Tag Archives: Environment

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?

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.

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.

 

Thoughtbasket Goes Green

Your humble correspondent has recently started writing for Ecopreneurist, a publication focused on clean and green businesses. You can read my first post here.

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.

CEO Council Issues Liberal Recommendations

The Wall Street Journal recently gathered a large group of CEOs together to discuss the top issues facing the country. The broad theme was “How to Rebuild Global Prosperity.” Under that theme were four subsections, and in each subsection a committee of CEOs produced five recommendations. What was fascinating to me was how each set of recommendations matched up with generally liberal positions.

The Energy and the Environment committee recommended:

  • Diversify U.S. energy
  • Promote energy efficiency
  • Cap-and-trade bill
  • Federal plan for electric grid
  • Diversity transportation systems

The Economy and Finance committee recommended:

  • Sustainable job creation
  • Bring back winning spirit in U.S.
  • Build greater certainty
  • Enact global trade pact
  • Tax reform

The Educated Work Force committee recommended:

  • Education is our top priority
  • Council for educated work force
  • Reward effective teaching
  • World-class teacher corps
  • Mobilize parents for change

The Health Care committee recommended:

  • Reform health-payment system
  • Measure health outcomes
  • Hold patients accountable
  • Reform medical malpractice
  • Promote integrated care

I’m not saying that these are a super-liberal set of recommendations. Certainly if Mother Jones or Howard Dean issued a set of recommendations on these topics, they would be different, although there would definitely be some overlap. But if you take the entire set of recommendations, I would say that they match up more closely with the Democratic platform than with the Republican platform. And if you take the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, I’m not sure that they would agree with any of the CEO recommendations.

What does this all mean? That when you get outside of Washington DC, the country isn’t as polarized as the media makes it seem. A collection of the most powerful CEOs in the country comes up with recommendations that are mainstream liberal. The majority of citizens are sitting solidly in the center, and if politicians and pundits would stop acting like jerks – if they would stop, listen and think – then maybe we could actually solve the big problems that our country faces.

Climate Change Threatens US Troops

The NY Times recently reported that the Pentagon has started incorporating global warming into its strategic planning, because the impacts of climate change – drought, rising sea levels, mass migration, new pandemics – will likely pose threats to the United States. Although the Defense Department has long considered energy costs in its planning (sadly, fighter jets don’t come in hybrid versions), the recognition of climate change as threatening US security is relatively new.

When US security is threatened, the military has to plan, and sometimes act. Thus, the Pentagon has some interest in seeing whether global warming can be mitigated. According to retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, “We will pay for this one way or another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives.”

But it’s not just the liberal Times reporting this. Last year National Defense Magazine, which is the publication of the defense industry lobbying association (not exactly cuddly liberals: their motto is “Promoting national security since 1919”), reported the exact same thing last year. Army General Gordon Sullivan called climate change a “threat multiplier,” and Navy Admiral Joe Lopez, foreshadowed General Zinni, saying “National security and the threat of climate change [are] real, and we can pay for it now, or pay even more dearly for it later.”

I agree that fixing climate change will cost us. In fact, as I noted here, that is exactly what cap & trade, or a carbon tax, will do: make energy more expensive and thus incent us to be more efficient. What the Pentagon is saying is that if we don’t pay some dollars now, we’ll end up paying in soldier’s lives later. So maybe some of those Republican politicians who claim to “support our troops” but are against any efforts to stop global warming (I’m talking to you, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and James Inhofe, you hypocrites) ought to revisit their positions.

Even better, maybe the corporate executives who are against any carbon legislation that will hurt their profits, but tend to be Republican and thus pro-troop, will also rethink their position. I’m talking about the National Association of Manufacturers, who use bogus data to claim that cap and trade won’t help the environment, or the energy executives who make up 7 of the top 10 best-paid CEOs in 2008. But those guys don’t really care about the troops, since their sons never join the military. No, those corporate executives care more about profits, so that they can pay their sons’ tuition at Princeton and Harvard Business School. When Admiral Lopez says that we have to pay now in money or pay later in soldiers’ lives, I guess we all know which one the corporate executives are going to choose.

Greed: It’s Not Just For Wall Street

After my last post, full of invective against greed by Wall Street bankers and corporate chiefs, it’s only fair that I mention that we are all guilty of some greed. When President Obama said in his inaugural address that the current financial crisis is a result of “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age,” he wasn’t just talking about Wall Street. “Collective” means all of us, and we all share some blame. Or if not actually “all,” at least most of us.

Most of us were on a consumption binge of one sort or another. Some were buying things they didn’t need, others were buying things they couldn’t afford. The most obvious, and painful, example, is in the housing market. Folks bought more house than they could afford, and often more than they needed, seduced by low teaser rates, or by the chance to get a big win by selling it later. Others bought houses purely as investments, planning to flip them, only to be squeezed by rising mortgage payments and falling housing prices. Some refinanced with foolish mortgages, so they could “take money out of the house” and use the tax-subsidized proceeds to buy consumer products.

But it wasn’t just houses. We bought giant flat screen TVs, charging them to our credit cards. We drove around in monstrous Ford Excursions (financed by the geniuses on Wall Street), burning a gallon of gas every 15 miles. We drank bottled water instead of tap, we carried Coach purses, we stayed at 4 Seasons hotels when our income was purely Hamptons Inn.

While the Wall Street big shots may have taken huge bonuses with our tax dollars, they weren’t the only ones looking for the big score. We all wanted some goodies, whatever our income level. Those days are over. The goodies are nice, if they haven’t been repossessed, but we can’t afford them anymore. We couldn’t afford them then, which is the whole point. The days of living beyond our means are over. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be in yurts, heated only by burning cow manure. It just means that maybe we don’t need to have the biggest and newest, all the time.

Saving the Environment – We All Need to Give

President Obama’s inaugural address has gotten me thinking about responsibility and sacrifice. The President said what we have all known for a long time: that Americans are too profligate – spending money we don’t have, burning energy we can’t afford – and that a day of reckoning would come. In fact, the President made clear that the day of reckoning is here: “our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed.” As a result, I am planning a series of entries on this topic, on the theme of sacrifice. Today’s item: the environment.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (regular readers know I love my WSJ) discussed Cape Wind, which aims to put 130 windmills off the coast of Cape Cod, reducing greenhouse gas emissions an amount equivalent to taking 175,000 cars off the road. A no brainer project, right? Wrong, because the wealthy folks who have their weekend houses on that part of the Cape don’t want their views marred by windmills out on the horizon. They have been protesting the project and putting up legal barriers, enlisting the help of their most powerful neighbor, Teddy Kennedy, whose family has a fabled compound in Hyannisport.

Massachusetts is famously liberal, and based on my two years in Boston, the people who weekend on the Cape would consider themselves environmentalists. They recycle, they install solar power, they drive their Prius to Whole Foods to buy local produce. But when it comes to windmills in their expensive view, suddenly they aren’t so green. This is where they need to listen to our new president and stop protecting their narrow interests. They need to sacrifice a little for the good of the environment.

Broadening the scope of this discussion, if we are going to defeat global warming, everyone is going to have to chip in. The NIMBY (not in my back yard) protests that stall projects like new power lines, or wind farms, are going to have to stop. Of course, nobody wants a giant tower in their back yard, or a windmill right off their front porch. But nobody wants temperatures to go up several degrees either, or ocean levels to rise to a point where Cape Cod weekend houses are under water. Global warming is a major problem that affects everybody, and we are all going to have to sacrifice a little – give up our SUV, or allow windmills near our weekend house – if we are going to solve it. As theologian Sallie McFague put in her new book regarding climate change, “either we will all make it together or none of us will.”