Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Summer Blog: Fewer words, more video

First off, we have some substance -- Will Steffen's Ted Talk about the Anthropocene.

We follow up with a wonderful example of human impact on the planet -- 200 years of dams.

Finally, what ya gonna do? Well, the Coalition for Green Capital, American Council on Renewable Resources, Carbon War Room and a number of others have banded together to put out the following. Don't get fooled by the logos and other paraphernalia that show up around the one minute mark. Watch it all the way through ... it is very clever.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Meet your new energy hog

Interesting article on the dynamics of technological development -- set-top boxes have become a major source of home energy consumption and, despite the success manufacturers have had developing power saving modes for computers, there seems to be no significant attempt to do the same set-top boxes

Friday, June 24, 2011

Bill Freudenburg Tribute Sites

Some of you are, no doubt, aware that noted environmental sociologist William Freudenburg died of cancer last December at the age of 59.

A video tribute site, with lots of interesting material related to Bill's work, is now available.

Specifically, there are the following items:
1) Bill in His Own Words (interview of Bill done in November 2010)
2) The Legacy of Bill (tributes from colleagues who attended Freudenfest)
3) Bill's Blowout in the Gulf Lecture (lecture on his latest book, November 2010)
4) 12 class lectures by Bill, part of his "ENVS 1 Intro to Environmental Studies" course

While the class lectures are nominally 'introductory' material they are informed by Bill's own research and full of unique and unusual insights. Some of his last work placed a special emphasis on “disproportionality,” or the tendency for a major fraction of all environmental impacts to be associated with a surprisingly small fraction of the overall economy as covered in Structural Factors and the Double Diversion: I=PAT and beyond embedded below. (Note: the recording quality on some of the class lectures isn't great and you have to turn the volume all the way up.)

ENVS 1: Structural Factors and the Double Diversion: I=PAT and beyond (Freudenburg 9-30-10) from Environmental Studies UCSB on Vimeo.

Finally, photos of and memories about Bill, testimonials to the personal impact Bill had on their lives and other such things are here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Jon Stewart, Bill McKibben, Fox News and Comedy

Jon Stewart's visit to Fox News has generated lots of discussion about the distinction between political satire and ideologically inclined news. (For people who haven't seen it, here is a link to the whole interview). Stewart portrays himself as a comedian who looks at things through an ideological lens -- but places the comedy first -- rather than an ideologically driven activist. Chris Wallace, for whatever reason, doesn't seem to get the distinction.

But all one needs to do is look at an example where ideology -- rather than comedy -- reigns. Specifically, environmental activist Bill McKibben (author and founder of 350.org) recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed piece (“A link between climate change and Joplin Tornadoes? Never!”) that was subsequently narrated and illustrated by Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia.com.

Compare this with what Stewart does -- when the ideology comes first, the comedy suffers. McKibbon's piece comes across as sarcastic rather than satirical and, no matter what you think of the message, most people won't find it as funny as what Stewart does. Point, set, match to Stewart.

WalMart, the Supreme Court and Marxism without Revolution

In Marxism without Revolution John Quiggan provides an interesting analysis of the current socio-economic situation: There isn't a proletariat calling for revolution in the Western world. But there clearly is a ruling class, a top 1%, which controls wealth and power. Based on the insights from several books, most notably Jerry Cohen’s if You’re an Egalitarian How Come you’re so Rich, Quittan poses the following question: How can we more effectively oppose the rule of this 1%? (Note: for a wonderful, interactive graph displaying the changing proportion of US income allocated to different groups through time, click here.)

As Cohen puts it, the revolutionary working class postulated by Marx had to satisfy four conditions:
1) They constitute the majority of society;
2) they produce the wealth of society;
3) they are the exploited people in society;
4) they are the needy people in society.
. . . . 1. and 2. give the proletariat the capacity to revolutionise society, and 3. and 4. give them the reason to do so.

It seems clear, as Cohen says, that no sensible definition of the working class is going to satisfy all four conditions.

On the other hand, there clearly is a self-conscious and generally dominant class, centered on control of capital, but including plenty of people whose source of power and wealth is derived from their job rather than from capital income. On a narrow definition, it includes the top 1 per cent of US households which now receive 25 per cent of all income and hold around 35 per cent of all wealth. More broadly, the top 20 per cent of the population has, in broad terms, increased or maintained its share of national income as the top 1 per cent have become richer. This broader group controls more than half of all income and wealth.

. . . .

Coming back to Cohen’s conditions, the case to be made against the top 1 per cent is that:

1) They constitute a tiny minority of society
2) they consume far more of the wealth of society than they actually contribute
3) they exploit their control over capital for their own benefit
4) they are the primary obstacle to meeting a wide range of social needs

. . . .

The existence of those structures mean that a relatively simple set of feasible political demands, primarily involving reversal of the losses of the past few decades, could form a basis for political opposition to the rule of the top 1 per cent. The key elements are fairly obvious, and include

  • reimposition of control over the financial system
  • restoration of a progressive tax structure, combined with a more vigorous assault on international tax evasion/avoidance
  • shifting the burden of ‘austerity’ back to those responsible for the crisis, and rejection of cuts to the welfare state
  • repeal of anti-union laws and measures to make union organization easier
With those modest goals in mind (particularly the idea of making it easier for workers to organize and pressure for their needs) it is useful to consider the recent WalMart supreme court ruling. The broad evidence clearly shows that women are, on average, paid less, are less likely to be salaried, and hold lower-ranked positions than men. This is true even though there is less turnover among women, meaning that the average female employee has been working at Walmart significantly longer than the average male employee. You can see the data for yourself here.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the plaintiffs' lawyers had improperly sued under a part of the class action rules that was not primarily concerned with monetary claims. But they were divided 5 to 4, along ideological lines, on whether the suit met a requirement of the class action rules that “there are questions of law or fact common to the class.” Stated another way, the conservative majority among the court used the case as an opportunity to up the threshold for class certification. Room for Debate has an interesting mix of informed reactions to the ruling.

In simple terms, the underlying issue involves the 'homogeneity' of the class. Class action lawsuits are typically done on a contingency basis and are expensive. Thus, in situations where the individual claims are likely to be small, lawyers who undertake this work need to come up with a large class in order to justify their upfront expenses in bringing the case. In the WalMart case the average damage was approximately $1100 per year. So the lawyers devised a scheme that would let them claim 1.5 million potential class members in order compensate for the relatively low per-person claim. And, as a result, the individuals in the class were much more diverse in their personal situations than, for example, individuals exposed to asbestos on the job.

So, how does this all relate back to Quiggan's analysis? One of his suggestions was changes in laws to make union organizing easier. Or, to put the point more generally, to make it easier for the less-powerful to advance their position. This is exactly the opposite of what has happened in the Supreme Court ruling. By upping the bar for what counts as a homogeneous class the Court has made it harder for large, relatively heterogeneous classes with small individual claims to organize in order to redress their grievance.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Complexity, industrial farming and the modern tomato

For individuals familiar with complexity theory and the arguments against reductionism, Robert Dorit's article The Humpty-Dumpty Problem doesn't cover any new ground. However, it covers that ground clearly and succinctly. So, even if you know the material, it's a useful read as you'll come away better able to communicate the issues involved.

In Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook explores the implications of a food production system that systematically removes complexity in order to maximize profit. Personally, as someone who grew up in Yakima Washington (aka the 'Fruitbowl of the Nation') I'm not convinced that tomatoes were ever our 'most alluring fruit.' I've got a laundry list of various varieties of pears, peaches, cherries and even apples that I'd put ahead of any tomato. That minor quibble aside, there is a nice excerpt from the book with many interesting factoids available here.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Smil on Global Energy

Vaclav Smil knows as much about energy as anyone on the planet. His article Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations takes direct aim at the notion that production and mitigation alone can be sufficient for dealing with the twin problems of energy need and global warming. He points, in particular, for the need for conservation efforts by the US and Canada in order to curtail a social system predicated on excessive energy use.
The United States and Canada have a long history of shifting from one energy fad to the next—and sometimes back again—while rarely addressing the core issue of how much energy we use. As a result, the two nations have the dubious distinction of using twice as much energy per capita as the richest European nations and orders of magnitude more than most developing nations. The author argues that new energy sources such as renewables and new nuclear have no chance of proving up to the task unless we can curb our wasteful ways. Likewise, he argues that carbon sequestration and climate engineering will fall far short of heading off drastic changes in global climate unless we turn down the tap.

While not articulated in this manner within the article (which focuses on drawing out the policy implications rather than explaining the theory behind the analysis), Smil's analysis hinges on a theoretical accounting of the following chart showing the relationship between per capita energy use and the human development index for a variety of countries. The text accompanying the figure reads as follows: "At very low and low per capita consumption levels, higher use of energy is clearly tied to rising index of human development, but once energy per capita reaches about 150 gigajoules per year, the correlation breaks down. More is not better."

Crudely put, Smil is using the Human Development Index as a proxy for social complexity. Thus, consistent with the second law of thermodynamics, he notes the existence of a relationship between energy input and complexity -- the more complex a system is, the greater the energy input into the system necessary to compensate for entropy. But this does not imply that all social forms make maximal efficient use of that energy. Europe achieves a level of social complexity more or less equivalent with that of North America on half the energy input. For this reason, Smil argues that conservation rather than production or mitigation should be the focus of North American energy policy. But, as his survey of the current discourse surrounding energy policy in North America shows, conservation is not a major topic. Thus, while the article does an excellent job of diagnosing the current situation, it really doesn't come to grips with the path dependent nature of North America's form of social organization and level of social resistance associated with going down a different path.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

IPCC shoots itself in the foot ..... again

A May 9th IPCC press release highlighting findings from an unreleased report stated: "Close to 80 percent of the world‘s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies a new report shows."

The report (IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation) was released yesterday (June 14) and a new controversy has already arisen. Steve McIntyre, over at the 'knowledgable skeptic' blog Climate Audit first identified the problem and defined it in clearly understandable terms here: 1) the 80% figure represents the high end of the most optimistic (ER-2010) scenario and, hence, isn't representative while 2) the ER-2010 scenario was initially published by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council (here) and its lead author (Sven Teske) also served as one of the lead authors of the IPCC report. In short, there is a clear appearance of impropriety that lead Mark Lynas (author of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet) to conclude that the "renewables report conclusion was dictated by Greenpeace."

There are two major points that need to be fleshed out here. First, the report as a whole is much more reasonable/plausible than the lead from the press release would suggest. Here, for example, is a summary of the report's core finding:
scenarios strongly indicate that RE (renewable energy) will become increasingly important over time, even without but particularly with GHG (green house gas) emissions constraints. However, the resulting contribution of RE in the various studies available in the literature is much lower than their corresponding technical potentials. Moreover, even if substantial growth rates are combined with future RE deployment paths, they are, in general, lower than what has been achieved by the RE industry during the past 10 years.

This is pretty mainstream stuff. In other words, the overall validity of the report has been (legitimately) called into question because of two stupid decisions which may or may not be related: a) the decision to include Teske as a lead author of the report and b) the decision to draw attention to the report by providing a sexy (but pretty obviously misleading) lead -- that close to 80% of global energy supply could come from renewables by 2050.

As for the ER-2010 scenario itself, it is just bad policy analysis. To start with, it presumes economic conditions (e.g. a significant price on carbon, read a cap and trade regime, in place as of 2010) that are already demonstrably false. But this is just the beginning of the problem. As noted by Lynas
How is this (i.e., the 80% reliance on renewables without any increased reliance on nuclear) achieved whilst also reducing carbon emissions at the same time, which is after all the supposed point of the whole exercise? By assuming a totally unrealistic global consumption of energy, with total primary energy use in 2050 actually *less* than the baseline of 2007. The magic trick of getting rid of nuclear whilst generating 80% of the world’s energy from renewables is performed by making an absurd assumption that primary energy use will fall (from 469 exojoules today to 407 in 2050) even as population rises from 7 to 9 billion and GDP per capita more than doubles. I doubt this is even thermodynamically possible, let alone the basis for good policy.

So, there is more going on here than the stupidity of the two decisions described above. Rather than assessing the plausibility of the assumptions that went into the various scenarios and giving them more or less weight accordingly, they seem to have accepted all of them at face value and given them equal weight. Indeed the ER-2010 scenario was one of four picked out for particular attention. The emphasis given to such an obviously flawed scenario indicates an abandonment of the committee's role as scientific assessor of the work.

More on energy tomorrow.

Update: Andrew Revkin just weighed in on the issue.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Miscellany: Appocalypse, Transformation and Hope

A few items that piqued my curiosity. I'll let you sort out which of the above labels applies to any particular one.

1) Noam Chomsky, best known for his political analyses, takes on the environment in Human Intelligence and the Environment.
And what he (biologist Ernst Mayr) basically argued is that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation. And he had a good argument. He pointed out that if you take a look at biological success, which is essentially measured by how many of us are there, the organisms that do quite well are those that mutate very quickly, like bacteria, or those that are stuck in a fixed ecological niche, like beetles. They do fine. And they may survive the environmental crisis. But as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful. By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects. By the time you get to humans, the origin of humans may be 100,000 years ago, there is a very small group. We are kind of misled now because there are a lot of humans around, but that’s a matter of a few thousand years, which is meaningless from an evolutionary point of view. His argument was, you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation. He also added, a little bit ominously, that the average life span of a species, of the billions that have existed, is about 100,000 years, which is roughly the length of time that modern humans have existed.

With the environmental crisis, we’re now in a situation where we can decide whether Mayr was right or not. If nothing significant is done about it, and pretty quickly, then he will have been correct: human intelligence is indeed a lethal mutation. Maybe some humans will survive, but it will be scattered and nothing like a decent existence, and we’ll take a lot of the rest of the living world along with us. So is anything going to be done about it? The prospects are not very auspicious.

2) In an interesting pair of developments in South America, Brazil is moving to reduce the protection given to the rainforest while (see following article) Ecuador is proposing a novel arrangement designed to maintain its rainforest.
In a move described as "disastrous" by conservationists, the nation's congress backed a bill relaxing laws on the deforestation of hilltops and the amount of vegetation farmers must preserve. The law also offers partial amnesties for fines levied against landowners who have illegally destroyed tracts of rainforest. The legislation, which must still be passed by the Brazillian Senate and approved by President Dilma Rousseff, aims to help owners of smaller farms and ranches compete with under-regulated rivals in countries such as the USA and Argentina.

3) Jonathan Hari reports on an interesting offer from Ecuador in A Turning Point We Miss at our Peril.
We have been putting short-term profits for a few ahead of the long-term needs of our species. Every rainforest on Earth is being reduced to the money that can be stripped from it: yesterday, Brazil's Chamber of Deputies voted to slash the amount of the Amazon that must be preserved by landowners. Except this time, for the first time, the people of Ecuador have offered us an alternative – a way to break this pattern. Alberto Acosta, the former energy minister who drew up the plan, calls it a punto de ruptura – a turning point, one that "questions the logic of extractive development" that drilled us into this species-swallowing hole. Here's the offer. The oil beneath the rainforest is worth about $7bn. Everybody knows that a stable climate, biodiversity and functioning lungs are worth far more than that. But until now, nobody has been willing to pay. Ecuador's democratic government says that, if the rest of the world offers just half of what the oil is worth – $3.5bn – they will keep the rainforest standing and alive and working for us all. . . . .They first made this offer in 2006. So how has the world responded? Chile has offered $100,000. Spain has offered $1.4m. Germany initially offered $50m, then pulled out. Now President Correa is warning that they can't wait forever in a country where 13 per cent are close to starving. If they don't have $100m in the pot by the end of this year, he says, they will have no choice but to pursue Plan B – the digging and destruction of the rainforest.

4) Finally, the lengthy (7000 word) essay A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600-2100 argues that the trajectory of globalization is leading toward the end of the corporation and into an era of Coesian growth which "is fundamentally not measured in aggregate terms at all. It is measured in individual terms"

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Escaping the limitations of human perspective

In 1940 Aldo Leopold penned his famous essay "Thinking like a mountain" which drew attention to the limitations of human understanding of nature. Leopold's point, that human based perspective is not the only (nor necessarily the best) way of perceiving the world is nicely illustrated by the following video -- which records a girl hula hooping taken from the perspective of the hula hoop. Note the markings on the hoop and the way it, from the perspective of the camera embedded in the hoop, remains stable while the girl and the sky rotate around it.

Solving our environmental problems requires us to escape from the limitations of our human perceptions -- which are increasingly insulated from nature (see, Bill McKibbon's The Age of Missing Information), from phenomena that play out on time scales that differ from ours (Leopold's point) and from phenomena that exist at very large or very small scales (see the chapter titled The Big I in Homer-Dixon's Ingenuity Gap.) The role of scale and the dominance of the human perspective are humorously illustrated through a contrast with the following xkcd comic and the Eames film (The Powers of 10) it parodies.

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Click on the image to see the full diagram.

Interesting article in the Economist on the Anthropocene.