns over California's water quantity and quality, but with a twist. You see, the blogger (David Zetland) has found a news article from an English paper, The Graphic, about concerns over California's timber harvest, its population growth, and its water use.

Only, the quotation is from 1878.

When we consider our impacts on the environment, please note that it is the 90% or so who don't know/care enough to make different choices. Enviros and conservationists and environmental justice folks may snipe at each other, but in the end, any infighting defeats our chances at dealing with the real threats, threats we have known for years and years.

Just remember, then, when you get into a scrape with a granola munching people-excluder, or a red-neck access freak, that we all are there, fighting, because we all love the place.

Net plagiarism

© 2009 Joshua Stark

This here is a non environmentally-related post, but it is important enough to bring up. In the wake of some plagiarism taking place among bloggers, I would like anybody publishing to the web to read this little primer on how to help find plagiarizers to your work, written by Albert Rasch.

I'll be implementing these tips soon, although I probably don't need to worry too much about folks wanting to take my stuff. Anyhoo, if you write on the web, definitely check out his blog post.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Up in arms over junior deer hunt

I read this piece in the Sacramento Bee yesterday, where folks are raising a stink about proposing a proposed junior doe hunt (that wasn't a typo) for Southern Placer County.

When I first heard of the proposal, my first instinct was selfish: My child is only two, and I'm, well, not a junior anymore. However, the article is about the 'controversy' of such a proposal, because of the youth focus, the doe focus, and the urban-wildland interface. Of course, the online comments quickly span the range of ridiculousness, with little in the middle.

So, my two cents: Folks, if I hadn't hunted and fished as a kid, I would most likely not have become an environmentalist. In addition, hunting and fishing (and kayaking, of course) are the primary ways in which I continue to interact with the wild. So get your young ones out there with guns in their hands! Teach them ethics, teach them that they need to know how they impact the world, and also sit back and let them learn things for themselves, on their own time, with their own experiences and in unstructured places. That's right, I'm not just condoning, but encouraging that we arm 16 year-olds, and let them run around in the wild. We complain that our kids never seem to grow up, yet we don't let them off the kiddie-leash. You would be surprised at the responsibility many teens can take if they are given the chance. We give them weapons that kill more people in the US every year and let them loose in highly urban, dense neighborhoods (cars), so stop your hypocritical whining.

Second, a doe, as the song goes, is a deer. That folks viscerally react to the notion of culling female deer more than male deer means that our motives have moved away from honest, clear-eyed management decisions to one of emotion, and an emotion based on some pretty sexist thinking, and with some serious violence thrown into that thinking, too.

Third, folks concerned with hunting going on at the urban-wildland interface need to move back to the city. Yes, I said back, because it's obvious where you came from.

My biggest problem with the report was the bias, beginning with referring to opponents not as animal rights activists, but as "animal activists." I am an animal activist, yet I am diametrically opposed to the position and philosophy as described in the article. This first bias of omission belies the angle of the rest of the story, and it gives me the feeling that the reporter is so completely unable to understand hunting that Mr. Fletcher cannot seem to get the balance right (I checked out his Tweets, and the closest thing to hunting he's done is, "Just killed 150 emails.")

So, Mr. Fletcher, if you wish to try to understand it, I am more than willing to take you hunting, especially if you hope to accurately report Placer County. Deer season is just around the corner up there.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thoughts on trash fish and fishermen

Last week, I took a couple of fellows out to teach them how to flyfish, and then ditched them to hit a hot spot just downstream in my kayak. The guys were perfectly okay with my leaving, and were focusing hard on just how to wear their flies and line, which means they have become quite accomplished flyfishermen, if I am any standard for the sport.

And so, after a bit of teaching and observing, I left them to flail the water at a nice tailout, jumped into my kayak and headed downstream after what had become a near-mythic creature in my life: American shad.

At the put-in on a nice stretch of the American River, I slipped past a group of shad fishermen cooking under a canopy, with full gas grill, ice chests of beverages, and conversations about darts and flies, rods, and the general gripes about work and/or not finding work. Shad fishermen, like most fishermen, are a rough lot, out to be themselves fully on the river. I passed trailers attached to trucks, and a drift boat coming in and one going out. And I noted, yet again, my surprise at the completely different experience with shad fishermen here from salmon fishermen.

I'll be blunt: Salmon fishermen are mean and not at all fun to fish around. "Combat fishing" is the term used to describe the lines of folks along the stretches where salmon come to spawn or stack up before heading further upstream. People rarely talk outside of their little cliques, they push and jockey for spots, and they grudgingly pull in their lines to give room, often with grumbles, at the "fish on!" holler from one lucky enough to hook into a beautiful chinook. They usually end the fight with the fish by dragging it up onto the bank, filleting it then and there, and throwing the carcass back into the water. To beat all, many folks in boats floating the deeper holes along the river tend to employ quite a bit of jigging action to their fishing...

I have fished for salmon along central California rivers for ten years, and although I am devastated by the crash in population, I am a tad relieved that I won't have to snuggle up to the crowds along the river.

So it was a shock when, Memorial Day Monday, I walked along the crowded shoreline and noted rows of shad fishermen, at times much closer to each other than salmon fishermen would have tolerated, talking rough but jovially to each other. I asked about the run, and was given very specific advice, "get right in between those two boats at the channel down there." When I showed up with my fly rod, nobody cared. One boat even pushed over and invited me in.

My luck that day was not with the fish, though I saw one man pull fish after fish up to his boat and gingerly remove them without letting them leave the water. I was there for food, but I was very appreciative of his respect. When I got back to my car, it had been broken into and my radio stolen (I thought for a second I was back in 1992), but I know it wasn't a shad fisherman who did it.

So Wednesday night I was more eager than ever to get out on the river. After setting up the fellas, I jumped in my boat.

I did mention that this fish had reached near-mythical proportions in my mind. Years ago, a fellow flyfisherman had told me that folks go out after shad here, although a "trash fish" for food, because they were the freshwater tarpon. They fought unlike any other fish in the river, he explained, a distant look in his eye. We never were able to get out after them. A couple of years later, when I had bought my first really nice fly rod, I hit the water with another veteran, who explained that these fish would tail walk, throw your fly, run your line completely out. They were amazing fish. However, that day it rained frozen rain upon us, and in his first cast trying out my new rod, it snapped just inches above the grip... so again, no fish.

Last year, I picked up John McPhee's book, "Founding Fish", and again read about the power and grace of this fish. But something more was there, too. The very name of the fish, Alossa sappidissima, means "most savory herring." McPhee had opened up a new world to me - this was an eating fish of unsurpassed taste! Recipe after recipe included in his book sealed the deal for me, but I had missed the run yet again!

This year, I was bound and determined to get out on the river.

New fish always pose the problem of confidence. I know when I hit the river for trout up in the Sierras that I will catch something. I'm pretty sure about my bass and bluegill spots. But, even worse than trying new places, new fish pose many questions, and if you aren't catching fish, then you don't know which to tweak - method, depth, fly? Is it the spot? Is the boat bothering them? Am I right over them instead of upstream? My first casts had this anxious feeling about them, but I had tried the one cure that had worked in the past, a trip to Bill Kiene's fly shop for great advice and a confidence boost. They had also given me a tip I'd have never thought up: A two nymph rig.

Just as I started to get nervous, I felt a good, solid, double tapping on my line. I set the hook, but missed. That's okay. I re-cast, the same amount of line, and within a minute a tap again. I set fast, and fish on! Only, this fish fought like no other fish I'd caught here, not even stripers. It ripped my line out, and I new it was going to break me off, but it stayed on. It ran every which way. It shook like a chinook. I imagined for an instant a giant steelhead, but I couldn't imagine anything going from zero to sixty as quickly as did this fish. After a few minutes, I thought: Alright, time to bring this in. I'd employ my tried-and-true rod technique to thoroughly confuse the fish, and net it quickly. This involves turning the rod parrallel and just above the water, perpendicular to the fish, then when I feel it turn, flipping my rod the other direction, keeping it perpendicular to the fish. Usually, I can have a trout lolling on the surface and in my net within a minute.

I flipped my rod, perpendicular to how I felt the fish on, and also keeping him perpendicular to the river flow. It didn't budge; in fact, if felt like it was tied to the river, like it owned the river. I immediately thought of a barndoor halibut, planing in the current. Then I was worried, and my confidence left me. The legend of the shad made flesh, and I a mere mortal. I thought, alright, I'll let this fish run its course.

Five minutes or so later, I landed my first American shad, a buck of about 2-3 pounds. I was elated, and shaken, but the most amazing part was yet to happen to me. As I pulled the fish in, I saw it: It was an ocean fish, here in my river! Iridescent blues, greens, and a silver like you see on mackerel or anchovies or other beautiful ocean fish. I thought of lines from a Mary Oliver poem: the slow pouring off of rainbows.

I pulled his gills and placed him in the floor of my kayak, took a breath and thanked. And I cast again.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Man and Fire

last week, a small, once-controlled brush fire outside of Santa Barbara exploded into a house-eating inferno, fueled by 100 degree temperatures and the Shakin Shakin Shakes, those Santa Ana winds. As of today, it is 80 percent contained, although additional winds are probable.

California is blessed with many natural wonders, and cursed, as well. We have mountains so full of snow that they were named it - Sierra Nevada. We have a two-river Delta (one of only a handful) that supplies 20 million people with drinking water. We have a gigantic coastline, huge, rugged, highly variable terrain, and our state claims multiple climates with dozens of microclimates. In the Summer, we are a desert, and in the winter, we are often inundated with deluges. But, we have changed our natural wonders to a great extent, and in these changes comes an increase in variation and intensity. The Sierra Nevada may one day be renamed the Sierra Seca. That river system's wildlife is quickly crashing, and the wonderfully varied and beautiful terrain can't seem to keep folks from wanting to build on it, to better enjoy its beauty, yes, but with the result that we find ourselves living by the whims of fickle Mother Nature.

We have also changed much of the flora of our beautiful state, and the effects of this paradigm-shift are felt most directly in the new nature of our wildfires.

Prior to Europeans, California's flora and fauna developed with a particular relationship to fire and each other. Most of our herbivores were browsers, pushed by a considerably large number of large predators, primarily wolves and very large brown bears, but also mountain lions, bobcats and the like. Our primary flora, therefore, were wildflowers and slow-growing bunch grasses. The animals seeded large areas of land, and many plants only seeded once every few years. Fires regimes, caused by lightning and people, usually burned with a low intensity, because the slow-growing bunch grasses kept green all year, and protected their roots with tight "bunches" of grass blades. Forests of huge oaks, pines, and redwoods required these fires, as their seeds needed heat to open, and their seedlings needed light and nutrients.

This habitat regime changed dramatically with the arrival of Europeans. We brought livestock that ate entire plants, and we kept them protected and in the same places for longer periods of time. We also fed them grass seed from our native lands, grasses which had developed a relationship with very different animals. The new grasses, which grow, seed, and die within a few months, quickly replaced the slower-developing native habitat, which wasn't used to being eaten completely down to the roots. Within a short period of time, much of California changed completely, giving our state its golden hue during the Summer, and bringing on a dramatic shift in the nature of fire.

The new grasses and weeds die quickly, creating fuel from the tip right down into the soil. Fires set in this fuel often burn far hotter, burn soil habitat and seeds, and leave a scorched waste. They also burn into the upper canopies of the trees, killing many adult trees that had survived the previous fire patterns for hundreds of years. This is why we instituted a fire-suppression program over 150 years ago, and in so doing we allowed the buildup of deadwood, leaves, and other combustible materials. Consider this in light of projected hotter and drier weather patterns, and we have a serious problem.

Now that many more of us are living close to these wild and altered landscapes, it is imperative that we do something to both improve habitat and fire. Right now, many are under the impression that a completely barren "defensible space" as far as you can make it is the best thing to do. But, wildland firefighters know that the best thing we can do is to eliminate the non-native grasses and forest duff that fuel these monsters, and build houses that don't catch fire so easily. No amount of defensible space could have saved most of the homes in Santa Barbara, because 40 mile-an-hour winds will carry sparks well past any clearings, and even over large freeways and the like. However, if those sparks land on green plants or metal roofs, and the fires from which they came were burning low and through the underbrush instead of licking hundreds of feet into the air, we would all be much safer.

The answers are easy, but expensive. They also have the great upside of improving ecological habitat as well as human safety. The alternative, however, is a complex series of ever-more-useless attempts to postpone the inevitable, also expensive, while encouraging further ecological degradation. Which way shall we go?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A neat way to look at things

Phillip Loughlin has another great post over at Hog Blog, on an ethical conversation that comes up from time to time over there, specifically referring to high-fence hunting operations, but more generally on the idea of ethics, the law, and hunting practices. I hope I haven't driven Phillip to distraction with my commentary there, but it is such a great place to get good, thoughtful debate that I can't resist.

However, it's actually a comment from NorCal Cazadora at that post that really got me to thinking. Referring to the concept of sport hunting, she wrote:

"...I still disagree on the notion of “sport.” True - I don’t have to hunt for food; I could go to the grocery store like my neighbors do. But that really buys into my neighbors’ perspective as the right and true perspective. I prefer to turn the tables and say my neighbors don’t have to go to the grocery store - they could hunt, forage and garden for food. Some people enjoy convenience of driving to the store; I enjoy the fulfillment of the hunt."

This idea blew me away. I had been grappling with the notion of 'sport' in hunting and fishing for some time, understanding that I don't have to do so to eat. However, one reason I choose to hunt is to provide a bit for my family (jokes about my prowess aside), and because I don't like the mass production process we use to acquire meat in California.

What Cazadora did was open up that choice to those who do not hunt, give it equality and credibility, and blow open the whole notion of food for everybody. She also removed some of the elitism, both fatalistic and natural, I've felt creeping more and more into hunting.

I thought about this idea: People could choose not to buy beef and pork from huge, concentrated feedlots; they could, instead, pop squirrels or get to know their farmer better, or raise their own. Many people who argue that sustainably-raised food is prohibitively expensive also pay for cable TV, a cell phone for each of their kids, a station wagon on steroids (oh, I mean a sport-utility vehicle), etc. Not that any of those are wrong in each case, just that they are choices. Each of those choices has impact, too, and those impacts should be considered along with their benefits (the economist in me, I suppose), but a choice in acquiring food does seem to me deeper than a choice to play tennis.

If I were any good at either tennis or hunting, however, this opinion may have been different...

Now, this doesn't completely get at my discomfort with hunting as "sport", although I do understand it and believe that it is a concept to keep close, and not completely to disagree with. However, whenever I think of it, I immediately think of this quotation from Chief Sitting Bull, that, "when the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters, and we want our freedom." I can't see it the same if it were said, "and when the tennis balls are gone, we will play tennis with pingpong balls, for we are tennis players, and we want our freedom." There is a notion of freedom in hunting that goes beyond mere choice to include acquisition of food, interaction with the world, a connection to other things here. It puts us directly in touch with sacrifices made on our behalf, and makes us aware of our power and responsibility...