Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Nation's Extra Fat Requires Nearly One Billion Extra Gallons of Gas Guzzled Per Year

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A sign of the times, to be sure.
Non-commercial U.S. vehicles are using at least 938 million more gallons of gasoline annually than they did in 1960 because drivers and passengers are considerably heavier and are dragging down fuel economy, says a University of Illinois study to be published in The Engineering Economist.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Either Let Me Have a Pumice Mine Next to this National Monument or Give Me $203 million: Property Rights Initiatives Threaten Western States

I highly recommend reading this Grist article by Dan Whipple on how mostly-absurd property rights initiatives in four states, backed by Libertarian front groups and property rights zealots, are threatening land use and environmental protections. These initiatives are based on the now-infamous Measure 37 that passed in Oregon in 2004, and is already wreaking havoc on people's properties, government budgets, environmental protections, and land management.

The long and short of this issue is that the aforementioned property rights zealots are trying to capitalize on whatever national furor exists over Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court's landmark 2005 decision defending the Connecticut city's use of eminent domain to take over private houses in order to develop commercial property, to demonize all land-use regulations. They want these crazy initiatives passed that
would require taxpayers to pay landowners if a zoning rule or environmental law reduces the speculative value of their property. In some places, if a government couldn't pay, it would have to waive rules that limit what, or where, a landowner may build. [Grist]
They have been dubbed "takings" initiatives, because property rights zealots see almost any regulation of what they can do on their property to be "taking" value from them. But the essential flaw of this position is best articulated by David Goldberg of Smart Growth America:
"These takings initiatives say that when you change a regulation and it reduces the speculative value of my property, you have to pay that," Goldberg says. "The absurdity of it becomes clear when you look at the inverse: if you change a regulation that increases the value of my property, I owe [the government] the total amount of the profit."

Of course, no one's filing a claim in Oregon under the latter principle. [Grist]
Proponents of these initiatives either fail to see or are intentionally ignoring the fact that land-use regulations also increase property value. Herein lies the classic conservative fallacy of detesting government intervention only if it hurts their pocketbooks. But if government creates a public good that raises the value of their property, they'll be the first to piggyback on it.

Where do initiatives like this lead? We can already see the negative effects of Measure 37 (see "wreaking havoc" link above):
Since Measure 37 passed there, nearly 3,000 claims have been filed for compensation, totaling more than $5 billion, according to Portland State University's Measure 37 database. The most notorious of these claims, which was profiled in The New York Times, is for $203 million for a parcel of private property that's surrounded by the Newberry National Volcanic Monument. The owner of the property wants to be compensated for a pumice mine and power plant that he can't build. [Grist - link added]
If you know someone in California, Idaho, Arizona, or especially Washington, make sure they know about this issue. If these measures pass they will spell trouble for local governments (think billions of dollars of compensations), community development, and environmental protections. We need to make sure we don't sacrifice the public good on the pyre of private profit.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Long Time Coming: Muhammad Yunus and the Nobel Prize

Cross-post: Daily Kos

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It's been a long time coming for Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.  I would venture to say that many people who knew about Mr. Yunus's work felt that it was only a matter of time before the Grameen Bank founder and microcredit pioneer became a Nobel Laureate.  He had already received numerous other awards, including the the 1994 World Food Prize, the 1998 Sydney (AUS) Peace Prize, the 2006 Seoul Peace Prize, and many other awards (listed on his Wikipedia entry).

I traveled to Bangladesh a few years ago as part of a one-month research program that split time between Dhaka, the capital city, and a rural village.  In the village we witnessed first-hand the involvement of Grameen Bank and other microfinance NGOs such as Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).  It wasn't perfect.  One villager we talked with was deep in debt with a high interest rate from a loan he used to refurbish his small home's roof and pay for his son's wedding (non-capital expenses).  There were also some reports of husbands taking over the decision-making process from their wives once the loan payments had been handed out.  But overall the presence of Grameen Bank seemed to be a huge asset to the village's community development prospects.

From the meetings we attended, we found out that over 90% of participants met their installment payments.  It was inspiring to see women taking charge, scrutinizing their ledger books and conversing with the loan officer.  We talked to villagers who bought animals, improved their crop production, or did other useful things with their loans.  Mr. Yunus's legacy was alive in the small sense of control the villagers who took part in microcredit programs had to improve their well-being.

The promise of this legacy made it no shocker that Mr. Yunus was thus honored.  The somewhat surprising thing is not that he and his organization won a Nobel Prize, but that he won the Peace Prize, instead of the Prize for Economics: surprising, not in the sense that he did not deserve the Peace award (I think he did), but that economics is the primary avenue of his work, though it has important ripple effects in women's empowerment, community development, democracy, health, and peace throughout the developing world.  A Nobel Prize in Economics would have better amplified the notion that small-scale, grassroots-based programs are more effective and more democratic in alleviating poverty than large-scale "structural adjustment"-type programs commonly implemented by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

As this BBC article notes, the face of the Nobel Peace Prize has been changing in recent years to include possible candidates who are not directly involved in peace work, but whose actions still indirectly help bring about peace and empowerment.  One example is Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Laureate from Kenya, whose work involved human rights and equality but primarily concerned environmental stewardship.  Making the connection between sustainability and peace is vital, and Maathai's recognition is a valuable example of this.

Mr. Yunus and Grameen Bank certainly qualify under this broadened window of the Peace Prize.  But his work's value is that it provides a new economic model for the developing world.  Granted, the Prize in Economics, sponsored by the Bank of Sweden, seems more targeted towards scholars, its criteria certainly fit Mr. Yunus's contributions:
When considering what should be regarded as a "worthy" contribution, it is probably correct to say that the selection Committee has looked, in particular, at the originality of the contribution, its scientific and practical importance, and its impact on scientific work. (Source)
He didn't achieve recognition by writing a seminal journal article, but what better example is there of originality and practical importance than Mr. Yunus's work?  This is probably why Mr. Yunus has "more than once [been] recommended for the Nobel Prize for peace or economics" (Source).

The most important thing, however, was that Mr. Yunus finally received the award he deserved, which will not only further support his microfinance programs (He plans to use at least some of the cash award "to 'find more innovative ways' to help the poor launch businesses [Source: original BBC article].), but will also raise the international profile of microfinance and its role in improving the lives of millions of people around the world.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Michele Bachmann Unaware It's 2006

Ha ha! Michele Bachmann, right-wing extremist fighting Patty Wetterling in Minnesota's 6th Congressional District, gets laughed at by a debate audience for denying the existence of global warming.

This is the same anti-gay Michele Bachmann who was photographed watching a gay rights rally, hiding behind some bushes at the Minnesota State Capital (see #9).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Fallacy of Inevitability in Energy Demand

Cross-post: Daily Kos

One of the more fallacious assumptions of our energy discourse is that our excessive energy consumption is inevitable. A corollary of this assumption – that demand-side solutions to impending energy crises are of no more than secondary importance – has led the discourse to an undue bias towards supply-side mitigations that carry with them negative connotations for sustainability, environmental protection, and national security.

I must admit that I have been surprised how much support two of these mitigations – coal gasification and nuclear power – have received on Daily Kos. It’s not that I expect everyone to agree with me that these two mitigations and others should be avoided as much as possible in our effort to right our energy ship. Nor do I think each is devoid of any positive aspects. It’s just that I tend to subconsciously (and perhaps unduly) associate them with what I call develop-at-all-costs conservatives: those that put extraction of resources ahead of other innovative ideas (usually to please their energy industry donors). But that is beside the point.

Of course, I agree that we should have an honest debate about each supply-side mitigation, whether it be in the realm of transportation or electricity generation, as to its feasibility, scale, upsides, and downsides. Such a debate, however, should be subsumed by a broader discourse about our level of energy demand in general. Our current level of energy use is certainly not inevitable. If we were to commit to using less energy, then it would be much less stressful to think about how we will be able to supply that energy in the future.

As of the present moment, many Americans talk as if we cannot help but use the amount of energy we use, which turns out to be around 8,000 kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person per year (according to the World Resources Institute [2001 figures]), much more than double that of Europe (3,600), and nearly double the average for developed countries (4,600). The trick to convincing oneself of this compulsion is to make it a condition of the modern lifestyle and all its conveniences. “If we don’t build more nuclear plants,” an extreme argument goes, “then we’ll all be sitting naked in trees eating nuts and leaves.” But just because we can be grateful to a cheap, constant flow of energy for important contributors to our well-being, such as advanced health care or computers and the internet, doesn’t mean that we must acquiesce to the monumental task of having to supply the ravenous future energy demand indicated by projections. We can and should use less energy, while at the same time making massive investments in renewable energy until it supplies the vast majority of all of our energy demands.

In short, I feel that with enough knowledge, innovation, and effort, a threefold plan consisting only of conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy can solve our impending energy crises. But here I am digressing a bit into a corollary of my own. This post is to focus on the fact that we don’t need to use so much energy.

Consider the familiar punching bag of suburbia. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that our built environment would be developed that way, so it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that we would have to use so much oil for suburban transportation. Market conservatives like to contend that the suburbs are the epitome of efficiency, because they represent what the housing market has generally dictated over the last sixty years, but they mean “economic efficiency” (a contention I doubt anyway). In terms of energy efficiency the suburbs perform abysmally, and they are a major reason why we’re heading towards such a mess in the near future. Sure, the booming post-WWII population needed somewhere to live, and the emerging middle class needed places to call their own, but their living spaces didn’t need to be constructed in such a fossil-fuel-dependent manner.

The U.S.’s current energy demand is certainly not a necessary condition of a high quality of life. Several countries use much less energy per capita than the United States yet have better quality-of-life rankings. Norway (5,921 kgoe per person per year), Ireland (3,876), Switzerland (3,906), Australia (5,975), and Sweden (5,762) all rank higher than the U.S. in both the UN Human Development Index of Most and Least Livable Countries and The Economist’s 2005 quality-of-life index (PDF). I’m not trying to say these countries are “better than” the U.S. – I would rather live here than anywhere else in the world – just that they can generally live well using less energy per capita.

A couple weeks ago I satisfied a growing interest to learn more about American architecture by picking up a couple books from my local library. One is entitled Architecture and Energy by Richard Stein, which can be visualized as an excellent and comprehensive predecessor to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. Indeed, Stein himself was known as a pioneer in energy-conserving architecture. Though written in 1977, in the midst of the 1970s energy crises, I was impressed by how relevant it still is today.

One paragraph, in particular, has so many uncanny parallels to today that I will digress from my argument in order to cite it here. (I was going to intersperse today’s parallels in brackets, but I decided that it would disrupt the flow of the excerpt, and I’m sure readers will be able to point them out.)
The attacks by the oil industry on environmentalists and environmental controls as the reason for the shortages has been carefully organized and has had some success in speeding through federal authorization of the Alaska North Slope oil development and pipeline. There is now mounting industry pressure for access to the continental shelf off New England. There has even been a counterattack by the oil companies in defense of their inordinate profits…on the grounds of their being in the realm of public welfare, since these profits gave the companies the possibility of more rapid expansion of their productive capacity. Continental Oil, whose former chairman, John McLean, had been the most articulate voice of the petroleum industry for the removal of restrictions as the basis for the petroleum industry’s growth, recorded profits for the first six months of 1974 as $209,601 million as compared with $99,180 million in 1973. (p. 18)
Though referring to a different time period, Stein’s discussion of a disconnect between profligate energy usage and quality of life very much applies to our generation’s energy situation.
Twenty-five years ago, or about 1950, when we were beginning to fill our housing and other building needs, we were satisfying our national requirements with one sixth of the amount of electrical energy we now use and less than half of today’s total energy expenditure. Since then, our population has increased by about 45 per cent, while our use of electrical energy has increased by 600 per cent and our total consumption by 250 per cent. If there had been a dramatic improvement in the quality of life proportionate to the per capita increase in energy use and if the perspective for the future was for an endless extension of that improvement – assuming endless reserves – there would be no reason to characterize our present condition as a crisis. However, if we discover that we are only doing things differently and that a good part of our effort merely corrects or offsets the damaging byproducts of these processes, then we are truly in a crisis of the gravest sort.
Stein's book provides a shining example in our nation's buildings of how we waste energy. Even today we could retain the function and modern amenities of buildings while drastically reducing their energy usage. At this point, I will highly recommend that those unfamiliar with the U.S. Green Building Council to visit their website.

It is important to keep in mind that there is a middle ground between Luddism and gluttony on the energy demand spectrum. The cursory statistics I provided above on selected countries’ energy demand and quality of life lend support to a hypothesis that more and more energy use provides, at best, diminishing returns on our well-being, and, at worst, increasing deficits.

A claim that we "need" to extract and burn the equivalent of x amount of BTUs depends on the assumption that it is not worth conserving x BTUs, or that it is better than generating x BTUs with renewable energy. Future discussions on energy should take this truth into account and ask how much we value the higher elevations of our energy demand. Do we value them so much that we are willing to put aside the many caveats of nuclear power or coal gasification (to name just two mitigations) and mischaracterize them as inevitable? I hope that this is not the case.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Happy Columbus Day Indigenous Peoples Day

He didn't discover America. He wasn't even the first European to sail to America. He was 2000 years removed from being the first to think the Earth was a sphere.
The aim [of Columbus's second expedition] was clear: slaves and gold. They went from island to island in the Caribbean, taking Indians as captives. But as word spread of the Europeans' intent they found more and more empty villages. On Haiti, they found that the sailors left behind at Fort Navidad [Columbus's first military settlement] had been killed in a battle with the Indians, after they had roamed the island in gangs looking for gold, taking women and children as slaves for sex and labor.

Now, from his base on Haiti, Columbus sent expedition after expedition into the interior. They found no gold fields, but had to fill up the ships returning to Spain with some kind of dividend. In the year 1495, they went on a great slave raid, rounded up fifteen hundred Arawak men, women, and children, put them in pens guarded by Spaniards and dogs, then picked the five hundred best specimens to load onto ships. Of those five hundred, two hundred died en route. The rest arrived alive in Spain and were put up for sale by the archdeacon of the town...Columbus later wrote: "Lut us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold."

But too many of the slaves died in captivity. And so Columbus, desperate to pay back dividends to those who had invested, had to make good his promise to fill the ships with gold. In the province of Cicao on Haiti, where he and his men imagined huge gold fields to exist, they ordered all persons fourteen years or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months. When they brought it, they were given copper tokens to hang around their necks. Indians found without a copper token had their hands cut off and bled to death.

The Indians had been given an impossible task. They only gold around was bits of dust garnered from the streams. So they fled, were hunted down with dogs, and were killed.

Trying to put together an army of resistance, the Arawaks faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.

When it became clear that there was no gold left, the Indians were taken as slave labor on huge estates, known later as encomiendas. They were worked at a ferocious pace, and died by the thousands. By the year 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand Indians left. By 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island. (Zinn, A People's History of the United States, pp. 4-5)
Columbus, of all people, should not have a holiday in honor of him.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

North Korea Apparently Conducts Nuclear Test

This is not good news at all. North Korea is now claiming they have conducted a test of a nuclear weapon.
A South Korean official said an explosion had been detected in the north-east of North Korea, measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale.
It seems all but confirmed at this point.

Monday will see a lot of scrambling and speculation. The issue of how this will help or hurt the Bush administration is already being discussed. Potential reactions from other east Asian countries are already being hypothesized. These important discussions should not detract from the possible environmental consequences of an underground nuclear test, if it did, in fact, occur. study...found that North Korea's shallow ground water table would make it very difficult for an underground test to be carried out without polluting the country's water system.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Tiger Stripes are Mightier than Pinstripes

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images, from Yahoo! Photo Gallery)

Major League Baseball today is hardly the closest thing to perfection, to paraphrase Red Smith: steroids, salaries that net some players more money per game than I've made all year, encroaching and innocence-stifling commercialism, and the Yankees getting away with a $200 million payroll few other markets could support.

Included in this $200 million was "Murderers' Row and Cano," quite possibly the best lineup ever assembled outside of an All-Star Game, which the Yankees trotted out for their "sure thing" quick dispatch of the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS. Oh, how the analysts gushed that nothing would stop the Bronx Bombers.

Yet for all its imperfections baseball still gives you an overwhelming reason to smile every once in a while: the Tigers players engaged in the coolest celebration I've ever seen on a baseball field - scattered along the track, spraying overjoyed fans with champagne, fans that had endured the Tigers' 19-year playoff drought, their 13-year winning season drought, and their 119-loss season only three years ago. Kenny Rogers, Game 3's hero, even saved one champagne bottle for a police officer standing on the Tigers dugout (after, no doubt, confirming that he wouldn't be arrested). (The cop smiled and hugged Rogers.)

The refreshing thing about the postseason is that it is the best check on the barreling inertia of the Yankees' battleship. They can buy their way in with little anxiety, but once you get to a best-of-five series, anything can happen. "Anything" was the hundred MPH dominance of Joel Zumaya in Game 2, the perfectly-located junk of Rogers in Game 3, and Jeremy Bonderman taking a perfect game into the 6th inning in tonight's clincher, an 8-3 Detroit victory.

Now the lot of us die-hard baseball fans can watch the rest of October baseball with a relative peace of mind, knowing the Evil Empire has been sent golfing by a Tigers team that you cannot help but love.

I even saw Jim Leyland smile. :)