Monday, August 30, 2010

The science of choice, bovine flatulance edition

© 2010 Joshua Stark

...and I don't mean it like, "The Breakfast of Champions."

Economics is often called the science of choice (which is also why it's called the "dismal science"), because an economist spends her time thinking about everything you could have done with that $1.25 you spent on the King Sized Snickers you bought at the corner liquor store (the Standup Economist has a simply genius take on this when translating Mankiw's Ten Principles of Economics).

It's interesting, because economics looks at the choices we make with an eye toward improving efficiencies, but efficiencies come in many shapes and sizes, and increasing one efficiency may, in fact, create a less efficient outcome for something else.  Take California cow farts, for example.

That's right.  KQED posted a snippet about methane digesters at two huge dairies in the Central Valley, and the problems they are having getting them up and running.  In it, they talk about the farmers' troubles with lowering their pollution.  You see, methane is a greenhouse gas, but burning it causes a local pollutant known as NOx.  It just so happens that the air quality district in which these dairies operate is almost constantly far beyond the legal limit for its local, human-health-destroying pollutants.  For some perspective, note that one in five children in the Central Valley has asthma.

Unfortunately, KQED decided to place this in its "ClimateWatch" series, and not its, "OhMyLordOurIndustriesAreKillingOurChildren" series, where the "efficiencies" argument might be considered in a different light.  However, they did, and they talked about how these farmers, in trying to do a good, unselfish deed, were coming up against the heartless and cold steel wall of bureaucracy.  Why, one poor farmer has had to spend $200k for one pollution control device!

But, what the report does not do is compare the costs of containment to a number of other factors.  For example, how much was saved in medical costs for asthma attacks?  I'm no doctor, but I'm guessing that a couple hundred grand is chump change.  Also, how much of these farmers' energy costs were offset by generating their own power, even after the added pollution-control measures?  How much ag. production from neighboring farms was saved, since pollution is responsible for probably a 15% reduction in plant productivity from dimming the Sun in the Valley? 

And, if they'd saved that money, how many additional cows could they have bought, thus increasing their pollution contribution?

Economics uses money because it is a convenient way to measure relative efficiencies, but it isn't the only way, nor is efficiency the only thing to worry about.  For example, how many children were spared a painful, frightening and life-threatening asthma attack?  How many parents were spared the horror of rushing a child, who simply cannot breathe, to the hospital?  We can put these savings into dollar amounts, but that would cheapen it in a bad way, now wouldn't it?

I will tell you right now that these farmers did not fund methane digesters simply because they believe that global warming is partly their fault, just like we consumers don't all put solar panels up on our houses or run out and buy an electric car just to save the planet.  They ran the numbers, and the energy saving they'll get from doing it in-house pays off.  Plus they may get carbon offsets in the near future.  Plus they help do their part to save the planet.  Plus they have the ability to cover the up-front costs of conversion, and the risk of doing something fairly new.

I commend these farmers for taking a step out unfamiliar territory, and I'm especially glad that John Fiscalini at Fiscalini Farms put in that pollution control device.  That's great work.  I'm also very happy with the work of regulators telling folks that they have to control their NOx pollution in a place with the worst air quality in the entire country.  I'm not so happy with KQED losing the heart of this story by contriving an angle to shoehorn it into their ClimateWatch series.

Economics, in getting us to consider our choices, is a great boon to society.  But remember that these choices go beyond the over-simplified monetary quantities.  Our choices have real impacts.

And, when you click over to the KQED piece, please note the convolutions the editor had to go through to get to use, "cut it", in the title of a piece on cow farts.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Working with what we've got

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Even with the funding near-crisis which we've reached, our land management and land protection agencies still do some pretty fine work.  If you read Outdoor California, for example, you'll notice the great stories of game wardens out catching poachers, drug dealers, and other nefarious sorts - and remember, at every stop of hunters, the warden knows the person is armed.

Also, consider the wonderful job Phillip at the Hog Blog describes being done at a beautiful valley in Northwestern California.  It would appear the Forest Service is rehabilitating a land devastated by a catastrophic wildfire.  That is some hard work, and takes a lot of effort, planning, and achievement.

For those who don't know, a catastrophic wildfire is a largely unnatural event in California ecology.  Due to the high level of forest fuels from too much fire suppression over the past 150 years, coupled with a forest floor full of non-native invasive plants that burn hotter and into the soil, catastrophic fires destroy native plants, seeds, and soil biology, leaving rock and lifeless dirt in its place, to be re-populated by even more non-native, invasive plants.  To bring back these lands, planners and managers must take many factors into consideration, which in California is even more complicated than other places - we have more microclimates, and therefore more plant varieties.  In fact, we have more plant varieties than all other states.  Combined.

So please consider this great work.  Here's my tip of the hat to the wonderful, hard-working men and women of our public lands management.  Thank you.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Funding issues in the environment

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Phillip Loughlin always does a bang-up job of hitting some nacent idea between my brain cells and getting it out.  This time, a commenter on one of the Hog Blogger's condor posts knocked me in the temple, and out popped a notion that had been stewing in my unconscious for quite some time.

The commenter made a common, innocuous claim:  That condor preservation costs about $74k per bird.  He also alluded to the notion that this was extravagant.  I've heard this claim before, and though I don't know it's a fact, I'm willing to believe it is true right now, because condors have had such a small population for so long.

Where it took me was deep in my head, into the realm of funding for our natural resources and habitats.  I've had more than a few dealings with funding, and I've come to two conclusions:  If we don't step up, as a society, and start paying for effective research and management of our natural resources, somebody will... or, won't... but either way, it won't always be good.

I've dealt with land managers who've argued that lower visitation means "fewer boots on the habitat", while still decrying the loss of money for good protections.  I've dealt with it as a visitor, finding garbage cans and pit toilets overflowing and filthy.  I've dealt directly, as a park employee, with trying to make a living in a 3/4 time position in a place where the median price for a house was $425,000.  And I've dealt with it as an advocate in the legislative realm, where many have looked for every possible way to fund our public resources management, only to find themselves having to compete for shrinking dollars with fire, police, health, and education. 

Two very bad things seem to be happening, and both are exacerbated by our current economic crisis.

First, we've just flat-out stopped funding government (or "our" as I like to call it) management of public resources.  We've cut park staff, rangers, and facilities for public use.  California has the lowest number of per capita game wardens:  200 wardens for a population over 38 million, with more than 800 miles of marine coastline in a state 158706 square miles in size, 2407 of those inland waterways (about 500 sq. mi. more than all of Delaware).  And for yet another year, our state will probably furlough 10% of their work hours

Second, in their desperation, many advocates are turning to a new form of funding in order to take care of our public places:  Private contributions.  But, private money comes with some serious issues.  When people give huge chunks of money to help purchase lands, there is always the conversation about how the place will be managed.  This is understandable, but the government has always gained some leverage, during those conversations, by saying that it will be paying for management, and therefore it will have to determine management in a public fashion.  But when private money goes into implementing management plans, the pressure to manage for those who provide the funding grows exponentially.

This second move brings with it some sad potential for public management of public lands for private benefit.  I am sure there are many benevolent and wealthy folks out there willing to give up millions of dollars with no desire for getting special treatment when it comes to managing our public lands, but we cannot merely trust in the good nature of these folks.

The bottom line is that, cliche' though it may be, public lands are our lands, and if we are going to keep them well for all of us and for our future, then we cannot shirk our duties to protect them.  Nor can we give over those duties to a small minority of people to manage, in the hopes that they will still think about the public's needs and wishes.

One way to help step up is by buying duck stamps, even if you don't hunt.  Also, involve yourself in the public management process by commenting on proposed rules and rule changes.  The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that any federal government action that may impact the environment must go through a public process.  California has a wonderful law like that, too (CEQA) - and other states may have other public-input requirements. 

It's always important to give whatever volunteer time you can, and it's always important to donate to worthy causes.  But don't forget that the United States is special and worth protecting only because of its democratic republican principles of a government of, by, and for the people.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Watch out for radioactive pigs from space! (and truffles)

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Except for the space part, the title is true if you live or plan to visit East Germany (and probably huge parts of Eastern Europe and Russia), and you also plan to eat wild boar or certain mushrooms, then you might be interested in this article in the Spiegel (via the Hog Blog).

25 years after Chernobyl, German hunters are still killing contaminated hogs, and the German Government is required to reimburse them for it, last year to the tune of over a half-million dollars.

The article points out, among other things, that the pigs are probably still being contaminated because they feed on certain mushrooms, including truffles, that still concentrate the contaminants.  And, they are finding some pigs contaminated at rates over 11 times the allowed about of radioactivity.

I also thought this might be interesting for people who are on the fence about subsidizing nuclear as an energy option.

Friday, August 6, 2010

A quick note

I'm still around, just trying to get through life and times.

Some big things have happened that I've just not had the time to post here:

The federal climate legislation died (who'd a thunk it?), & President Obama ponders next steps;

A panel finally gave a number for the amount of flow the California Delta needs for its ecosystem functions (much less than is already flowing), and a State Senate Select Committee is meeting to talk about it next week;

The Western Climate Initiative posted its cap & trade proposal;

& the Center for Biological Diversity and allies have just petitioned the EPA to consider the impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife.

I'm sure I'll post my thoughts on these issues... in a bit.

In the mean time, do any of you have any issues you think I should cover?  Think about the nexus of ethics and the environment.