Wednesday, June 29, 2011

peak oil...continued...

In the book I write about peak oil and its consequences.  I just met an executive of an oil company at a book reading I did for The Failure of Environmental Education in Crested Butte.  His strong position:  there is ALWAYS more very low quality oil to be extracted (which becomes economically tenable when the price of easily extractable oil goes up as it dries up), and there is a LOT of coal.  He sees NO shortage of carbon.  Yes, it's going to cost more.  Yes, it's going to be messy.  But we're not going to run out.  He also believes that we shouldn't burn it all because of the environmental consequences.  He said that oil people know all about climate change and that he was fully in support of carbon taxes.  He (like me) believe that cap-and-trade would just make people on Wall Street rich and that progressive carbon taxes (higher taxes for lower grade, more polluting oil/coal) would be a reasonable disincentive for carbon extraction and emission.  I think such a tax would stimulate the development of carbon alternatives.

The one thing that I didn't discuss with him was properly pricing the externalities associated with low-quality carbon production...which would make extraction of low quality carbon even MORE expensive.

Interesting conversation!

Organic, healthy, and humane animals

The Crested Butte Sunday farmer's market has several local ranchers selling free-range, organic, and humanely raised animals at very competitive prices.  I need to ask them about how they're slaughtered and butchered, but superficially, everything, including the pork, looks very well-raised and cared for.  One of them only sells at the farmer's market and directly from their farm.  The other does not sell to stores.  This is too bad.  At my local Whole Foods in LA, these products would cost at least twice the price.  Why?  Clearly, these small farmers are doing well by paying careful attention to their animals.  Why can't more producers do this?  

I'm eating little meat these days but will probably buy some of this to try it out and to support folks who are treating their animals and their land with respect.  I wish they shipped to LA.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Sausage in red wine

I've been eating beans and vegetables and a bit of cheese since coming to Colorado.  Thus, a pasta with sausage dinner the other night with friends was a bit unexpected.  The whole sausages (pork and chicken) were cooked first in red wine (Spanish style) and then added to the pasta sauce.  I could not stop eating them and ate three...they were absolutely delicious and I'm going to cook all my sausage in red wine from now on.

When I serve sausage as a tapas (see book), I cut them into little pieces and stick a toothpick into each of them.  I find it is a form of consumption control that encourages us to enjoy meat as a flavorful condiment. 

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The consequences of a nuclear free Germany

My UCLA colleague Ann Carlson writing in the Legal Planet environmental blog noted that if Germany eliminates nuclear power they will not meet their 2020 greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Read Ann's OpEd, and then discuss the following.

How do you value the suspected and expected global risks and consequences of increased carbon in the atmosphere versus the risks of a nuclear meltdown, nuclear terrorism, and the problems of storing wastes for a long time?

Don't like how I've framed the question?  Discuss a future that doesn't rely much on carbon and doesn't rely on uranium-based nuclear fission.  What do we need to get there?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Does development stimulate cooperation?

A common assumption is that development is good because with longevity comes care for the future.  Tim Flannery makes this point in his recent book, Here on Earth:  A Natural History of the Planet.  He argues that future discounting, the propensity to take what you can get now, even when offered that plus some interest at some point in the future, is more common in the poor, and disenfranchised who have a relatively lesser chance of living to the future and actually getting that interest.  Thus, by helping the poor, the sick and those without, we increase the population size of those that should care about taking care of the Earth. 

Indeed, what’s called the ‘demographic transition’--where a society goes from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates—is associated with a suite of development-related traits—education (particularly for women), increased life expectancy, increased financial security, and, the zinger—increased consumerism.

Here’s a hard thought that harkens back to Ehrlich and Holdren’s I = PAT equation:  with greater affluence comes greater impact.  Thus, do we really think that development will reduce future discounting and increase the likelihood of more people cooperating to solve the Earth’s problems, as Flannery argues, or will those people be more likely to (naturally) consume more and become a greater part of the problem? 

A few examples of the latter include China, India, and Brazil:  three examples of 'successful' development, but also examples of increasing industrialized societies that as a consequence of development are having a greater, not lesser, impact on Earth.

I’m not arguing against development:  I want more people to have greater economic security around the world.  But, I do think that it’s naïve to believe that development will necessarily lead to a more cooperative society that will inevitably be more predisposed to solve our environmental problems. 
Cooperation must be nurtured with incentives and regulated with punishment.  And we have to work hard to cooperate; time may be running out to take control of some scary environmental challenges. 

Discussion questions:  What do you think?  How do we rationalize helping others develop and have a better life (good things!) when this means that their ecological footprint is very likely to increase?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ingredients, the film

We watched Ingredients, a documentary, the other night.  The film introduces us to people that produce high quality ingredients in a sustainable and organic fashion (meat and vegetables) and sell them to farmers markets and restaurants.  Beautifully filmed, it's a wonderful antidote to the doom-and-gloom food documentaries we normally watch and follows and features the production and consumption of seasonal ingredients. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Societies can change quickly...

Predicting The Next Revolution: The Boiling Point Paradox

Dominic D. P. Johnson & Daniel T. Blumstein

As the chain of popular uprisings spreads around the Mediterranean, we face a bigger question that has puzzled society for generations: Why are revolutions so hard to predict? This is a pressing question because in the face of persistent authoritarian regimes around the world, history has to “wait” for revolutions to happen despite intense efforts to promote democracy.

The unpredictable nature of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and now elsewhere in the Middle East is especially puzzling because many of their leaders have been in power for decades. Why now? Why not ten years ago, or next year? This puzzle is not limited to the current political climate but is common throughout history. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, or the rise of Al Qaeda from small networks of Afghan veterans to a global transnational organization, are examples of other momentous but totally unpredicted events, taking by surprise even experts who worked on these cases every day. Amidst the noise of thousands of waxing and waning political movements across the globe, we are rarely able to pick out the ones that are going to blow up. In retrospect, one can identify potential contributing factors, but these do nothing to improve our future predictions.

One way to understand this unpredictability comes from the principle of “phase transitions”. These rapid transitions between stable states are common across a wide range of phenomena in mathematics, biology, ecology, chemistry and physics. Perhaps the best known example helped to make your coffee this morning—as pure water is heated, it gets hotter and hotter but stays in the same liquid state. But then, at exactly 100 degrees Celsius, water suddenly goes through a dramatic transition in which molecules separate violently and turn into gas. Retrospectively, we can understand this process in the physics of water molecules. We can even make it more or less likely to happen by changing the surroundings (e.g. air pressure) or altering the mix (e.g. adding salt). But when we experience it for the first time, or when dealing with a novel liquid, we can’t predict what will happen—each degree of increase in temperature does nothing to tell us what is about to happen.

In the same way, historians will be able to look back retrospectively and identify events that contributed to a boiling point in Egypt. They may be able to identify some instabilities or external factors that precipitated the uprising, but they cannot tell us where or when the next revolution is going to blow up. Every liquid has a different boiling point, just as every country and time period has different propensities for social upheaval.

This is not just a metaphor. Where rapid change occurs without obvious precipitant factors, we can use these fundamental principles to study the phenomenon. And if social dynamics are examples of phase transitions, then there are at least two important lessons for politics and society.

First, leaders that are interested in maintaining their grip on power, or international third parties and organizations that are interested in Obama’s wish for an “orderly” (and slower) transition to democracy, must recognize the fundamental problem that they cannot predict when or where the next revolution will occur. Once this problem is recognized, however, the solution becomes obvious: we must prepare flexible, adaptable, and resilient response mechanisms so that when a rapid change occurs—wherever and whenever that may be—the infrastructure is in place to absorb, deflect, or minimize the damage.

Second, for aspiring revolutionaries, the fact that we can never predict when or where they will be successful does nothing to dampen hope. There is a fundamental paradox here because, although some events are totally unpredictable, unpredictable events can nevertheless be made more likely to happen. How is this contradictory statement possible? Every day, marketing professionals design strategies to propel a new product or idea beyond a “tipping point”, to make it “go viral” and become the talk of the town. No one knows which product will take off, but many people know the secrets of how to increase the probability that it will.

Future revolutions remain likely in a variety of major countries around the globe, from Iran and Pakistan, to Saudi Arabia and perhaps even China. Where and when they may occur is fundamentally unpredictable, like phase transitions in so many other domains of life. But this realization suggests both strategies to prepare for them and ways to influence their likelihood.

Dominic D.P. Johnson is Reader in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

Daniel T. Blumstein is Professor and Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Income inequality: a barrier to common propery management?

Joseph Stiglitz, writes about the growing (and growing) income inequality in the US in the May 2011 Vanity Fair.

"The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent." 

The article goes on to list a series of reasons why this has happened, and then ends with this zinger.

"The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late."

This raises a lot of troubling issues.  The first amongst them is stability:  in other countries people riot over such inequality and we can see evidence of such riots and revolutions all around us this year (see the accompanying post--an OpEd that my friend and colleague Dominic Johnson and I wrote a few months ago). Do we really want this in our future?

But putting that aside and focusing on our collective environmental future, the fate of us all depends on being motivated to work together to solve some collective problems:  global warming, pollution, the management of fisheries, etc.  We need society to work together and yes, I believe that we do need government to provide some services and infrastructure.  Research, whether biomedical or into new battery types, often starts out as government-funded before generating spin off companies.  The government, not the fisheries industry, is best placed to provide objective assessments of fisheries stocks. But what we see is that many call for less government and less government control and regulation in the US.  The majority of these initiatives are supported by those with a lot.

I do not want to discount the efforts of those who have (and I honestly don't care if it's because of their hard work, luck, or by being born into the right family), I want to move beyond this and focus on how we work together to create a more equitable society that will inspire people to work together.  I want a future in the US that doesn't need a revolution to change things!

Discussion questions:

How, without, revolution, can we create a more equitable society?  How can we inspire and engage those who have to share?  How can we inspire and engage those who do not have to engage in the political process and have their voices heard?  After all, voters, not those with the most money should be able to elect a government that represents their interests.  Indeed, voters should be able to elect a government that represents all of our interests!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Shame and honour drive cooperation

A paper recently published in the journal Biology Letters with the above title gets at the crux of a possible solution to some of our common-property management problems.  People care about their reputations and it seems that the threat of being shamed or the promise of being honored can increase cooperation, even amongst individuals who do not otherwise know each other. The authors discuss how the internet is an anonymous community yet affords the opportunity for tracking compliance and cooperation. The threat of being exposed can increase compliance and cooperation.

I wonder if this could be the basis of tracking people's energy consumption on a local scale and creating incentives to use less.  Is this an invasion of privacy if we're trying to manage a commons?  

Or, should such shame and honor be restricted to industry--which uses the most energy.  If this translates into sales (i.e., people boycott firms that waste energy and reward with their sales those that are energy efficient), perhaps it might.

Discussion questions:  how might this be implemented on a local or broader scale?

Further reading:  Jacquet, J., Hauert, C., Traulsen, A. & M. Milinski. 2011.  Shame and honour drive cooperation.  Biology Letters (published electronically on 1 June 2011).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Meatless Mondays in Aspen

A nice piece of news from the New York Times, about how Aspen restaurants are supporting meatless Mondays and non-vegetarians are accepting this energy and resource conserving and welfare enhancing thing to do. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Buy blemished fruit and vegetables

Buy blemished fruit and vegetables.  Food waste is a major source of wasted energy and resources.  By purchasing bruised fruit you send a message to your grocery that you’re willing to help them avoid waste.  If you’re lucky, you may also be able to save some money.  To eat, just cut off bruised or discolored portions, or consider cooking ‘fully-ripe’ fruit. 

A fresh warm chard salad

I'm cooking for one now in Colorado and just wanted a salad for dinner, but I kinda wanted it warm since my cabin was cool.  Into a wok with about 4 Tbs of olive oil (the oil froze over the winter and was still coagulated, I tried to put in less, but well, slips happen!) went 3 diagonally chopped carrots, 1/2 an onion sliced into rings, and a yellow bell pepper chopped into 1/2 inch squares.  I cooked these for about 10 minutes on high heat until everything softened and then threw in a bunch of chopped chard (the stalks were a deep yellow and beautiful red) and stir fried this for about another 5 minutes.  I finished the salad with a dressing of 2 Tbs of mirin and about 1.5 Tbs of rice vinegar.  Mixed well.  Then served on a white plate with fresh corn tortillas.  Yum. Great colors.  Leftovers too.  I look forward to lunch today.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Collapse: The Movie

We watched the film Collapse the other night.  Like Kunstler's The Long Emergency, Collapse discusses the potential consequences of a world after peak oil. Whatever you think about the protagonist in Collapse, such discussion are a wake-up call. The world will be different when we have little petroleum since it has permeated our lives (fertilizers, insecticides, plastics, car tires, medicines, industrial processes, in addition to transportation and energy). 

In the book I talk about imagining a world with $10/gallon gas.  And a world with $50/gallon gas.  I think such exercises, while alarming, are calls to clearly think about things we can do now to create a softer landing.

Have a party and watch the film.  Discuss it with your friends.  And share your suggestions about what you can do now for yourself and for your community to make it more resilient.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Pubs: the great equalizer

A colleague wrote me that he thought that if we had more good pubs around, our problems would be solved.  I think he's onto something!

Pubs (I'm not talking nightclubs, but the classic corner pub) are great equalizers.  Whether you're drinking a lemon-aid or a beer, people sit together and talk at pubs.  And not just with like minded folks.  A good corner pub gets people talking who wouldn't normally.  And, at some of the better Australian ones I've been to, folks are not ashamed to state their position and defend it.  Yet everyone comes back for more.  Eye opening. 

Creating a culture that enhances this discourse is important, whether it's at a coffee shop, a pizza parlor, or a pub.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Do Green Products Make Us Better People?

Here's the abstract of a recent paper published in the journal Psychological Science:

Do Green Products Make Us Better People?
Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong

Consumer choices reflect not only price and quality preferences but also social and moral values, as witnessed in the remarkable growth of the global market for organic and environmentally friendly products. Building on recent research on behavioral priming and moral regulation, we found that mere exposure to green products and the purchase of such products lead to markedly different behavioral consequences. In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, results showed that people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green products than after mere exposure to conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products than after purchasing conventional products. Together, our studies show that consumption is connected to social and ethical behaviors more broadly across domains than previously thought.

In a line, the authors found that people who bought green products were more likely to feel entitled to engage in self-interested behavior. Wow!

Discussion questions:  How do you feel after buying green products? More generally, do you behave in ways where you keep track of 'good' things to enable you to do 'bad' things?  (you know, like eat carrots all day so that you can have the cake at night...).  What are the implications of this finding for changing our consumption patterns?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Meyer lemon vodkatini

I may have reached a point of no return.  While I’ve always loved lemons, I’m absolutely transfixed with Meyer lemons.  They have a long growing season in Los Angeles and our friends have a tree that produces the best lemons I’ve ever tasted.  Sweet.  Juicy.  Delicious.  Here’s an aperitif that is a nice start for a fun party.
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
1 shot vodka
1/2 shot simple syrup (recipe in book)
Mix all ingredients together and mix over ice.  Serves one.
Preparation time:  3 minutes

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Expanding our sensitivity

I had a GREAT discussion the other night at a dinner party that ultimately led to a question:  how do we expand our sensitivity to outside our immediate self interests?

The strong position the other person took was that we will never get people to do things that cause them to 'suffer'; people act in their own self-interest.  Very valid point.  When I asked how we will solve our problems like increasing global pollution and increasing greenhouse gas emission that effect us all but will likely require us to change our immediate behavior, he said that people would have to think about how it impacts them and their kids.

But people already do care about their children and invest a lot to help them succeed.  Indeed, my work with marmots shows that parental care explains risky alarm calling behavior in it should.  Parental care is easy to evolve.  Broader-scale cooperation is much harder to evolve.

And, if this cooperation has to take a long view, consider the Seven Generation Sustainability that the Iroquois followed, how do we create a culture that follows this maxim?  If we did, it would be second nature to think about and pay for externalities and once we properly price exernalities, I think we're making good progress towards encouraging people to make more sustainable economic choices.

Yet, we also know that quantitatively, acquiring a benefit now (whether it's money that you can spend now or invest now, or offspring), rather than delaying benefit acquisition often makes stark economic sense and if we're 'wired' to typically behave this way, then we have a real challenge.

So the questions are:  How do we expand our sensitivity beyond our immediate self interests and the interests of our children?  How do we work towards Seven Generation Sustainability?  As always, please feel free to post comments!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Sustainable table

I just discovered a GREAT web resource; the Sustainable Table.  They have great food and entertainment resources, including sustainable dinner party ideas and a detailed glossary of meat production methods.  And, of course, there's a link to The Meatrix--which one person told me made them a vegetarian!--and a link to their own Ecocentric Blog.  Good stuff!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Small portions: good for you and good for the environment

Why do we have an obesity epidemic in the US?  Portion size is a big part of it.  

Whenever I travel to Europe or Australia, portions are smaller.  Smaller portions are good for those of us leading mostly sedentary lifestyles, and they are good for the environment.  Food waste, as I discuss in the book, is a huge target if we want to reduce greenhouse gas production, water use, and preserve natural landscapes.  But you could similarly argue that eating more than is needed is a form of waste as well.  

Why do we eat so much?  Partly a function of plate size and serving size.  We eat more if our servings are bigger.  We eat more if our plates are bigger.  We eat and drink more if plates and glasses are constantly re-filled.  Ironically, it's the first few bites of any food that are the most enjoyable.  That's why I suggest serving lots of small 'tapas' at a dinner party. 

By eating mindfully, and therefore eating less, we're doing something good for us, and also something good for the environment.

Discussion questions:  How could you eat more mindfully?  How far does this extend?  Should we be concerned about what we're eating in addition to how much we're eating?

More reading
The Cornell University Food and Brand Lab conducts research into this topic.  Some of it s discussed on their website, more is discussed at the Mindless Eating website, while the book "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" is brilliant.  


Friday, June 3, 2011

Join the conversation!

I'm ultimately hoping that this blog will be a venue for discourse.  If you want to write about food, politics, civility, greenish issues, let me know.  E-mail me and I can set you up as a contributor.  You need not blog regularly, but you should feel free to blog here!

Reaching out...

Charlie and I gave a book talk yesterday at UCLA for our book "The Failure of Environmental Education (And How We Can Fix It).  About 100 similarly-minded folks showed up.  It was fun.  It was educational for all (including us).  But the main problem was that similarly-minded folks were there--environmental education professionals and those who already care about environmental education.

To really have an effect enhancing civility, we will all need to make an effort to reach out and talk (and eat!) with folks we don't normally talk with.  Otherwise, we'll just continue preaching to the choir, and that's not going to change anything.

Discussion question: 
How can we meet folks with different perspectives?  How can we have civil conversations with them?  Please feel free to post comments! 

Reducing, reusing, recycling: The pleasures of thrift stores

I live in a small, Colorado mountain community during the summer.  For a while there was no movie theater in the entire county.  There are, however, great thrift stores.  Once a week when we drive the 34 miles to go food shopping, we visit those thrift stores.  Our kitchen (and closets) are filled with the spoils of our visit—the blender in our cabin came from a thrift store, as did our bread machine and many other small kitchen items, like cups, utensils, and serving plates.

Reusing (buying at garage sales or thrift stores, or cruising around on garbage days) always trumps recycling if you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint.  It’s also fun because you never know what you may discover.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Pan seared diver scallops

Often the way that animals are harvested from the sea influences how sustainable they can be.  Scallops can be dredged--where a heavy frame with a net attached is dragged across the seafloor, or harvested by a diver.  Such diver scallops do not cause the environmental damage caused by dredging—which both scours the seafloor and catches unintended species.  
If you’ve got fresh diver scallops, you really needn’t do much with them.  The best I ever had came from the Oxford city market in Great Britain, but if you’re lucky you can get fresh ones from the right seafood purveyors.  Properly frozen ones may be OK too.  Fresh scallops will smell like the sea.  Treat them carefully:  quickly rinse them in clean water and pat them dry before cooking; you don’t want them to be waterlogged.
Scallops (1 per person)
High quality balsamic vinegar
Heat a very lightly oiled steel skillet or pan until it’s really hot.  Carefully place the scallops on the pan and quickly sear one side.  After about 1 minute, carefully flip them, sear the other side for another minute and remove.  If the pan is hot enough, the scallops should be lightly brown.  If not, it’s OK to leave them on a bit longer.  However, avoid overcooking them; they will continue to cook after being removed.  Put one or two drops of the best balsamic vinegar you can get on each scallop and serve immediately on a spoon.

Further reading:
You can read all about fishing methods at the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.