Friday, April 30, 2010

Gulf Oilspill

The image above shows the extent of the Gulf oilspill currently approaching the Mississippi Delta. A diagram, showing the location of potentially affected wildlife, is below.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Journey of a Plastic Bag

Futurestates is an interesting website. Aimed at provoking thought about the mid-term future (e.g., the next 50 years), the site has 11 fictional mini-feature films exploring potential futures through the lens of contemporary global issues. My favorite -- with the voice of noted film director Werner Herzog -- is the story of a plastic bag (available by link if the player below doesn't work).

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

GM Foods and Resilience Thinking

The National Academies of Science just released their first systematic assessment of genetically modified crops Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States. Here is a brief description of the report:

Since genetically engineered (GE) crops were introduced in 1996, their use in the United States has grown rapidly, accounting for 80-90 percent of soybean, corn, and cotton acreage in 2009. To date, crops with traits that provide resistance to some herbicides and to specific insect pests have benefited adopting farmers by reducing crop losses to insect damage, by increasing flexibility in time management, and by facilitating the use of more environmentally friendly pesticides and tillage practices. However, excessive reliance on a single technology combined with a lack of diverse farming practices could undermine the economic and environmental gains from these GE crops. Other challenges could hinder the application of the technology to a broader spectrum of crops and uses.

Several reports from the National Research Council have addressed the effects of GE crops on the environment and on human health. However, The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States is the first comprehensive assessment of the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the GE-crop revolution on U.S. farms. It addresses how GE crops have affected U.S. farmers, both adopters and nonadopters of the technology, their incomes, agronomic practices, production decisions, environmental resources, and personal well-being. The book offers several new findings and four recommendations that could be useful to farmers, industry, science organizations, policy makers, and others in government agencies.

It is interesting that a report which is generally supportive of the productivity gains that GM crops have provided is highly critical of those same crops from an ecological sociology perspective. Specifically, there is a concern with a) the tendency toward homogeneity (i.e., monocrops) and the resulting lack of resilience in the agricultural ecosystems and b) the emergence of glyphosate resistant diseases due to the wide spread use of Round-up (a glyphosate based herbicide) in combination with Monsanto's Round-up ready GM seeds. The latter development leads farmers to use additional, even more toxic chemicals, to kill off the unwanted weeds.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Energy: The Biggest Problem?

What's the biggest problem facing humanity over the next 50 years? According to Nobel lauriate Richard Smalley, the answer is energy. In an engaging and thought-provoking lecture, Smalley explains that finding sustainable sources of energy for the entire world will not only alleviate a growing energy crisis, but will also assist in the solution to many of the world's other problems, such as water, terrorism, and health.

In addition to diagnosing the magnitude of the problem, Smalley also presents his vision for our energy future -- the transition to renewable sources of energy by developing cost-effective technologies that capture solar, wind, and geothermal energy. While the talk looses a bit of its perspective at the end as Smalley argues that advances in his area (nanotechnology) are the key to achieving a sustainable energy future, it is interesting to contrast his general emphasis on the need for new energy technologies with the relatively decline in the proportion of R&D funding given to energy (see below).

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hornborg, Part 2: Technomass

This is a continuation from the previous post.

Hornborg treats satellite images like the one above as the visible manifestation of technomass, his term for the infrastructure of industrial technology and its products. As the phrasing suggests, Hornborg is interested in the parallels between technomass and biomass. Thus, technomass refers to the aggregate amount of technological infrastructure, not to individual local elements. Similarly, Hornborg sees local technologies as residing within the equivalent of an ecological niche composed of the features necessary for the effective operation of the technology (raw materials, fuels, labor). When the flows necessary to sustain the technomass stop, the technological infrastructure will disappear.

Hornborg, following world systems theory, is interested in the differences between the light and dark areas, that is the differences between the industrially developed regions of the globe and those less developed. What does the accumulation of technomass mean for the dark areas? Drawing on works like Cronon's Nature's Metropolis (which treats Chicago as linked to the West through a network of resource and commodity flows) and Wilkenson's Poverty and Progress (which argues that British industrial development resulted from exploitation of other areas, notably the shift in cloth production from native wool to US cotton that allowed British land to be liberated for industrial uses and the importation of iron from Sweden), Hornborg argues that the growth of local infrastructure is a result of accumulation.

Imagine that the lights on the satellite image are technomass. For a structure to reproduce itself, it must draw in exergy (potential to conduct work inherent in energy). Here is where Hornborg develops his thermodynamics of imperialism. According to the first law of thermodynamics energy can't be created or destroyed and, as a result, it is erroneous to speak of the consumption of energy. What gets consumed is exergy -- the quality in the energy that allows work to be done -- not the energy itself; energy is still there going out as heat into space, etc. Complex systems of any type, whether it be the human body or industrial technology, persist by inputting high quality energy into the system relative to the quality of energy outputted. Humans, for example, eat high quality molecules and dissipate low quality energy (heat). It is the constant input of high quality energy into the system that allows local complexity to survive in the face of entropy. But, as empirical studies such as those of Cronon and Wilkinson show, it is the net transfer of both energy and matter to the center from the periphery that allows industrial infrastructure to persist. It is the manner in which the inherent inequality of this physical process leads to social inequalities that leads Hornborg to label it the 'thermodynamics of imperialism.'

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ecological World Systems: Hornborg, Part 1

This is the first in what I expect to be a series of posts dealing with one particular approach to ecological sociology -- the fusion of ecological concerns onto world-system theory. Broadly speaking, the work in this area falls into two categories: a) writings by key figures in the world-system tradition with an interest in incorporating environmental/ecological concerns into their analysis and b) writings by individuals who have set as their task the development of a synthetic framework integrating the two perspectives. I'll be focusing on the second category of writings.

We begin with the work of Swedish anthropologist Alf Hornborg and, in particular, the arguments in his book The power of the machine : global inequalities of economy, technology, and environment. From world-systems theory Hornborg takes the conclusion that global society manifests aspects of a zero-sum game, i.e. that the gains of one region come at the expense of another. It is this idea that Hornborg sees as the fundamental factor underpinning the creation of world-systemic structures based around developed cores and less developed peripheries -- that the development of the core is built in part on the exploitation of the periphery.

But how do you measure exploitation? Traditional economics argues that exchanges between the core and the periphery are accurately measured by market prices and, hence, there is no exploitation; the core country pays $100 to the periphery country for each $100 worth of raw material it receives. Traditional world-systems theory builds on Marxist economic principals to argue that market prices aren't an accurate representation of the exchange and to show how such exchanges are economically unequal. Hornborg notes, correctly, that economics as a discipline finds the Marxist accounts wanting. Thus, he wants to develop an alternative metric for measuring the exchanges. It is here that Hornborg turns to ecology and, in specific, the implications of the second law of thermodynamics to propose a thermodynamics of imperialism, i.e. an ecology of unequal exchange.

Central to his argument is the concept of "technomass" which I'll take up in a future post.