Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How many species are there on Earth and in the Ocean

In a new paper, these authors use a new technique to estimate how many eukaryotic species there are.  This is both controversial and important because, frankly, we have little idea of the Earth's biodiversity.  If they're right, we have a lot of exploring to do. Skeptics say they're undercounting with their estimate and we probably have even more exploring to do!  Regardless, we should care because our current human-caused extinction spasm is eliminating species faster than they can be inventoried.  And this is important for pragmatic reasons:  the set of unique adaptations that are found in nature have untapped potentials to help us develop new crops that will withstand climate change, develop new antibiotics and new sources of power and food.  Maintaining biodiversity is an important first step towards helping manage a world with 7-9 million people.  Read the full paper by following the link below; I've appended their popular summary. 

How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?

Camilo Mora1,2*Derek P. Tittensor1,3,4Sina Adl1Alastair G. B. Simpson1Boris Worm1
1 Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada,2 Department of Geography, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, United States of America, 3 United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 4 Microsoft Research, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Knowing the number of species on Earth is one of the most basic yet elusive questions in science. Unfortunately, obtaining an accurate number is constrained by the fact that most species remain to be described and because indirect attempts to answer this question have been highly controversial. Here, we document that the taxonomic classification of species into higher taxonomic groups (from genera to phyla) follows a consistent pattern from which the total number of species in any taxonomic group can be predicted. Assessment of this pattern for all kingdoms of life on Earth predicts ~8.7 million (±1.3 million SE) species globally, of which ~2.2 million (±0.18 million SE) are marine. Our results suggest that some 86% of the species on Earth, and 91% in the ocean, still await description. Closing this knowledge gap will require a renewed interest in exploration and taxonomy, and a continuing effort to catalogue existing biodiversity data in publicly available databases.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Shale gas (from the Economist)

I'm behind writing about what I've been reading, but one striking thing from a few weeks ago (6 August Economist) was an essay and an article about the growth of the shale oil, shale gas, and indeed just natural gas.  

As the Economist writes, the distribution of shale-gas reserves is not as centralized as oil reserves (basically, where-ever there is coal, there is the opportunity of shale-gas), and now that it's possible to better extract it, there will be many players producing it.  While they see the market forces leading to production as a good thing, they argue that the environmental issues associated with shale-gas production are non-trivial and ultimately if it really is cleaner burning than coal, we're likely to have MORE warming associated with shifting from coal to shale-gas.  

Why?  Because, as they point out, the Earth is a bit cooler from all the coal that China has burned in the past few decades.  Without the particulate matter in the air, the effect of increasing CO2 levels from burning carbon will not be buffered and the World will warm.  Of course there are other bad effects of increased CO2 (including ocean acidification...).  

They note that just because we have this source of cleaner burning fuel, using it may actually delay the production of new, carbon-neutral sources of energy.  And this, from the Economist.  

Yes, we should be scared.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

fish sauce balsamic vinaigrette

I've been reading The Splendid Table's How to Eat Supper: Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio's Award-Winning Food Show.  There are a number of new tricks I've learned, but one's rather simple and I've been experimenting with it for a few weeks now.  Add fish sauce (I use Squid Brand) to vinaigrette dressings and other things that you want to bring out the umami flavor.

Since my basic is a balsamic vinaigrette (typically 1 Tbs of Dijon mustard, 1 minced garlic clove, and then about 2:1 mix of extra virgin olive oil to balsamic), I've been adding 1-2 Tbs of fish sauce to this.  It's delicious and adds another layer of complexity to the dressing.  It's particularly good in a chopped salad burrito where I wrap freshly cooked black beans and either a romaine lettuce and tomato or a spinach and tomato salad dressed with this vinaigrette in a large, pan-warmed flour tortilla. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

salt, garlic, and rosemary rub

I've been flat out recently and not had time to write anything for the blog, but that doesn't mean that I've not been cooking!  Probably the best thing that grows out of pots in our small patio garden is a rosemary plant.  Somehow we've been (fingers crossed) unable to kill it yet and it thrives with whatever water we give it.  This of course means that I've got to come up with recipes for it.  Of course, adding rosemary to potatoes and lamb are classic uses.  Trouble is that these days I'm not eating a lot of lamb (read the post about its carbon footprint!).  So, I've been exploring other options.

We had an organic chicken in the freezer and ran out of my bbq rub (recipe in book) so I figured what if I combine kosher salt, garlic, rosemary and olive oil to create a rub.  Into a hand mixer goes about 1/4 cup of salt, 6 garlic cloves, the leaves from about 14" of rosemary stem, and a couple of glugs of olive oil.  A minute later I had a rub that I massaged beneath the split chicken's (see cook book for how to prepare) skin, into the body cavity, and on top of the skin.  I have been cooking the chicken for about 1.5 hours at 250°F and letting it rest before de-boning it and serving it in burritos.  Yum.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Poor Children, Poor Future

A LA Times article reports on childhood poverty.  A whopping 42% of our nation's children are living in households that are financially challenged.  This is a horrific statistic and does not bode well for our future.  Our children are our future and their struggles portend poorly for our future successes.   Why, because, "Research surrounding the four prior recessions found that children caught up in the economic crisis are likely to exhibit behavioral problems, have difficulty in school, are less educated and earn less money, and have more health problems.".

Discussion Questions
How do we break the vicious cycle of poverty in a country that has so much wealth?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Heatsteria: from Clobert

Steve Clobert is a genius and this 'heatsteria' piece about denying climate change is good!

The Collapse of Complex Societies

I’ve been reading Joseph Tainter’s 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies.  In it he refutes a number of historic reasons that societies collapse (characterized by a sudden reduction in social/political organization and typically population crash—think Rome, the Mayans, and the Chaco people of America’s southwest).  The hypothesis he develops is that the marginal cost of maintaining a complex society increases to the point where individuals are paying taxes but not getting anything back.  Or, more generally, the benefits to individuals from paying the costs to maintain an increasingly complex society are reduced. 
He gives a number of examples.  Compelling ones have to do with the benefits we get from biomedical research (the cost of creating Penicillin was less than $20,000, but think about how much our society has spent trying to cure ‘cancer’—have we succeeded?), energy (now that we’re past peak oil means that the costs of obtaining oil increases while the amount of oil extracted per dollar decreases), or more generally the insight that the easy problems (whether social or otherwise) are relatively inexpensive to solve, but the more complex ones require a lot more effort to solve. 
In the end he cautions that the inter-connectedness of our current global civilization may provide some buffering against collapse (if a country fails, it may be bailed out by the banks of other countries), and it's more common for leaders and systems to change rather than society collapsing.  He highlights that a key characteristic of a true collapse is the presence of a power vacuum.
All that said, I kept thinking of all of the things for which we’re experiencing increased marginal costs… military expenditures, biomedical discoveries, energy resources, precious metals and other natural resources, pollution control, education, etc. 
If he’s right, and I encourage you to read this relatively short but compelling book, we’re at somewhat of a crossroad.  We can either simplify our lives and societies, bet that technology will solve our energy problems (much complexity can be maintained by having sufficient energy), or try to bolster our international connections to prevent power vacuums.
I worry that the energy required to keep our complex civilization running will eventually be too costly to sustain our civilization. Complexity requires work to maintain and is not always the best outcome for individuals who are paying those prices.  Societies change over time when benefits from complexity disappear. 
The rub is that when societies do collapse, they’re often followed by dark ages.
Ponder this over your next meal.

Monday, August 15, 2011

NYTimes Op Ed on boycotting campaign donations

Out of control campaign spending is breaking our democracy by allowing those with the most to be represented while those without struggle to be represented.

In an excellent NY Times OpEd, Joe Nocera talks about Howard Schultz's (Starbuck's CEO) idea to boycott campaign donations.

From the essay:

"“The fundamental problem,” he said, “is that the lens through which Congress approaches issues is re-election. The lifeblood of their re-election campaigns is political contributions.” Schultz wants his countrymen ­ big donors and small; corporations and unions ­ to stop making political contributions in presidential and Congressional campaigns. Simple as that. Economists like to talk about how incentives change behavior. Schultz is proposing that Americans give Washington an incentive to begin acting responsibly on their behalf. It’s a beautiful idea.""

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Gas expansion everywhere?

On a flight from Denver to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I looked out to see the Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado and the Creststone Needle...a 14,000' peak that I climbed a wonderful rock route a lifetime ago (my friends and I ended up spending the night on the summit and had a rather epic descent the next day when we got lost and had to rappel (and rappel, and rappel) down another ascent route).  The area is spectacularly beautiful and relatively uninhabited.  I was thrilled to see it from the air!

Thus, it was much to my surprise that I saw what looked like oil/gas exploration roads/drilling pads throughout the area.  In what looked like platted out cul-de-sacs carved into the dry earth, I think these are drill platforms seemingly organized in a systematic way through the landscape. 

Can anyone verify this?  

If they are, it's a wake-up call to our unsustainable lifestyle when our natural resource needs scar relatively pristine earth!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The failure of environmental education...

Read it and weep:

Citation: Ballouard J-M, Brischoux F, Bonnet X (2011) Children Prioritize Virtual Exotic Biodiversity over Local Biodiversity. PLoS ONE 6(8): e23152. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023152

Children Prioritize Virtual Exotic Biodiversity over Local Biodiversity
Jean-Marie Ballouard1,2*, Franc¸ois Brischoux3, Xavier Bonnet1
1 Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chize´ , CNRS-UPR 1934, Villiers en Bois, France, 2 Centre de Recherche et de Conservation des Che´loniens, SOPTOM, le Village des tortues, Gonfaron, France, 3 Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, United States of America

Environmental education is essential to stem current dramatic biodiversity loss, and childhood is considered as the key period for developing awareness and positive attitudes toward nature. Children are strongly influenced by the media, notably the internet, about biodiversity and conservation issues. However, most media focus on a few iconic, appealing, and usually exotic species. In addition, virtual activities are replacing field experiences. This situation may curb children knowledge and concerns about local biodiversity. Focusing our analyses on local versus exotic species, we examined the level of knowledge and the level of diversity of the animals that French schoolchildren are willing to protect, and whether these perceptions are mainly guided by information available in the internet. For that, we collected and compared two complementary data sets: 1) a questionnaire was administered to schoolchildren to assess their knowledge and consideration to protect animals, 2) an internet content analysis (i.e. Google searching sessions using keywords) was performed to assess which animals are themost often represented. Our results suggest that the knowledge of children and their consideration to protect animal are mainly limited to internet contents, represented by a few exotic and charismatic species. The identification rate of local animals by schoolchildren was meager, suggesting a worrying disconnection from their local environment. Schoolchildren were more prone to protect ‘‘virtual’’ (unseen, exotic) rather than local animal species. Our results reinforce the message that environmental education must also focus on outdoor activities to develop conservation consciousness and concerns about local biodiversity.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Julien Treasure on listening better

In this excellent TED talk, Julien Treasure tells us 5 ways to listen better; which I believe is the first step towards increasing our civility.  Watch and learn...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A perfect moral storm

I've been traveling and reading an outstanding book while on the road.  Stephen Gardiner's A Perfect Moral Storm:  The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change should be a must-read for anyone interested in sustainability issues.  He tackles the issue head on:  human-caused climate change is creating a huge inter-generational problem and we have to try to understand it and fix it. While fascinating, the book is a pretty difficult read and I may re-read some parts of it.  

He starts with the assertion that we must be concerned about what we leave for future generations because they're not present now to help us manage our decisions yet they will certainly be effected by them.  With this, and little else, as a starting assumption, he defines the perfect moral storm as one that has three main components:

1) a global problem (climate change acts on the earth as a whole, but the rich are creating the problem and the poor are suffering now and are likely to suffer more in the future--this is immoral)

2) an intergenerational element (those who will be impacted in the future have no say in what we do now and it's immoral to do things that we know will cause more suffering in the future)

3) a theoretical component (we don't, he argues, have a good theory of intergenerational ethics to guide us and this makes us susceptible to rationalizations and justifications that will cause inaction or insufficient action).

He warns us about how easy it is to slip into complacency and put off tackling some hard questions head on, but that if we profess to be moral, we must be concerned with protecting life on earth in the future. He also discusses the non-trivial issues of trading off real costs now (which may cause some discomfort) with unknown benefits in the future.  However, the lack of certainty, he argues, shouldn't and can't be an excuse for inaction today and those that block action are likely to be morally corrupt.

The rub, ultimately, will be to translate lucid arguments into meaningful political action and he traces the failures, to date, of our attempts to enact meaningful global legislation that might control/reverse the worst impacts of increased atmospheric CO2.

There's a LOT in this book; but it's well worth struggling over.  I want to have some friends read it and then talk about it.  I suggest you do the same.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Jonathan Gold on shark fin soup

LA food writer Jonathan Gold has a great essay about the problems with shark-fin soup and the extinction risk sharks face from a rising Chinese middle class.   Check it out at the LA Times.  He (and I) support a ban on this barbarous waste.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

What happened to Obama?

In a really interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times, Drew Western, critiques President Obama's lack of developing a 'story line' and sticking to it, and by doing so has squandered an opportunity for true change.

Regardless of your politics, read it, talk about this over a Sunday dinner, and ask yourselves this:  how can we, the citizens, empower our politicians to create the future we want?

Friday, August 5, 2011

How do we value nature?

Michael Gross, reporting in the scientific journal Current Biology has a really interesting article on valuing nature.  Much of the article is devoted to reporting on a UN Environmental Program study called The Economics of the Environment and Biodiversity and a recent meeting at Oxford of the World Forum for Enterprise and the Environment.  While NGOs, businesses, and academics want to develop ways to estimate the value of nature, there are implementation problems. Among several interesting points was the one that it's really difficult to value the oceans' bounty and it's even more difficult to conserve oceanic biodiversity.  It's likely, thus, that this particular common is likely to continue to be exploited.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Should healthy food be a privilege of those who can afford it?

Have a look at this article about food security and discuss the following:

How can we work to make healthy food more accessible to the poor?  How can we work to eliminate 'food deserts' in urban areas where residents are unable to buy fresh fruits and vegetables?  What is the relative role of individuals, industry and government in developing solutions? 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Plastic Bag Wars from Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone has just published a really interesting piece by Kitt Doucette on plastic bags and the struggle to regulate them.  While an estimated 25% of the world's population is living in areas with plastic bag bans, the US is slow to act, in part because of strong industry opposition.  Indeed, the plastics industry is suing municipalities that try to enact plastic bag bans, effectively delaying or preventing implementation.  Read and learn...

Monday, August 1, 2011

The tragedy of cognition...by Dominic Johnson

My friend and colleague Dominic Johnson just wrote a nice essay on how psychological biases may be one of the real impediments to soloving our climate problems.  I'm reproducing it below...

From:  http://www.dominicdpjohnson.com/blog/

The Tragedy of Cognition

July 11th, 2011
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, several reports have been published that investigated the causes of the disaster, who was to blame, and the legal obligations for compensation. Beyond these important issues, however, is a perhaps more striking fact: many of the numerous deficiencies and risks were long known and yet nothing was done to deal with them. It took a disaster of this scale to trigger a systematic rethink of priorities, rules, and regulations about offshore drilling.

President Barack Obama declared in June 2010: “In the same way that our view of our vulnerabilities and our foreign policy was shaped profoundly by 9/11, I think this disaster is going to shape how we think about the environment and energy for many years to come.” It is remarkable that (just as in the case of counter-terrorism in 2001) such a disaster was necessary to stimulate such a clearly needed overhaul of planning, management, and regulation.

A psychological perspective lends insight here, because it turns out that there are good reasons to expect that humans do not, or cannot, make radical revisions to our ways of working until dramatic events or disasters shake us out of a range of biases and traps that preserve the status quo. In our recent article in Current Science, entitled “The tragedy of cognition: psychological biases and environmental inaction“, Simon Levin and I explore this problem and its implications for society’s ability to recognize, let alone act to mitigate, the impending problems of climate change, environmental destruction, and dwindling energy resources.

In an ideal world, people would tackle major crises such as global climate change as rational actors, weighing the costs, benefits and probabilities of success of alternative policies accurately and impartially. Unfortunately, human brains are far from accurate and impartial. Mounting research in experimental psychology reveals that we are all subject to systematic biases in judgement and decision-making. While such biases may have been adaptive heuristics that promoted survival and reproduction in the Pleistocene environment of our evolutionary past, in today’s world of technological sophistication, industrial power and mass societies, psychological biases can lead to disasters on an unprecedented scale. Beyond the exploding ecological and socio-economic research on climate change and how to deal with the ‘tragedy of the commons’, it is a better understanding of human psychology – ‘the tragedy of cognition’ – that may ultimately tip the balance against the seeds of our own destruction.