New kids in town get to work

esaearth.jpg[Note: I normally don’t clog the blog with big swaths of text lifted verbatim from other sources, but in this case I couldn’t resist.  This is a copy of one of the Policy News issues I get periodically from the Ecological Society of America’s Washington office.  I include it here both because of the high density of important information about accelerating progress in environmental policy, but even more because the tone and content of this news of federal government activities related to the environment has shifted so profoundly in just the last month that it’s truly hard to believe.]

TRANSITION: EARLY ACTION BY OBAMA ADMINISTRATION, CONGRESS REFLECTS ENVIRONMENTAL FOCUS

CLIMATE CHANGE

In a January 26th announcement on climate change, President Obama outlined several priorities, which included addressing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, California’s request to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) “endangerment finding” linking climate change to increased public health risks.

Many opponents of the climate policies have responded with their concerns, warning of government infringement on private property and what they expect to be disastrous impacts on industry. William Kovacs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of environment, technology, and regulatory affairs, suggested that granting California’s waiver would lead to the regulation of carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, something industry also opposes. “This would almost certainly extend well beyond cars and trucks and would have the unintended consequence of creating costly and burdensome permitting requirements on millions of construction projects including hospitals, schools, and office buildings,” he said shortly after Obama’s announcement.

In Congress, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has set a December deadline for moving climate legislation through her Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, where Democrats have an 11-8 edge. She is confident that this margin will allow her to pass the legislation easily but acknowledges that far greater challenges will arise when it hits the Senate floor.

A successful climate change bill, one that will win over a sufficient number of Republicans and conservative Democrats, will likely require input from a variety of sources. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NM) has indicated that several panels may engage in the process-both Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) have expressed interest in participating. Boxer has stated in the past that she would welcome work on climate policy from other committees, and recently indicated that she’ll look to Baucus for guidance in developing legislation capable of standing up to possible challenges before the World Trade Organization. She also said she would be receptive to Banking Committee suggestions on establishing an oversight board with which to regulate a new emissions trading market.

Republicans may also play a role in shaping the bill. In Boxer’s committee, Arlen Specter (R-PA), who cosponsored cap-and-trade legislation with Bingaman in 2007, said that he joined the Committee this year to push for a more moderate climate bill. “I want to have a stronger voice on global warming,” he said. “I want to be sure that what we propose is something which is attainable.” Also likely to figure prominently in the climate debate is John McCain (R-AZ), who joined the Energy and Natural Resources Committee this year. Although Specter and McCain are proponents of climate change legislation, few other Republicans share their views, and EPW Committee ranking member James Inhofe (R-OK) [Editor’s note: the closest thing the US Senate has to the anti-Christ] has predicted that Boxer will not be able to defeat a filibuster.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has also vowed to hold a climate change vote-the first ever for the House-this year.

CAFE STANDARDS AND CALIFORNIA WAIVER

The auto industry has long opposed the increased regulation of emissions, arguing that it would do irreparable damage to the already suffering industry in the midst of the economic crisis. These arguments resulted in Former President George W. Bush’s decision not to finalize his interim CAFE rulemaking, which would have applied to model years 2011 to 2015. Last month, however, President Obama indicated that he would move forward with his plans to reduce emissions and improve fuel economy in spite of the economic downturn. He issued two orders, urging Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to finalize new CAFE standards, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to review California’s request to regulate auto tailpipe emissions. The order directed LaHood to finalize the 2011 standard by April before moving on to later years, indicating that the standards could grow stronger, a change supported by both environmental groups and some Democratic leadership, including chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, Ed Markey (MA).

If EPA grants the California waiver, the state would begin regulating automobiles’ greenhouse gas emissions in the current model year, according to the chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, Mary Nichols. The emission standards would force automakers to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars and trucks by 30 percent by 2016.

EPA administrator Jackson is expected to open the public comment period on the waiver request in the next few days.

California is the only state allowed by the federal Clean Air Act to enforce its own pollution standards, but only with a waiver from EPA. If the waiver is granted, however, other states would be permitted to enforce the same standard. So far thirteen states have moved to adopt the California standards, with another four indicating that they will follow if the waiver is granted. The 18 states represent about half of the U.S. auto market. The auto industry has been fighting to block the waiver request for years and has embraced CAFE standards in response, attempting to dissuade states from imposing the California standards by arguing that emissions regulation should take place at the national level.

The auto industry is also pushing for Obama to finalize the CAFE standards through model year 2015 as soon as possible, thereby precluding the chance of increased standards after 2011. But the change in administrations has taken a tremendous toll on the industry’s influence in Washington, as has the power shift in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where longtime industry proponent Representative John Dingell (D-MI) lost his chairmanship to the more environmentally focused Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) this year.

The February 3 Washington Auto Show reflected these changes, featuring numerous green products, a renewed focus on electric vehicle development, and the tagline, “Driven by the Environment.”

ENDANGERMENT FINDING

A 2007 decision by the Supreme Court ordered the Bush administration to begin anew its study via EPA on whether climate change endangers public health and the environment. The results of this study were the subject of a great deal of controversy last year, following allegations that EPA made an “endangerment finding” that was later revoked after talks with the Bush White House. Obama’s EPA is now tasked with completing the study-if the agency makes an endangerment finding, greenhouse gasses will be subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson sent an email to her staff listing the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions among her top priorities, and stating that she would be acting on the Supreme Court ruling in a matter of days. Her early climate moves will come with the help of top climate counsel Lisa Heinzerling, the lead author of the climate change briefs to the Supreme Court, as well as David McIntosh, former aide to Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), who helped to draft the Lieberman-Warner cap-and-trade bill debated last summer on the Senate floor.

EPA PRIORITIES

Jackson’s email outlined four additional areas that will receive her personal attention:

1) Improving air quality: Jackson notes that many U.S. communities are out of compliance with air quality standards and thus face pollution levels high enough to harm human health.  She says that EPA will fill regulatory system gaps in accordance with both science and the law.
2) Managing chemical risks: Noting the inadequacy of present measures for evaluating and regulating chemicals in consumer products, Jackson says that EPA will revise and strengthen its chemicals management and risk assessment programs.
3) Cleaning up hazardous-waste sites: Jackson plans to accelerate the cleanup of the country’s many contaminated sites as a way of generating jobs while improving the environment and quality of life in surrounding areas.
4) Protecting America’s water: Jackson underscores the importance of protecting both freshwater and marine resources. She says EPA will intensify its restoration and protection efforts, work to improve drinking-water safety programs, and reduce pollution from both non-point and industrial discharges.

MIDNIGHT REGULATIONS

Although White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel put a freeze on all pending rules upon President Obama’s inauguration, many of the most controversial rules, including plans to revise the Endangered Species Act and to exempt some farms from Superfund reporting requirements, were already in place. The Obama administration could reverse these rules by reinitiating the rulemaking process, but Congress could achieve a resolution much sooner by using the Congressional Review Act. Under the Act, a simple majority in the House and Senate and the president’s signature would be sufficient to vote down regulations that took effect after May 15, 2008. Alternately, Congress could deny funding for the implementation or enforcement of the rules to which it objects.

House Democrats have introduced a measure that would use the Congressional Review Act to freeze the Endangered Species rule. Meanwhile, the proposed changes to both the Endangered Species Act and Superfund rules have already been challenged in court.

ROADLESS RULES

Throughout much of the Bush administration, the timber industry, environmental groups, and the White House battled in court over the 2001 Clinton roadless rule, which granted blanket protection to roughly 58 million acres nationwide. Prior to Clinton, two presidents, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, tried to implement national roadless rules, but in both cases the rules were challenged in courts and ultimately voided.

Although the 2001 roadless rule was not explicitly overturned, the Bush Administration put in place another rule allowing states to petition for their own roadless protections, effectively giving states the ability to develop lands protected under the 2001 rule. So far, two states have undertaken the process: Idaho, whose rule the Bush administration finalized before leaving office, and Colorado, whose plan is still in development.

The Idaho plan creates five “management themes” for different areas, with the intent of balancing development, access, and conservation needs. Although some conservation groups support the plan, others sued the Bush administration in January, accusing the Forest Service of improperly approving Idaho’s rule, which they say would remove protection from 400,000 acres and weaken protections on an additional 5 million. They allege that the Forest Service failed to conduct the environmental analyses required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Many of the groups involved in the lawsuit called for President Obama to make reinstating the Clinton’s roadless rule one of his top priorities, some suggesting that he issue a directive giving the Forest Service chief, rather than local officials, decision-making power over the designated roadless areas. Obama expressed his support for the rule on the campaign trail but has not yet taken action.

ECONOMY: HOUSE PASSES STIMULUS BILL, SENATE DEBATES

On January 28, the House approved the economic stimulus package easily, albeit without any Republican support. President Obama had attempted on multiple occasions to reach out to Republicans, who maintained that their vote was not a rebuke of the President, who they praised for his efforts, but instead a vote against the process and legislation created by Democratic leaders in Congress. Specifically, House Republicans expressed concerns that the bill was put together with little minority input and that it contains billions in spending for federal programs that have long been on Democratic wish lists but do little to stimulate the economy. Senate Republicans have expressed similar concerns, but with a 58-seat majority, Democrats will not likely have a problem gathering the 60 votes needed to move the bill.

In the House, the bill underwent some relatively small changes before its final approval. Of particular interest to environmentalists was the addition of $3 billion for transit programs. Many environmental groups praised this addition, stating that the extra funding would significantly reduce oil usage while creating new jobs. The total cost of the House bill now stands at $819 billion, with roughly $275 billion in tax cuts and the remainder in direct investments.

The Senate is currently debating its version of the bill, which, as expected, does not include as much funding for the sciences as the House bill. Science infrastructure, which receives $2 billion in the House version, only receives $430 million from the Senate. The Senate is also directing less funding towards public lands programs, but Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has been circulating an amendment that would provide an additional $2.5 billion to related programs.

The amendment would divide the additional funds among several key areas including:

* National Park Service: $950 million, covering park construction and maintenance, as well as habitat restoration and exotic species management. With this addition, total funding levels would match those specified in the House version of the bill ($1.8 billion).
* Wildland Fire Management: $870 million, almost doubling the current allotment
* Bureau of Land Management: $350 million
* Fish and Wildlife Service: $125 million. This would bring the total resource management and construction spending for FWS to $425 million, almost three-quarters of the refuge system’s typical annual budget.
A committee spokesman said the measure is Bingaman’s top-priority amendment to the stimulus. Even if it fails, there is a good chance that park and refuge funding will be increased during House-Senate conference negotiations.

Some lawmakers, however, may push back against the higher spending amounts in the stimulus. For example, Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE), who leads a coalition aimed at reducing stimulus spending, argued that many of the stimulus accounts would be better dealt with in an appropriations bill. Conversely, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has expressed hopes that national parks will receive significant funding through the stimulus, noting that they have an estimated $9 billion backlog of maintenance projects.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers have expressed concerns that the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) could hamper attempts to get the green energy projects-a large portion of the stimulus package-off the ground. Environmental groups and private landowners have used NEPA-related lawsuits in the past to halt the construction of green infrastructure (e.g. wind turbines and the transmission systems necessary to support them), claiming inadequate environmental review. Even strong opponents of NEPA hesitate to take action against it at the federal level, but California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated that he may attempt to roll back state environmental laws, allowing for faster action on transportation projects funded by the stimulus. Several environmental groups suggest that this move would pave the way for Congress to revise NEPA in light of the economic crisis. Another option-increasing the staff at agencies that oversee environmental reviews-could allow for faster action on stimulus projects without compromising safeguards against environmental damage.

In spite of the many debates and complexities slowing the package, Democratic leaders hope to have it finalized and on President Obama’s desk by February 14.

green_obama.jpgBIOFUELS: OBAMA TEAM HALTS REVIEW OF RENEWABLE FUEL STANDARDS RULE

On January 26, the White House withdrew a prominent biofuels rulemaking from its Office of Management and Budget review. The rule, proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), would implement a 2007 law expanding the renewable fuels standard (RFS). The expansion would increase the RFS to 36 billion gallons by 2022, 21 billion gallons of which would be next-generation biofuels. It would also require that the greenhouse gas emissions from these biofuels have lifecycles considerably shorter than those of conventional fuels.

Although Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel ordered a freeze on all pending Bush administration rules, this freeze did not apply to regulations with deadlines already in place. The December 2007 RFS law gave EPA a year to craft the rule, so it remains unclear why it was withdrawn.

Worth noting, however, is the intense pressure EPA and the White House have received from both industry and environmental lobbyists on the details of the rule. In particular, industry representatives and environmental groups stand on opposite sides of a debate over how to address emissions from the so-called indirect land-use changes that would result from increased biofuels production. Environmentalists and scientists, concerned about the consequences of clearing additional land for agricultural production, cite studies indicating that clearing would release additional carbon into the atmosphere-significantly worsening the emissions profile of certain biofuels-by disrupting areas where it is naturally sequestered. Industry groups and biofuels investors argue, however, that the science is not advanced enough to accurately recalculate emissions profiles based on land use and that EPA should proceed without adjusting for indirect land-use.

The Ecological Society of America released a position statement on biofuels sustainability in January of 2008, which outlines the ecological principles necessary for biofuels to help decrease dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change.

Posted in Biodiversity, Politics, Science, Sustainability | 3 Comments

Death and taxes . . . and reincarnation

industrial_detritus.jpgRecently I got an uncharacteristic surge of organizational momentum, girded my loins, donned my battle gear,  and dove into the swamp of my home office filing system.  Many of you will appreciate from your own experience what a daunting task this can be.  I was aided by inspiration of the book Getting Things Done, which appears typical of those somewhat smarmy looking self-help books that are piled all over the tables of airport bookstores against which you bang your carry-on as you negotiate the laughably narrow aisles.  But, because it had been recommended by a friend of mine, I happened to buy a copy on the way home from Christmas travel a month or so ago.

It turned out to be, well, a life-changing experience would be too strong a way to put it.  But let’s just say that the demands of everyday life, and particularly the sense of control over information flow, had been spinning ever more dizzily out of control over the last few weeks months years, and I was, shall we say, receptive to finding some way out.  I must confess that, despite the appallingly geekish subject matter, I couldn’t put the thing down.  This was the real McCoy.  Yes!  I can do this!  Concrete suggestions! So I read the book and — this is the important part — actually made a conscious decision to start putting some of its recommendations into practice.  Long story short: it works for me.

garbage_in.jpgAnyway, I did not intend this to become a book review, though I do highly recommend it (Warning: the book and its author David Allen have grown into something approaching a cult — see here for an entree into this world).  Really this is all backdrop for a rumination that emerged as I was happily going through my office, printing out neat little labels for my neat little manila file folders, absent-mindedly humming advertising jingles as I arranged them in alphabetical order, merrily consigning decades-old bank statements to the pile destined for the shredder in a surprisingly liberating catharsis, etc.

Yes, the shredder: I never thought of myself as the kind of guy who would own a shredder.  Isn’t that the sort of thing that CIA operatives and high-level corporate mucky-mucks have, not real people like me?  Well my very responsible spouse convinced me that grown-ups need such things to prevent identity theft, etc, etc. I did not press the point on my mind at the time, which was what motivation someone might have for stealing my identity. So we got one.  And there is indeed something pleasing about shredding those old records and being done with them once and for all.

mix_it_up.jpgOr not.  And that, dear friends, brings me to the real subject of today’s shaggy dog story.  In embarking on my semi-decadal office reorganization, it quickly became evident that there was a lot of crap here.  And because shredded office paper is largely air (seems like it would make great insulation, though I suppose there would be a fire hazard), it takes up a lot of space. What to do with the stuff?  It’s unwieldy and takes flight at the slightest breath of breeze.  Not good for dumping into the recycling bin.

Naturally, I wondered whether it is compostable.  So I tried an experiment. I figured let’s just try one bagful and see what happens.  So I dumped it into the compost bin and brushed off my hands. To my surprise, it was basically completely gone in two weeks.  Mind you, this is January and the creek has been frozen over probably more days than not during that time. The microbes are a bit more sluggish this time of year than in the summer.  Yet, when I pitchforked the stuff up and turned it over, there was almost no sign of little bleach-white shreds of paper.  Only that pleasing, earthy amalgam of rotting leaves, almost recognizable former vegetable bits, pupae of some sort of large fly, and the odd remarkably intact apple.

2weekslater.jpgSo the moral of the story is that there is life after death and taxes.  My ancient yellowing tax worksheets and records of dentist bills and pay stubs have returned, literally, to the ecosystem that, via some convoluted path, spawned them.  In a few months’ time, when I get back to Phase II of the biodiversity restoration project, they will be nourishing the little root-hairs of native plants, and from there on to caterpillars, birds, and what not. It’s comforting in some way to believe that the information superhighway leads to a dirt road, and thence into an old field full of untidy life.

Posted in Biodiversity, Books and media, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

What the President(s) said

What a week it’s been. Martin Luther King Day followed immediately by the swearing in of a pathbreaking President of the United States. I would like to write at length about the tide of hope that President Obama’s measured words, and deliberative actions leading up to and following the inauguration, have set in motion.  But for now, I will only pass on this clever and aesthetically pleasing graphical analysis of his inauguration speech, based on this cool software and taken from here. Basically, it simply goes through a text and plots each word therein (excluding “the”, “and”, and the like, evidently) with its size proportional to the number of times it appears in the text. Essentially like the tag clouds you see associated with blogs or Technorati, etc.  So here, my fellow Americans, is the analysis of President Obama’s inauguration speech:

obamawordcloud.jpg

In comparison, here is the analysis of President Bush’s second inaugural speech in January 2005:

bushwordcloud.jpg

The inaugural speeches of Presidents Clinton, Reagan, and Lincoln can be found here. I will leave it to the pundits (for now at last) to make the detailed comparisons. Naturally, I was intrigued by the idea of trying this out myself. So just for grins, I cranked the Natural Patriot’s first post through the grinder and here is what it produced:

nppost1.jpg

Not terribly surprising given that the first post was essentially a definition. And here is the analysis of my own reflection on the upcoming Obama inauguration:

ihaveadream.jpg

Lots of opportunities for fun and mischief here . . .

Posted in Natural Patriots, Politics | 1 Comment

Locals only

frontyard.jpgThe creeping dominance of suburbia by non-native ornamental plants is depleting the abundance and diversity of native animals too—but landscaping with native plants can help reverse the trend.  Yes, we can! (OK, I am still in the grips of Obamaphoria)

Non-native plants now dominate the base of the food web in human-inhabited landscapes (which is to say, most landscapes) of North America and many other regions, largely unnoticed as we go about our daily business.  Sure, that Wisteria looks nice.  But does it taste nice–that is, to the creatures that have to make a living on it?  How has this creeping transformation of outdoor space affected the rest of the ecosystem?

I have written before on the interesting work by ecologist Doug Tallamy of the University of Delaware on this topic.  Now a new paper in the journal Conservation Biology has tested his thesis that introducing non-native plants breaks the evolved links in the food chain that support wildlife, and contribute to, well, making our spring (and summer) silent. The authors of the new paper selected six pairs of sites in suburban Pennsylvania, matched by size and approximate plant cover, in each of which one member of the pair was landscaped entirely with native plants and the other with the typical mix of Eurasian grasses, Asian shrubs and native canopy trees.  Total plant cover and diversity were similar between treatments.

scarlet-tanager.jpgThe results were dramatic.  The properties landscaped with native plants supported 4 times the caterpillar biomass, 3 times the caterpillar species richness, significantly higher bird abundance and diversity, and 8-fold higher abundance of bird species of “regional conservation concern”, that is, declining or endangered in the local region.  In other words, even on the small scale of most yards or medium to large house lots, providing the right kinds of plants can make a major difference in spport of wildlife and biodiversity.  In fact, the benefits of native vegetation are probably even more pronounced than their results suggest because the authors attempted to choose sites in their study with similar levels of plant diversity, so the non-native sites were more diverse than most suburban yards.

What’s behind these results?  The likely mechanism is that the host specificity (i.e., picky eating habits) of many insects prevents them from thriving on non-native plants–many of which have become popular in the nursery trade precisely because insects don’t like them– and since most birds feed their young on insects, this broken link cascades up the food chain to reduce bird abundance and diversity as well.  The latter point was also supported by the finding that insect-eating birds declined even more than birds with other diets in plots with non-native plants.

Given the unabated breakneck growth of the human population and associated built environment, a critical key to conserving a significant remnant of earth’s biodiversity would seem to lie in actively engineering the human-dominated environment to make it hospitable to other organisms. This paper offers hope that fostering native vegetation can significantly further that goal.  That’s what I’m talking about. More details on the home project as the weather warms up and I can venture outside again . . .

[Source: Karin T. Burghardt, Douglas W. Tallamy, and W. Gregory Shriver. 2009. Impact of Native Plants on Bird and Butterfly Biodiversity in Suburban Landscapes. Conservation Biology 23:219-224.]

Posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Science, Sustainability | Tagged , | 8 Comments

I have a dream

mlk_face1.jpgIt’s as predictable as the seasons — every year, when I hear the excerpts from Martin Luther King’s historic speech on the radio at this time of year, it brings tears to my eyes.  I just watched the speech on CNN again and this year was no exception.

But today the words come across in a whole new light.  It still seems, indeed, like a dream that a mere 46 years after Dr. King’s sublime speech (a period of time that seems shorter and shorter as I get older), the hugely diverse, cantankerous, politically divided, myopic, maddening, yet inspiring population of this country have come together to elect an African-American President of the United States.  A mere four decades after black people in this country could be routinely denied entrance to a hotel or restaurant or even a bathroom with no explanation and noone much noticing, a black man is moving into the Oval Office of the White House. And freedom is, at last, ringing from every hill and mole-hill in Mississippi.

Even these months after the election, it seems surreal — a dream — that this could happen.  It seemed inconceivable even 3 or 4 years ago that this could happen at this stage in history.  Yet here we are.

Martin Luther King’s dream, a dream that he gave his life for, brought this country through a dangerous and tumultuous period in our history, with remarkably little bloodshed. It made possible, in no small part, what we will witness at the historic inauguration tomorrow, a mere four decades later.  Much has been said about this literally world-changing event, and there is undoubtedly much more to be said.

But it occurs to me that there is a larger lesson here for Natural Patriotism. It is about, if I might blatantly steal the phrase, “the audacity of hope”. Four decades ago it seemed impossible that black children could one day hold hands with white children in America, much less grow up to be President.  It has come to pass. We faced the seemingly impossible challenge of getting past the bitter, divisive history of four centuries of slavery and brutality to forge a nation of unity from diversity.  Though we have a way to go, it has come to pass. The American way of life was built, in significant part, on exploitation of African-American people.  Yet we are leaving that behind. The American people rose to the challenge.

yeswecan.jpgNow we face the seemingly impossible challenge of another fundamental transformation. The American way of life (and increasingly that of most other countries in the world) is similarly built on exploitation of Nature. This, similarly, is a situation that the nation cannot ultimately survive. It seems, similarly, impossible to move beyond. But perhaps the most important lesson of the momentous transition we are now witnessing is this: Yes, we can.

We can reach the mountain.  We will not all make it, and the going will be difficult, but we can get there.  We can find a way to live happily on this earth, the only home we will ever have, into the distant future.  We can move beyond an economy based on fossil fuel and extravagant consumption and extravagant waste.  We can move beyond the ignorance and hostility to an idea whose time has come. Yes, we can.

As in 1963, we know where we have to go, and we even know how to get there.  The challenge is locking arms together and making the long difficult trek. We have the ideas, we have the know-how, and we are at long last beginning to see the political will.

green_planet.jpgEven a few years ago, it seemed impossible that we could face the realities that oil is running out, that burning it is cooking our planet, and that our ravenous appetites are literally suicidal.  But we are beginning, after a long darkness, to see light on the horizon.  And I feel that I can allow myself to believe that we will make it.  I have a dream.

Posted in Natural Patriots, Politics, Sustainability | Tagged | 2 Comments

Here comes the sun

winter_sun.jpg[In celebration of the recently passed Solstice and the dawning season of rebirth, number nine in a series, this the second from Mary Oliver. Food for thought in the holiday season, and always]

The Sun
Mary Oliver

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again

out of the blackness,
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed–
or have you too
turned from the world–

or have you too
gone crazy
for power,
for things?

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment

Fast food: on the fast track to environmental ruin

tall-hamburger.jpgWhere does your food come from? This is a question central to the Gordian knot of issues tangling together public health, environmental health, energy markets, and geopolitics. It is increasingly on the lips of “localvores” seeking to enhance both their own health and that of the land around them by eating locally grown food that is wholesome and does not require massive expenditure of fossil fuels to transport it to the plate. It is obviously a question at the heart of vegetarianism.

For many Americans, the food comes, most immediately, from the local fast food joint, arriving wrapped in a mountain of paper and plastic packaging (the recently popular phrase “lipstick on a pig” comes to mind) at the take-out window while the car sits idly, spewing carbon and other stuff into the air.

But where does it come from before that? Answering that question is surprisingly difficult. And that, it emerges, is no coincidence. The fast food industry, which runs more than half the restaurants in the USA and sells more than a hundred billion dollars of food each year, have consistently opposed regulation of ingredient reporting. Enter Hope Kahren and Rebecca Kraft, who set out on a scientific detective mission to answer that question and recently reported their results in an open access article in PNAS. The results, perhaps predictably, are not pretty.

The authors dusted for fingerprints, as it were, using stable isotope analysis. Isotopes of carbon are used commonly in scientific sleuthing of where food comes from and who eats it, both in natural food webs and in what might be called the human food web. The background is this: Carbon has two naturally occurring stable (i.e., non-radioactive) isotopes, that is, two forms of the element that differ in the number of protons in the nucleus, having either 12 or 13. The two types of carbon basically function in the same way chemically and biologically; however 13C is a slightly heavier than 12C, with the result that it tends to gets left behind when plants are sucking CO2 out of the air to photosynthesize and make new plant biomass. The result is that the ratio of the two forms or isotopes of carbon in their tissue, their so-called carbon isotopic signature, differs from the ratio in the atmosphere out of which they sucked it. Plants that are less selective, and thus suck more 13C, are said to have a “heavier” ratio than pickier plants that suck less 13C. The technical term for this difference in isotopic ratio between the plant (or animal, as the case may be) tissue and the atmosphere is the δ13C ratio (pronounced “del C-13”, del being short for the lower case delta, which is used by science geeks to signify a difference, in this case between plant tissue and the standard against which it’s being compared). Animals (like cows and us) that eat the plants (like corn) retain the carbon isotopic signature of their food, so it can be used to figure out what they’ve been eating.

Right. So why do we need to know this stuff? Well it just so happens that corn has a rather unique “light” carbon isotopic signature that is readily distinguishable from those of many of the other crops at the base of the human food chain. The authors of this paper took advantage of corn’s unique carbon isotopic signature to explore the rather unsavory (pardon the pun) question of where fast food comes from.

burgers.jpgJahren and Kraft used C and N stable isotopes to suss out the source of feed to the animals used in fast food, the source of fat within Freedom French fries, and, ingeniously, were able to interpret these data to infer the role of artificial fertilizer use and confinement of the animals in the industrial fast food production chain. They sampled >480 hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and fries from McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s outlets in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Detroit, Boston, and Baltimore. Personally I prefer diving in the Caribbean for my field work, but — hey — they got a PNAS paper out of it. Here’s what they found:

” Based on a comparison with [isotopic values of different livestock feeds], 100% of the chicken and 93% of the beef sampled in this study had δ13C values consistent with an exclusively corn-based diet.” Indeed, isotopic signatures indicated that only 12 of the 162 hamburgers they sampled could possibly have come from cattle fed anything other than corn. So forget the bucolic vistas of cattle peacefully grazing in green pastures with tinkling cowbells. We’re talking about industrial meat factories.

But wait — there’s more:

corn.jpgJahren and Kraft also measured the isotopic signature of nitrogen, the δ15N. This signature tells a different part of the story. The signature of nitrogen in livestock ultimately reflects the source of fertilizer used, but also correlates with animal stocking rate. It turns out that the burgers and chick-o-patties sampled from America’s fast food outlets (over 90 billion sold! OK, I made that up but it’s probably within a few orders of magnitude) have unusually high and consistent δ15N signatures: “We observed remarkably invariant values of δ15N in both beef and chicken, reflecting uniform confinement and exposure to heavily fertilized feed for all animals.” The results are shown in the graph above, which I included mostly because of its pleasing, mandala-like arrangement of colored dots. The different symbol shapes are different fast-food chains, with three samples (rows) from three restaurants (columns) of each chain in each of seven cities.

The bottom line: Throughout the whole country (and presumably elsewhere in the world, where the Golden Arches and their ilk are increasingly blocking out views of the Arc de Triomphe, the Great Wall, etc.), a principal source of calories and fat to the populace is provided by a food industry that is not only grossly unhealthy, a blot on the landscape, and numbingly inhumane, but also destructive to the environment. In what way? Corn agriculture has gotten black eyes lately because of its tremendous appetite for water and fertilizer, with much of the latter running off into the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, where it nurtures hypoxic dead zones. Now we can see that, perversely, much of that pollution is being driven by the American appetite for junk food (not to mention the growing, and wildly misguided, move toward bioethanol fuel production).

Why are we learning this only now? Well, one reason is the way the fast-food industry is structured: “Fastfood corporations do not raise livestock, but instead buy it from other companies. Birth, growth, and slaughter are distinct events occurring at different facilities, often under different companies. Each fast food chain employs distributor companies: These suppliers organize and broker the production and transport of meat to the site of food fabrication and sale. In this way, distributors act as a barrier to consumer information; suppliers relevant to this study provide little information beyond their use of ‘local farms’ that feed ‘mixed grains.'” Clearly, The latter claim at least is fiction, as these results demonstrate.

One more piece of evidence that what you don’t know can hurt you. So [warning: self-righteous pontification follows!] slow down and eat local foods. And, if there is a single no-brainer message that comes out of all of this, it is clearly this: stop eating meat. You’ll be healthier, you’ll greatly reduce your environmental footprint, and you won’t have those frightful chicken and beef factories on your conscience. As a personal disclaimer, I haven’t succeeded entirely in doing that — yet — but I’m working on it . . .

[Original source: Jahren, A.H. and and Kraft, R.A. 2008. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in fast food: Signatures of corn and confinement. Proceedings of the National cademy of Science of the USA 105 (46): 17855-17860.]

Posted in Science, Sustainability | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Is that a real poncho or is that a Sears poncho?

please_tell_me_this_is_a_joke.jpg[Natural Patriot’s semi-trivia contest: My 11-year-old son wants to know if any alert reader out there can identify the source of that quote.]

In the meantime, a note to the Ex-President-to-be: Dude, stick with the flag pin on the lapel. At this stage in your administration’s tailspin, I would recommend accessories that divert, rather than draw, attention. Yes, I know, you were only being polite — and perhaps trying to salvage a few Hispanic votes for the GOP in advance of the 2012 campaign. But it’s really not you.

And on a related note: I realize that this is tantamount to kicking someone when they’re down, but I cannot resist passing on the link to this astonishing video of the Governor of Alaska, allegedly being interviewed after the ceremonial pardoning of the Thanksgiving turkey — while its pals are getting the bass-o-matic treatment in the background!:

Check out this video

Verily, truth is stranger than fiction. I know that, strictly speaking, this has little to do with Natural Patriotism, but give a guy a break. After eight years, there’s a lot of stuff pent up here that needs to be cleared out of the system to restore a healthy outlook on life . . .

Posted in Politics | Tagged | 7 Comments

Biodiversity loss is sickening — literally

titmouse.jpgThe degrading global environment has raised concern, even alarm, for many reasons, but one of the most important involves the issue of how loss of species may influence nature’s ability to continue providing life support to us — “ecosystem services” in the common parlance. Ecosystem services include the various processes necessary to life and well-being that we get free of charge, and usually unnoticed, from the natural world: purification of water by percolation through soil and plant communities, moderation of climate by forest cover, production of fish for human consumption, protection of coastal communities from storms by mangrove thickets, and so on.

It’s well appreciated of course that nature, in a very general sense, is essential to our well-being (although this seemingly obvious fact appears to have escaped the understanding of many mainstream economists — see here for an antidote). But what about “biodiversity” — that somewhat nebulous term we hear so frequently these days? What real difference does it make to us whether we have one or ten or a hundred species in our backyards? Can we just pick the several types of plants and animals we think that we will need in perpetuity and plant them under a glass dome on the moon, as some people in surprisingly high positions appear to believe?

The general question is how biodiversity affects the way ecosystems work, and more particularly how they work for us. This question has been a hotbed of scientific research in the last 15 years (and a strong personal interest of mine). Ecologists have conducted hundreds of experiments to determine how the number of species in a habitat affects the total production of plant biomass, the use of soil nutrients, the production of small animals that serve as food for fish, the ecosystem’s ability to rebound from disturbances, and so on.

There are are now enough such experiments that it’s been possible to synthesize the results in search of generalizations, some of which I have participated in myself (e.g., here). These show pretty clearly that, in a nutshell, more species means higher production and more efficient use of resources.

But what about the real world? I have argued that these experiments, despite being small-scale, of short duration, and under artificially simple conditions, are probably conservative — that is, the influence of biodiversity on functioning of ecosystems in the real world is likely more, not less, important than we see in small-scale experiments. But the real test of this idea will come from studies in the real world, studies of how loss of species influences processes that are directly important to us where we live.

swaddle_calos_1.pngA new study published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology does just that. John Swaddle and Stavros Calos tackled a specific question about how biodiversity influences risk of disease, namely the hypothesis of the “dilution effect”. The idea applies to diseases that humans contract from animals in the environment, such as lyme disease, west nile virus, and bird flu. The hypothesis goes like this: when diversity of animal hosts is high, the disease organisms that live in them cannot be transmitted or grow as effectively, because the animal species differ in their susceptibility to infection, the population sizes of individual species tend to be lower (and hence support lower disease populations) in diverse communities, etc. But what is the evidence for this?

Swaddle and Calos used a clever approach to test the dilution hypothesis for West Nile Virus (WNV), which is carried by birds. They compared counties in the eastern USA that reported WNV with adjacent counties that reported no cases of WNV (shown as red and blue respectively — no relation to their political leanings, as far as I know), a pair-wise comparative test that controlled for differences in climate and other regional environmental factors. They also used human census data to account for human demographic and socioeconomic variation between the counties.

swaddle_calos_2.pngSupporting the dilution effect of biodiversity, their analysis showed that incidence of West Nile Virus in humans was lower in counties where bird diversity is high, and that, quite surprisingly, bird diversity explained more variation in disease incidence (roughly 50% of total) than urbanization or socioeconomics. The mechanisms appear complex but support a component of the “dilution effect” by which higher host diversity reduced abundance of those bird species that are the most susceptible hosts.The results of this study generalize previous evidence of the dilution effect, notably the similar finding that lyme disease in humans is more prevalent in areas where diversity of small mammals (the usual hosts of the organism that produces lyme disease) is reduced. In both cases, lower-diversity communities tend to favor the host species most likely to carry and transmit infections. In other words, loss of biodiversity is sickening — not just esthetically and ethically, but literally.

This study is one of a growing number of examples supporting the suggestion that biodiversity enhances ecosystem services not only in small-scale experiments, but also in real-world landscapes.

[Original source: Swaddle JP, Calos SE. 2008. Increased Avian Diversity Is Associated with Lower Incidence of Human West Nile Infection: Observation of the Dilution Effect. PLoS One 3(6): e2488. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002488]

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Some advice to the President-elect on the state of the world

earth.gif[Below is a letter making the rounds on the internet from Professor Steve Carpenter, an eminent ecologist at the University of Wisconsin, offering advice to President-elect Obama on the importance of serious and prompt environmental action as he begins his presidency. The text of the letter and a petition you can sign (for whatever that is worth) in support of its goals can be found here.]

November 2008

“Dear President-Elect Obama,

Congratulations on your election, which has created a sense of optimism in America that has never occurred before in my lifetime.

Yet earth’s life support systems have deteriorated more in our lifetimes than in any other era of human history. With earth’s population increasing, and consumption per person growing much faster than population, humans are heating the climate, polluting air and water, degrading landscapes and turning coastal oceans to dead zones. America’s food supply depends on a few fragile crops, grown using practices that degrade soil, air and water to yield foods of low nutritional value that harm our health. The U.S. is not investing in the education and innovation needed to create agriculture and energy technologies that can get us through the 21st century. Details are found in a consensus report of more than 1300 leading scientists from more than 90 nations including the U.S. (http://www.MAweb.org). These findings support the following priorities for your presidency.

Decrease America’s dependency on coal and oil and increase the supply of energy from non-polluting technologies: We must decrease emission of greenhouse gases, and the era of cheap oil is over. We must accelerate development of clean energy technologies using wind, sun and tides. These investments must be based on scientific information to avoid bogus remedies, such as grain biofuels, that sound good but do not in fact solve the problem. We must increase conservation through better buildings, efficient transportation, and renewal of industry. We must improve agriculture and forestry practices to reduce energy consumption and increase carbon storage in soil.

Stop subsidizing agriculture that destroys land, water and health. Create incentives for agriculture that maintains land and water resources and yields healthy food: Agriculture must shift to practices that use less energy for tillage and transport of food, produce healthy food for local consumption, train more people in diverse farming practices, build soil instead of degrading and eroding it, and maintain clean water and air. These reforms can be accomplished by reforming federal subsidies.

Have a population policy: In global impact, the U.S. is the world’s most overpopulated nation, mainly because of our high per-capita consumption. Our population is growing rapidly. Global population growth is a key driver of degraded land, water, air and climate. Education of women is a powerful lever to restrain population growth. If all the world’s women are educated to high-school level, human impact on our life-support system will be more than 30% lower by 2050. As a father of daughters, it is especially appropriate for you to support education for all of the world’s women.

Invest in the education and innovation needed to create a society that could thrive in the 21st century and beyond: Even though our universities and research centers are the envy of the world, science education of the general population of the U.S. is weak and must be made stronger. Education must be reformed to encourage creativity. There are enormous opportunities for innovations in agriculture, energy, and infrastructure that will lead to a moderate climate, rich landscapes, and clean air and water into the future. These technological opportunities are being seized by other nations while the U.S. lags behind. We must restore American leadership in creating technology that maintains our life support system while providing the energy, food and shelter that people need.

Sincerely yours,

Steve Carpenter

Stephen Alfred Forbes Professor of Zoology
Center for Limnology
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin 53706 USA”

Posted in Politics, Science, Sustainability | 9 Comments