Environment & the World

Friday, January 19, 2007

“Cancer Villages” in China

Filed under: China, Development, Economics, Environmental Justice — Cathy @ 10:01 am

The BBC recently ran an article about the so-called “cancer villages” in south China, the victims of China’s rapid industrialization and poor pollution controls.  The drinking and irrigation water for these villages in Guangdong Province are being polluted by mining waste upstream.  In the village of Shangba, scientists have found high levels of poisonous heavy metals in the water.  According to the article, “250 people from the village’s population of 3,000 have died of cancer since 1987, although statistics in China are often unreliable.”  In the broader picture, “some 320 million people drink polluted water every day” in China.

This is but one manifestation of the incredible gap between rich and poor in China (and in most other developing nations).  The gap in per capita income between urban and rural residents in China increased by more than a factor of 6 between 1990 and 2003, according to the UNDP (http://www.undp.org.cn/downloads/nhdr2005/06chapter2.pdf).  Living in Beijing, I might as well be in a completely different country.  Of course Beijing has its own share of serious environmental and public health problems, notably its air pollution, but these problems are much more similar (albeit more extreme) to those that would be faced in urban areas in developed nations.  With most of the external costs of China’s mining and heavy industries borne by the rural areas, it is no wonder that urbanization is occurring so rapidly in China. 

China has a long way to go to solve such problems.  Despite the Chinese government’s goal of a “harmonious society” it is failing at implementing regulations regarding mine safety and environmental controls, and it is also failing at improving energy efficiency of heavy industries.  Corruption is a serious problem in improving mine safety and pollution controls; because many local officials own stock in the coal mines, they tend to look the other way when mines try to cut costs.  The government is aware of this problem and is working to punish corrupt local officials; as of the end of 2005, it was estimated that “some 3200 of the estimated 4578 officials who had shares in coal mines(totaling some … US$80.5 million) had retracted these stakes” (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/58).  Despite this, China still faces the larger problem of having a rapidly growing economy based in large part on the inefficient use of coal.  This month it was revealed that China failed to meet its stated goal in the 11th Five Year Plan to reduce energy intensity by 4% in 2006; instead, energy intensity continued to increase.  (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,459155,00.html)    Without a more concerted effort to control pollution and regulate industry (perhaps even at the expense of economic growth!) I don’t see any possibility for the rural and urban areas to form a “harmonious society.”


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Lingering questions about Chp. 2

Filed under: Economics, Reading Group, Transportation — kwolfgan @ 5:51 pm

After all that, I have a few lingering questions (some of them rhetorical, some very serious) about Chapter 2:

1. How will price and availability of hypercars compare to old clunkers like my 1989 Isuzu Trooper?
2. If and when we scrap the old clunkers, what happens to the parts if hypercar materials aren’t remotely related to the old components?
3. Where does carbon fiber come from, anyway?
4. If the transition to hypercars and more integrated communities could happen without new taxes, new standards, or a significant increase in oil prices (26), what exactly is standing in the way of transitioning now? And how can we get around it?

Natural Capitalism, Chp. 2: Karen’s comments

Filed under: Economics, Reading Group, Transportation — kwolfgan @ 5:47 pm

My dad went down to the local Honda dealership a few weeks ago and told the sales associate that he wanted to be first in line for an FCX hydrogen fuel cell car. The Honda sales associate didn’t know what my dad was talking about, so he called in the sales manager; the sales manager said that the FCX wouldn’t roll out till 2008, and even then the vehicles will only be available for lease—they won’t be in full production till 2018. But Dad reiterated his request, and at this point is planning to lease the first publicly available burgundy FCX in the Portland area. I don’t know whether or when that will come to pass, but I do know that my dad is doing his part (through subsequent e-mails to the sales manager and anticipated weekly visits to the dealership) to increase consumer demand for fuel cell cars.

Now, my dad is by no means an environmentalist—for example, he is still not convinced that global warming is a problem. He figures that as soon as he gets his FCX, someone will complain that he is making too much water, and that creates clouds and rain, and that changes weather patterns and causes the sea levels to rise, and that’s bad. Dad got the idea to pre-order a Honda FCX from a listserv he belongs to about innovations in fuel cell technology; the e-mail indicated that the arrangement for the fuel cells used in the Honda concept car had recently been turned around (horizontal → vertical) and that had made the vehicles much more efficient and taken them one step closer to commercial viability. But despite likely ideological differences, Dad heartily agrees with H & the Ls: for years, without ever having read Natural Capitalism, he has been saying that regulatory mandates are not driving innovation (22), and if the U.S. government really wanted to end dependence on foreign oil and make this country the leader in clean energy technology, they would put up a cash prize for the first group of people to design a commercially viable clean car.

As H & the Ls point out, the technology necessary for a total transportation/societal revolution exists—and has existed for quite some time. Getting it on the market on any scale is a matter of time. But it’s also a matter of will: it is going to take a lot more time if the will (politically and among consumers) is perceived to be lacking. I am not aware that anyone else in my acquaintance has been as proactive as my father in terms of demonstrating from the consumer end that people do actually want innovation. I, for example, have hung onto my 1989 Isuzu Trooper through thousands of dollars of maintenance because I cannot afford a Honda hybrid and I feel like junking a car has its own set of environmental…issues. I have not visited a dealership. I have not been agitating for a cost-effective car alternative, just riding my bike and the bus a lot more, complaining all the while about the high price of public transit and TriMet’s ill-conceived expansion plans.

But big changes happen by way of seemingly small decisions. For instance, my experiences in public schools, alternative programs, and private (higher ed) classrooms suggests that when a commitment is made to the students—to fostering relationships, figuring out what they’re good at and developing their skills in those areas, and providing consistent encouragement—learners blossom. Even absent district- or school-wide support, teachers can make that kind of change happen: they can ensure that on the ground a healthy learning environment exists. It frustrates me—as a substitute paraeducator (classroom assistant for special ed kids) in the Portland Public Schools, as a tutor, as an instructor in an outdoor classroom—that not all teachers are able (for whatever reason(s)) to foster a classroom environment of this sort. But I know that it can be done. Maybe it happens in only a small percentage of classrooms, and maybe certain administrative structures are more conducive to making it happen than others; but even under conditions of severe budget shortfall, when more kids than any adult can keep track of are packed into a classroom, some teachers make it work. And what’s more, when those decisions are made, consciously or unconsciously, change moves outward and the school culture changes. It takes time, but it happens.

I use the above close-to-home examples to illustrate the importance of working for change on a small scale. H & the Ls are more policy-focused, as anyone thinking about these issues on a large scale has to be. But even people who aren’t thinking about these issues in the same way are starting to get it, and change things on their own scale. My dad has been telling neighbors and friends about the car he’s going to get; he’ll need to tell those able to buy into the hydrogen car market as soon as it exists to, in the meantime, make their own trips to Honda and do their part to push the fuel cell market forward in PDX. If teachers can make their classrooms work for kids without waiting for an entire district or school system to change, we can make our communities support alternatives without waiting for the federal government to change CAFE standards.

So, changes can happen on the small scale in spite of systemic stagnation. But at the same time more people making their classrooms work (so to speak) makes the district function better, the better a district functions, the better teachers can make their classrooms work. So, I should complement my persistent focus on the small-scale by saying that I do recognize the necessity of large-scale thought and action. I just want to make sure that everyone is doing everything they can, on every scale, to make something like H & the Ls’ vision a reality.

Major Dam Project Completed in India

Filed under: Development, Energy, Environmental Justice, Water — Cathy @ 12:51 pm

2007 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the tens of thousands of people who will be displaced by the recent completion of the highly controversial Sardar Sarovar dam in India.  The Sardar Sarovar is the largest of a series of 30 large dams proposed for the Narmada River, India’s fifth largest river.  The project was started in 1987 but was delayed for many years by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (“Save the Narmada”) movement and its supporters, as well as by conflicts between various Indian states over how to divide the benefits of the dam.  The NBA is a grassroots movement to defend the rights of the 320,000 people who have been or will be displaced by the project.  According to the Friends of the River Narmada (http://www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html), the NBA managed to convince the World Bank, which was at one time funding $450 million for dam construction, to commission an independent review of the project; the review report supported the NBA’s main concerns ultimately caused the bank to withdraw its support. 

The Indian government claims that the dam will irrigate 1.8 million hectares of farmland, provide drinking water for 20 million people, and generate 1,450 MW of peak power (http://www.dailyindia.com/show/99695.php/Controversial-Sardar-Sarovar-Dam-against-tribal-interests:-Medha-Patkar).   Whether or not these benefits will actually be realized is also highly controversial, but there is certainly no denying that the states that would benefit from irrigation and drinking water from the dam are extremely dry and in need of additional water supplies.  Even so, it does not follow that a mega-dam is the best way to meet those needs.  Rainwater harvesting, including bringing back traditional rural methods of rainwater catchment, has proven to work well in these drought-prone areas, providing enough water to meet rural needs without drawing down the water table. (http://www.goodnewsindia.com/Pages/content/conservation/drought.htm).

As of the beginning of 2006, the dam had already been constructed to a height of 111 meters; Dec 31, 2006 marked the completion of the project, at a final height of 122 meters.  This additional 11 meter height increase is estimated to displace 35,000 families, according to the United Nations (http://www.narmada.org/misc/unhcr.html).   In 2000, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that further height increases would not be allowed until the government had proved that previously displaced people had been compensated.  However, according to the UN, this has not occurred; many of the people who were previously displaced, largely indigenous people and farmers, have yet to receive adequate rehabilitation and arable land.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Ch. 2

Filed under: Energy, Oil, Reading Group, Transportation — Cathy @ 11:14 am

There’s way too much in this chapter for me to do justice to in one post.  To give a quick summary of the main ideas, H&L first point out the major inefficiencies of the current automotive industry and then propose their natural capitalism-based solution, the “hypercar” which is significantly more efficient (80-200 mpg) and also leads to a significant reduction in the materials needed in the manufacturing process, while also catalyzing the switch to a fuel cell-based electricity generation system.  They then go on to discuss the problem that hypercars can’t solve: “too much driving by too many people in too many cars.”  They do propose some interesting policy ideas for dealing with this problem, including various methods for encouraging public transit (e.g. having employers charge a yearly parking fee, paying their employees the same amount every year, and letting them pocket the difference if they can find a cheaper way to get to work).

The two key components of the hypercar are its ultra-light weight and its hybrid engine, which H&L predict would evolve into a fuel cell. The hypercar would weigh 2-3 times less than a normal car, by taking advantage of light-weight carbon composites, rather than steel.  This light weight translates into much larger gains in energy efficiency, because, as H&L point out, most of a car’s power goes into moving the car, not the driver.  With an ultra lightweight car body, other components (such as the suspension, engine, etc) can also be smaller and lighter, compounding the efficiency gains.  The reductions in materials use achieved by a hypercar are quite staggering: “92% less iron and steel, 1/3 less aluminum, 3/5 less rubber, and up to 4/5 less platinum.”

They then present a rosy view of the hydrogen economy.  They suggest that fuel cells could be made commercial by widespread deployment in stationary applications, i.e. buildings.  As with other distributed generation systems, this could ultimately be cheaper than constructing new large centralized power plants.  But the key question of course, is where to get the hydrogen for the building and hypercar fuel cells.  Initially they suggest reforming natural gas and sequestering the carbon produced in this process.  Again they are a little vague on the timing of this; from other sources I’ve heard, it sounds like fuel cells won’t be commercially available in the price range they need for hypercars for another 20 years or so.

Unfortunately this is one chapter where the age of the book (1999) starts to show.  I wonder if H&L would be as optimistic about the power of “advanced technology, customer demands, competition, and entrepreneurship” to re-shape the auto industry if they were writing the book today.  In this chapter they mention that the president of Toyota in 1997 “predicted hybrid-electric cars would capture one-third of the world car market by 2005.”  H&L further report that “by the spring of 1998, at least 5 automakers were planning imminent volume
production of cars in the 80 mpg range.”  What happened?  H&L seemed to have neglected the large factor that consumer demand plays in moving a giant and reactionary industry like the automotive industry. It appears that Americans’ love of SUVs can only be curbed by high oil prices, not by more efficient vehicles alone.  Also, the cultural and educational difficulty of convincing the public that an ultra lightweight car is just as safe as an SUV may prove a major hurdle. Instead of H&L’s optimistic view that the “strategic advantages … of saving oil, protecting the climate, and strengthening the economy may justify giving automakers strong incentives to pursue their introduction into the marketplace even more aggressively”, we are still stuck with a government that is too timid to raise the CAFE standards.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Chp. 1: Karen’s comments

Filed under: Corporate Sustainability, Reading Group — kwolfgan @ 5:07 pm

When I start reading a new text, I usually want to know something about who wrote it, so I seek out background information on the author(s). Knowing even a little bit about their lives helps me to put what they say in context.

To get started on these missions, I am a fan of Wikipedia.org. Some of my college professors saw Wikipedia as a perfectly reasonable source; others seemed to think the site was the work of nefarious forces and should not be taken seriously. I leave it up to you to take advantage of the encyclopedia (or not): interested parties are encouraged to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Hawken and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amory_Lovins, in addition to http://www.natcapinc.com/core_hunter.htm, for background info about the authors of our chosen text. One of many tidbits of information available there: Natural Capitalism “has been referred to by several heads of state including President Bill Clinton who calls it one of the five most important books in the world today.” This makes me think we hit upon an appropriate text to discuss.

As a precursor to joining this conversation, I investigated Hawken and the Lovinses on and beyond Wikipedia because I know that their work has broken new ground and set trends within and outside of the environmental(ist) community. I have been acquainted with all three (through their writings and through media coverage of their work) for several years. My most recent interaction with the founder of Smith & Hawken garden supply company, Mr. Paul, was via projection screen: I attended the Oregon satellite of the 2006 Bioneers conference. For whatever reason, I did not expect to be thoroughly impressed by his keynote. But I was. Check it out: it’s entitled “Biology, Resistance and Restoration: Sustainability as an Infinite Game.” The audio can be purchased for the lowlow price of $1.99 on the Bioneers website; it can also be viewed for free on Hawken’s website. I highly recommend it as a complement to the proffered Wikiorientation to these authors’ lives and works.

Now that you have some of the same background information as I for this endeavor, let’s see what these guys (affectionately termed H & L by Amir and Cathy) have to say.

H & the Ls carefully define their terms in the first chapter of this book: natural capital, which includes both resources and living systems, is one of four capitals that make up a healthy economy. The others (human, financial, and manufactured) are factored into the industrial system currently in place, while natural capital is left out of the picture. In a sense, the purpose of this book is for H & the Ls to jumpstart a concerted effort to bring natural capital back into existing economies—not just as one of the four, but as the form of capital considered primary. There are no known substitutes for natural capital, they are quick to point out, and this (along with the facts that 1. valuing natural capital is difficult and 2. there is likewise no substitute for human ingenuity) make it impossible to simply correct the deficiencies in the present system by placing monetary value on natural capital. (For more on that, see earlier posts.)

The bulk of this chapter centers on the suggestion that four central strategies be pursued in order to bring about a “natural capitalist” state of affairs: radical resource productivity, biomimicry, a service and flow economy, and investing in natural capital. H & the Ls contend that some efforts in this direction are already taking place, and in the second half of this chapter give glimpses of the hoped-for future. However, perhaps the most interesting idea of the chapter comes at the transition point between the description of what is and the elaboration of what could be: there, the authors ask “what if, in the absence of a rigorous way to practice [accounting that accepts the biological realities of nature], companies started to act as if such principles were in force?” (9).

“Acting as if” is one of the fundamental techniques used in twelve-step programs; people newly in recovery are encouraged to fake it till they make it, so to speak—to behave as they have seen others (who are further into the program) behave, and in the course of doing so, acquire the habits of mind and heart that go with those behaviors. The connection between recovering from addiction and recovering from the industrial economy here is subtle. I understand the rest of the chapter as an attempt to show concerned businesspeople examples of what businesses that operate in line with natural capitalism look like so that these readers can take the plunge and start reforming the ways they do what they do. They don’t have to have all the internal pieces in place when they take that plunge, but perhaps the hope is that those pieces will start to fit after the external operations have changed.

I have not participated in a twelve-step program myself, but I have heard from several people who have been in recovery for years that the practice of “acting as if” has been of major importance for them. And if it works for people who have substance abuse problems, it can work for businesses dependent on unsustainable practices. Can’t it?

Natural Capitalism, Chp. 1: Cathy’s comments

Filed under: Reading Group — kwolfgan @ 4:34 pm

A very interesting first chapter. Although any serious discussion of social change and how to implement it is conspicuously absent, I don’t think the aim of the authors was to provide a manual for how to change the economic system, but only to provide a wake-up call to the possibilities that exist. As Amir says, they do an excellent job of describing the flaws of the current industrial model, which basically boils down to the fact that it is a linear system (taking resource, producing waste and products) operating on a finite world. However, I am not sure that some of the solutions they propose will have the transformative benefits that H&L suggest; for example, I am not convinced that the service economy they propose would create more jobs. While it definitely sounds good from an environmental perspective, given the amount of money and time spent every year in convincing people to throw out their old products and buy new products, I am not sure that a switch to producing and recycling long-lasting goods would necessarily lead to more jobs. Another critique is that they seem to propose a bunch of solutions as though they could all happen tomorrow; some of them, such as a switch to a service economy, could be relatively fast changes. But others, such as the bio-mimicry technologies that they discuss, are still in the early research stages and probably not commercial for decades, if ever. However, I am willing to reserve judgment since this is only the introduction. H&L certainly promise quite a lot in this book, and I am looking forward to reading more.

Friday, January 5, 2007

ExxonMobil’s approach to climate science

Filed under: Climate Change, Energy, Oil — Cathy @ 7:56 pm

Amir has previously written a couple of posts highlighting Exxon Mobil’s sky-high profits, so I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about where some of that money is going.  According to a report released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Exxon has spent $16 million between 1998-2005 to basically spread confusion and disinformation on climate change, and has earned itself the honor of being the world’s most active corporation in undermining climate science.  Specifically, Exxon funds a network of organizations that publish and advocate for non-peer-reviewed scientific articles debunking climate change.  In many cases, donations from Exxon accounted for more than 10% of the annual budgets of these organizations.  Granted, the amount of money spent by Exxon on this issue pales in comparison to its $36 billion annual profits for 2005.  But on the other hand, perhaps Exxon’s huge profits make its actions against climate change all the more indefensible since the company is not exactly hurting. 

The fact that Exxon is one of the leading debunkers of climate science, is not exactly news.  However, I was rather impressed by the audacity of some of the organizations mentioned in the report.  To give an example of the quality of these organizations, many of them are still touting a petition that was allegedly signed by 17,000 scientists contradicting global warming and asking Congress to reject the Kyoto Protocol.  It turned out that the petition signatories included “numerous fictional characters” and Scientific American “estimated that approximately one percent of the petition signatories might actually have a PhD in a field related to climate science.”

The biggest lesson for environmentalists from Exxon Mobil’s work is the importance of framing.  By repeatedly emphasizing the uncertainty of the science, Exxon has forced environmentalists and scientists to keep debating with them in the media about the science.  With the debate still stuck on the science, there was no room to argue that perhaps the solutions to climate change would be desirable for non-environmental reasons, by bringing new manufacturing jobs or encouraging urban revitalization.

The UCS report also touches on how Exxon Mobil’s disinformation campaign might be brought down.  One of the most promising strategies is shareholder activism – promising because it has already started.  In 2006, institutional investors with $6.75 billion in ExxonMobil stock accused the company of “making a massive bet – with shareholder’s money – that the world’s addiction to oil will not abate for decades.”  Unlike the other major oil companies – including BP and Shell – Exxon has refused to start investing in renewable technologies and even divested in most of its alternative energy holdings under its previous CEO.  Although ExxonMobil’s recent profits suggest that their short-term strategy is good, it seems that everyone else – including shareholders and fellow oil companies – is starting to see the writing on the wall.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Reading Group: Natural Capitalism, Ch. 1

In this first chapter, “The Next Industrial Revolution,” Hawken and the two Lovinses (H&L) give us a brief history and description of capitalism, point out its shortcomings, and from there sketch out their outline for a new industrial revolution to correct the situation.

Their description of capitalism and the problems that arise from it seem on the mark. In fact, much of it echoes the concerns we’ve already voiced in our threads about environmentalism and economics. Essentially, H&L argue that natural capital (meaning the resources and living systems that make life possible) is on the decline, and that the problem with the current capitalist paradigm is that it fails to value natural and human capital. Moreover, they outline several reasons why simply assigning a monetary value to natural and human capital is neither straightforward nor enough of a corrective measure. H&L hit a high note when they point out that the fallacy in contemporary and past economic theory assumes “that natural and human capital have little value compared to final output.” This assumption worked when labor was scarce and natural capital was abundant. They argue, however, that we now face the opposite scenario in which labor is abundant and natural capital is on the decline–we therefore need a new type of economic theory to effectively address these changing conditions.

H&L’s “natural capitalism” attempts to be just that. They propose a natural capitalism based on four main strategies: resource productivity, biomimicry, service and flow, and investing in natural capital. While these four categories bubble with exciting ideas, many of them come from the stock of ideas that have been floating around in the environmental movement for quite some time (or are they the originators of some?). Their main points are that the current industrial model is quite wasteful: according to H&L only 6% of material flows in the U.S. economy end up in final products (p. 14). Their solution, then? To increase our efficiency, to improve productivity, to waste fewer resources, to remove “vestigial subsidies” that promote inefficient processes, and to correct “deliberate distortions in the marketplace” that favor extracting virgin materials over recycling.

H&L also envision a new business model in which companies retain ownership of their products and instead of selling them, lease them to customers. Because companies would own their products, and therefore be responsible for repairs and disposal, H&L hope that this would inspire a new kind of corporate benevolence. They believe that it would then be in the company’s best interest to reduce the toxicity and improve the recyclability of their products. Furthermore, H&L argue that this would encourage companies to develop more efficient processes which also would create more jobs. (more…)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Introducing the Reading Group

Filed under: Books, Reading Group — amirj @ 8:44 pm

We thought it might be fun to try something different with this blog. In addition to our regular posts, we’ll be starting an environmental reading group. Taking advantage of the online availability of some relatively new books written by leading environmental thinkers, we’ll be reading and discussing them on this blog. Since the first books we’ll chose are available online for free, anybody with internet can read with us, and indeed we welcome anybody who’s interested to chime in on the discussions.

We’ll aim to read a new section of a book roughly every week, but we’ll leave it up to the discussion leader for that week to post at their discretion. We’ll rotate discussion leaders, meaning every week someone else will write a new blog entry with their reaction to the section we read that week. The discussion will continue in the comments section for that post, and we invite anyone to post their reactions, questions, suggestions or thoughts about the reading.

The first book we will be reading is Natural Capitalism by Amory Lovins, Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken. The first chapter of the book is available online, so feel free to get reading and perhaps even join us in a week!

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