Sunday, February 20, 2011

Where are all the conservative conservationists? & a quick economics rant

© 2011 Joshua Stark

I know quite a few conservative conservationists, yet I'm completely baffled by the support I hear for their political leadership in recent days.  Everything from dam removal studies to support for the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, whose corporate partners include Altria, Anheuser-Busch, and Bass Pro Shops, is slated for defunding.

And it isn't as if this leadership is trying to curb government spending:  The same folks who decry these programs as too expensive have already suggested building a gigantic dam with federal funds, and are fighting to keep subsidizing money-losing dams on the Klamath.

Nor is it as if the leadership is trying to remove the federal government from local decision-making:  The same leaders who complain that local folks don't have a say are pushing to defund those Klamath plans, plans that locals have arrived at after years of internal negotiations, and after some deep soul-searching and compromise.  By moving funding from removal studies and back into subsidizing those money-holes in the water, conservative leaders are bringing down the heavy hand of D.C. government into the affairs of locals.

So please, my conservative conservationist friends, please contact your leadership and tell them that we all value the wild, that it is part of our shared American experience and spirit.

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Now, my economic rant (those of you who know me have heard this from me a million times, but in my defense this is because it's been said a million times):  Every politician talks about putting America's economic house in order, because the typical American family has to balance its budget, and therefore so should our government.

Baloney.  Pure B.S.

First, the typical American family does not balance its budget.  If any of you has a car payment, house payment, boat payment, college loan payment, or credit card payment, then you have deficit spent, and you have an unbalanced budget.  If you don't have any of these, it's probably because you already paid it off, but at one time you deficit spent to get there, and you probably did it to the tune of many times your annual salary.

We all deficit spend in order to build our economic house.  We pay it off, and save, when we are better able to do so.  We save, in part, for those hard times we know will come. 

Second, the typical American family cannot regulate business, nor does its spending influence the overall cost of goods and services in the economy.

To make the analogy is to lie, in a big way, to the American people.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Precautionary Principle might have come in handy...

© 2011 Joshua Stark

California Watch reports on lead, arsenic, and other toxins found in climate-friendly LED lights.

While reading this post, I thought:  Well, there's another technological fix with the subsequently ugly, unintended consequences (see glyphosate-resistant crops, methyl iodide, and DDT even).  I also remembered my post on our inability to "sell" conservation

Right now, if you hear a spokesperson for any environmental advocacy group, you are far more likely to hear about green jobs, high-mileage brand-new cars, high-tech solutions to saving the planet, efficiency gains, etc.  What you will rarely hear is one of them saying, "just turn off your lights, and turn down your thermostat.  And for goodness' sake, hold off on buying that new car!"  It's hard to sell, "buy less".

But this post isn't on conservation, it's on preparing for all these new technological advances that purport to save us from ourselves.  As I read that report, I thought: how do we keep from shooting ourselves in the foot with each new attempt at efficiency gains, especially here in California, the Land of the Next Big Thing?

Then I remembered that simple, great, conservative pillar of environmental justice:  The Precautionary Principle.  This principle merely states that a new item (chemical, technological process, etc.) must prove that it is generally benign to the environment before it can be mass produced. 

That's it.

When people hear about this principle, they are usually struck by the notion that things don't have to prove that they won't leave tremendous amounts of toxins persistent in the environment.  In the case of LED lights, for example, I'm sure people are thinking,  "but, we regulate lead; how did these things make it here in such huge amounts?"

Regulation is an interesting term, and while most Americans think it means that everybody gets equal scrutiny under the law, the reality is often far, far more complicated.

It comes down to this:  Most Americans believe, inherently, that our regulatory agencies follow the Precautionary Principle, because it is a very conservative way of looking at the World.  But, they don't.

What we need are far more sophisticated models of thinking, rather than re-packaging the same materials in new ways.  We need, when we consider costs, to include the total lifecycle of the product.  We need to consider the noneconomic impacts, even if that means coming up with some quantities to at least represent them (and we need to continually re-work those quantities).  At the very least, we need some form of the Precautionary Principle, some proof that the Next Big Thing doesn't come with the Next Big Cleanup Effort.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Rural California: Where bad economic and environmental practices meet

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the AP's Economic Stress Index, which shows that 15 out of the 20 worst counties are in California. 

Of course, there's no real news here, nor is there any change from what would be the case if this were a booming economic time and not a lingering recession.  These counties are chronically the worst in the country.

The sad part?  They are also the counties with the highest agriculture revenues in the world.

In the world.

These are the same counties whose boosters proclaim that they feed the world.  These same boosters cry in anger to the (political) gods whenever the Delta must have more water, screaming that it will destroy, is destroying, their way of life, their jobs and economy.

Never mind that ag. was the only growth industry in the State, even during those drought years.  Never mind that these counties suffer huge numbers of smothering poverty, drug addiction and violence.  Never mind that these counties tend to have much higher asthma rates among its children, and that in dozens of communities throughout their gold-producing fields, nobody is allowed to drink the groundwater, because it is contaminated from runoff.  Never mind that their own rivers are dammed and run dry.


These counties remind me of a drug addict.  Whenever their supply is threatened, they talk about how much they need it, how much better they do with it; even, sometimes, how after this time, they'll work to get off it, but they need this just one more time.  Of course, they talk through blackened teeth, while their children go hungry behind them.

I grew up and live in rural California.  I love it with all my heart.  That is why I talk like I do.

Rural California needs to see a shift away from its typically feudal/colonial structure.  It needs permanent jobs with local and regional focus, it needs industries that do not pollute its water and air and offer minimum-wage (or less) with no benefits. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Non-environmental economics post: The Texas "miracle"

© 2011 Joshua Stark

The L.A. Times reports on Texas' $27 billion debt

The Times gives a positive spin to this problem, even after talking up just how haughty Texans had been over a perceived economic superiority to California, by saying that Texas' problems are now "in the same league" as California's. 

Um, no. 

California's economy is five hundred billion dollars larger than Texas'.  Again: one half of one trillion dollars more is generated in California than in Texas, every single year.  And yet, even with the positive business climate in Texas, even with very low taxes, they still find themselves in a far, far larger debt-to-income ratio than California, which means that they are far, far closer to any kind of default.

Now, how do you suppose Texas is going to deal with its debt?  Lower its taxes to take advantage of the Laffer curve?  I'm guessing they've already fallen off that ideal peak.

There's only one way to go, folks, if you are a government entity who cannot deficit spend any more, and I fear that a parallel of Keynes' comment may come true:  The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent. 

So God bless Texas.  They need it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

California Cap & Trade loses its court fight, and salt ponds show quick rebound

© 2011 Joshua Stark

A couple of unrelated news items, but both timely and interesting.

The California Air Resources Board's adoption of a cap & trade program was shut down by a judge yesterday, due to CARB's inadequate analysis of alternatives, a CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) requirement.

CEQA requires state agencies to analyze alternative ways of achieving a project's goal, choosing the most environmentally appropriate way to accomplish it.  In the case of cap & trade, a coalition of environmental justice (EJ) advocates, led by the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, successfully argued that CARB didn't adequately analyze the alternatives to cap & trade that they'd put forward.  And, they have a point. 

Many EJ folks have a serious problem with cap & trade.  While on the large scale, C&T could lower total carbon emissions, it does it in a way that favors particular regions (usually rich ones), and hurts others (usually poor ones).  For carbon, this isn't a problem, because carbon doesn't, say, cause asthma near where it is emitted.  However, impacts to industries that would cut back on carbon emissions would also lead them to cut back on "co-pollutants", those pollutants that come out with carbon, and these are typically very harmful to local communities.

The way C&T gains economic efficiency over other methods is by allowing companies to choose whether it is cheaper to cut their emissions (by lowering output or installing cleaner tech.), or cheaper to buy emissions credits on a market.  By doing this calculation, the price of carbon becomes clear in a market-like manner, and we see cuts to carbon emissions.

It is a simple leap, then, to understand that, if company A wants to buy carbon emissions credits instead of cleaning its emissions, then it will continue to emit carbon, and whatever else comes out of that smokestack.  In fact, if California's cap & trade is tied to a larger market-like mechanism, California could theoretically see increases in its own air pollution, including carbon. 

It's the "whatever else" that bothers EJ advocates and the judge.  CEQA's job is to ensure that state activities consider the most environmentally appropriate actions.  In addition, CARB is mandated to decrease air pollution, and if its activities actually increase pollutants, it may well be in violation of its own mandate. 

Stay tuned for more in this arena, for sure. 

In other, happier news, recovered salt flats in the South San Francisco Bay are returning to their natural state at a very fast clip.  As a Son of the Delta, I am always thrilled to see wetlands recover so quickly, especially considering just how cautious scientists have been due to concerns over water pollution. 

My favorite line from that report:  "A similar study done in 1,400 acres of former Cargill ponds in the North Bay near the Napa River also found a wide abundance of bay fish had come back, including striped bass, tule perch and even a chinook salmon, some only weeks after the ponds had been breached."

A similar scene has been taking place for the last seven years in Iraq, too - if you are interested in that one, head over to Nature Iraq.