Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Uh-oh... buying green makes you an evil, lying, cheating, thief (behavioral economics edition)

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Via Env-Econ., a paper on consumers' choices and subsequent impacts on their moral decisions.

For those who aren't so familiar with the field, behavioral economics is exactly what it sounds like:  Studies on folks' economic behaviors.  It is a very interesting field, and my favorite radio show, Marketplace, usually has a weekly segment about it.

This research indicates that students who participated in a lab experiment, after being merely shown "green" products, were less inclined to do bad things to others (lie, cheat, and steal, basically).  However, if they purchased these products, students became much more likely to do bad things to others.

You really have to read the study to get the whole idea, but it is fascinating.  These researchers were trying to identify yet another place where humans (it is believed) give themselves a kind of moral credit from one behavior, and then spend it on another (even similar) behavior.  My take is a little different - I believe that humans take their moral action to make themselves feel superior to others, and then are able to treat the other inferior individuals in a worse fashion.  But, I'm no psychologist. 

Either way, it opens up a new notion about using moral grounds to get people to buy green... maybe.

On a related note, I guess when you are around me, you should probably keep a tight grip on your wallet.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A good article on the Delta, but something's missing

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Like most articles and expertise claimed about the Delta, local voices are missing from this story at the Oakalnd Tribune.

I find especially distasteful the "rural vs. urban" battle which the city-slicker farmers in the Central Valley have fed to the media, and which the media is happy to portray.  Dichotomies are easier to write about, especially when they lack the nuance of reality.

Not to mention I think the whole urban-rural-wild distinction is an unhealthy myth.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jamie Oliver's newest TV show - I'm impressed.

© 2010 Joshua Stark

My wife and I stayed up last night to watch "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution" on ABC last night, and I must say we were very happy with it.

Yeah, it's got the typical reality-TV production quality, but the people in this one seem real, (if you've never met a lunchroom lady, you have not lived life) and the concept is fascinating.  And relevant to this blog.

Since I'm from a small town in rural Northern California (and one that gets pretty crappy media, when it gets it at all), I completely understand the suspicion that the residents of Huntington, W.Va.  showed to Mr. Oliver.  But it really does look like he just wants these people to eat better.

The saddest to me is that these folks come from a vibrant food culture.  My guess is that this city is made up of the progeny of folks who left the hills of Appalachia, came into the city, and hungered to embrace a modern world.  When packaged food came along, it made people's lives easier, and it came with a stigma for people who still lived in the old ways, I'd bet.  Now, cities like Huntington are full of people who don't have the tradition of taking a little more time to do for themselves. 

I look forward to watching his program, but I have no idea where it's going.

For a very interesting, schizophrenic review, read the Washington Post's job here.  And, don't let the title scare you off - the author ends by saying they are going to keep watching.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sushi restaurant serving whale meat in Los Angeles is closing

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I'm sorry you missed out on the Sei whale special, but if you didn't get down there for it, the L.A. Times reports that you are too late.
This is just another example of the truth of the world, that we do need laws to protect the environment, even when we think that the laws are superfluous due to public pressure.

A few years ago, I was privileged to sit in on a discussion about access on our public lands.  The forum, organized by the National Park Service, housed a fine number of some of very thoughtful land managers, rangers, and professors concerned with the subject, and much of the conversation was wonderful and enlightening.

One professor, however, did stray into unfortunate territory on the topic of how to increase lackluster visitation.  He said, effectively, that fewer boots on the ground meant fewer impacts on the resource.

This is a comforting fallacy, but devastating in its falsehood.

I stood up and immediately commented that these resources are always going to be "used" for one thing or another.  There are companies who would be more than happy to log protected sequoias (just like they are logging unprotected ones), or mine El Capitan.  It sounds preposterous, but if folks will sell and eat endangered whales in downtown Los Angeles, then know for certain that nothing in this world is safe unless we declare it so and protect it.

Remember, there are people in this world who buy and sell people.  What is a mountain top to them?  What is a bird?

The only counter to these ills is to declare things protected and valuable in and of themselves. And the only way to get people to agree to that is to let them experience the beauty and awe of these places.

Experience.  That means access.

At the same conference, I heard a story about a person wanting to keep Yosemite Valley completely pristine, arguing to seriously restrict access to it.  She argued, "how will we create the next John Muirs of the world?" if Yosemite Valley weren't pristine?

She had forgotten that John Muir was made precisely by being in Yosemite Valley.  If he hadn't had those experiences, there would have been no Muir in the sense that she knows him.

She had also forgotten that John Muir spent thousands of hours in Yosemite Valley... logging it. 

Of course we need to manage access in a way that minimizes the negative impacts of our presence while enhancing our positive impacts, but if we don't get folks into these places, they won't care about them.

And when that happens, the whale-eaters move in.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Proposed Solar on the Westlands, Feinstein gets good science, and the RNC throws vote-trading accusations

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Here is a great, short document on the value of the Westlands Irrigation District to California... as a solar generator.
The author, Bill Powers of Powers Engineering, explained in these comments to the California Energy Commission that 5% of the Westlands could provide 5,000 MW of solar energy to the state.

Wouldn't it be great if we converted, say, 1/3rd of the Westlands to solar, 1/3rd we restored to native habitat (for water and air quality improvements, too), and kept 1/3rd in ag. production?

Meanwhile, the L.A. Times reports that the National Academy of Sciences has weighed in on the California Delta issue, per Feinstein's request, and found that water export cuts are completely justified.

I hope this settles the issue for our senator, but based on this conversation (including Feinstein telling a reporter that Lake Shasta is spilling over the top right now), I doubt it.

Meanwhile, California Watch reports that the Republican National Committee is accusing San Joaquin Valley Democrats and the Obama Administration of trading a "yes" vote on health care for more water.  It's not outside the realm of possibility, but it doesn't look like it from my vantage point right now.  Here is a link to the DOI statement of water allocation increases.  Note that everybody is getting increases, because of the amount of water currently in the mountains.  The important number is for flows South of the Delta to secondary water rights' holders, which DOI is increasing from 5% of allocation to 25%.  I fully expected this increase, so again, the accusation seems flimsy to me right now.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Kern county defends its poop ban

© 2010 Joshua Stark

The L.A. Times reports that L.A. and Orange counties are appealing a voter-approved Kern county ban on their biosolids being trucked onto its county.

I think it's time that local governments work out local solutions to their own messes.  Go, Kern county!

Friday, March 12, 2010

A wonderful, contemplative post on environmental ethics

© 2010 Joshua Stark

But, not from me.  Chad Love at the Mallard of Discontent has a great post on the loss of our amazing, native prairie birds.
One criticism often thrown at the hunting side of the environmental community is that they only care about their specific issues, places, or species.  And judging by the way we've organized ourselves in that community, there is little doubt that this criticism contains a grain of truth.  Consider the following hunting organizations' names:

Ducks Unlimited
California Waterfowl Association
Mule Deer Foundation
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Pheasants forever
Quail Unlimited
Snipe United for Free Worms for All

Okay, I threw that last one in there, but I believe my point stands:  although we've stressed the importance of habitat - watersheds, plants, other species - we maintain a focus on particular species, and sometimes this means that we leave out others, to our detriment.

One problem is, of course, the time dedicated to supporting individual species means that less time gets devoted to understanding the complex systems in which they thrive, and also that we may tend to overemphasize artificial "restoration" of populations, rather than supporting self-sustaining systems.  But, Chad points out another problem:  the potential for trends to ignore species, which may cause a sort of vicious cycle - as hunters stop hunting them, the species declines from a lack of funding or care.  They fall all the way until somebody notices that they may need protection, if they are lucky.

Unfortunately, right now we don't seem to have any consistent mechanism for catching species before they hit that last stop on the way to oblivion, the Endangered Species Act.  Thank goodness for that act, too, because it does express our desire to understand our negative impacts before we lose all the pieces (see Leopold's First Rule of Intelligent Tinkering).

Thursday, March 11, 2010

New lead ban proposal in California

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Assemblyman Nava (D - 35th Dist.) recently introduced AB 2223, banning lead shot in all California State wildlife management areas.  Though not a gigantic leap (all Federal refuges in the state already ban lead shot, as does Ft. Hunter-Liggett), I would really love to see some regional science to support banning lead shot in these particular places, and since this is currently lacking, I must, sadly, not endorse this bill.
First, let me note that I do not use lead in any hunting anymore.  This is a personal decision I've made, especially since my baby was born.  I also do believe that lead has harmed many raptors and California condors.  Because of this, I fully supported the lead ban in California condor range.

On a broader note, I've argued that lead bans seem to be just about the only way to move companies to provide lower-cost alternatives for hunters who want to switch.  Volunteer efforts are hindered as long as the cost of non-lead ammunition remains prohibitively high (e.g., my 30-30 ammo. costs $18 for lead, or $52 for nonlead), and ammunition companies see no need to re-tool, so long as they can help convince hunters that this is just another enviro-commie conspiracy to end hunting.  (Cost, by the way, is not an issue for steel shot, anymore, precisely because lead was outlawed from waterfowl hunting nearly 20 years ago.)

Lead in the environment can pose problems to particular species (including us!), and so it would be nice to see a cost-effective, non-toxic alternative to what most hunters currently use in rifle ammunition.

So why, then, do I not support this particular legislation? 

First step back a minute, and consider where much of our conservation funding originates.  Yes, it's cliché, but only because it continues to be true - hunters pay for much of our conservation efforts, and they are definitely paying the lion's share of conservation on these particular sites.  Now, consider that they pay because they are out there.

Hunting is a love of a place almost as much as a love of game and food.  Sit out in a blind at sunrise, with a view of the flooded marsh, and Mt. Diablo or the Sutter Buttes beyond it, and you understand.  Watch the tules, listen for the tell-tale scurrying noises in a particular stand of oaks or blackberry bramble, and you get to know them as much as, or more than, the animals you pursue.  Hunters know which side of which mountain holds a decent covey, and the particular bend in the river above which struts a tom.  Place is vital to hunting. This is why Aldo Leopold called it a "land ethic".

So it behooves those non-hunters who would work for the betterment of these places to first understand them, too.  If the folks who supported and wrote this legislation had, instead, proposed a research study to identify the impacts of lead shot at particular management areas, or better yet, proposed annual research on ecosystem health and impacts (good and bad) within these systems, I would be charging ahead in support.  And, if it were determined after a year or two of research that lead shot was adversely impacting these ecosystems, including bad impacts to particular species (including us!), then I would work hard to help eliminate lead shot from these places, because, you see, it's the places that are important.  Knowing and respecting place is important in getting hunters to make good decisions about their impacts. 

It's also good science.  What these beautiful, bountiful places need is real, place-based understanding.  In the rush to do good, I worry that we may overlook real problems suffered by these wonderful areas, while thinking we've helped.  My worst fear is that well-meaning, non-hunting advocates will use political capital to ban lead shot, and subsequent research will show that there is, in fact, a lead problem on these lands, but it isn't from shot.  In this case, hunters will be even less trusting of the new efforts (and maybe even stopped supporting these places), politicians will have moved on to the Next Big Thing, and by far worst of all, animals (including us!) and habitat will continue to suffer.

So long as non-hunting advocates ignore the place-based nature of hunting, and instead rely upon general notions of what is best, they will continue to suffer the anger and disappointment of many hunters, a group who is already leery of notions about Big Brother.

Californians concerned about lead in habitat should take a page from the Peregrine Fund's work in Arizona and Utah, as Phillip noted over at the Hog Blog.  Surely here in California we can encourage a back-to-nature hunting movement already afoot (e.g., see here) through volunteer efforts, using the power of reason and love for a place and perpetuating an important tradition.

Now, let's focus on good research on the places we love.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wonder why I opposed something called the Delta Stewardship Council?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

The Contra Costa Times reports that Karen Bass appointed a "member of the board of directors of Southern California's largest water wholesaler" last week before stepping down as Speaker.  The seven member board will be responsible for developing a Delta Management Plan by 2012.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Women and Climate

© 2010

Grist reports that the 19-member panel tasked with saving the Earth from our bad choices by looking for potential revenue sources to help mitigate climate change impacts in poor countries will include exactly zero women.

Do I really think that having an equal number of women on the board will have a positive impact on its success? I do.

In addition to that belief, the authors note that women bear a disproportionate burden of climate change impacts.

Take a couple of minutes and read the article. It's short, but provides some striking claims. Then, meet back here and let's talk about it!

Defining 'good'

© 2010 Joshua Stark

From Aristotle, on the definition of the good (it may surprise you):

"Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

"If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term."

-Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The nature of our government (the fact that it is a huge democratic republic) can sometimes lead us to fatalism and despondency... as in, cries to the heavens, "How can I possibly live with these people?!?" But, it is sometimes necessary to remember just how and why our country is great: We are great because of our ideals and ideas, because of the freedoms and responsibilities we place on our own shoulders.

Then, when we go back and read the great ideas upon which our country was founded, we have to remember that our fatalism and pessimism has crushed and diminished words that once encapsulated these great ideas, words with real power and greater depth and nuance.


In our time, it spews from our lips like bad milk. To Aristotle, though, this identified the greatest good - the notion that here, as a society, as a community, we come together and understand and direct what we believe to be the most important ideas for ourselves and our fellows.

We cheer wildly for American athletes at the Olympics, we honor and appreciate the American flag where it flies. But, to truly honor our country, we need to be involved in the only real place where our country affects us, in its politics. After all, without a government, we have no country, and without the government we have - its freedoms and responsibilities for democratic participation, its systems requiring we come together to think about and improve how we care for each other - we have no country worth loving.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Offsets Bad!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

My favorite weekday radio program, Marketplace, reports on offset problems in Brazil. This report adds another problem to the "offsets" concept.

First, a quick definition of "offsets". In a carbon pricing mechanism, government first caps the total amount of carbon allowed, then allows a price to be set for the remaining carbon. In it's most simple and fairest form, this price is set through a government auction of the carbon permits. An offset is a project or action that a company can take that will pull as much carbon out of the atmosphere (called "sequestering") as it is polluting beyond its permits.
Theoretically, a company would buy a certain number of carbon permits, and if it couldn't cut its carbon pollution to a level below its permits, it would then purchase something that would sequester the carbon above its permitted level.

Examples of carbon offset projects include forests and solar panel projects that replace fossil-fuel generation.

I have written about my dislike of offset projects (look here, for example), and I think this post's title sums up my thoughts pretty succinctly. It isn't the idea in and of itself that offends, but the downstream potential for slacking-off in monitoring its effectiveness, the potential for gaming an already-complex system, and the impacts on co-pollutants that bothered me so much.

A few months ago, my wife asked another vital question: What will these incursions on wildlands have on the people who live there? She had her doubts about these projects, too. Marketplace gave one answer, and you can add that problem to my list of reasons to disapprove of offsets.

Offsets highlight a major problem in our political system: regulatory oversight, both by actual regulators, and also by non-governmental entities. Government regulatory oversight, especially around politically hostile topics like the environment, is often, ironically, irregular. Political powers shift, sometimes within the same administration, and leadership positions within regulatory agencies are often seen as rungs on a ladder, rather than places where permanence and stability are desired.

In addition, the hard slog of maintaining a regular presence at agency meetings and in regards to regulatory measures is very difficult for private individuals and non-profit organizations. The Next Big Bill in the legislature or Congress is far sexier to both media and donors, and nonprofits, like everybody else, are constantly forced to reconcile their hours with their budgets.

Offsets add problems and complications to any carbon-capping mechanism we choose. If international, how can we trust in compliance? If national, how can we trust in regulatory consistency? Plus, if the forests are seen as carbon stands rather than complex systems, how will the ensuing piles of money impact other services we get from these places? (I've written about the impact of pricing carbon benefits in European forests here.)

A major problem the environmental justice community has with carbon offsets concerns major polluters. It so happens that the biggest carbon polluters are also the biggest emitters of other pollution, pollution much more harmful to folks adjacent to the facilities. These companies will also have the hardest time curbing their carbon emissions, and will lean on the offset crutch, buying rights to an Amazon rainforest, instead of installing pollution-reduction equipment at home.

And now we are finding out that the long-term implications for carbon offset projects in that same rainforest can also negatively impact folks living in them.

Offsets bad!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Junk food taxes appear more effective than healthy food subsidies

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Grist reports that a recent study suggests junk food taxes are more effective at promoting healthy eating than healthy-food subsidies.
In this study, participants were offered various choices over a number of weeks. At different times, taxes of 25-50% were added to junk food, and/or savings of a similar amount were given to healthy food. In short, it was observed that participants who saved money on discounts spent their savings on junk food (do I hear a collective "duh!" from everybody thinking about their own shopping choices?).

What interested me the most was the definition of "junk food". Researchers used what is called the calorie for nutrient rating, or CFN. Foods with a CFN of under 30 were considered healthy.

The reporter muses on the impact of a soda tax as a possible start toward encouraging healthier eating, noting that soda's CFN of 440+ was by far the highest (for example, mayo has a CFN of 197).

A sales tax, however, raises a flag for me, because sales taxes are regressive - the econ. term for, "charges poor people more than rich people" as a percentage of income. Aside from the unethical nature of that notion, building revenue streams for government programs from the much less reliable income of poor folks is bad economics (so is the notion of taking the relatively more valuable dollars from poor people and throwing into a gigantic pool of money). This particular tax, though, warrants a big however.

So - HOWEVER, when: A) there exist sufficient alternatives to paying the tax; and B) the tax is not created to deliver revenue or replace revenue to particular programs, but is designed to discourage purchases for approved reasons, then I am okay with sales taxes. For example, I am often a big fan of cigarette taxes, as they meet both criteria among the target group they attempt to impact (young people).

I think this concept passes the test. Taxed junk food would have an alternative, healthy food, and so long as it is sufficiently high enough to discourage its purchase, I'm in favor of it. A bad choice would be a small tax on junk food, as that would not push people out of purchasing it (especially because many junk food ingredients are federally subsidized).

I suggest a CFN-scaled tax, akin to the CAFE standards set for automobiles, only this tax would be for our own fuel, not our cars'. Foods with a CFN of, say, 30-50 would get a 20% tax, 50-100 would see a 30% tax, and so on. Over time, perhaps, the CFN standard could even tighten somewhat.

Companies could then have the chance to tweak their ingredients to bring their products down to lower brackets, and to advertise their great CFN numbers. Meanwhile, foods with low CFN's, but also with little marketing behind them (fruits and veggies in the produce aisles) would get a more level playing field because they would be relatively cheaper.

Any suggestions?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Specialization can be bad: A crappy example

© 2010 Joshua Stark

The Washington Post has an interesting article out about manure being the next big pollutant. In response, expect animal rights' groups to argue that this is because we are meat eaters and dairy eaters, and if we'd only wean ourselves from these practices, we'd not pollute so much.
But the problem isn't our carnivory, nor is it the poop, per se. The problem is our over-compartmentalization in agriculture.

As many farmers know, animals belong on farms. Pest reduction, soil movement, fertilization, and more are provided by animals, and in return, the land feeds and waters the animals. Humans add to the equation by providing protection and shelter for both, and by mimicking processes that most effectively provide, and in return, animals and plants produce more, and humans take the extra.

When we decided to separate the diverse systems into compartments, we temporarily increased our efficiencies. However, we quickly ran up against a problem: The effects of multiple components in a system provided for the needs of each particular component. Plants converted nitrogen, for example, from the manure provided by the local animals. In the new system, however, no nitrogen was being returned to the soil in the barren lands with one type of plant.

The solution was to engineer nitrogen from petroleum and subsidize it - the Green Revolution. Satisfied that we'd overcome the problem of compartmentalization, we pumped a tremendous amount of "new" nitrogen into the system.

Now, of course, we understand that nitrogen is a pollutant, too.

At the same time, other insidious consequences came with compartmentalization: Most humans were removed from the food production cycle; inhumane conditions were created for animals in the name of profit and a false economy; and an illusion was created that separated systems were cleaner and healthier than incorporated ones.

The first and second consequences above created the animal-rights movement; the first and third helped to create our obsession with "sterilized" environments, warping it with an unnatural environmental outlook.

Now, we are compartmentalized. By removing anything living from our sight and responsibility, by removing ourselves from working relationships with other living things, we have become hyper-sensitive to the "chaos" inherent in organic systems and we have anthropomorphized other creatures, instead of knowing and appreciating them as they are. We have also become addicted to the prices of our subsidized and unsustainable, compartmentalization of agriculture.

Feeding into this compartmentalized system is Monsanto, hoping to get its RoundUp Ready alfalfa approved for use in the U.S. (This is an alfalfa that has been genetically modified to not die when sprayed with RoundUp). Healthy grasslands don't consist of just one type of plant, and our current alfalfa-growing practices are used to support CAFO's. If you get a chance, head over and comment (by Wednesday!) that you don't want this alfalfa in our system. And, if anybody at the federal government is reading this, the comment system online is a hassle, and needs to be simplified.

Compartmentalizing the land is no way to maintain healthy food systems or ecosystems.