Tag Archives: consumption

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?

Spending Too Much on Brand Names; BMW, Coach, etc.

Interesting that it’s a car webzine (thetruthaboutcars.com) that has written the best commentary I’ve seen on the trend of the past few years in which young people have been spending well beyond their means on brand-name cars, purses, clothes and other consumer products. There was a time when buying a BMW, or an Armani suit, or $1,000 purses and shoes, was something done by people in their 40’s and 50’s, who had been well paid for decades. Now 25 year olds PR account executives making $40,000 are buying Jimmy Choos and putting them on their credit cards. Or as the article says, a few years ago “the idea of spending four figures on a handbag when one worked at an entry-level white collar job would have been seen as irresponsible and reckless at worst, crass at best.” The pre-financial crisis debt binge wasn’t just about mortgages. People were overspending on all kinds of goods, and they still are.

Luck Drives Pop Music AND Wealth?

Yesterday’s Baseline Scenario (one of my favorite blogs) had an entry describing an academic paper which modeled how income gets distributed in a society and why income inequality is so strong in some economies. Based on the abstract of the paper, and on Baseline’s summary of the rest of the paper (yes, I am admitting that I did not read the whole paper), the model shows that a set of homogenous homes will diverge in wealth, with wealth accumulating over time in fewer and fewer households, based purely on exposure to “idiosyncratic investments” which have higher returns. And in this model, exposure to these investments is random: based on luck.

Clearly this paper is not the be all and end all of explanations. Equally clearly, the assumption of homogeneity does not match reality. What I want to point out here is the connection to Duncan Watt‘s work on the development of hit pop songs, which he shows is also based on luck. Please see my posts here and here regarding Watts.

It’s interesting that two different approaches to modeling two different things come to such similar conclusions: the distribution of success is essentially driven by luck, not skill. Again, these are models, not complete explanations. I, for one, would certainly like to think that my skill will lead to success. However, judging by my reader counts, that may not be the case. Regardless, I think it’s important for us all to remember the role that luck plays in much of what we do.

The Myth of the “Job Creator”

A key Republican talking point is that the wealthy are “job creators” and that any tax on these job creators will cause them to fold their cards and go home, hurting the economy in the process. This is clearly ridiculous, and I have challenged before the concept that tax rates diminish incentives to build companies, but here is a great essay from an entrepreneur and investor (a successful one — he is clearly in the 1%) describing how people don’t create jobs, the economy does. And the economy is made up of regular folks — the 99% — who need to buy the products produced by the entrepreneurs. Without a successful consumer class, nobody will be a job creator.

Cupcakes Anyone? Yes, Please!

As long as we are talking about bubbles (which I did here and here and here), I should note that some people also think we are in a cupcake bubble (like this person and this person and even this person). I can’t disagree; here in SF there are three cupcakeries in just a 10 block area, each selling pretty much identical over-priced cupcakes with too much frosting.

And yet, there is something special about a cupcake. Look at this photo (taken by me, in case you thought I was just a pretty writer):

The cupcake trailer, in Austin TX

Seriously, how fun does that cupcake look? Really fun. And that, I think, is the key to the cupcake’s success. They are so little and whimsical and colorful that you can’t help but smile when you see them. Most important, they have that dollop of frosting on top. Of course it’s too much, and too sweet, but it looks like a swirly party hat, a pastel pillow of creamy goodness that you could jump right into. No wonder you can’t resist a cupcake on your plate.

When you see a full cake, it looks delicious, but also kind of serious, maybe even intimidating. You have to slice it, and share it, and then probably store what you didn’t finish, and then you have the pressure to keep eating the leftovers so that you can finish them before they start to get hard and crusty in the refrigerator. A cupcake, on the other hand, has none of those difficulties. No slicing, no leftovers, no pressure. Just pop it in your mouth (one, two or three bites…it’s up to you) and be transported back to your childhood.

So yes, there is definitely a bubble in cupcake bakeries, but the cupcakes themselves will continue to crowd out cakes, as long as we prefer fun to dour in our desserts made out of flour.

 

Humans Might Actually Like Taxes

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article by Jonah Lehrer asking whether humans might not be as averse to paying taxes as our political discussion currently assumes. He describes a study by scientists at Caltech which showed that people dislike inequality. Study participants were put into scanners, and the pleasure areas of their brains lit up more when money was given to others than when money was given to them. This was especially true of those who had started the study “rich,” which was determined by random assignment. Following this study to its logical conclusion, perhaps people who are well off might not be as unhappy as politicians seem to think about paying higher taxes to help the less fortunate.

However, Lehrer points out that the random assignment of riches skews the study. Other studies have shown that this altruism effect is less powerful when the rich feel that their wealth is earned. When we bring this back to politics and tax rates it opens a whole can of worms. What is “earned” in a society where massive advantages (not just wealth) are passed down through the generations? I won’t open that can of worms here, but point you to this post from last year on some of the challenges of “earning” wealth for the lower classes.

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.

 

Mother Nature vs. Capitalism

I was recently reading a transcript of a speech that theologian Sallie McFague gave on religion and ecology. In the speech McFague works her usual metaphor magic, discussing how language drives thought, and thought drives actions. Specifically, she called for a reimaging of the Christian worldview, from one in which the world is seen as a thing, a machine in which humans live, to one in which the world and the humans therein are seen as shared parts of a holistic body of God. This view – “that the world is from the beginning loved by God and is a reflection of the divine” – would forefront the inherent value of the environment and the religious importance of its conservation.

Interestingly, McFague claims that this reimaging is not new, but instead a return to a traditional worldview, held by Christians and non-Christians alike. The concept of earth as machine, she claims, “is an anomaly in human history, for until the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the earth was assumed to be alive, even as we are.” McFague is not calling for a return to pre-scientific thinking, in which we must appease tree spirits and illnesses are caused by foul humours (although the current use of medicinal leeches is totally cool), but rather a recognition that all of creation is equally part of God.

For McFague, the culprit is less the scientific revolution than the drive toward individualist consumption that the market economy has engendered. Consumption of goods is linked to consumption of the earth’s resources.

“From the time of Aristotle to the eighteenth century, economics was considered a subdivision of ethics; the good life was understood to be based on such values s the common good, justice, and limits. Having substituted the insatiable greed of market capitalism in place of these values, we are now without the means to make the qualitative shift in thinking that is required.”

While I would not be inclined to say “insatiable greed,” there is no question that a market economy is inherently consumptive and that it drives people to focus on the individual rather than the common good. McFague would have us work within the current system, but temper its impact on our behavior by changing how we think and speak about the world.

To McFague’s argument from metaphor I would only add that it’s not nice to fool mother nature.

Convenience Consumption, Part 2

Just a few days after finishing my entry on convenience consumption I read in The Atlantic a great article by Virginia Postrel on what she termed “inconspicuous consumption.” She explores the works of several economists who show that spending on visible consumption goes up as neighborhood income goes down. In other words, people in poor neighborhoods are more likely to buy flashy cars and watches than people in wealthy neighborhoods.

Postrel notes that when Veblen was writing in 1899, America was a much poorer country than it is now, so the wealthy wanted to show off. But now, the wealthy have already established themselves, so it’s the better off among the poor who engage in the most conspicuous consumption. She quotes Euromonitor:

“Bling rules in emerging economies still eager to travel the status-through-product consumption road….[but] bling isn’t enough for growing numbers of consumers in developed economies.”

This plays right into my thesis of convenience consumption. The upper class no longer needs to display its wealth, so it displays its importance, as measured by convenience. Gaudy bling has been left to the hoi polloi while the upper class focuses on Fiji water and packaged meals from Whole Foods.