A New Era begins

economist_obama.jpg[I beg your pardon if this seems a bit over the top. They don’t let me out of my cage very much . . . and how often do we get a chance like this?]

What a time to be an American!

After so long in a dark age, we can finally see the light. It has been said thousands of times in the last weeks and months that this is an historic election — that is not just media hyperbole. Who would have dreamed even two or three years ago that a black man — and one with a so clearly foreign name — would be the next President of the United States? Who could have guessed that we would arrive so soon at a time when “the race card” — one of the central boogeyman of politics and of America’s ambivalent soul for centuries — essentially evaporated? Who would have imagined that in 2008 we could have a national political discussion (to use a charitable word for the usual public discourse on politics) about two candidates for the highest office in the nation — many would say in the world — that had so little mention of the issue that has so often in the past been the elephant in the room? I personally doubt that it is possible to truly reach the oft-mentioned ideal of a “color-blind society” — some degree of prejudice is probably hard-wired into our genes, in the sense of inherent distrust of the unfamiliar or different. But it can be overcome. This election proves as nothing else could that this country has made a quantum leap in that direction.

I have felt repeatedly in the last two days like a sudden flood of sunshine has come into a dank cave that we’ve been in for so long, a hole that the idealogues of the current administration, through a combination of criminal ineptitude, arrogance, and paranoia, have dug us into and from which we’d begun to despair we would ever get out. I am not so naive to think that it will all be sweetness and light from here on out. President-elect Obama inherits a catastrophe on nearly every front — military, economic, geopolitical, environmental — and it will surely get worse before it gets better, at least financially. We are all in for a rough ride. But even with all that, the mere fact that this nation, which had devolved in the eyes of the rest of the planet to a bunch of myopic, superstitious bullies, could come together and elect a black man as President — by a two to one margin — that alone can only cause a sea change of almost unprecedented proportions in our image in the world. And the news and reactions I see here in Portugal amply bears that out.

Yet, despite its far-ranging significance, even the historic election of an African-American is in some sense almost a side issue. The most important thing is that we have elected not another cookie-cutter political product buoyed along by slogans and spin machine but an actual thoughtful statesman who successfully avoided the toxic culture of personal destruction that has increasingly consumed American politics in recent decades. Living in Virginia, where for the first time in decades we actually saw campaign ads for President, I can attest to this: Obama focused on his opponent’s voting record. Not on ties to ancient scandals (though McCain has some), nor on his choice of running mate (shockingly irresponsible as it was), not on convoluted claims of financial connections to alleged terrorists. Not even on McCain’s apparent uncertainty about the USA’s alliance with Spain. Obama refused to stoop to the level of is opponents. He rose above it all. Against all odds, and no doubt against the judgment of many seasoned advisors, he kept the focus on real issues. And it worked. In addition to everything else that’s been said about him, Obama made some small but important progress back in the direction of a civil society. Democracy is working again.

Hail to the Chief.

[And: You go, Judith Warner!]

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The big day

election2008.jpgThe big day has arrived at last (son: “Dad, will we still have to watch politics every night after the election?). I am on my way out the door to two meetings in Europe, plane leaving Philadelphia at 4:35 this afternoon. I am already experiencing withdrawal symptoms about not being able to watch the blow-by-blow tonight while in the air (perhaps they’ll have the cheesy airport version of CNN on the plane for all the other junkies like myself). On the other hand I’m very intrigued at being able to see the immediate aftermath of the election from the other side of the pond. If time — and jet lag — permit, your ace correspondent will report on the election results from Portugal tomorrow. Stay tuned . . .

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Getting to the root of the problem

human_population_growth.gifQuestion: What is more fundamental to sustainability than fixing climate change, even more certain to lead to catastrophe if unfixed, far more politically sensitive, but even more essential to passing on a habitable planet to our grandchildren and their children?

Answer: Controlling human population growth.

There. I’ve said it. And so have a host of others, who have pledged to speak out on this critical issue–which remains largely taboo in most polite conversations–in an organized event scheduled for February 2009.

The Global Population Speak-Out (GPSO) is being organized by John Feeney, who some of you know from his very thoughtful blog Growth is Madness. Why the focus on population growth — isn’t that old-fashioned? Don’t we know that the real culprit is the out-of-control resource use by those of us in the developed world? Well, yes, that is a major source of our unsustainable impacts on our life-support system. But those patterns of per-capita resource are rapidly being exported to the developing world. It must be stressed that the current and projected increases in resource use in the developing world carry some very important benefits to historically impoverished people. But it is also well documented that our modern lifestyles, and the resources they require, are not remotely sustainable over the long term.

Total human impact on the earth is the product of population size and per-capita resource use. All else being equal, then, a decline in population allows a corresponding rise in average individual resource use. And it should go without saying that a planet of finite size cannot sustain growth of the population, or of per-capita resource use, indefinitely. At some point it has to stop. And it is increasingly, glaringly, clear that that point must be soon. Ecological footprint data indicate that no realistic reduction in per capita consumption on the part of industrialized countries would be enough, in the absence of increased attention to population, to bring us back to within Earth’s capacity to sustain us.

John has succeeded in generating enough interest in the GPSO that the journal Science has taken notice. Here is their summary from the issue published today:

“RETURN OF THE POPULATION BOMB
At a time when some developed nations are paying citizens to bolster flagging birth-rates (Science, 30 June 2006, p. 1894), a grass-roots group of scientists and environmentalists is calling for a new push to limit human numbers.

Overpopulation is threatening life as we know it on the planet, say members of a movement called Global Population Speak Out (http://gpso.wordpress.com/), which aims to persuade at least 50 “respected voices” to “speak out in some way” about the problem for a month next year.

“The hope is to concentrate these informed researchers’ messages about population during the month of February so we can make a bit of a dent in this taboo” surrounding the subject, says the movement’s organizer John Feeney, an environmental writer in Boulder, Colorado. Global population, now at about 6.7 billion, is expected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050, says Feeney, and that’s the United Nations’ “medium” projection.

So far, Feeney says 46 people have pledged to speak out or endorse the movement, including botanist Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis; Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel; and entomologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, author of the 1968 book The Population Bomb. Although some of Ehrlich’s most dire predictions haven’t come to pass, others–namely, mass extinctions, as well as horrors he didn’t mention, such as destruction of rainforests and coral reefs from climate change–appear to be well under way.”

The letter inviting everyone to participate is here. Basically, the organizers ask you simply to speak out publicly during the month of February 2009 about how unfettered population growth threatens global society’s sustainable future. Like 2007’s Step it up campaign about climate change (which we participated in locally), the GPSO aims to draw attention to the issue of global population growth by raising a chorus of voices throughout the world simultaneously. The GPSO site has suggestions for letters to the editor, talking points, and other resources here.

As E.O. Wilson has said, “The raging monster upon the land is population growth. In its presence, sustainability is but a fragile theoretical construct. To say, as many do, that the difficulties of nations are not due to people but to poor ideology or land-use management is sophistic.”

Posted in Politics, Sustainability | Tagged | 3 Comments

Swingin’ in Virginia

flag_of_virginia.pngThis weekend we drove back north to the ancestral homeland in Arlington, Virginia, for my high school reunion — I can’t bring myself to reveal which one it was except that it’s been quite some time. The return trip brought us down the old familiar trail of US Route 17, a mostly two-lane highway winding through the picturesque, rural hinterland of eastern Virginia from the Piedmont down into Tidewater. Autumn colors are beginning to come up, it was a beautiful cool crisp day, and traffic was light. Here and there families were bent down in the fields picking pumpkins, cars were parked for harvest festivals. A great fall day.

But I mention all this not for the idyllic natural scenery but because of the striking evidence of a possible sea change in the political landscape. Virginia has been a reliably red state for four decades. And “the Nation’s first district”, as the long strip of land bisected by Route 17 is known, has had a Republican congressional representative for longer than most people can remember. When I arrived here in 1994, the Democrats didn’t even bother putting up a candidate for Congress because it was pointless. It almost certainly still is, though a brave soul has decided to take the plunge this time.

nations_first_district.gifBut here’s the thing. When we drove up to Arlington yesterday, I was astonished to see what appeared to me to be equal numbers of signs along the road for McCain and Obama. This is utterly unheard of in my experience here. For example, in 2004, my estimate, admittedly non-quantitative but based on many weeks of observing the bumper stickers of hundreds of pick-up trucks and mini-vans, is that Bush-Cheney bumper stickers outnumbered Kerry stickers by at least ten to one. Probably more.

So, on the way back to Gloucester, we decided to quantify the patterns. Along the whole stretch of Route 17 from Fredericksburg to Gloucester, we counted the number of political sign for McCain and Obama (counting each group of signs that clearly was posted together as a single “installation”). And the tally was:

Obama: 28

McCain: 23

Interesting. But what does it mean? That is harder to say. It’s been well publicized that Obama has raised substantially more money than McCain — also a rather striking change of fortunes, so to speak, since the Republicans have typically raised more money in past presidential elections. This means there is more money available to pay staff, print posters, and get them out on the roadside. So it’s conceivable that the larger number of Obama signs means only that the campaign was able to pay a bunch of warm bodies from DC or New Jersey to come down and plaster the roadsides.

Maybe.

On the other hand, lots of the signs seem to be in people’s yards, which suggests that they reflect the views of real people that live here. I suppose we’ll find out — in 23 days.

So why I am I talking about this on the Natural Patriot? What does all this mundane politics have to do with Natural Patriotism? I mean apart from the solemn responsibility of all citizens to exercise their democratic responsibilities.

The reason is that your vote makes a difference (leaving aside for the moment that annoying little detail that we still use the curious, antiquated institution of the electoral college, which has historically meant that, given my minority status in this state, my vote meant jack squat).

How does it make a difference? You be the judge. Here are the League of Conservation Voters‘ report cards for Barack Obama and John McCain.

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What could be worse than the global financial meltdown?

forest_loss.jpgAnd you thought the mortgage crisis was bad . . .

Even as people the world over perch on the edge of their chairs, chewing their fingernails in barely contained panic at the global financial meltdown, the BBC reports that the crisis in our natural capital is even worse.

According to a study commissioned by the European Union, called “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity“, the global economy is losing more money from loss of forests than through the current banking crisis. The annual cost of forest loss is estimated at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion. This estimate comes from adding the value of the various ecosystem services that forests perform, such as providing clean water and absorbing carbon dioxide. The team calculated that forest loss alone was equivalent to about 7% of total global gross domestic product.

Says the study’s lead author Pavan Sukhdev:

“It’s not only greater but it’s also continuous, it’s been happening every year, year after year . . . So whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”

teeb.jpgThe assumption underlying this type of accounting is that as forests (or other natural infrastructure) decline, nature stops providing the services that it has historically provided free of charge. In which case the human economy either has to provide them instead — for example through building reservoirs, facilities to sequester carbon dioxide, new farming methods — or we have to do without. Either way, there is a financial cost.

And that’s just forests alone. The TEEB team hasn’t got around yet to valuing ocean ecosystem services, fisheries, and so on. The figures mentioned here were already known since they were published in the Phase I report back in May. But the global financial meltdown puts some flesh on the bones, so to speak. That is, it’s hard to comprehend (at least for me) what 2 trillion dollars are (how many zeros is that anyway?) until you begin to glimpse it in terms of the major financial institutions of planet earth simultaneously tanking. Puts things in perspective. The forest crisis is more of a slow burn — no pun intended. But no less worrisome in the long term.

Bail-out anyone?

Is there any hope? Perhaps. Study leader Sukhdev says that governments and businesses are beginning to get the point:

“Times have changed. Almost three years ago, even two years ago, their eyes would glaze over . . . Today, when I say this, they listen. In fact I get questions asked – so how do you calculate this, how can we monetize it, what can we do about it, why don’t you speak with so and so politician or such and such business.”

Thank goodness it’s Friday. I think I’m ready for a drink . . .

Posted in Biodiversity, Science, Sustainability | Tagged | 2 Comments

We have met the enemy . . . and they is us

mountain-home.jpgWhy is the world in the trouble that it’s in? We could cite a long litany of reasons, but ultimately it boils down to the large and increasing number of people on earth, and our large and increasing appetites, broadly speaking. The first of these reasons is why population control is the elephant in the room in all our discussions about achieving a sustainable future. It is transparently clear that the ship, and we the passengers, are going down if global population is not stabilized, and even reduced. But the subject is so exquisitely sensitive, politically and culturally, that few people will touch it with (to quote the narrator in “The Grinch”) a thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.

So we turn to the other term in the equation: per capita resource use. Most of us in the “developed” world understand, with a sense of more or less acute discomfort, that the glare is on us here. I saw on a TV program not long ago that the average American has the ecological footprint of some 90 Bangladeshis. Ouch. Think about that the next time you (I) pontificate about population control, necessary as it is.

Now there is a new study out to make American environmentalists even more uncomfortable. In a recent issue of Conservation Biology, Peterson and colleagues basically asked the question whether environmentalists are putting their money (not the odd check to World Wildlife Fund but their big money, in the form of home construction) where their mouths are.

The answer, in a word, is no.

Peterson et al. worked in the Teton Valley of Idaho and Wyoming, an area that is developing extremely rapidly, and largely due to influx of people looking for “natural amenity value” — beautiful landscapes, outdoor activities, and so on. The authors collected data on age, income, education level, and other demographics from a randomly selected sample of 416 households, and also scored the individuals on the “New Environmental Paradigm” (NEP) scale:

“The NEP measures broad attitudes toward the environment that influence attitudes toward a wide range of more specific environmental factors (e.g., forests, erosion, pollution, endangered species . . . ). The NEP addresses 5 theoretical dimensions with 3 questions for each: endorsement of limits to growth, antianthropocentrism, belief in future ecocrisis, belief in a fragile nature, and rejection of human exemptionalism (i.e., the notion that humans are free to do as they please because they are exempt from the laws of nature). Scores can range from 15 to 75, but are often positively skewed. Environmentalists (e.g., members of known environmental organizations) consistently score higher on the NEP than the general public or members of nonenvironmental organizations.”

peterson.gifIn a nutshell, the authors show that more educated, and environmentally oriented individuals are much more likely to build houses in environmentally sensitive areas, whereas individuals with less education and less environmentally aware attitudes are more prone to settle in existing residential developments, where their per capita impact is less (the graph at left shows the “selection ratio”, i.e., propensity to build a home in a sensitive area, in relation to age, education, and NEP score). To make matters worse, those homesteading in formerly wild areas tend to have smaller household sizes and therefore, more house per person, amplifying their per capita impacts. In other words, educated, environmentally conscious Americans have more, not less, detrimental impacts on the environment.

Interestingly, these direct data from household location contrast with prior indirect evidence suggesting neutral or positive effects of education and pro-environment attitudes on impact. To quote the cartoon strip Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Another somewhat unsettling finding was a weakly negative relationship between environmental sensitivity (as indexed by NEP score) and the length of time as a resident in a natural area. This presumably reflects assimilation into the local culture (in the same way that I occasionally use the word “y’all” despite having grown up in northern Virginia suburbia, the son of solid midwesterners). But, on the surface at least, it seems to go against the conventional wisdom that contact with nature engenders respect for it and action to protect it.

Being an older (?), overeducated, environmentally conscious individual, I naturally became defensive. So I took a look around: OK, I live in a house on the water, admittedly. But it was built in 1920 — so I’m not to blame! I’m recycling! And it’s certainly quite a bit smaller and less grandiose than the new houses of many of my acquaintances over in the “big city” in Williamsburg, where forest has been giving way to McMansions at an alarming rate over the last decade or two.

But that is not much comfort. The real messages are that we need to be aware of what we are doing, and we need to practice what we preach. Walk the walk, in the current parlance. As the authors note:

“A household perspective for biodiversity conservation expects environmentalists with higher levels of education to sacrifice what they want (e.g., a home on a river, on a mountain side, or on fragile desert soils) before expecting the poor or individuals with lower levels of education to sacrifice what they need for basic living (e.g., heating, health care, college education for their children) in the name of biodiversity conservation.”

There is one more issue that bothered me while reading this, and it brings us back to the first term in the equation above, that of population growth. This analysis addresses per capita impacts — it is essentially a snapshot of what is happening at a single moment in time. What happens if we wind the tape (an archaic analogy nowadays, I realize) forward? How do these trends translate to population-level impacts? To answer this, we need to know the population trajectories of the different demographic groups — their average numbers of children, age at first reproduction, etc. If, as seems likely, individuals with more years of education tend, on average, to have lower reproductive rates and/or later age at first reproduction, their per capita impacts will be partially offset by their lower contribution to future population growth. So their (my) long-term impacts may be less egregious than this analysis suggests. It would be interesting to supplement the analysis in this paper with population projections of the different demographic groups. But I will leave that to the modelers.

[Source: Peterson, M.N., Chen, X.D. and Liu, J.G., 2008. Household Location Choices: Implications for Biodiversity Conservation. Conservation Biology 22: 912-921.]

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Handle with care

bialowieza.jpg[This recent editorial in the journal Nature captures one of our central challenges as a global society so well that I quote the article here in full. The article refers specifically to a forest in Poland that is among the last remaining areas that might be called a wilderness on that continent, but the general message applies to the entire planet.]

“Ecologists must research how best to intervene in and preserve ecosystems.

For many people — including many scientists — ‘nature’ is defined by a negative: it exists where people do not. Nature lies outside the urban and agricultural realms, in regions of Earth where natural processes are unimpeded. Nature is where fallen logs rot and acorns grow, wildfires turn woodlands into meadows, and barrier islands shift with the currents — all without human interference. By extension, this definition suggests that nature is best protected by keeping humans far away, so that it can continue to run itself.

But there is a serious problem with this view. If nature is defined as a landscape uninfluenced by humankind, then there is no nature on the planet at all. Prehistoric peoples changed their surrounding ecosystems, whether by installing orchards in the Amazon or — according to one increasingly accepted theory — by hunting many large mammals to extinction in North America. And modern humans are changing the global environment even more profoundly, whether through planet-wide climate change, or by the worldwide movement of synthetic chemicals through the food chain. Today there is no place untouched by man — a point made by environmentalist Bill McKibben as early as 1989 in the starkly titled The End of Nature.

Nature doesn’t have to end if we stop defining it by humankind’s absence. Humans prize natural spaces because they are historic, culturally significant, aesthetic and scientifically interesting — and, increasingly, because they have been recognized as providing essential services such as filtering water, ameliorating storm surge, providing fish, game and timber, and sequestering carbon. Ecosystems that are valuable for one or more of these reasons can be identified by quantifiable biological traits, such as the presence of certain key species or processes. In the Bialowieza forest of eastern Europe, which has a long history of human activity, for example, one could cite the presence of European bison and of a large amount of dead wood as characteristics worth preserving.

Retaining such characteristics takes more than the absence of active destruction. It is precisely because of humanity’s pervasive influence that even the least changed ecosystems need help surviving in the future. Bialowieza’s core is so small that the dynamic processes that once drove its mosaic of different micro-ecosystems probably can’t operate as they once did. Some of its large mammals are extinct. Many new species have arrived through human agency. And climate change is altering the seasonal timing and hydrological cycles of the forest.

Scientific research on the best ways to manage natural ecosystems needs to become a much higher priority.

The only alternative is proactive management — by humans. Already, conservationists in some forests set small fires to burn out underbrush before it reaches levels that could produce catastrophic fires. They shoot prey species whose populations are out of control because the top predators have been exterminated. And they have begun to control water flows into wetlands where the natural flow has been disrupted. In the future, as climate change takes hold, management may become even more radical. Some ecologists are beginning to talk about moving slowly dispersing plants and animals pole-wards or upslope to keep them in climates they can thrive in, or introducing non-native ‘functional equivalents’ in some ecosystems to play certain key roles.

wisent.jpgSuch talk will undoubtedly raise hackles among those ecologists for whom intervention in natural ecosystems is anathema. Yet our species’ all-pervasive impact on this planet has already doomed that hands-off approach to failure.

Unfortunately, would-be managers of natural regions still know very little about how to save natural places without continuing Homo sapiens‘ legacy of destruction. Ecologists have conventionally studied the workings of intact ecosystems, but have focused much less attention on how to keep them intact. Scientific research on the best ways to manage natural ecosystems needs to become a much higher priority.

Meanwhile, economists, ecologists and ethicists need to seek ways to bring natural ecosystems into the economic system, instead of just assuming that they exist outside of or in opposition to economics. If nothing else, this will require continued research on how to put a fair economic value on ecosystems that provide humankind with services — a classic example being wetlands that absorb storm run-off and help prevent flooding — while not dooming ecosystems such as deserts and tundras that contribute in a less obvious way.

For now, the custodians of Bialowieza are letting the never-logged core area alone, even going so far as to prohibit entry to tourists except when accompanied by a guide. But the day may come when hands-off means waving goodbye. Will science know how to save Bial strokeowiezdota when that day comes?”

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Grading the presidential candidates in science

sd2008.jpgIn the last few months we have learned a lot about John McCain’s heroic service and travails as a prisoner of war, about Barack Obama’s history on the streets of Chicago, and we are beginning to learn — with some apprehension — about what’s under Sarah Palin’s carpet. We’ve been titillated with various political skullduggery and shootouts. We’ve seen endless loops of the the American flag flying majestically in slo-mo in the background.

But there remains the question: what will these people actually do if elected President? And, of special interest, both because it is critically important in the emerging age of technology and global transformation, as well as because we have not yet heard jack about it in the swirling 24/7 media blitz: where do the two Presidential candidates stand on the role of science in America? As organizers of an event at the Franklin Institute earlier this year emphasized:

“Every Nobel laureate we’ve spoken to has said the same thing: the next four to eight years are critical and the next president has the potential to determine the future health of all life on earth.

On March 11, Bill Gates testified before Congress saying that on the economic front, America “is at a crossroads” and will almost certainly become a second-rate economy without massive attention to science & engineering in schools and changes in government policies toward innovation.”

You might be forgiven, considering the tenor that political debates tend to take in this country, for being pessimistic about the prospects of this issue getting a hearing above the background noise. Yet, against the odds, a dedicated team has been persistent enough to get through to the candidates and score some answers, which were posted three days ago at ScienceDebate2008.

Recognizing both the growing scientific complexity of the challenges that we face, and no doubt also the abysmal record of the current administration in dealing with that reality, the architects of this effort started from the following premise:

“Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues.”

Then they posed 14 questions to the candidates and let them speak for themselves. You can read the answers in entirety here. On reading these I was struck forcefully by the sense that the issues being discussed here are not “just” scientific issues, they are the fundamental issues of our time and of this election. This is a wake-up call about the centrality of science and technology to modern global civilization, what is at stake, and how far the USA has fallen behind as a result of the Bush administration’s war on science. The good news is that — if these answers are an indication — both candidates seem to “get it”, and both will be miles ahead of the current administration (which, admittedly, is not saying much). They will surely have different approaches to addressing the challenges but, for example, both recognize the urgency of man-made climate change and support substantive measures to curb warming.

Will this make a difference? Do American voters actually care about science? At least in a generic sense, it appears that they do. According to a poll by Lake Research Partners conducted for Scientists and Engineers for America:

policy_science.jpg

  • Voters are more likely to vote for a candidate that supports scientific research.
  • Voters are more likely to vote for a candidate that will tackle climate change.
  • Voters are more likely to vote for a candidate that will invest in energy research.
  • Voters are much more likely to vote for a candidate that will invest in science education.
  • Voters want public policy decisions to be based on science.
  • Posted in Education, Politics, Science, Sustainability | 2 Comments

    Jesus was a community organizer, Pontius Pilate was a Governor

    lipstickonapig.jpgThere’s a little food for thought that crossed my radar screen recently.

    Our beloved television and cable media seem to have bit hook, line, and sinker on the GOP bait to make this election a high-school homecoming contest between the democratic candidate for President and the Republican candidate for Vice-President.

    Hey, she’s colorful! She’s cute! And, as her would-be boss is fond of telling adoring audiences, her husband — are you ready — won a really long snowmobile race! If you don’t think that qualifies her to be leader of the free world, you must be one of those eastern elitists that reads newspapers instead of listening to talk radio. And heck, we’ve never before had a “moose-hunting creationist in go-go boots” (as the BBC recently called her, really) for Vice President. What a hoot that would be!

    You do have to give her credit for reading her talking points (over, and over, and over . . .) with relish. She’s pretty lively on the stump. But there is the little complication of the content of her speeches. We’ve heard the claim that Sarah Palin is a reformer that sailed into Alaska with both guns blaring and cleaned the place out, right? She’s a new breed of anti-corruption type, right?

    Um, no.

    Once you look under the lipstick (sorry, couldn’t resist) you see something alarmingly familiar. First, there is the line from her convention speech, repeated endlessly at campaign appearances elsewhere, about saying “thanks but no thanks” to the notorious Bridge to Nowhere. As critics quickly noted, she was “for it before she was against it“, and then after it became clear that the thing was a loser politically, she jumped ship and abandoned the bridge, but kept the pork money! Can you say, “no new taxes”? But here’s the kicker: she’s still saying it! This is what, if the other side were making the claim, conservatives would call “bearing false witness against your neighbor”.

    Perhaps that particular family value is no longer convenient in the Republican machine. You can certainly understand their willingness to let it slip given how enormously successful bald-faced lies turned out to be during the swift boat campaign in 2004 (and the same sleazeball who engineered that one is counting on a reprise with his latest shotgun-blast-in-the-back, “Obama-Nation“).

    The problem with this effective but highly unsavory strategy is that John McCain has staked his entire reputation on being different, and on modeling an integrity that has been all too scarce among the Karl Roves and Scooter Libbys and Jack Abramoffs and Tom DeLays and Duke Cunninghams and Larry Craigs of his party in recent years. I had a lot of respect for John McCain in 2004 and actually would have considered voting for him. Alas, it appears that the “straight talk express” has jumped the tracks and crashed, mortally injuring all on board, and is likely to take the rest of us down with it.

    As Tom Friedman recently wrote of the McCain campaign:

    “It’s a campaign now built on turning everything possible into a cultural wedge issue — including even energy policy, no matter how stupid it makes the voters and no matter how much it might weaken America.

    I respected McCain’s willingness to support the troop surge in Iraq, even if it was going to cost him the Republican nomination. Now the same guy, who would not sell his soul to win his party’s nomination, is ready to sell every piece of his soul to win the presidency.”

    Then there is the reformer claim. As the NY Times reports:

    “Interviews show that Ms. Palin runs an administration that puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy. The governor and her top officials sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business; dozens of e-mail messages obtained by The New York Times show that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to circumvent subpoenas seeking public records.

    Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor, sought the e-mail messages of state scientists who had examined the effect of global warming on polar bears. (Ms. Palin said the scientists had found no ill effects, and she has sued the federal government to block the listing of the bears as endangered.) An administration official told Mr. Steiner that his request would cost $468,784 to process.

    When Mr. Steiner finally obtained the e-mail messages — through a federal records request — he discovered that state scientists had in fact agreed that the bears were in danger, records show.

    “Their secrecy is off the charts,” Mr. Steiner said.”

    Is it just me or does this sound exactly like the people that have dominated both the White House and Congress for most of the last eight years? This is what the Republican party is trying to pass off as “change”?

    As Harry Truman memorably said, “I wonder how many times you have to be hit on the head before you find out who’s hitting you? It’s about time that the people of America realized what the Republicans have been doing to them.”

    Seems to me this country could use a community organizer in its top ranks. I’ve pretty much had it with Governors.

    Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

    Transportation: Toward a better place

    charging_station.jpgAmong the thorniest problems of transforming global society into a sustainable one is that of transportation. For general power needs of homes and industry, the technology already exists to generate electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar, albeit not on the scale currently possible from fossil fuels. The challenge involves scaling this technology up, distributing the power, and aggressively enhancing efficiency to bring energy consumption down enough that a diverse, large-scale renewable energy industry can satisfy it.

    But what about planes, trains, and automobiles? OK, mainly planes and automobiles, since many trains can run on electricity. How will we power the zillions of cars on the road when a giant electric battery can only get you 40 miles or so?

    There is a way to get to this Better Place and it is indeed based on battery-powered electric vehicles. The key to making it work is establishing a comprehensive national infrastructure that involves electricity generation from renewable sources, optimization of an efficient battery and electric car designs, and a network of charging stations and battery exchange stations. Shai Agassi and colleagues at Better Place are on it.  Here’s the dope:

    “In addition to widely deployed charge spots, the Better Place network will provide fully-automated battery exchange stations. These swap stations are designed to extend the driver’s journey beyond the 100 mile range of a fully-charged battery. Because most of today’s driving is within 40 miles of the home, a visit to one of these facilities will be infrequent when compared to the number of times we currently have to pull into a gas station.

    These Better Place battery exchange stations are even more efficient and convenient than conventional gas stations. Each is roughly the size of your average living room. Like the charging spots, they are fully automated. A driver pulls in, puts the car in the neutral gear, and sits back. The battery exchange station does all the work. The depleted battery is removed, and a fully-charged replacement is installed. In under three minutes, the car is back on the road. It’s just like an automatic car wash—a quick, effortless, drive-through experience.”

    But that’s could never work economically, right? There’s a precedent:

    electric-car.jpg“The Better Place business model is one most of us already experience every day—with our mobile phones. Think of it like this: we pay mobile providers for minute-by-minute access to cell towers connected together in cellular networks. Truth is, we pay comparatively little—or next to nothing—for the phones themselves. After all, what you’re really buying is air time, not a box with buttons. The same model works for transportation. Just replace the phone with an electric car, replace the cell towers with battery recharge stations, and replace the cellular networks with an electric recharge grid. Now you’re buying miles, not minutes.

    Better Place’s model means consumers subscribe to transportation as a service, much like they do today with mobile phones. Auto companies make the electric cars that plug in to the Better Place electric recharge network of charging stations and battery swap stations. Energy companies provide the network’s power through growing renewable energy projects. And Better Place provides the batteries to make owning an electric car affordable and convenient.”

    Seem like pie in the sky? Ford doesn’t think so. Toyota has plans for plug-in hybrids soon and all-electric vehicles within a decade. And in China, they’re developing cars that use solar energy. Even ol’ Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens is on the bandwagon.

    Which raises a question: What was that frenzied mob screaming “Drill, baby drill!” at the Republican National Convention thinking?

    Posted in Sustainability | Tagged | 10 Comments