Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On carrying capacity

Some questions to the reader:
How many humans do you think the Earth can support? Can the current population size be supported forever, given our current resource demands? Can the current population size be supported forever, if all (or most) humans adopt an industrialized lifestyle? If the population must stop growing or shrink, whose responsibility is it to make sure that happens? Is anyone capable of wielding that authority over someone else? How should they ensure that it happens?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Corylus americana

American hazel (C. americana)
Form: Small shrub, often in clumps reaching 12 feet in height.
Fruit: Edible brown nuts (1/2 inch diameter) enclosed in a hairy, leaf-like husk with ragged edges; initially green, ripening to a brown in late summer.
Leaf: Alternate, simple, with a doubly serrated margin, broadly oval with a heart-shaped or rounded base, dark green above and paler below, 2 1/2 to 5 inches in length, petiole with stiff, glandular hairs.
Flower: Monoecious; males are light brown catkins (1 to 3 inch long) in clusters of two or three near branch tips, opening before leaves; females are inconspicuous with only bright red stigma and styles protruding from the otherwise gray-brown buds, appearing as short, thin, red threads, early spring.
Bark: Light grayish brown and smooth, later develops a mild criss-cross netted pattern.

Sources and further reading:
Virginia Tech dendrology factsheet
Hazelnut recipes
University of Wisconsin plants database (image source)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost

There was a time when parents, aunts, grandfathers, and the occasional sage taught the little ones the names, habits, uses, and character of every discernable living thing. We learned with wide eyes that coyote is unpredictable, a trickster; that the river horse will kill without hesitation when defending her calf; and how much hemlock can safely be given as a sedative. Then, we turned around and handed this knowledge with personal amendment to the next generation. We were nodes in a massively parallel, massively redundant living database.
After a few generations of moving into towns and cities, and a couple of generations of just being too busy, we’ve fractured the system. We no longer recognize that it is a bad sign that Flavoparmelia caperata no longer paints many trees. We are blind to the fact that the Bay once ran clear, because of all of its oysters, and because of stands of chestnuts a hundred miles away. We have done no wrong but have simply lost this understanding.
We have become so ignorant of these things, that we often dismiss them as primitive, trivial, useless. But this intimate knowledge of living things and natural systems is valuable. Many species can serve as the proverbial canary in the coalmine, their ill-health alerting us to potentially serious problems. Others can offer insight into how people live and work. What COO wouldn’t want her company to reuse waste products as effectively as a healthy desert ecosystem? Japanese companies have used process analogies, including natural analogies, to improve manufacturing and R&D efforts for years.
While there’s no substitute for experiencing wildlife firsthand, whether that’s living out of a pack for a few days in a national park, or exploring one’s own neighborhood, there are other ways to start relearning this old knowledge. Field guides* offer answers to the basic “What is that called?” and “How does it live?” questions. Check one out from your local library. The National Museum of Natural History also offers a great website (including a very hip GIS-based tool) that covers many of these questions for North American mammals.
This is the world we live in. Learn it.

*E.R. Dunhill is partial to Peterson’s field guides for biological groupings (Fishes, Mammals, &c.) and Audubon’s field guides for geographical groupings (Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States, &c.)

Monday, August 20, 2007

On accountability and pollution

Some questions to the reader:
Should individuals and corporations be held accountable for the pollution they produce? Does accountability apply equally to pollution on private and public land? Should polluters be allowed to pay a fee to pollute more? If so, who should be paid? If not, how should pollution be controlled? Who should get to decide what counts as a pollutant, and how much is acceptable?

Friday, August 17, 2007

Echinacea purpurea

Purple Coneflower (E. purpurea)
Height: 2-3 feet
Germination: 15-30 days
Optimum soil temperature for germination: 70F-75F
Sowing depth: 1/8"
Blooming period: June-October
Suggested use: Borders, meadows, mixtures, floral gardens.
Uses, Cautions, and Preparation: The aboveground parts of the plant and roots of echinacea are used fresh or dried to make teas, squeezed (expressed) juice, extracts, or preparations for external use.
Echinacea has traditionally been used to treat or prevent colds, flu, and other infections. Echinacea is believed to stimulate the immune system to help fight infections. Less commonly, echinacea has been used for wounds and skin problems, such as acne or boils.
Studies indicate that echinacea does not appear to prevent colds or other infections. Other studies have shown that echinacea may be beneficial in treating upper respiratory infections.
When taken by mouth, echinacea usually does not cause side effects. However, some people experience allergic reactions, including rashes, increased asthma, and anaphylaxis (a life-threatening allergic reaction). In clinical trials, gastrointestinal side effects were most common. It is important to consult your health care providers about any herb or dietary you are using, including echinacea. This helps to ensure safe and coordinated care.
Miscellaneous: E. purpurea is indigenous to the SE and Midwestern United States. An excellent variety for cut flower arrangements with a vase life of 5 to 7 days. Propagation from root cuttings is reliable if performed in the fall.

Sources and further reading:
Texas A&M University
National Center for Complementary & Alternative Medicine
Missouri State University (image source)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I’ve written quite a bit in the last few weeks about waning resources, changing values, and current and potential problems. The common threads among many of these discussions have been ethics, economy, and environment. I see these lines of inquiry as inseparable.
Having devoted much effort to challenges and questions, I’d like to focus briefly on solutions and answers. I believe that the only solution that will address ethics, economy, and environment with due weight is that of sustainability. For readers who are unfamiliar with this concept, sustainability seeks to create systems that can continue ostensibly forever. Such systems find a balance between inputs and outputs, resources and waste. These systems often rely on efficiency and repurposing waste products. This idea is not new; many human cultures have lived in sustainable equilibrium with their surroundings, making use of their environment without disrupting it. Many modern avenues of sustainability advocate lifeways that are far more similar to what you and I understand than to traditional sustainable lifeways.
I should qualify this by making it clear that I see sustainability as an ideal that people should approach through continuous improvement. Anyone, regardless of the magnitude of their ecological footprint, regardless of convictions about ethics or the economy, can move toward a more sustainable lifeway. For many people, such changes will save time and money.
One could write a book on sustainability (and many have), but there are some core concepts that have some hope of fitting in this space. To achieve a sustainable world, I see the central shifts in thinking and practice as awareness, an evolution of values, the realization of common wealth, and mass-localization/community development. There are plenty of outcomes and caveats that are worthy of discussion, but this is a place to start:

Awareness: The first and possibly the most important step is for the public to understand our economy, our lifeway, and how these bear upon the natural world. This does not mean that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and go earn a PhD in ecology or natural resource economics. Instead, we need to follow in a grand human tradition of genuinely understanding how we make a living, and teaching this knowledge to our children.
The initial pieces of this puzzle, as I see them, are to understand where your food and energy come from; “the grocery store” and “the light switch” are insufficient answers to these questions.
It’s very important to understand your household’s relationship with water. How much do you consume? Where does it come from? Where does it go when it goes down the drain, or runs down the end of the driveway? Who else and what else uses it?
Likewise, it’s important to understand what happens when you throw something away. Where does it go? What happens to it physically?
These pathways of understanding lead to the critical question, “Is there a better way?”

Evolution of values: We must realize the inherent worth of the other members of our human family. We all need to take steps to eliminate poverty and injustice. It is commendable to volunteer one’s time and resources for such causes, but it would be better still if we obviated the need for such reactions by adopting a lifeway that mitigates or eliminates them.
We must also recognize the value of nonhuman species and natural systems. If we choose not to honor these with innate worth, we must at least recognize that they are of enduring value to humans. Natural systems provide water to drink and the air that supports us and the crops we need for food, clothing, shelter, and energy. Disrupting these systems is short-sighted. Similarly, we have no idea what plants and animals may one day be of practical use to us. Preserving biodiversity is a tangible investment in our own future.
Recent research has again demonstrated that money does not buy happiness. Having enough to live comfortably, having friends, family, a community, and a purpose bring happiness.

Realization of common wealth: Many countries (and other political divisions, like states, parishes, provinces, prefectures, counties, cantons, cities, &c.) own useful resources, like forests, minerals, and waterways. These publicly held resources belong to the citizens of those various places, and their use should directly benefit the citizenry. For instance, if a corporation wants to cut timber in a state forest, rather than the process existing as a giveaway of public resources to the timber company, the company would have to compensate the citizens for the right to log. This money could be distributed to the citizens in a model similar to the Alaska Permanent Fund, or could be held in trust and provided to citizens as money for healthcare expenses, college tuition, and other broadly useful endeavors.
With some level of organization, globally held resources, like the atmosphere, or Antarctica’s existing and future resources could provide benefit to some universal human fund. This would realize a democratic stream of wealth for everyone and recognize each person’s ownership of public goods.

Mass-localization and community development: We need to produce energy and goods more efficiently. Rather than mining coal in Ohio, shipping it to a power plant in Maryland, burning it to create heat to generate electricity, transmitting that electricity over miles of cable back in the same direction the coal traveled from, and using that electricity to heat a coil in a hot water heater, we need to focus on generating and managing energy in situ. Energy is used in mining and transporting the coal. Energy is wasted in converting the chemical energy in the coal into heat, into mechanical energy, into electrical energy, and back into heat. Instead we could generate both electricity and heat for hot water on our own roofs. Likewise, office buildings and shopping centers could be covered in photovoltaic cells and produce electricity for a profit. Why shouldn’t a sprawling shopping mall be covered in wind mills?
We must strive to save resources by growing more of our own food, by shopping in local businesses, and using commonly held resources, like libraries and parks.
We need to invest our time and interest in the institutions of community. Participating in local government, engaging in neighborhood and local school/college events, and actively joining a community of faith cultivate values and strengthen your community.

A sustainable lifeway may be a long way off, perhaps generations. Or maybe we can realize such a vision in our own lifetimes. Either way, each person has the potential and the power to begin moving in this direction.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Heavier things

There is a finite amount of petroleum in the world. Much of this oil, possibly half of it, is locked-up in the ground in such a way that there will not be a cheap way to extract it in the foreseeable future. The US Geological Survey and the Energy Information Administration conducted a study, described in a 2004 EIA report, to assess and forecast world petroleum supply and demand. The study found that there is likely something like 3 trillion barrels of recoverable oil in the world. This sounds like a very big number- indeed it is a huge number- except when compared to the rate at which oil is consumed. The study further concluded that global oil production may well peak in 30 years, and fall-off sharply, so that humans are unable to produce petroleum at current levels within about 40 years.
Again, this study predicts that oil production will likely peak around 2037 and then decline, sharply. Obviously, other capacity studies abound. Some of them are more urgent, some of them are less so. The USGS / EIA study purports to be impartial and was completed in consultation with geologists and economists from both the US government and from the petroleum industry. Regardless of when the reader may personally believe oil will run out, the fact remains that there is a limited amount of oil in the world, and humans are using huge quantities every day.

Given that petroleum is the basis of our present economy, and perhaps more so the basis of an American lifeway, this resource-sunset is a mandate for deep change. The current administration previously asserted "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."
It's time to move beyond myopathy and greed and step into reality. This generation faces a problem, and like it or not, it's ours to fix. Many will ignore the problem. However, the rational solution- the one that will work in the real world- is to work toward sustainable lifeways and a sustainable economy. This means understanding where our energy, food, and other resources come from, and recognizing that financial costs are not the only costs we need to consider. This means making better choices, starting today.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Room for squares

The Congress is moving ahead with a federal budget that would reverse the Bush administration's recent history of cutting funding for research in science and engineering. This money will ensure a place for many scientists and engineers in both the federal government and academia, and provide them with the resources they need to work.
The sciences should not be treated as extraneous trivia. They improve human health, investigate the causes and implications of climate change, and create new sources of energy, while extending those we already have. The application of science into various technologies forms the basis for much of our modern economy. Moreover, these disciplines are uniquely suited to exploring a sustainable way of life.
As the President threatens to veto any spending bill that exceeds his request, make your voice heard: Learn more and blog. Talk to friends and family. Contact your Representative and your Senators and let them know that you value this investment.

Monday, August 06, 2007

On finite resources and poverty

Over the last couple of weeks, as I was plowing through journal articles, CRS reports, and endless data from the EIA and others, I started asking readers to share their thoughts on ethics, the environment, and the war in Iraq. Readers posted many thoughtful comments, and the lurkers (who are always welcome to comment) were out in force to follow these discussions. There was such a positive reaction, that I thought I'd bring up a few more points for discussion, and may begin to include such questions as a regular feature on The Influence Machine. I'll be more timely and thorough in my responses.

Can an economy (the global economy, regional economies, local economies) grow forever? Can infinite value be derived from finite resources? Does one country's (or individual’s, or group’s) increasing wealth necessarily mean that another becomes poorer? Can existing markets or regulatory environments (global, national, regional, &c) solve the problem of poverty? If so, should they? What would an end to poverty look like?

Thursday, August 02, 2007

An inconvenient truth about biofuels

In 2005, the US consumed about 140,407,470,000 gallons of gasoline. On average, that’s around 1.25 gallons of gasoline per day, for each man, woman, and child in the country. We use it without realizing it: the oranges we buy in February traveled a very long distance; all of those cheap clothes are only inexpensive because they were produced somewhere far enough away to have a tiny cost of labor; and of course we love to drive ourselves to work, dash to the supermarket to grab this, then later to the hardware store for that, all the while complaining about traffic and gas prices.
W has laudably suggested reducing gasoline consumption by 20% by 2017. Business interests are encouraging people to "Go Yellow". And Chevrolet is greenwashing a fleet of gas-guzzlers under the pretense that buying a flex-fuel car is in and of itself good for the environment.
Unfortunately, domestic corn-based ethanol and soybean or WVO biodiesel do not now offer, nor are they likely to offer in the foreseeable future, a tenable solution to the problem of transportation fuels. While it's true that production of biofuels has accelerated rapidly in recent years, there simply isn't enough feedstock to replace a meaningful fraction of petrofuels. Replacing the rough equivalent of 2% of the gasoline we use currently requires about 20% of our corn crop. If we stopped eating corn and feeding it to livestock- mildly absurd hypothetical actions- we'd still only cover about 10% of our current gasoline demand. Cellulosic ethanol fuel does nothing for us now, and there's no telling how long it will be until economically feasible methods of production are available. Moreover, there are a host of concerns over the cultivation of large amounts of switchgrass and genetically-modified fast-growing trees.
Research remains important; horizon technologies have a way of becoming household words in the blink of an eye. Likewise, incrementally greater production of biofuels does achieve some benefit, although it would make more sense to exploit some of the other benefits of biofuels. Rather than spreading a very thin mix of blended fuels around a large region, we should use high biofuel blends for special applications: biofuels for school buses to reduce the exposure of children to particulate pollution; biofuels for government fleet-vehicles and buses in Clean Air Act nonattainment areas; biofuels for watercraft to minimize sulfur, particulate, and synthetic-volatile pollution in waterways.
Given the finite lifespan of oil and the lack of a meaningful or reliable supply of a direct replacement, we have to consider conservation in a new way. We need to rethink communities, values, and lifeways. We need to act on this new thinking.
It grows dim in our national memory, but a little over six decades ago, a generation of Americans fought and won a massive war, and in so doing reinvented their economy and that of the world. Why can't ending a myopic addiction to oil and creating a sustainable economy be this generation's legacy?