Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Happy Earth Day, folks.  As I poke around the news, I'm finding a lot of feel-good stories about how much better we are now than in 1970, and that's great.  Unfortunately, I'm also seeing some disjointed logic, as in this article from the Contra Costa Times that talks about the great improvements of the Bay Area, while noting that we still have much to do.

The author points out that while we have greatly improved our pollution (and it is laudable and surprising how well we've done), it then points out the dangers - among them, population growth.

In the same article, just two paragraphs down from all the amazing gains we've made, the author says, "Put another way, since the first Earth Day in 1970, the Bay Area has grown by 2.8 million people — the equivalent of adding the combined populations of present-day Denver, Portland, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Sacramento to the region — bringing huge problems with sprawl and traffic."

For some reason, the author cannot see the disconnect between claiming as a threat the 2.8 million person increase during the exact same period he applauds us for improving our impacts.

The problem ain't population, folks;  it's how and what we consume.  We absolutely need to make sure that the additional population doesn't destroy what we've done, but that is completely possible.  

Update:  PCL's Greenroots blog has a great post on L.A.'s water conservation during the past ten months, including a note that even though L.A. has more than one million more people, it still used as much water last month as it did in 1979.  Great note, PCL!  See, Contra Costa Times?  You can applaud people doing better while not at the same time decrying their actual presence.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


© 2010 Joshua Stark

I must admit, though I grew up in a pretty rural place, I've never been much of a forager.  Of course we 'chewed' sweet anise (fennel) and sourgrass (sorrel) when I was a kid, ate figs off the trees along the sloughs,  and ran around with blackberry-stained shirts and fingers every Summer.  We also helped ourselves to neighboring farmers' baby corn (they didn't mind).  But mostly, I fished, and walked with a dog and a gun and called it hunting.

The past couple of years, though, after meeting up with Hank at Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, I've become nearly addicted to foraging.  Greens have been my biggest revelation - first with nettles, and then with mallow - and I'm really looking forward to the upcoming elderberry and gooseberry seasons.  Elderberries had become very rare around here, but in the past ten years they have taken off, probably as a result of efforts to re-establish the endangered blue elderberry beetle. 

I've also been glad that Hank introduced me to a great foraging blog, Fat of the Land, where Mr. Langdon Cook last week had a great post on how to "commit a radical act".

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

James Cameron keeps bothering me...

© 2010 Joshua Stark

James Cameron obviously didn't read my last post about some environmental inconsistencies between his talk and his actions

Yesterday, National Public Radio's 'All Things Considered' covered the concept of 'windowing' in the movie industry - where companies try to maximize profits from each medium their movie will hit - and did so by considering how Fox is working Avatar. 

It's the last comment that deserves note on this blog:

"ULABY: In the case of "Avatar," the DVD coming out does not have a single extra - no commentary, no nothing. The studio wants fans to buy both this version and the fully-loaded DVD that comes out in gift-buying season in November."

That's right... Mr. Green, the man parading all over the World trying to save it, will manufacture his DVD in a way to cajole millions upon millions of people to buy the same thing twice.

He just proves my point, you can't sell conservation.  I just wish he'd opted for the 'conservation' part of that equation, rather than the 'sell'.

Monday, April 19, 2010

On Goose Music

© 2010 Joshua Stark

The famous chapter in Aldo Leopold's "A Sand County Almanac" on Goose Music always moves me, in particular because I grew up right smack in the middle of a major landing place for waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (for a great excerpt, check this out).  
The photo I've added above, for example, was taken in East Isleton, at the end of the street where I grew up, about 100 yards from where my parents still reside.  Those are snow geese coming down in a neighboring field. 

Nearly every Winter of my life I've lived with calls from overhead.  I remember laying in bed at home in the middle of the night, hearing swans call to each other as they passed over town in the fog, flying so close that, with the window cracked a bit, I could hear their rhythmic breathing.  I remember hearing the amazing, trumpeting calls of sandhill cranes, only a few when I was a boy, but more and more each year so that now we watch huge, swirling flocks come down in August and September.  And I remember geese.

It seems that everybody has a neighborhood gaggle of honkers nowdays, and as Tovar Cerulli recently pointed out, there is at times something strange about the ease with which they can interact with our world. We have a flock passing over many mornings and evenings, and their calls still stir me, even if I know they are flying out to and back from their golf-course feeding grounds (no better use for a golf course, anyway).  But I grew up close to wild geese, and I was blessed with the widest variety of big waterfowl around.  Honkers of all sizes, swans, cranes, snows, blues.  And specks.

Ever since I watched, from my elementary school playground, a big flock of specks take flight in 20 mph winds, and, buffeted, swing right overhead, I've been amazed by them.  Their call is distinctive, too, often a higher pitched, two-note number, and it means that Fall fell, and Winter is here.  Or, it means that Spring has sprung fully, and it's time for them to head up North to have babies, so they can come back home, here on the Delta.

Night before last, in my back yard, while I was putting the ducks to bed (I have three yard ducks), I heard a flock of specks passing over.  As it was night, and mid-April, I knew they wouldn't be back for a few months.  And although the arrival of Spring brings its own greatness, there is always a hollow in my heart, an empty space to be filled only with that two-note cry, now wending its way on North.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Senate considers a fifteen cent gas tax to fight global warming

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Do I have an automatic, knee-jerk reaction to big oil companies supporting climate change legislation?  Yes, I do.  I understand that I need to rein that in some, but in this case, I'm concluding with my knee-jerk reaction.
The L.A. Times reports that Sens. Lieberman, Kerry & Graham are hashing out a tri-partisan (the Independents in the Senate are their own beast) climate change bill that would possibly include a gas tax of around fifteen cents.  The Times reports that some oil companies are in favor of this because, "it figures to cost them far less than other proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including provisions in the climate bill the House passed last year."

I guess so.

Here's another interesting tidbit from the Times:

The fifteen cent gas tax, "is shaping up as a critical but controversial piece in the efforts by Graham, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to write a climate bill that moderate Republicans could support. Along those lines, the bill will also include an expansion of offshore oil drilling and major new incentives for nuclear power plant construction."

Is this a "climate bill" like Clear Skies was an "air quality" bill?  I still need to get the specifics for myself, but if what we end up with is a bill where consumers have to pay a regressive tax so that major companies can have an easier time pumping more oil and not paying for failed nuclear projects, then this is looking a lot more like the environmental double-speak of administrations in the past.  

We need a price on carbon, not just gas.  And, we need a rebate of a good chunk of that money directly to Americans, to help mitigate the regressive nature of that price.  Also, the price has to be big enough to hit the 300 ppm of atmospheric carbon that is generally agreed to in the scientific community.  If it's easier to hit that number with a cap, then cap it.  If it's easier to hit that number with a cap-&-trade, then do that.  If it's easier to hit that number with a tax, then I'm all for it.  Just remember to mitigate the regressive impacts, and don't let individuals or individual companies off the hook.

For a refresher, here are some quick links to pieces I've written about climate change and/or regressive taxes:
Carbon Pricing:  Who, What, Why (the basics)
Cap & Trade, Front & Center  (on alliances and positions about its impacts)
Where are all the Big Greenhouse Gas Emitters? (on California's list of its biggest emitters, and greenwashing)
My Problem with Pigou (on Pigovian taxes used to help alleviate negative externalities, and the need for rebates)
Cap & Squander Strikes Back! (on a highly respected panel of economists agreeing with me about rebates)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Some recent posts on basic environmental economics

© 2010 Joshua Stark

I read Paul Krugman the other day as he decided to weigh in a bit on economics and greenhouse gasses.  It's a good piece, and a good example of the reason economics is called the 'dismal science'.  No free lunch, you can't have your cake and eat it, too, etc., etc.

I found it at my favorite environmental economics website, however, and I recommend you read their environmental economics primer, too.  Env-Econ., run by two professors at Appalachia State and Ohio, I believe, make good points, and the site is worth a visit every couple of days.

Krugman also commented on his blog about some kickback from environmentalists for his piece, and he tries to explain himself a bit.

In his blog post, he mentions a belief among many environmentalists that he doesn't quite hold, himself:

"On the first (belief among many environmentalists, the claim that): there is actually a fair bit of evidence that many energy-saving measures would also be cost-saving, even at current prices.  Like most economists, I take these estimates with a grain of salt: if these actions really are cost-saving, why aren’t they being taken already? Isn’t that an indication that there are hidden costs? That said, in the real world people aren’t perfectly rational, so there may well be energy-saving measures with negative cost that aren’t being undertaken."

I've got to disagree with the Nobel Laureate, Princeton economist on this one.

First, Prof. Krugman doesn't seem to remember the constraints of poverty.  For example, how exactly will a renter put in energy-saving washing machines and dishwashers?  How will homeowners put them in, if they must pay, also, for the upgrades?  The same goes for water heaters, windows, new heating and A/C units, cars - the list is long.

Second, Prof. Krugman doesn't seem to remember the imperious influence of huge corporate interests on the marketplace and infrastructure.  Oligopoly and oligopsony play powerful roles in determining just where the "efficiencies" end up in a market, and the dollar amounts rarely reflect the greatest efficiencies for consumers.

You can tell a person that for $20,000, they can eliminate their electricity bill with a solar panel system, but if A) they can't get twenty thou., and B) they have to remove themselves from the electrical grid or suffer penalties and be responsible for the maintenance of a brand-new thing, they won't do it, even if it'll save them $300 a month. 

If, however, you tell homeowners that they can roll their solar loan into their home loan, and they will get back wholesale price for the extra energy they give to the electrical company (often during peak energy use hours, interestingly enough), then you would see the true efficiencies being borne by the consumers, and you would see a rise in solar use.  If you tell landlords the same thing, then they can do that plus get a small premium (smaller than the monthly electrical bill in a similar home, for the renters), too.

So, it isn't the efficiency of the product when compared to other forms of energy, it is the efficiency of the product to the individual user through the hurdles of market manipulation and poverty.  

I usually like Prof. Krugman, but in this case, he doesn't seem to see the trees for the forest.

Update:  David Roberts over at Grist has a similar, though not the same, complaint to Krugman.  

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Corporatism has eaten libertarianism, and now it starts gobbling environmentalism

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Although I am not a libertarian, I have often appreciated folks who hold to libertarian ideals.  I am partial to them because libertarianism is an ethos, and people who subscribe to it often do so because they are honestly thinking about their impacts on others, and how people should behave towards one another.

But libertarianism as a concept in the minds of many has been consumed by corporatism, and though individuals may hold to true libertarian ideals, the word among the public is now a cover for the type of behemoth corporate accumulations our economic and political system has spawned and nurtured. 

Our market system is not a free market system - for example, our borders are not free, thus regulating one of the four basic factors of production, labor.  Our market system is generally more free than some, and more regulated than others.  But, the style of our regulations in recent decades (see my post from yesterday) has become more and more slanted in favor of large corporate enterprises, such that individuals within corporations may wish to behave in certain ways, but corporate pressures for profit, magnified by regulations that encourage this behavior, make long-term prudence and personal ethos nearly impossible to enact.

Where the large corporate enterprises create economies of scale (the fancy way of saying "more efficiency by being bigger"), we should allow it in some fashion.  But where it does not, we should not use it.

One major problem with our current market system is the elimination, over time, of competition.  When companies "win" in our markets, they actually beat other companies, which means those companies cease to exist.  But, instead of new companies taking their place, more often the "winning" company eats the old company, grows larger, and exerts more power over the market.  This power, in turn, causes political ripples in favor of the remaining company, often at the expense of free society and government representation, as well as consumer prices and efficiency.

Noting the strong libertarian streak in our American ideals, many companies have used the notion (rather than the actual principles) of libertarianism as a way to maintain our current system, while at the same time stifling competition through political influence.  The past decade saw many politicians finding cover in the words of libertarianism while actually undermining those libertarian principles of our government.

Now, corporatism has made serious inroads into the environmental movement, and threatens to eat it like it has eaten libertarianism in the minds of the public - through controlling the conversation and political processes.  From "greenwashing" to lobbying, corporations are exerting a level of control over our environmental consciousness that threatens to crush real changes where those changes may risk individual corporate profits.

One current example of this is in California, where the Department of Fish and Game and the California Fish and Game Commission are working to enact the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA).  Though I like the idea - enacting a series of protected areas akin to national parks and wildlife refuges on land - the continuing state budget crisis has been used as a final corporate crowbar, an excuse to privatize our public regulatory and legislative processes.  This bodes ill for our public processes and the reasons for our public actions.

This week, High Country News has a great blog entry titled "Privatizing Conservation", where they write in better detail about the MLPA and the influence of Packard Foundation and the Western States Petroleum Association.  Especially note the chair of the MLPA process.  I highly recommend it for everyone, because, unlike our neighbor to the East, what happens in California almost never stays in California.

After reading that previous post, please read this piece from the San Luis Obispo Tribune on a new offshore drilling proposal between oil companies and three environmental organizations.

Environmental organizations have always had to look for money in order to operate, and many wealthy folks want to do right by the environment.  However, private donations and membership don't always pay all the bills, and so corporate foundations and other pools of money offer to cover many expenses and battles, and usually with few or no strings attached.  Heck, I've even been paid by RLFF money.  But these payments, often in the form of non-profit foundation grants &/or pools of money set aside as mitigation for illegal activities, sometimes make advocacy a winding, twisting road.  Add the idea that many companies both donate to environmental organizations and groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and large-scale battles over the fate of the California Environmental Quality Act take on an interesting hue.

Generally, these issues are not a problem - 95% of the time, people come to the table to debate and discuss, our representatives vote, and we move forward.  However, occasionally (and especially over the big fights like CEQA and climate change), these conflicted interests create problems.

In the case of the MLPA, the problem is that the ocean isn't receiving adequate or appropriate protections for habitat or for people to care about its fate in the future, and the appearance of bias in favor of the private industries involved makes the process look very bad, indeed.  Currently, the protected areas (MPA's) look like "no fishing" zones for recreational and commercial fishermen, but with absolutely zero protections against pollution, other visitation impacts, commercial fishing in neighboring federal waters (more often by huge international operations rather than by local folks), or take for scientific purposes.  In addition, the Fish & Game department's own wardens believe that they cannot adequately protect the areas designated, which means that only lawbreakers would get to fish, and then they would do it with little fear of reprisal.

Consider this:  If a company was polluting the Merced River before it flowed into Yosemite Valley, would we stand for it?  And yet, the same company that pays a huge chunk of money for the MLPA process, Hewlett-Packard, is represented by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, which lobbies to keep the California Coastal Commission from coming down hard (or at all) on coastal polluters.

This same company helps pay for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a beautiful place and a hub of conservation efforts.  However, the fact that MPA's don't protect from scientific take becomes more ominous when the Vice President of the Aquarium is on the Fish & Game Commission, and when it remains unclear whether or not scientific take is currently the largest fishery in California, because landings are not monitored like they are for commercial fishing.  If it isn't the largest fishery, many believe it is close.

Last, please read this piece in Calitics about the President of the Western States Petroleum Association... er, I mean the Chair of the Marine Life Protection Act... calling for more drilling off the coast of California.

Many local environmental and environmental justice groups in Northern California are making a ruckus over the MLPA as it moves into their neighborhoods.  Northern California environmentalists seem to have come around to the positive impacts of local food and appropriate access to the wild, and hopefully these ways can educate and inform the process such that we get a more nuanced and appropriate set of rules for the North Coast.  

The appearance of huge, private enterprises funding and running actual government processes marks an unfortunate turn in the environmental community.  We all must tackle our demons, and the pressures of our current market structures are such that, even when individuals want to give large chunks of money to protect the environment, corporate pressures tend to put undue pressures to protect their profit interests.  This is why we created a government of, by, and for the people - we understand that the pressures of a market can cloud people's judgment, and so we try to remove those pressures when making public decisions.  This deeper encroachment into our public life needs to be reassessed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Non-environmental economics post

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Robert Reich has a blog post up about the need to break up our big banks.  This is pretty unrelated to the environment (except that a lot of money that would have gone to environmental protection went down the toilet or to the big banks and then down a gilded toilet), but I really, really feel the need to link to it.

This is a hugely important issue.  Just over one hundred years ago, big banks had a complete stranglehold on both parties.  The ensuing rise of the Progressive Party was in large part a reaction to this phenomenon.

Today, we see single financial institutions that dwarf our entire economy of that era.  And yet, we question whether or not our system can withstand such behemoths.

It cannot.  In the 1990's, a very important law was repealed, retirement programs shifted en masse from defined benefits to defined contributions, and financial institutions began throwing insanely large amounts of money into housing.  In the 200's, when wages stagnated, the appreciating housing market became a salve and a game of musical chairs at the same time, keeping wages depressed while providing the illusion of wealth.  Meanwhile, unregulated financial institutions carved up shares of housing, and convinced each other that 80% of them are good, and 80% of the remaining 20% is better than the worst, and on and on.  All of these contributed to our current situation.

In response to the crisis, then, both parties did what any sane politician would do - throw the largest chunk of money they possibly could directly at the people and institutions who caused the mess and contributed huge amounts of money to their re-election campaigns.  Now, though unemployment remains unsustainably high, lending remains extraordinarily low, and many more folks with jobs still can't make ends meet, we are told that not only is the recession over, but we must fear runaway inflation!

We are told this so that the huge financial institutions can keep the money we gave them and not have to lend it or pay it out.

Please read Prof. Reich's post.  It is very illuminating.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Save the Planet, have a baby.

© 2010 Joshua Stark

With some really good caveats, an author over at Grist makes the same mistake about overpopulation I and many others have made... well, ever since Malthus, I suppose.  With good intentions (but a bad, bad history), many people (let's call them "scared folks") today argue that overpopulation is the single biggest cause of our environmental collapse, and I believe they are truly concerned about it (yet, fortunately, many of them do not take any serious steps to address the problem).

Their arguments usually start with the scary number of the moment - which right now is 7 BILLION PEOPLE.  Then, they usually appeal to papers, scientists, and philosophers discussing the threat of an even greater population.  Nowdays, the number used is over 9 billion by the back-half of this century.  Then, they stop talking about population numbers, trends, or real-world ways that population growth is curbed (here is where my first frustration lies).

Instead, scared folks usually begin some good talk about consumption, but they cover it too lightly, especially since they left out some really important words about the long-term population trends of the world.  They almost always mention that it would take ten Earths to live like a typical American, or that all humans right now emit x amount of carbon/year or are consuming one-third more than our Earth can sustain.

They usually end with a dire warning and an admonition of sorts.

To be fair, the Grist author had a slightly different take on the concept, and also wanted to use this as a way to tell folks who've decided not to have babies that they are okay, and they should be proud of who they are.  I'm okay with that part.  As for the worries about having children and the destruction of the planet, however, I am not.

I've blogged about this before here and here, and I'll say it again:  There is no correlation between population growth and carbon emissions.  In fact, countries with shrinking populations, with few exceptions, emit levels of magnitude more carbon both in total and per capita than countries with population growth.

So what are scared folks missing?  Well, first they are missing the long-term population conversation.  The U.N. projects a declining world population within 100 years, and considering the trends of the past 50 years, their level of projected decline is conservative.

Scared folks also avoid/don't know about factors that actually cause populations to slow growth or even decline.  Two major factors correlate to slowing population growth:  Women's education and infrastructure. (Funny, but merely telling people to have fewer kids actually induces them to have fewer kids.)

You see, in societies with little or no safety nets, family is the safety net.  By increasing women's education (even through grade school), and by building and improving electrical grids, hospitals and roadways, you increase the wealth of a nation as well as its consistency and reliability.  When that happens, people have reason to wait around a little longer, and have fewer children - because they don't need the safety of young marriage and many kids to make it to adulthood and provide for them in their old age. 

Next, scared folks ignore/miss out on the real problem of human habitation on our planet:  Consumption.  Our current consumption patterns are unsustainable. Period.  By focusing on the population number, however, rather than the consumption numbers, they miss the real solutions that currently exist (and they come across as incurably elitist).  For example, two countries currently buck population decline's perverse inverse-proportion relationship to carbon emissions.  Japan and Denmark maintain very low carbon emissions (and other pollutants) while maintaining a good lifestyle for their citizens and seeing populations decline. 

Scared folks also do not consider the physicality of 9 billion people to the world.  To get a better look at consumption patterns and the potential for dramatic improvement, consider this thought experiment:

At it's projected largest amount of 9 billion people, if every person were to be housed in the U.S., and each individual person were given 1/5th of an acre (twice the size of the property my family of three lives on with three ducks and a dog), we would still have five hundred million acres left over.  Five hundred million acres is about 100 million acres more than we farm crops in the U.S.  If the thought experiment is done with family units, the amount of left-over acreage multiplies four times. 

And we are only the fourth largest country on Earth.

Now, I am not proposing everybody move here, okay?  What I'm doing is giving perspective.  There currently exists plankton blooms in single locations that are six times humanity's biomass.

Besides the silliness and ineffectiveness of inferring that people have fewer babies, and the lack of connection to the physical world's realities (complete with solutions for doing much better for our planet), scared folks join a group rife with racism and elitism.  I'm sure the vast majority of folks scared about overpopulation aren't racists or even conscious elitists, but the simple fact is that A)  brown folks' countries have the highest growth rates; and B) pollution (especially greenhouse gas pollution) is far and away the result of very wealthy regions with declining populations.  By keeping their eyes on the population ball, they ignore the real problem of the world, and by ignoring the real problem of the world (overconsumption by wealthy regions and folks) they become de facto elitists.

They also miss out on the fact that babies actually save the world.  From 1960 to 2000, the world's population doubled, from three to six billion people, and yet our air quality is far better than it was in 1960, and many pollutants we'd used daily are now gone forever.  They are gone because people had kids.  These kids both gave impetus for solving the great problems of the world, and actually helped solve them, when they grew up.  (These kids pay into social security, too.) 

Having kids isn't the big problem right now.  The problem is consumption.

To help solve this problem, we should start with a chart of carbon emissions by economic quintile.  I'm still looking for one.

In the meantime, just remember that babies can save the world.  I know my talking about it won't make people have babies, just as scared folks won't really put a dent in people choosing to not have babies, but don't fear them as a group.  As individuals, however...

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Ah, the Fresno Bee and water...

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Of course they are horribly, horribly biased, especially when the big farmers around them lose out, like yesterday.

However, comments like this...

"It's the latest loss for farmers and other water users in the decades-long battle over moving water through the state. That battle continues today when water users and environmentalists square off in Wanger's court in what promises to be a pivotal case."

Really should be in the realm of crappy opinion, not sold off as real news.

First, not all water users lost.  Second, environmentalists are water users.

This is fully ridiculous.