Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Economics and the environment

I've been a good blogger, I think, staying away from conversations around the stimulus package, the omnibus bill coming through right now, and the general economic condition of our country. I do think that some of it has environmental impact, of course, and soon I may break my silence. My silence, by the way, is only here on this blog. I've been commenting on a number of economics blogs, and have even written members of Congress, outlining some proposals I think they should get to work on.

I have kept my blog out of economics talk for a couple of reasons, not the least of which being that there are implications beyond economics to environmental and conservation issues, and its times like these when we need to consider them. Also, everybody and their dog is trying to shoehorn an economics argument into every idea they come up with, and frankly, I'm sick of it. However, there are some very intelligent people blogging about economics and the environment, and I just posted a new blog list here on my website with a few of them.

Many people are fearful of economics talk. It's a pseudo-science (I, with the oxymoronic-on-a-number-of-levels "social sciences" degree, said it), and much of its jargon seems only to overly-complicate matters, but it uses serious logic to drive right at the fundamental fears and hopes of people, namely scarcity (or money; you could easily say money). It also uses numbers and graphs, a real turn-off for many people.

Take, for example, this lovely visual aid, a simple history of home values:Many people don't think they can understand this graph because they don't know the meanings of the numbers on the edges (the x and y axes). However, this will not stop an economist. In fact, many economists don't even realize that this is not a natural way of looking at relationships for most folks. If you are not an economist, let me clue you in on this graph, and a tidbit for graphs, in general: You are almost always supposed to be impressed by the dips and spikes as they relate to the title of the graph. You may not be, but you are supposed to be, and not gasping at the sight of a line shooting straight up and then falling just as quickly, to be replaced by a dashed line, is a serious faux pas when with an economist.

I'm joking; I love economics, and I greatly enjoy conversations with economists. I taught econ. for four years, and feel comfortable listening and speaking about it, but I also know that it is really tough for people to relate to, especially because it is complex at times and deals with realities that people face, but in a very academic, and occasionally condescending fashion.

If you are not inclined toward economics conversations, I still suggest you click on a few links on the left. It is important stuff, and your voice could help. If you are inclined towards economics, definitely click on the links, and give 'em heck!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sometimes I feel older than I really am

You may have noticed a dearth of pictures on my blog. In fact, other than my avatar and one blog on salmon, I've been blank. This is an unfortunate result of my lack of computer savvy, actually, which I must embarrassingly admit, because I attended college right when the internet was taking off. Many folks my age are amazing online, creating entire companies, making millions of dollars over small software upgrades and improving or using multimedia to sell. Meanwhile, I was reading obscure myths, learning how to fly-fish, and taking long walks in the marsh.

Well, the barren-ness of my blog comes to and end this weekend, as I do my durndest to link to pictures. Here's a first:

These are a couple of oatmeal molasses bread loaves I baked today, a staple in our home. In fact, we've taken so completely to this (and a couple of other home-made recipes), that we no longer buy bread at the store. There might be an environmental ethics comment in there, but I'm not going to take it apart. No, I'm just going to sit here in my living room, surrounded by the aroma of cooling bread, and try to find a way to upload smells...

By the way, the recipe for this bread comes in a wonderful book, "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread," by Crescent Dragonwagon.

Next, I'd just like to show the two best photos I've ever taken. This first I was blown away with, not because of the quality of the shot (which is not very good), but because I was lucky enough to catch the action:

As my wife and I were paddling by, he looked at us, then turned away and launched himself off the log. I snapped a few shots at once, and caught him just starting to unfurl, with his tailfeathers already deployed and his head telling you exactly where he was headed...

There are many mergansers along the amazing Wild & Scenic River through downtown Sacramento, along with dozens of other birds, and many reptiles and mammals and fish, to boot. Few places offer the amazing diversity of species, habitat protections, and accessibility right in the middle of a metropolitan area of over one million people. For more information on this great parkway, please head over to the Effie Yeaw Nature Center (I don't know how to pronounce it, either).

The next picture I often use for my avatar at other websites. You see, I am a river rat, born and raised in the middle of the Sacramento Delta, in Isleton. And, wherever we are, denizens of the Delta always seem to find each other. This fellow I found on the Cosumnes River Preserve:

And with that, thanks for letting me practice a bit with some new (to me) features. Please drop me a line if you like any of the shots, or have any tips you'd like to offer. Just remember, if you do offer tips or tricks, I post like I'm 90.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

How about some across-the-spectrum work on this?

I sincerely hope that Ducks Unilimited, the California Waterfowl Association, and other groups chime in on the importance of resources spent for habitat. It seems the conservative media is up in arms over wetlands restoration and protection money in that it will protect, among other things, the salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris).

It's time for the more conservative in the conservation movement to stand in front of attacks like these.

Update, 12/13: A quick check on Google turns up nothing, while the attacks continue. My sincere hope remains, however.

Any monies to be spent on conservation will help myriad species, and some of them can be singled out and picked on, to the detriment of vital habitat. If we let groups get away with the childish picking out of strange-sounding critters, then we will all lose out.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Good Cazadora post, then a bit on Leopold

NorCal Cazadora has a great post about some books that have influenced her as a hunter. The reason I post this here is because these almost invariably include thoughts on the ethics of hunting. The comments section includes some other good works, so click on those, too.

I'd like to point out her first book, a Sand County Almanac, at a time just prior to the split between the environmental and conservation movements. Mr. Leopold was one of those great thinkers, a man who marvelled in the intricacies and connectedness of ideas. To environmentalism he elucidated a number of important concepts, including the First Rule of Intelligent Tinkering, and he moved forward the notion of ecology as a legitimate school of thought at a time when science was focused laser-like on breaking everything into its component parts. And this same man who waxed poetic about the loss of life and diversity, who founded the Wilderness Society, was also the man who waxed poetic about building your own bow and arrows to hunt, about hunting great blue herons with peregrine falcons. Leopold understood that humanity's relationship to the land and ecosystems was amazingly intricate, profound, and that our future depended on a true understanding of our place in the land.

It is often the influences of current society to take apart historical figures, to look down on them with condescention at their simpler, simplistic ways, and, in the supposed light of our greater wisdom, to separate out those attributes which we dislike from those which we admire. In so doing, we show ourselves as the simpletons, forgetting the constant winds of time and thought, forgetting that we can almost never know the intricacies of eras past, and losing the subtle nuances when we are lucky enough to catch a glimpse. We lose the ability to truly learn from those past experiences, and, like much of science in Leopold's time, we lose the ability to see the true connections that make for a rich, often profound existence, regardless of era.

Of the most influential ideas in my life, Aldo Leopold brought me to a conscious understanding of a land ethic and its need. If you get some time, please click over to that link and read his own words on the subject.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Population irresponsibility?

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon a very interesting website around economics and the environment, and if you are interested in the dismal science and how it applies to environmental protections, I highly recommend it. It can get heady (read: nerdy) at times, but it is a very good, informative site with some excellent comments from readers.

Well, last week a poster at that blog linked to an article in the British Times Online on population and the environment. In it, Jonathan Porritt, Chair of Britain's Sustainable Development Commission, states: “I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate,”. He goes on to state that any attempts at fixing our environmental problems need to actively work to curb population growth.

So here is a question for you all: To what extent do you believe population growth is inherently a factor in environmental degradation, and more specifically, to global warming?

Personally, I see a huge problem in pointing at population growth as a first cause, or near to it. I also think that trying to address it specifically will be an utter failure, and will build resentment and concerns about eugenics and racism. But, there is a silver lining for you ZPG people, to whit, you are aiming too high for reality.

Consider this: The very countries that A) have a population of any voice clamoring for a general population cut, and B) have very low or negative internal population growth patterns, are the very same countries that A) have very strong current social safety nets, and B) are BY FAR the largest emitters of carbon and other pollutants.

It is very easy for an upper-class bloke in England to claim that there are too many babies in the world, when England is looking at a birth rate of 1.7 per couple, and when he will never have to worry about getting support in his old age (or so he thinks). It is also easy to throw around average consumption and emission levels for a country, when it is glaringly obvious that his particular emission patterns are far higher than his country's average, what with his travel and all the papers using energy to print his drivel. It would be better to break down emissions by quintiles, like we do socio-economic patterns.

If you compare pollution emissions to development, you find that those same countries with negative population growth are also the catalysts for, by far, the largest environmental degradation throughout the earth. Why are rainforests burned? Why are we drilling all over the place? Why are we burning coal and corn and palm oil? Only countries with sophisticated infrastructure can use those highly processed products. Is it an irony, or is there some kind of logical connection in the inverse relationship between population growth and devastating consumption?

It turns out that there is a logical connection. The only successful means to curbing population growth have involved two components: 1) Women's education; 2) economic development. When women get even an eighth-grade level of education, reproduction rates fall dramatically. Also, when power grids and highways go up, reproduction rates fall. I'll leave it to smarter folks to tell me why (although I think television may be a factor in the latter case). Obviously, these components have not been instituted as a means to curb population, but they are universally seen as the only ways that have effectively and consistently brought it about.

So the real concern for folks worried about population should be on consumption, and more specifically, how we get women's education and economic development into countries without the subsequent consumption causing environmental devastation. Blaming poor people for having sex won't cut it, and when you actually begin to curb population growth, you will see a number of unintended consequences, especially with regards to social security and per capita consumption.

And that silver lining I mentioned for the ZPG people? Click here.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Carbon pricing - who, what, why

Lately, I've had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking and talking with people smarter than me about economics and the environment. Specifically, my work has taken me to the realm of carbon pricing (queue scary music). To better inform myself, I began looking into different economic perspectives on market mechanisms, taxes, and what we should do with any revenues, and I've found some interesting ideas. I've also found some interesting websites.

For the uninitiated, here is a quick breakdown of the issue:

1. Carbon and other greenhouse gasses are causing global warming;
2. In order to curb this effect, the consensus is that we must institute some kind of price for these gasses (I'll call it a carbon price);
3. The major battles now are over the type of carbon price, and the use of revenues.

Number 2, above, is what economists call, "pricing in an externality." When two parties make an economic transaction, externalities are what happen to people outside of that transaction. For example, Bob builds a pencil factory to sell wooden pencils to students. Some externalities of this transaction are: restaraunts near the factory getting more business; students possibly learning more effectively; and a forest somewhere getting its habitat rearranged. None of these things that happened as a result of the sale of the pencils were factored into the price of the pencil.

Sometimes, we decide that we must include the effect of the externality in the price of the item. In Bob's pencil plant, for example, we might decide that we want better-educated students, so we decide to buy the pencils through the school district. Or, we offer a tax break to Bob for building his plant so close to our community. Both actions will affect the price of pencils. Perhaps we believe that the forest is more important, so we make Bob protect an amount of land equal to the amount he is using to make his pencils. This will also affect the price of pencils.

Almost all of our economic activities inject greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. We drive to work and to shop, we buy processed and packaged items, and we wrap everything in paper or plastic. All of these are carbon intensive, and right now nobody is paying for the effects of the additional carbon in the atmosphere. Yet, we are all paying the price of these economic activities, through global warming. By pricing in carbon, we create scarcity and therefore curb its emissions, and we also create revenue from the price. One big question, now, is: Who gets the revenue?

Last year, I posted about the cap-&-trade fight. The revenue fight will probably be bigger, as some big folks have weighed in, most notably the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have partnered with some huge carbon emitters, in developing US-CAP. Senator Boxer has developed a list of Principles for Global Warming Legislation, and Senator Corker has begun calling for all revenues to be returned to the American People.

Well, the focus of this blog is to consider Ethics and the Environment - that is, people's interactions with the environment and vice versa. In that context, I am torn. Poor people, and in particular, poor rural people, stand to be disproportionately affected by climate change, by the effects of carbon pricing, and by the use of revenues. Corker's idea mirrors those of a cap-and-dividend approach, where all money generated from a carbon tax is returned in equal shares to all Americans, and this idea is nice in its simplicity and in helping to alleviate the burden of the poor. However, it does nothing for alleviating the effects of climate change on habitat, and if this blog does anything, I hope it gets out to people that habitat includes people. It includes drought, incidences of catastrophic wildfire, and heat-related deaths.

As our region and country move forward on this issue, it is more important than ever to factor in our relationships with our environment, to accurately address our impacts, discouraging the negative and encouraging the positive effects.