Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

World Made By Hand

New Book!

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In the best-seller The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler explored how the terminal decline of oil production had the potential to put industrial civilization out of business. With World Made By Hand Kunstler makes an imaginative leap into the future, a few decades hence, and shows us what life may be like after these coming catastrophes—the end of oil, climate change, global pandemics, and resource wars—converge. For the townspeople of Union Grove, New York, the future is not what they thought it would be. Transportation is slow and dangerous, so food is grown locally at great expense of time and energy. And the outside world is largely unknown. There may be a president and he may be in Minneapolis now, but people aren’t sure. As the heat of summer intensifies, the residents struggle with the new way of life in a world of abandoned highways and empty houses, horses working the fields and rivers replenished with fish. A captivating, utterly realistic novel, World Made by Hand takes speculative fiction beyond the apocalypse and shows what happens when life gets extremely local.

Full disclosures: first, I like James Howard Kunstler. I like the way he thinks and I agree with a great deal of what he says. We also share the same middle name (although I should be bloody amazed if it was for the same reason). Second, his publishers sent me a review copy of the book. Which is to say, I’m kindly disposed towards it, him and them in turn.

That said, it’s an excellent book. Alan Weisman, whose review also graces the dust-jacket, describes the book wonderfully as provocatively convincing. Kunstler’s world made by hand is post-oil, which is to say agrarian post-science. It reminded me a lot of the Tripods (except far better-written, and without aliens), the Drowned World (except far easier to read), and the like. We are without oil, cars, plastic, electricity, TV, medicine – you name it.

A couple of great things about the book, and then I’ll stop.

One, in a world where we tend to be beset by the trials and heroisms of pre-catastrophe story-telling, I love having a book that is post-catastrophe.

Two, Kunstler never really deals with the catastrophe. We are let in, with vague detail, on what happened: increasing demand for peak oil, an attack, etc. We simply know that oil disappeared. With it went science, government, modernity. We are back to eating what we can grow and catch, trading whatever we can move up and down rivers.

Similarly we also never are told about the world. The next town is outside of one’s world. We aren’t made to read about what happened, exactly, to DC, or New York, or Canada. It’s just not within the world about which we’re reading. This is just one period in one town, as it makes a transition from occupying a dead world (this would be where the resemblances above come in) to re-crafting their own. The point at which a community lets go of electricity, of (big G) Government, of living in a past of food and clothing that just doesn’t exist, and won’t come back.

This includes, by the by, steam and coal, which are notably absent from Kunstler’s world, but more curiously so than problematically. We are allowed to believe that (a) perhaps they do have technology elsewhere, and/or (b) the technology died with the people in the big cities.

Anyway. Very cool book. One of those weird ones that really moves at a non-frenetic pace, yet manages to move a lot of events through the story.

“How many people does climate change kill, and what proportion is the United Kingdom responsible for?”

Originally from the Guardian.

In April last year, a group of environmentalists shut down the energy company E.ON’s coal-fired power station in Ratcliffe-on-Soar, in the English Midlands. The goal: to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and, in their words, “save lives”. On February 25, 2008, Judge Morris Cooper presented a 20-page ruling accepting that there was an “urgent need for drastic action”, but convicted the protestors of aggravated trespass, saying their defence — that their crime was necessary to save lives — could not be substantiated.

In the trial, for which I was an expert witness, crucial questions were: how many people does climate change kill, and what proportion is the United Kingdom responsible for? I was surprised to discover that nobody knows. Scientists such as me are involved in programmes to measure CO2 emissions, air temperatures, sea-ice loss and the much more complex impacts on birds, rainforest trees and coral reefs. We know that climate change-related events are killing people, yet there is no comprehensive global monitoring program to document the lives lost due to climate change. There is no official climate-change body count.

The author, Simon Lewis, is, at least, kind enough to offer a concession, that “Admittedly, the impact of climate change on human health and mortality is difficult to quantify.” No kidding.

Lewis’ position is a little at odds with that of George Monbiot, but I suffer a Health Economist’s prejudice: I will take quantification of any and every outcome I can. Even if it means we go about comparing victims of climate change to victims of queues in airports.

Bush not coexisting peacefully with fish after all

That would be one of the earlier foolish things he said (as President, anyway: “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully“). Who knew he could be insincere about the environment? That’s right – we did!

From the same paper that brought us the details of Cheney’s miserable hate-on for all things living, comes yet more critique of Bush directly:

With little-noticed procedural and policy moves over several years, Bush administration officials have made it substantially more difficult to designate domestic animals and plants for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton added an average of 58 and 62 species to the list each year, respectively.

One consequence is that the current administration has the most emergency listings, which are issued when a species is on the very brink of extinction.

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That graph is a little skewed – there is no reason why the listings under Clinton are optimal, for example – but it paints a pretty stark picture about the priorities of this President.

Does anything so perfectly characterise this administration than not doing their job until the last possibly moment, wherein a shit job has to be done very quickly and, usually, ineffectively? I wonder where in the editorial machine of the Washington Post this environmentalist streak lies, too.

The article is a good read. The procedural, anti-scientific barriers to, well, science; the lawsuits, the open criticism of a department run by sycophantic political placements. Everything we’ve come to expect over the last 8 years, basically.

These are the reasons why arguments that Government should not be given charge of more things are so wildly off the mark – this administration is not evidence of the fallability of (big G) Government – it’s merely an embarrassment for the American voter, and a damn good reason to pay more attention to whom we elect.

By all means, wander about with asinine debates over 3am phone calls, but why not run with that idea across the board? How soon with the EPA be restored under each candidate? How soon will the judicial system be re-centred? Which candidate will actually install a government, rather than a set of politcal excuse-making and maneuvering?

Sadly, there is an Economics of all of this. Do Bush or Cheney actually believe that a lizard is a lizard is a lizard? That the exctinction of a weird type of condor is irrelevant if there are still pigeons in every city? To some extent, yeah. All Bush does is clear brush on a fake farm. Cheney hunts birds raised in cages that can barely fly. This isn’t the Sierra Club.

The reasons why this administration seems not to care about the environment are the same as applied to the energy sector; to roads; to schools. It isn’t the environment, the clean water, the good schools: they’re your environment; your clean water; your New Orleans.

The US is ruled by an aristocracy (and this includes many Democrats) whether the people admit to it or not. We are “governed” by a class of people who can purchase their own environment, their own water, their own roads and schools. They simply do not ever have to conceive of needing the things that we consider to be public goods, because they are not the public: they are the private.

It is just another form of tribalism, really. Why would most Americans really not care all that much about improving the roads in Dhaka, for example? Because we’ll never have to use them, and we’re not Bangladeshi. They’re just not our people, not our concern. Sadly, this attitude is not far beneath the surface of most of the politicians here in the last 10 years or so. Hence my argument that the best candidate is the one least interested in politics and most interested in government: Government benefits everyone; Politics is a zero-sum game.

Green tech: USD20tr of fictitious wealth

According to Eric Janszen:

Eric Janszen is an angel investor and founder of the contrarian market website, which The New York Times credited with “accurately predicting that the [internet] bubble would pop.” Now Janszen believes the American economy needs a fundamental restructuring away from its foundations in finance, insurance and real estate. His prescription: a new bubble based on green technologies.

In a widely discussed Harper’s article in February, “The Next Bubble: Priming the Markets for Tomorrow’s Crash,” Janszen argued that clean tech is the only sector that could create enough “fictitious value” to replace the losses from the housing bubble, if only temporarily.

Much more interesting than the (so far, for me) dull world of current financial meltdown (meltdowns? Melts-down? I don’t know). Janszen made an interesting argument in his Harper’s essay:

Nowadays we barely pause between such bouts of insanity. The dot-com crash of the early 2000s should have been followed by decades of soul-searching; instead, even before the old bubble had fully deflated, a new mania began to take hold on the foundation of our long-standing American faith that the wide expansion of home ownership can produce social harmony and national economic well-being. Spurred by the actions of the Federal Reserve, financed by exotic credit derivatives and debt securitiztion, an already massive real estate sales-and-marketing program expanded to include the desperate issuance of mortgages to the poor and feckless, compounding their troubles and ours.

That the Internet and housing hyperinflations transpired within a period of ten years, each creating trillions of dollars in fake wealth, is, I believe, only the beginning. There will and must be many more such booms, for without them the economy of the United States can no longer function. The bubble cycle has replaced the business cycle.

“The bubble cycle has replaced the business cycle.” I shall have to remember that one, come macro (a few lectures hence). Back in his Wired interview, he had something even more creative:

Wired: What do you see as the nascent financing and credit vehicles that could come up with the trillions of dollars needed to finance clean tech without creating a bubble?

Janszen: One way to do it is to put a floating tariff on the price of oil and gradually raise the price up to $200 or $300 a barrel. As long as you do it gradually, the economy can respond to it. That’s the beauty of our system. It has responded very calmly to an increase from $20 to $100. The economy hasn’t collapsed. It’s definitely slowing, but it’s not wrecking it. You could create a process that gradually forced a lot of relatively painless transition without wrecking the economy.

That’d certainly make things a lot more interesting…

The water thing

Speaking of not getting along so well when water is an issue:

Lawyers for Georgia, Florida and Alabama are gearing up again for battle, now that tri-state water negotiations have collapsed and the federal government says it will decide how to dole out water rights.

At the same time, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon issue a short-term water operations plan — a move that could set off a fresh wave of legal maneuvering.

So the Federal Government is moving in. Ah: reminds me of home.

The dispute, by the by, is over things like this:

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We all hope we’re wrong about climate change

This is not something that is made explicit enough, or made explicit often enough. This story brought the point to mind:

Europe’s leaders are being warned to prepare for big new flows of migration by 2020 as climate change puts strains on food and water supplies, provokes natural disasters and undermines political stability in poorer, neighboring countries.

A report prepared for the European Union heads of government, who will meet Thursday in Brussels, said that the rest of the world could not insulate itself from the impact of changes that could overwhelm regions that already suffer from poverty and conflict.

In North Africa and the sub-Sahara, drought and overfarming could lead to a loss of 75 percent of arable land. The Nile Delta could be threatened by both rising sea levels and salinization of agricultural land. Between 12 and 15 percent of arable land could be lost to rising seas in this century with five million people affected by 2050. Meanwhile, both the Horn of Africa and southern Africa are vulnerable to reduced rainfall and higher temperatures.

Sounds shit, frankly – worse only for the people doing the moving (I meant shit for me, living in the Midlands of England). This is just a number of all-too-likely consequences of all-too-likely catastrophic climate change, and is exactly why those of us who believe in the problem would like very much to be wrong. I’m happy to have colleagues (known but not named) to call me up once per week for the remainder of my life, giving me stick about my Henny Penny paranoia – if only it meant that none of this misery will come to pass. Somehow, though, I doubt it.

Meanwhile, some war predictions:

There’s also the water one cannot drink – China and the US over the West Pacific, for example. There also are plenty of instances of good and neighbourly management of the scarce resource, but as the resource becomes more scarce still, who knows? We could see Adelaide go to war with Melbourne, for all I know.

There are also plenty of voices who say that the probabilities just don’t match the rhetoric. Could be. I see, though, water the new land – the fixed and needed natural resource of the future, over which we will be prepared to fight long and hard. Because our lives just might depend upon it. Which, sure, makes me a miserable bastard. Like I said, I do hope we all turn out to be plain wrong.

Reagan Republicism

Still back with Doonesbury Flashbacks, I noticed this gem – from August 19th, 1981 (click for larger version):


One of many rips into former Interior Secretary James Watt (see The Reagan Years, if you’re interested).

Still – prescient, eh? A demonstration that, indeed, Bush the Younger was the Reagan Republican of our times (he will have presided over two recessions, though).

Drinking water in Beijing. Or, if the mountain will not come to Muhammad…

smash the drawing room to pieces!

Remember that old post about moving Beijing? If you’ve forgotten:

China really should consider moving the capital away from Beijing. Any nation, particularly a major power, should choose a location for its capital that allows growth and can respond to challenges. The historical advantages that led Beijing to become China’s capital no longer exist, and the location’s disadvantages are becoming ever more apparent.

Quenching Beijing’s thirst has already meant tapping the Hai River and water from neighbouring provinces. Now the Han River is to be diverted for a huge project transferring water from the south to the north. The impact of this project on the lower reaches of the Han River should not be underestimated. It will not necessarily solve water problems in the north, but it may well destroy the environment in the south. Beijing may have moved the Shougang steel plant for the sake of its air quality, but it continues to develop water-intensive industry. Why not move the industry and resources where there is more water?

Plan A, however, is still in effect.

The diversion of water to Beijing for the Olympics and for big hydropower projects threatens the lives of millions of peasant farmers in China’s north-western provinces, according to a senior Chinese government official.

In an interview with the Financial Times, An Qiyuan, a member and former chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee for Shaanxi province and former Communist party chief of Shaanxi, warned of an impending social and environmental disaster because of overuse of scarce water resources.

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Beijing will need an estimated 300m cubic metres of additional water just to flush out the polluted and stagnant rivers, canals and lakes in its central areas to put on a clean, environmentally-friendly face for Olympic visitors, according to municipal officials.

The average annual per capita water supply in China is 348 cubic metres, well below the global average and the United Nations definition of “water shortage”, which is anything below 1,000 cubic metres. Beijing’s supply is even lower, at 235 cubic metres. Many experts say these shortages are exacerbated by artificially low prices set by the government.

“Beijing is facing a water crisis and it is fighting for water with neighbouring cities, including Tianjin and Zhangjiakou,” said Wang Jian, a Beijing government employee and activist on water issues. “The price of water does not reflect its true value, but the government has decided to control the price in order to maintain a harmonious society in the run-up to the Olympics.”

The government has launched a grandiose $60bn “south to north water diversion project” that will channel about 1.2bn cubic metres of water a year from wetter southern provinces to the country’s arid north.

Well – if we will insist upon our amusing diversions and displacement activities…

Did John Edwards have an advantage all along?

The advantage being that there are fewer sons of mill-workers – meaning he had a monopoly on the narrative (I don’t know if his father was a flour-mill-worker or not). From The American Journal of Industrial Medicine, via Reuters:

Using data from the Washington State health department, researchers found that the children of men who worked in flour mills were disproportionately female. Of 59 children born to these workers between 1980 and 2002, 37 — or roughly 63 percent — were girls.

In contrast, just over 51 percent of children born in Washington during that period were boys, according to the findings published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

The current study found that, besides the low prevalence of male births, boys born to flour mill workers also weighed significantly less than average. Their average birthweight was 7 pounds, compared with nearly 8 pounds among girls born to flour mill workers, and about 7 pounds, 12 ounces among boys born statewide.

Unfortunately, and despite their false promises, my library either doesn’t have access, or won’t give it to me, off-campus, but from the paper’s abstract:

The Washington State Department of Health has collected and coded parental occupation information on birth certificates since 1980. We used these data to search for possible effects of parental occupational exposures on birth outcomes.

We tabulated sex ratio, birth weight, and proportions of multiple births, still births, and malformations by mothers’ and fathers’ occupations.

There were 59 births (22 boys and 37 girls) where the father’s occupation was specified as flour mill worker. The sex ratio of 0.373 (95% confidence interval [CI]: 0.261-0.500) was lower than the mean sex ratio of 0.512. The mean birth weight for flour mill workers’ boy babies was 3,180 g (95% CI: 2,971-3,389), compared to an overall mean of 3,511 g for all boy babies. The mean birth weight of flour mill workers’ girl babies was 3,602 (95% CI: 3,380-3,824), compared to an overall mean of 3,389 for all girl babies.

The low prevalence of male infants born to fathers of flour mill workers in Washington State suggests that fumigants that they are exposed to are causing testicular dysfunction. The very low birth weight seen in the male infants of flour mill fathers is unprecedented and may be another genotoxic endpoint.

This lack of access is annoying, because I really want to see the paper. Why, you ask? Well I can certainly understand that question, having just asked it myself (hat-tip to Colonel Blake).

This sort of analysis is prone to several statistical problems. The first is what we call “power”. “Power” is a function of sample size: small samples are under-powered. Why? Because a small sample has less information, possibly too little information, with which to establish properly the distribution of the data. Moreover, too-small samples are less and less likely to represent properly a population (meaning your results apply only to your sample – in this case Washington State, say – and not to the population at large). The authors are, above, using confidence intervals, meaning they’re relying upon the Central Limit Theorem. They certainly can do this, although their sample of 59, with p = .373, isn’t all that close to the criteria for textbook statistics (at nearly 50/50 probabilities, one is a lot more assured of underlying normality).

I’m just wary of small samples. I’d like to see what else they did. The proportion of males is statistically significantly less than the population proportion (we can see this because the 95% confidence interval of the proportion of males does not include 0.512), but I’m willing to bet the confidence intervals of each (p = .373 and p* = .512 overlap significantly, and I’d like to see by how much (meaning I’d like to see how the confidence intervals work using the “population” numbers, rather than the mill-worker numbers).

The other problem I’d like to see worked out is Simpson’s Paradox. Simpson’s paradox is an aggregation issue and the classic example of it, in fact, relates to low-birth-weight babies (of smokers). It basically says that, merely by dis-aggregating data, one can draw incorrect conclusions. In the case of this paper, the low-birth-weight problem, once children have been separated by gender, might not have been observed had they not been separated by gender.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing here worth responding to. At the very least it has picked up the workers of Washington State, and Washington State ought to respond – assuming the “population” numbers are also Washington State, rather than national, in which case another set of comparisons would be needed. This is more a stats-geek level of interest.

Oh, I think Edwards’ father worked at a textile mill.

Anti-surprise: USCAP members are supporting efforts to undermine restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions

From BusinessWeek:

When 10 of the largest U.S. corporations and four environmental groups joined forces last January to lobby for federal regulations to restrict greenhouse-gas emissions, it was seen as a watershed in corporate environmentalism. The U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), comprising 27 companies from General Electric (GE) to General Motors (GM), won praise from enviros by endorsing cuts—10% to 30% of heat-trapping emissions within 15 years and 60% to 80% by 2050—to avert some of the severest consequences of global warming.

Behind the scenes, however, several companies that belong to USCAP are simultaneously supporting efforts and organizations that oppose mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases or promote policies that would make the USCAP reductions nearly impossible to meet. “Many of these companies want the image of being green but are putting their money on the other side of the issue,” says Frank O’Donnell, president of Washington-based Clean Air Watch.

You don’t say.