Category Archives: Environment

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Emerging Diseases and Forest Fires

I have been interested in emerging diseases ever since reading The Hot Zone by Richard Preston, which was so intense that it kept me awake during an entire overnight train ride from Boston to Washington DC. So I was very psyched at Christmas to receive a copy of Spillover by David Quammen. I just finished it, and know a lot more now about how diseases jump from animals to humans.

Scary cover, great book!

Scary cover, great book!

Quammen uses the book to explore theories about why there seem to be more frequent incidents of humans being infected by animal diseases (think SARS, Ebola, Hendra, Avian Flu, etc.). One of the theories he discusses concerns how increased human development is breaking up large contiguous ecosytems into smaller ecosystems separated by cities, farms, etc.

For example, a large forest might be full of bats that could be carriers of some nasty virus. This forest contains metapopulation of bats, or a series of smaller populations that meet and mingle at their edges. In a metapopulation an infection is likely to be constantly present, but at a low level of incidence. If each smaller population becomes isolated, however, that population will likely go through a boom and bust cycle of infection, with periodic epidemics infecting most members of the population.

If that highly infected population runs into humans, there is increased likelihood of the infection passing to the humans. In other words, if 90% of bats are infected, then there is a higher probability of bats passing their disease to humans than if only 10% of bats are infected.

As development has broken up formerly vast forests into smaller forest segments surrounded by cities and suburbs, we have seen metapopulations of natural disease reservoirs (bats, rats, mice, etc.) broken up into the isolated populations that are more likely to transfer diseases. Hence the increasing number of obscure infections jumping into humans.

What struck me about this theory is the parallel to forest fires. Current wildfire thinking holds that if you put out wildfires, fuel loads will build up and eventually you will get a catastrophic fire that can’t be controlled (like the 2002 Biscuit Fire in Oregon, which burned nearly 500,000 acres; I drove through the edge of that fire, and the smoke turned day into night). But if you let natural fires burn, they will clear out the fuel load and not turn into conflagrations.

So you can have small, more frequent fires, or rare, catastrophic fires. Much like you can have frequent, low levels of infection in your animals, or rare, but massive levels of infection. And in both cases, human intervention in the environment is what moves things from low-level balance to a high-level cyclic system.

Bad Driving, Google Edition

My series of posts about double parking gets to intersect today with a trend getting some recent publicity: tech companies using private buses to drive their employees from San Francisco down to Silicon Valley.

You can read more about these buses here, here and here. There is a little controversy around these buses: on the one hand, they are clearly more environmentally friendly than having everyone drive their own cars. On the other hand, they are pretty freaking big, and often drive on city streets that aren’t designed for vehicles that large. Moreover, they use stops that are designated for city buses, and then the city buses don’t have room to stop.

Moreover, and this is my pet peeve, they don’t even pull all the way over into those stops. The photo below is of a private bus on Lombard Street, clearly not pulling into its stop and clearly blocking a lane of traffic. I don’t actually know which company’s bus this is; they tend to hide their affiliations, except for the Genentech buses, which are festooned with Genenetech logos, and which often do exactly what is pictured here, in the same exact spot.

Google bus blocking traffic

Google bus blocking traffic

In addition to their clogging up of city streets, I am a little torn on the private buses. I appreciate their greenness, but I wonder if the buses didn’t exist, then maybe a lot of these people would move out of the city and to Silicon Valley, closer to their work. Should we really enable people to live far away, rather than supporting a denser work-home nexus?

Ozone Pollution More Dangerous than Previously Thought?

We’ve all heard about the ozone layer, but I reckon that most people know very little about ozone. I knew pretty much nothing about it until I read an article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research which tied ozone levels to reduced worker productivity.

It turns out that ozone is a molecule consisting of three oxygen atoms. It also turns out that ozone is known to cause respiratory problems. It is chock full of free radicals, and ozone doesn’t react well with cells in your lungs. Yuck. Health organizations (EPA, WHO, etc.) set exposure standards levels that should prevent long term effects. Of course, those standards are based on the science at the time of promulgation, and science can change, as is true for all health regulations.

However, as the NBER article shows, sometimes economics can reveal patterns that medicine doesn’t. Economists from UCSD and Columbia studied ozone levels in California’s central valley (a huge farming area) and compared those levels to farmworker productivity. It turns out that increased ozone levels are correlated to decreased productivity. Moreover, this productivity impact happens at levels well below the federal safety standards. So maybe the standards are wrong, and ozone is more toxic than people think.

I admit that this study is a little on the Freakonomics side of things: it runs a regression, sees a correlation and assumes causality. I have been critical of Freakonomics in the past (although not on this blog), because I don’t think you can just regress a boatload of data and then decide that you know why result A happened. There could be all kinds of other factors at play in this data; for example, maybe ozone levels are high when the weather is really hot, and farmworker productivity was down because of the heat, not because of the ozone at all. Hopefully the economists doing the study adjusted for that sort of thing, since zeroing out the noise of exogenous variable is a standard procedure in studies like this, but the article doesn’t say. Any way you look at it, this certainly is an interesting correlation that could bear further study.

As an aside, here is a critique of Freakonomics from the American Scientist; they are more qualified than I am.

Ranchers to City Folk: Screw You

According to a recent WSJ article, each year ranchers from throughout the middle of the country take their cattle to Kansas to feed on the lush prairie grass that grows during the summer. As is often the case in plains and prairies, the grass is only lush if they burn out the brush, which the ranchers do each spring. This sends smoke with the wind, which sometimes takes the smoke to Wichita or Kansas City. As a consequence, those cities sometimes violate EPA clean air standards.

The EPA is trying to work with the ranchers on a way to avoid having their smoke drift over populated areas, primarily by only burning when the winds are travelling in the other direction. But the EPA is threatening stronger measures if the voluntary methods don’t work.

The ranchers are pushing back. They don’t want to change their ways. Why? Because it will cost them money. They are valuing their income above the health of strangers. Lots of strangers. Kansas City has more than 2,000,000 inhabitants.

Rancher Mike Collinge says “People in Wichita and Kansas City, they’ll complain a little. So will my wife. But I don’t think it’s causing huge air-quality problems.” He doesn’t think it’s causing problems. Of course, he doesn’t live in Wichita or Kansas City. He has no idea what it’s really like there. What he thinks is completely contrary to what the scientists say. That is what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” In other words, and appropriate to this post, BS.

According to the article, the burning and subsequent lush grass gets ranchers about $40 more per head of cattle. Depending on how much cattle you have, of course that could add up. But let’s put it into context. The current market price for beef cattle is about $110 per 100 pounds. It’s unclear why they quote cattle prices in hundredweight and meat prices per pound, but that’s how it’s done. An average cow weighs about 1,200 pounds, which means it’s worth $1,320. That $40 savings is 3% of $1,320.

So these ranchers are willing to risk the health of millions of people, just to increase their income by 3%. That’s nice. Apparently the cowman and the farmer can’t be friends.

Are Businessmen Evil?

Jane Mayer’s article in the New Yorker about David Koch and his brother Charles and their massive funding of right wing political causes is an absolute must read. Regardless of political leaning, I think everyone should be disturbed by the ability of two incredibly wealthy men to so powerfully affect the political discourse in our society, and to do so anonymously.

But the article also made me think about how the Kochs and other businessmen are so determined to lobby government to support “free enterprise,” or at least to quash regulations that might hurt their business. The article discusses how the Kochs are using the same strategy on global warming – fund enough junk science to convince people that there is no scientific consensus – which the tobacco companies used so effectively to stall regulation of nicotine.

The issue I’m contemplating is not one of maximizing profits, but a broader moral issue. What makes a CEO who knows his product is harmful fight so hard against regulation? Does he take his fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder profits that seriously? Is he so focused on his own compensation that he doesn’t care what health problems he causes? The Kochs are nutjob John Birchers, so I expect them to screw over the world, but what about all the other CEOs? What about those who are fighting against environmental regulations even though they know that the global warming science is solid? Or Wall Street CEOs fighting against regulations when they know that their companies caused the financial meltdown? Or coal mining CEOs fighting safety regulation after an explosion in their mine killed 29 workers?

Look, I’m not anti-business. To the contrary, I am solidly pro-business. I’ve worked at companies, I’ve started companies, I consult to companies. My whole life is built on business. I understand the profit motive. What I don’t understand is the willingness to screw over the public in order to make more money. These CEOs would never in a million years think it was OK to stab a man and steal his wallet, but they have no problem poisoning him with industrial waste in order to save money. When do these people have enough? Where is their sense of human decency?

Green Movement Drives Innovation in Materials

The West Coast Green conference took place in San Francisco last week, featuring three days of speakers and panels and over 300 exhibitors on the trade show floor. The conference tag line was “green innovation for the built environment.” In other words, a focus on new approaches to green buildings.

One of the themes that emerged from the show was a profusion of new materials, or new uses for old materials. The green movement seems to be spurring tremendous innovation and creativity in the area of “stuff:” stuff for filling, for coating or for building. This innovation usually operates in one (or more) of three green dimensions:

  • The material itself is more environmentally friendly;
  • The material makes a building more energy efficient; or
  • The material lasts longer, and so over time a building requires less resources.

Some of the materials at West Coast Green were fairly high tech, like the coatings produced by Evolution Surfaces. These coatings use nano-particles to protect surfaces from moisture, mold, UV or other assaults. The nanocoatings are biodegradable and last longer. Also in the high tech world were the foams produced by NCFI Polyurethane. These foams provide the insulating power of fiberglass while providing an airtight barrier, making a home more energy efficient. Rinoshield’s ceramic encapsulated paint and Timbertech’s plastic decking boards were other high tech materials.

A medium tech approach used by some innovators was to apply technology in order to recycle existing waste materials. For example, Nyloboard takes old carpet fibers, processes them and applies a resin to create a water, rot and termite resistant faux-wood for decks. Icestone makes a kitchen counter material out of recycled glass and concrete.

Finally, there were folks who were taking existing materials and reusing them in innovative ways. Restoration Timber takes wood from old barns and other buildings and repurposes it into flooring and paneling. Oregon Shepherd and Bellwether Materials are both taking the wool from sheep that is currently discarded (90% of the total amount sheared!) and using it as building insulation to replace fiberglass.

In all of the examples above (and plenty more not mentioned), entrepreneurs were focused not on solar, water purification and the other usual suspects of green building, but on the mundane stuff of which buildings are made. Even here, the market opportunity of green is driving innovation.