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Sacre Bleu!

Speaking of things that annoy me (I'm on a pet peeve kick this week): I hear all the time about how one of the Republican slams on Kerry is that he looks French. Perhaps I've just chosen to read conservative blogs that are too smart, but I have yet to see a Republican bring up the French thing. Can anyone point me to an example? Or is this just some sort of urban legend arising out of liberals' insecurity over their own perceptions of Kerry's Frenchness?

A Typology Of Rationales

For my dissertation, I'm interested in how collective action to manage the environment is coordinated. Thinking about it, it seems that there are three major rationales for action (within the range of possible choices of action) -- incentives, authority, and understanding -- each of which has two sub-types. Each type suggests different means for coordinating action among people.

Incentives are situations that make it in a person's interest (given their not-necessarily-selfish goals and desires) to do a certain thing. They come in two varieties -- sanctions (such as legal punishments) and rewards (such as economic incentives). By altering another person's incentives, one can bring that person's conduct in line with one's plan. This can be done by one scheming mastermind, or by a central authority. In certain cases the central authority can (using a second-order set of incentives, or authority or understanding) set ground rules under which individual actors wind up producing a collectively beneficial pattern of incentives -- as in the classical view of the market.

Authority is the case of a course of action being accepted by a person on the say-so of another. This other can gain legitimacy either procedurally (as in the case of a democratically elected leader) or through competence (as in the case of a trusted expert). The source of collective coordination here is simple -- if a large group considers the same person's pronouncements to be authoritative, their actions in response will be consonant.

Understanding is when a person accepts a course of action as rationally justified -- in a sense, accepting it on one's own authority. Understanding can be arrived at individually, or collectively through discussion and argumentation with others. For purely individual understanding to create coordinated action, the individual methodologies of inquiry of the people involved must be the same, a condition often promoted through second-order uses of the other types of action coordination (e.g., through instilling the same moral system or the same concept of the scientific method in all members of the group). Collective understanding by its nature creates coordinated action, because achieving collective understanding means coming to an agreement about what should be done.


Comedy Of The Commons

It's generally assumed that, in an open-access resource situation (i.e., nonprivate property and no coordination among users), the profit motive will lead to unsustainable overexploitation (the Tragedy of the Commons). But Murphy's Law dictates that when you want to encourage unsustainable overexploitation, people will manage the resource sustainably (we could call this the Comedy of the Commons). As an example I offer the case of rabbits in Australia: apparently the bounty placed on rabbits (in order to encourage people to hunt them into extinction because they'd become such a pest) led to people leaving a few animals alive in each warren, so that they'd breed and produce more rabbits which could be killed and sold to the government. The Commedy of the Commons works in this case, I imagine, because 1) you only need to leave a few rabbits behind -- since they breed like you-know-what, and thus conservation isn't expensive, and 2) there are economies of scale to rabbit hunting -- it's more cost-effective to go after big warrens than to mop up the few rabbits left behind by someone else.

Glowing Capitol

This article on the corrupt mercury standards being prepared by the EPA doesn't say much that's new, but it does have a really ominous picture.

Make The Bed, Take Out The Garbage, Get Married

It's amazing to me how the defenders of the "marriage is for procreation" line disparage marriage. Take this quote, from Shelby Steele (cited in Andrew Sullivan's rebuttal of Steele's argument):

Across time and cultures, marriage has been a heterosexual institution grounded in the procreative function and the responsibilities of parenthood--this more than in either love or adult fulfillment. Marriage is simply the arrangement by which humans perpetuate the species, whether or not they find fulfillment in it.

By Steele's account, marriage is a joyless chore that fertile heterosexuals undertake in order to perpetuate the species. If that's so, no wonder people are less and less inclined to get married.

Then again, there is something very traditional in this account of marriage. For centuries marriages were economic and political institutions, arranged on the basis of securing a livelihood and the aid of a set of in-laws. Procreation is past ages' Social Security. These factors didn't leave a lot of room for chosing based on who you would enjoy spending your life with.


I know you're negative, but what am I?

If there's one thing I hate more than political campaigns going negative, it's all the whining (from candidates and supporters) about how the other side has gone negative. I suppose it's necessary to keep politicians from embracing negativity, but I still hate having to listen to it.



I'll be away for the weekend. See you on Monday.

Which God Will Bless America?

One frequent argument made with respect to the Pledge of Allegiance is that, if we took "under God" out of the pledge, we'd have to take "in God we trust" off our money. The implication is that "in God we trust" is obviously OK, but my reaction -- perhaps demonstrating what an out-of-touch northeastern liberal academic elitist I am -- is "what's God doing on my money in the first place?"

But I think citing "in God we trust" as an acceptable bit of religious establishment actually speaks well of conservative tolerance of other viewpoints. You often hear, with respect to things like the Ten Commandments, a variation on the argument "how would you like it if they were posting passages from the Qur'an?" -- the assumption being that Decalogueophile evangelicals would be unhappy to have another religion being promoted. But it seems to me that the Christian God -- the one who talked about "render unto Caesar" and camels going through the eyes of needles -- would be quite unhappy with being praised on our currency. So what god is it in whom we trust? I think it's safe to say that conservatives see no problem with government endorsement of Mammon.


Gnostic Feminism

Gnosticism is often portrayed as feminist in some sense because it promoted equality of the sexes. But if I'm correctly understanding J. Puma's essay on what Gnostics mean when they say the world is an illusion, it looks like they also had the idea of situated knowledges figured out 2,000 years before Donna Haraway (though feminists accept situatedness rather than hoping for gnosis to overcome it).

Bush's New Strategery

Somebody tell me this is a parody.

Commentary And Cartoons Out The Wazoo

As mentioned previously, I didn't get my commentary and comics from the last issue of The Scarlet online at the time. So now I can bring you two weeks' worth of student newspaper goodness. First, the freshest material:

This week's column was "Bush: Blinding US With Mad Science*," and came with its comic.

Three weeks ago (we took two weeks off for spring break), we published these:

"GOP: Small Government, Big Bills," and its comic.

*This headline reminds me of one of my favorite Onion briefs. They said the House passed an All Your Base Are Belong To Us amendment, but "Opponents of the amendment protested that it would potentially set up U.S. the bomb."


Indians And Alcohol

Oneidas Move Ahead In Liquor License Quest

McKeon said under federal law, Indian tribes' sovereignty does not automatically include the right to sell liquor. Tribes can only do so if they follow certain procedures. They must first pass an ordinance to permit the trafficking of liquor. The ordinance must then be approved by the U.S. Department of the Interior. And finally, it must be deemed consistent with the laws of the state where the application is filed.

The Oneida Nation passed its ordinance several years ago, and it has been approved by the Department of the Interior, Reed said.

If all falls into place for the Oneidas, they will have something only a handful of bars or restaurants in Oneida County have: a space where patrons can both drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Just 20 waivers for the [New York] statewide smoking ban have been issued in the county, but the Oneida Nation is not subject to the law.

Restaurant and bar owners have blamed the ban, which was implemented in July 2003, for steep declines in their profits. Now they fear the Oneida Nation's resort complex will siphon away their smoking patrons.

"If we allow them to have a liquor, it's going to affect everyone from Syracuse to Albany," said Ralph Dittenhoefer, president of the Oneida County chapter of the New York State Restaurant and Tavern Association. "We will all urge the liquor authority to oppose or deny the license."

I'm mostly posting this because the regulations governing Native American alcohol sales were new information to me, and they contrast with the usual situation of tribes being able to get away with things (like selling tax-free cigarettes) that non-Natives can't. I would imagine that the provision was put in place because of just these sorts of conflicts -- situations in which you have two communities living side-by-side, with free movement of people and goods but potentially very different laws.

That said, it's interesting that bar owners are trying to use the liquor license process to correct the imbalance created by the Oneidas' tobacco-related freedom (exacerbated by additional state laws). This region suffers from chronic economic depression, but the Oneidas have been able to exploit their tribal status to create a comparative economic powerhouse (of only 5 Greyhound stops on the fastest route crossing upstate New York, one is Turning Stone). In a more successful region, there would be less standing resentment of the Oneidas from the surrounding community and less percieved threat to their well-being.

Cheap Gas

As Gasoline Hits Record Price, Bush, Kerry And Democrats Spar Over Policy And Next Move

As senators called on the Bush administration on Tuesday to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help curb prices, Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, accused President Bush of neglecting energy conservation and favoring oil companies. The Bush re-election campaign blamed Mr. Kerry for voting against oil drilling in Alaska last year and for his past advocacy of higher gasoline taxes.

"It's clear we need a new energy policy," Mr. Kerry said. He cited a survey released Tuesday by AAA, formerly the American Automobile Association, showing that the average price for a gallon of self-serve regular unleaded was $1.738. The group said the price was a record, not taking into account inflation.

I suppose one should expect in a campaign like this that everything that happens becomes a reason to blame the other guy. Still, it's disingenuous of Kerry to cite the AAA study, since inflation-adjusted gas prices (which are what really matter) have held pretty steady (and his statement doesn't seem to recognize that the organization formerly known as the American Automobile Association has KFCed itself).

In his statement Kerry seems to be mostly using the high gas prices as a hook to introduce his overall energy plan, which contrasts favorably with Bush's. That's good if the debate goes there. But the press seems to want to make this out to be just about who can offer lower gas prices. That kind of pandering battle is bad politics and bad for the envrionment. Perhaps I'm just coldhearted because I rarely drive, but I think that high gas prices ought to make us think about whether we should be using so much gas, not about how we can make gas cheaper.

Swidden Conservatism

Talking about the different metanarratives that have been applied to George W. Bush, Matthew Yglesias says:

Then there was a lot of Bush-as-Reagan -- rejecting his father's moderation, Bush offers us bold, slash-and-burn conservatism.

My guess is that by "slash-and-burn" he means something like "gung-ho and destructive," by analogy to the actual slashing and burning element of slash-and-burn agriculture. But there may be something to a comparison between Reagan/GW Bush conservatism and swidden agriculture. Reagan comes into office and hacks away at liberal governance (like high taxes), clearing the ground for the growth of conservative crops. But after eight years, the country can no longer sustain the Reagan system, so we elect the anti-Reaganomics moderate GHW Bush. Under Bush and Clinton, liberalism grows back. With the budget recovered after the Clinton years, GW Bush comes along and hacks away liberalism and replants conservative stuff.


Super Lack Of Funds

Sierra Club Ads Target Bush, Toxic Waste

... The ads, running on television or radio in four cities, blame Bush for not supporting reinstatement of the so-called "polluter pays" tax that funded expensive cleanup of federal Superfund sites. The tax levied on the manufacturers of toxic chemicals expired in 1995 and the Superfund, which boasted $3.6 billion in reserve at its peak, ran out of money last year.

Sierra Club spokeswoman Annie Strickler said that forces ordinary taxpayers — not polluters — to foot the bill for cleaning up some of the worst toxic waste sites. There are nearly 1,300 Superfund National Priority sites in the United States.

... The Bush administration has said it will not support the tax until Superfund is overhauled. Critics of the tax are concerned that it's not linked to a company's actual environmental record.

I cite this here not so much because of the ads, but because of the issue raised -- the using-up of the Superfund tax. It connects up with some things I've posted earlier. On the one hand, shifting the burden from industry to taxpayers as a whole is consistent with the idea of Bush's environmental policy as a way for government to help out business -- in this case by rehabilitating currently "underutilized" sites so that they're available for more easy development.

On the other hand, there's something to the idea that the tax ought to be callibrated to companies' environmental records. The point is not to blame industry as a whole for pollution. Rather, it's to link the creation of pollution to its remediation. As I pointed out in my post about Ed Rendell, pollution taxes serve the additional function of discouraging the taxed activity. Thus, it makes sense to make the system give incentives for cleaner processes.

Elk Testing

Elk Deaths In Wyoming Blamed On Native Plant

A lichen native to the Rockies is to blame for the deaths this winter of at least 300 elk in southern Wyoming, a die-off that had baffled wildlife scientists and cost the state thousands of dollars, officials said Monday.

... Elk native to the area weren't affected by the acid [produced by the lichen after it is eaten], but those killed in the die-off apparently had moved in from Colorado and may have lacked microorganisms needed to neutralize the acid, state biologists said. The Colorado line is 50 miles south of where the elk died.

"Elk are incredibly adaptable, tough animals," Game and Fish spokesman Tom Reed said. "They'll get by on thin rations, and they'll make do somehow. But this year, nearly 300 of them paid the price for that adaptability."

Shouldn't that be "they paid the price for not being quite adaptable enough"? After all, the microorganisms that the local elk had were an adaptation that the newcomers lacked. Had the newcomers been less adaptable, they still would have died -- it would just have been from starvation on their old range rather than from lichen poisoning on their new range. On the other hand, the three elk that died from the Game and Fish Department's test to see if the lichen was responsible did pay the price for the other elk's adaptability, since if they had starved it would have been obvious and there would have been no need to test. I suppose you might want to say they paid the price for their comrades' adaptability plus our ignorance and desire to find out what was going on (though if the die-off had turned out to be anthropogenic, many more elk might have died from our decision not to test).



For all of the people who find this site by searching for Splashdown's Blueshift album, the band's page now has links (click on "sounds") to where you can download Blueshift and other music. As of posting this, the site is down, but you can bookmark it and come back or something. For those of you not searching for Splashdown, you should be. You won't be the first to get into them only after they broke up.

UPDATE: Dave points me to this site, which has Splashdown mp3s and is actually functional.

A Thought About Marxism

Though I have only a passing acquaintance with this element of Marxism, it seems that classical Marxist thought takes two contradictory positions on the revolution. The basic idea of the revolution is that eventually capitalism will create a huge proletariat and motivate it to rise up. With the bourgeoisie destroyed, the proletariat will fashion a just communist society on the basis of their shared class interest. Since the resulting society is just (i.e. non-contradictory), the dialectical process of history will come to an end.

On the one hand, communism is thoroughly rooted in capitalism. The revolution doesn't just do away with capitalism, it transcends it. As bad as capitalism is, Marx saw it as serving a necessary historical function in conquering scarcity and nature by developing industrialization and innovation. With that task accomplished, the revolution could then appropriate the fruits of capitalism and use them for communist ends.

On the other hand, the revolution is said to provide a clean slate. The idea of a clean slate is necessary to explain why communism would be different from previous historical phases (capitalism, feudalism, slave economy). Previous phases had internal contradictions arising out of their historical development, which generated the conditions for their own downfall. Communism, on the other hand, was to be a classless and permanent social arrangement. The proletariat had to be washed clean in the blood of the revolution, so to speak.

These two directions have spawned two divergent elements of more recent Marxism. Some Marxists seem to have emphasized the connection to capitalism, leading them to place their hopes in a more evolutionary development (Dick Peet, for example, was accused at the AAGs of having become a Keynsian welfarist rather than a Marxist radical. I'd say Habermas has been led out of Marxism entirely). This is perhaps a more realistic approach, especially considering that previous endogenous transitions in economic form were more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Second would be the eco-catastrophists. They forsee (and perhaps grimly welcome) a collapse of capitalism that truly wipes the slate clean. There's little they'd like to salvage from capitalism because they see capitalism's major products -- industrialization and high population -- as inherently unsustainable. They ridicule attempts to deal with capitalism's crises through capitalist products (e.g. technological solutions to environmental degradation). After the catastrophe (not really even a revolution anymore) we can start over from scratch. To judge from what I've read of his most recent pessimistic work, David Harvey seems to be leaning in this direction.


Environmental Justice Comes Back

Via folkbum, I discover that John Kerry's website has a whole page on environmental justice, lending some support to my prior feeling that, while Kerry may overall be an unprincipled weasel, the environment is one issue that he does actually care about independent of political calculations. The page promises:

... John Kerry proposed creating Environmental Empowerment Zones to ensure that environmental justice is considered in decisions that affect these communities and, more importantly, to empower communities from the ground up for positive change. By empowering local officials and citizen leaders, Environmental Empowerment Zones will overcome economic, civic and cultural barriers and help ensure that no community will be forced to live with a dirty and unhealthy environment.

... John Kerry will reinvigorate action on environmental justice at the federal level. He proposed creating a new Assistant Administrator position for Environmental Justice at the EPA and will revive the Office of Environmental Justice. Today, this office is under-staffed, under-funded, and undermined on a daily basis. Kerry will bring life back to this office so that it can serve as a resource and advocate for community activists all over America.

John Kerry will also build on President Clinton’s 1994 Executive Order to include environmental justice in laws, regulations and policies.

The page is explicit in linking health and environmental quality. Compare that to Bush's environment issue page. The introduction states that "The President favors common-sense approaches to improving the environment while protecting the quality of American life" -- as if environmental improvement and quality of life are opposed values. It's a pretty standard tactic, emphasizing the idea that environmental protection comes at a price, thus making weak action sound like a pragmatic compromise. In its discussion of brownfields -- a classic environmental justice problem -- there is a brief mention of health. But the emphasis is placed on the fact that brownfields are "eyesores" (feeding the idea that environmental protection is largely an aesthetic question). Bush also stresses that brownfields are "underutilized" -- that is, that the main problem is that there are chunks of land sitting idle. In a sense, this isn't entirely bad. It's interesting to note how the presentation of the brownfields question parallels Bush's larger environmental philosophy as described in a paper I wrote about Healthy Forests -- he believes that the role of government is to make land and resources more easily available to business. What's most important, though, is that the issue of economic productivity swamps any concern for local health impacts in the way that Bush frames his brownfield policy.


A Major Accomplishment

After a couple years of uninspired searching, I have finally come across another blog by a geographer -- Blue Pencil. The author (PhD student Scott Whitlock, studying urban geography) is perhaps even more of a geographer than me, since he has a link to the AAG in his sidebar.

Trust And Communicative Action (An AAG Post)

I'll hopefully be doing a few posts in the coming days about thoughts I had while attending various presentations at the AAG meeting. One of the more interesting talks I saw was by Peter Walker, discussing research he'd done with Patrick Hurley on environmental politics in Nevada County, California. His talk was in a session on social capital, but he said he hadn't thought in terms of social capital while originally doing the fieldwork. So it was somewhat appropriate that, while he didn't mention Habermas or frame his analysis in a Habermasian way, my thoughts went in that direction. The Nevada County case seemed like a nice example of a failed transition to a rationalized lifeworld.

In a nutshell, what happened was that the voters of Nevada County elected, without quite realizing what they were doing, the first anti-development board of supervisors in county history. The board came out with an environmental management plan called NH2020 that would restrict the building of new stuff. Anti-NH2020 partisans sabotaged the planning effort and swept the board out of office in the next election.

At the start of the case, there was the assumption of a shared lifeworld -- Walker said that voters assumed that the board shared their values when they elected them. But through what sounds like practically a coincidence, power wound up in the hands of a group that differed from the assumed consensus on this issue. The board wanted to push its anti-development agenda. But they knew that administrative power alone isn't enough -- their plan would need the legitimacy that comes from a shared lifeworld. Since they couldn't base their plans in the no-longer-shared pro-development lifeworld, they would have to build a new consensus through communicative action. Thus, they launched a public involvement process that would allow the community to come together and build a management plan that everyone could agree was legitimate (even if they were unwilling to agree that its content was right).

However, the process was not designed to be fully communicative. The board and its supporters feared that pro-development people would be unwilling to cooperate in communicative action and would instead act strategically, doing whatever it takes to get their way. Engaging in communicative action requires a degree of trust because you're taking a risk that you may be talked into changing your mind. So the board stacked the deck, for example by not allowing pro-development interests to participate fully. They hoped to work strategically to get the outcome they wanted, while being parasitic on the legitimacy that accrues to a process percieved to be communicative.

The board was unsuccessful in its attempt to have its cake and eat it too. The pro-development interests saw the strategic element of the board's plan and brought it to the forefront of public opinion. They organized on the basis of the pro-development lifeworld that they still shared among themselves, and took strategic action to stop NH2020. The degree of strategic action they took -- such as disruptive behavior at meetings and infammatory rhetoric about "enviro Leninists" -- was probably worse than that which, as per the board's fears, they would have taken in the context of an attempt by the board at a truly communicative planning process. The end result seems to be a situation in which the county has a rift and neither side trusts the other's willingness to talk constructively. Each uses its own distrust to justify acting in a way that deserves the other side's distrust.

Name Change

Sara Butler points to this article about women's decisions about post-marital last-name changes, which has also been discussed by several people at Crescat Sententia.

I don't share the hostility expressed in the article and Amanda Butler's comments toward creating a new name out of parts of the partners' old ones. Obviously it doesn't work for all combinations of last names (though it's amusing when they have strong but contrasting ethnic flavors, as Mr. and Ms. McLopez can attest). But when it produces something nice-sounding, I see no problem. And it's much better than hyphenating.

I think there's something to be said for the idea of taking a new name, either from pieces of the old ones or out of the air, when forming a new family. After all, ours is a neolocal society, so why not exchange our patrilineal naming convention for a neolineal one? Will Baude at Crescat brings out the "unwieldy fourth-generation hyphenation" argument to demonstrate that we have to either give up on retaining connections to parts of our ancestry, or give up on the idea that our last name is the place where we acknowledge our heritage. I prefer the latter -- I'm no less a descendant of Demeyer Tengstrand for having Marshall Danielson's last name.

Beyond questions of personal identity-formation, neolineal naming also makes sense from the perspective of the outsider. Outside of the upper-upper-upper class (the Kennedys and Rockefellers and such) and tiny communities where everyone knows everyone else, one's last name doesn't tell others anything about you and your family, beyond a general ethnic indication (and even that is limited given the increase in interracial marriage). The only potential problem is if you choose a name that already exists, people with that name might think you're trying to illegitimately join their family.


No Firefighter Left Behind

Critics Say Bush's Wildfire-Fighting Budget Too Low

Sen. Conrad Burns joined a chorus of lawmakers who have said the Bush administration's proposed budget for next year does not include enough money for preventing and fighting wildfires.

... The administration's plan calls for a 15 percent boost in wildfire suppression, from $790 million in fiscal year 2004 to $908 million in fiscal year 2005, under the administration's plan for the Interior and Agriculture departments. The departments' hazardous fuels reduction would also be increased from $442 million to $475 million.

The $908 million for wildfire fighting falls short of the $1.4 billion that was spent to fight wildfires in 2002 and is slightly shy of the $1 billion that was needed in 2003.

... Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who also voted for the law, says the $475 million for hazardous fuels reduction is far short of the $760 million that was promised in legislation.

... Burns criticized the proposed budget for cutting state, local and volunteer assistance programs by 42 percent from $132 million in fiscal year 2004 to $77 million in fiscal year 2005.

Wait ... are they suggesting that Bush pushed for a program, but was unwilling to spend enough money to implement it? Nah, that can't be -- after all, after shortchanging education and homeland security, he ought to have plenty of money left over to pay for fire management. He should be particularly able to help out the state and local programs, since devolving environmental management authority to local people has been the keystone of his environmental rhetoric.


Bonus Post #2

One of the things I learned today was that this blog is intellectually irresponsible. Frequent readers will know that from time to time I criticize the idea of preserving pristine wilderness. This is not an uncommon view among academics. But according to an interesting* presentation, the environmentalists we often criticize for promoting this pristine nature idea know full well that it's not true. But they strategically use pristine nature rhetoric to sell their ideas -- which are, when you read the fine print, unobjectionable plans for human life with, and management of, nature -- to the public. Thus, she concluded, it's intellectually irresponsible of us to undercut environmental groups' propaganda, since weakening the public commitment to pristine nature would open them up to accepting exploitative land use masquerading as "wise use."

*I mean that seriously -- her findings were interesting even if I mock her conclusion.

Centralia, Ohio

Welcome to a special bonus post, brought to you by Sarah and Brian's laptop, a free AOL CD, and the hotel room's "data port" (aka extra phone jack). I don't have time to give any thrilling insight, but I thought I'd point to this story from USA Today:

Pollution Unites Town, But Solution Tears It Apart

... this is a place where things often don't work out as planned. The notorious blue plume, it turned out, was caused by attempts to clean the plant's smoke. And today, although almost everyone has moved out of Cheshire, the village is still in business, and the plant still faces complaints from people outside the village.

... Cheshire, meanwhile, is almost gone. The population, 221 in the last Census, is down to about 15 full-time residents. Of 97 houses, 78 have been torn down. Several others are stripped and waiting for the bulldozer. The Methodist Church, which had been auctioned off piece by piece, was demolished two months ago.

... The tall stack had diluted the plant's smoke over a wider area. But it also introduced it into the jet stream, where it traveled hundreds of miles east.

Now [with environmentally-mandated scrubbers in place] the bad air settled closer to home. Ash and other dirt collected on cars and ruined paint jobs. The plant had to settle insurance claims and issue car wash coupons.

I found the issue of changing pollution distribution to be an interesting environmental justice dilemma -- without the scrubbers, the pollution is dispersed to harm people in far-away places that never asked for it. With them, there is less pollution but it's more concentrated, causing acute problems for the nearby people.


Off To Philly

I'll be in Philadelphia all this week for the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting. Unless they massively expanded the number of computer kiosks, the chances of me posting anything before Saturday night are vanishingly small. But when I return, I may have all kinds of insightful geographic things to say.

Too Much Wood

Alaskan Logging May Lack Market

The Bush administration recently stoked their hopes [in the town of Ketchikan, Alaska], and infuriated environmentalists, by opening 330,000 acres of Tongass National Forest, old-growth rain forest and marshland the size of West Virginia, to logging roads.

But few, certainly not federal or state officials, bother to say the traditional debate between jobs and the environment is almost beside the point. Global timber markets have undergone fundamental shifts, producing a glut. Logging costs in southeast Alaska historically are much higher than in other countries, making profits elusive at best.

Economists and others who study the Northwest timber industry say they doubt that companies returning to the Tongass' stands of old-growth hemlock, cedar and spruce will find buyers willing to pay enough to keep local loggers in business.

This is symptomatic of the bizarre disconnect between natural resource politics and economics. The timber market is glutted, yet the federal government continues to throw more trees at it, selling logging rights in national forests for a song in order to meet timber use quotas and pushing for logging as a solution to wildfire. This perhaps makes sense from the point of view of the individual logging company -- you can't reduce how much wood the other guys are cutting, so your only strategy is to cut lots more and hope that you can make up in volume and market share what you lose by glutting the market. But it's not clear why the timber industry as a whole would be looking to expand its cutting.

Environmental Justice In New York

Pollution High Where Income Is Low

... Environmental activists say New York state isn't doing enough to protect minority communities like the South End neighborhood from being disproportionately saddled with sites that potentially pollute the environment.

The Citizens' Environmental Coalition released a report Thursday, finding that communities with a minority population of at least 70 percent have about 18 percent of the state's air pollution sites but only make up about .5 percent of the land area.

... By comparison, communities with a minority population of up to 10 percent have about 37 percent of both the state's air pollution sites and hazardous materials sites, but make up about 84 percent of the land area.

Distressing, but not surprising. It's odd, though, that the headline talks about poverty, but the report (pdf) doesn't analyze income directly. There may be a political element to that decision -- many environmental racism discussions get sidetracked into arguments over whether class or race is the stronger explanatory variable, so the CEC may be trying to keep the focus on race. But I do wonder about the influence of income in the context of New York state. While visual inspection of the maps* indicates that hazardous sites are predominantly concentrated in urban areas, it's not clear whether that's proportional to their population. It's also not clear how many of them are active sites versus old contamination that hasn't been cleaned up. My impression of New York hazardous materials politics suggests that due to land pressures in the city (the city being responsible for creating most of the toxins) there's a desire in many quarters to ship crap upstate, where the population is white but incredibly poor. It also makes me wonder about the differential impacts of environmental hazards on rural versus urban poor (or rural versus urban minorities, or black versus Native American communities) -- they're different forms of poverty, which would lead to different patterns of exposure and means of coping.

The report also contained this, which indicates that the "environmental justice for all" view is widespread in the Republican Party:
Governor Pataki said that his programs are ensuring that all children, regardless of where they live, can have access to clean air and water, and pristine open land. Our findings counter this statement. Clearly, people of color are more likely to bear the burden for pollution sources. The Governor did make a start by directing the Department of Environmental Conservation to develop an Environmental Justice plan to provide additional public participation and full environmental investigations in areas with high concentrations of people of color or low-income communities. But is increased public participation or are full investigations enough, if facilities continue to be sited in already overburdened areas?

*It's strangely entertaining to watch Adobe Reader slowly fill in all the symbols indicating toxic sites -- New York City has so many toxic sites that on the state-level map it seems to crawl and writhe as if it were full of beetles.


Important Notice

To all scientists and journalists writing about wildfire: Incorporating the phrase "burning questions" is no longer considered clever. Please plan accordingly.


Because of my subtitle, I get all kinds of searches looking for something involving "scraper." But "scraper made of the Belgium"? I suppose if Europe was a giant flint core, then knocking off Belgium would leave you with a nice scraper.

Mmm ... Unnatural Mold

A Food Fight Over A Fungus

... What comes out at the end is a matter of perspective — luscious artificial meat patties that taste just like moist chicken, or dangerous vat-grown "vomit-burgers" that are sickening consumers from coast to coast.

The product is Quorn, a fungus-based meat substitute that millions of Europeans have eaten for years. It entered the U.S. market in 2002 to rave reviews by consumers, but was quickly met with a dogged anti-Quorn campaign by an influential consumer group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Michael Jacobson, the CSPI's executive director, claims that Quorn, which he derisively terms an "odious" "mold"-based product, makes people ill — and he wants every last nugget expunged from American soil.

... "Quorn is about as far from natural as you can get," Jacobson recently wrote. "There is an abundance of healthful meat alternatives made with things that come from farms, like soybeans, mushrooms, rice …. If you're going to sell a food that comes from a lab, a test tube, or a giant vat, it should at least not make so many people sick."

I'm in no position to judge the scientific evidence about the safety of Quorn, although banning it seems excessive -- why not treat it like any other allergen, like peanuts or milk, that stay on the shelf but are clearly labeled so that affected people can plan their diets accordingly?

What makes me distrust Jacobson is his resort to rhetoric about unnaturalness. Take his comparison between soy-based meat substitutes and Quorn. Soy is grown on a farm, but soy farming is about as unnatural as a farm can get -- huge stretches of monoculture (in the US, often planted with genetically modified plants, or at least high-tech hybrids) tilled and harvested with huge machines and treated with industrial fertilizers and pesticides. But even if you buy organic soy meat, Gardenburgers don't grow themselves. After harvest, the soybeans have to be taken to a lab where they're extensively processed to make the meatlike products that end up on store shelves. There's nothing in the degree of processing involved that would favor soy over Quorn.

The "mold" issue is a little less objectionable, as "mold" connotes "possible allergen" better than "mushroom" (the company's original description). "Mold" may be a bit unfairly loaded, though -- after all, penicilin and blue cheese are molds, too.

The problem is that "unnatural" and "mold," while rhetorically suggestive, don't speak directly to the question at issue: do people actually get sick from eating Quorn? I'd happily eat the moldiest, most unnatural thing if direct investiagtion of its health qualities had vindicated it. Then again, if you feel that powerful food companies and uncaring bureaucracies are arrayed against you, perhaps you have to fight dirty in order to get public opinion to back you up. Would the L.A. Times have even written this article if Jacobson had spoken in a more scientific manner?


Most Evil Mollusk Ever

Study: Zebra Mussels Promote Algae Growth

A new study has found that the presence of zebra mussels in inland lakes promotes the growth of a blue-green algae that produces a toxin harmful to people and animals.

The study, conducted by researchers from Michigan State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, found that lakes infested with zebra mussels have, on average, levels of a blue-green algae called Microcystis three times higher than lakes without the mussels. The infested lakes also have about twice the level of microcystins — poisons produced by the algae.


Activist Administrators

... is the title of my latest OSP post. Sometimes I have as much fun creating the graphics that go with them than writing the articles. It's a somewhat different medium than cartooning, since I can't use words, and I have to splice them together out of photos (which cuts out surreal things like humanoid donkeys and elephants).


Fire And Newcomers

Fireproofing Rules To Stem Wildfire Threats

... In addition, 30,000 Deschutes County [Oregon] property owners will be notified in April that their land has been classified as forestland-urban interface. The 1997 law can make residents liable for $100,000 in firefighting costs if they fail to trim flammable grass, brush and trees.

State foresters estimate forestland-urban interface — the woodsy areas on the outskirts of towns — cover 3.5 million acres and contain 250,000 homes. Many are occupied by residents new to Oregon or rural living who do not understand the natural role of fire in the forests and who fail to take common-sense precautions.

Under Oregon’s new fireproofing rules, homeowners will have two years to voluntarily certify that they have created a 30-foot firebreak around their homes by removing dead vegetation, trimming limbs that could carry fire onto the roof and mowing dry grass.

Oregon’s new rules follow the lead of California, which in 1982 began classifying fire hazard zones and in 1991 began requiring fuel breaks, greenbelts, private water sources and brush-free driveways accessible to emergency vehicles.

The newness of so many residents of interface areas seems like it may necessitate a greater degree of legal enforcement of fire policy. Recent arrivals haven't been around long enough to be closely connected to either the local environment or the local community. Stephen Pyne has frequently mentioned the connection to environment issue -- people who work on the land and know it well will have much better knowledge of how the local environment works and what its demands are than will people who just came for the scenery. But he tends to overlook the issue of connection to the community. Non-governmental solutions would have to work through cultural mechanisms -- the development of a consensus among locals as to what sort of fire management they want, the absorption of a cultural lifeworld that motivates people to take action and to see the landscape through the lens of good fire policy, and the use of social pressures to generate compliance. But all those mechanisms are weakened when your community is made up of people who haven't imbibed the local culture long enough, particularly if (as is the case with so many suburban developments) the town lacks a vibrant downtown or other elements that would encourage the development of social interaction. The only solution, then, is to embed fire policy in the legal structure (at a state level, in order to be ready to go with each new village) and enforce it individually against residents.

Polluting Pennsylvania

Rendell Promotes Green-Space Initiative

To finance the [open space conservation] initiative, [Pennsylvania Governor Ed] Rendell is proposing an $800 million bond issue that would have to be approved by voters. He said the bonds would be repaid through fees levied on waste disposal and on chemicals that are released into the state's air and water.

... The new fees include a surcharge of $5 a ton on trash dumped in the state's landfills, half of which comes from out of state, and a toxic-emissions fee of 15 cents a pound up to a maximum of $5 million a year for each business. Businesses generating less than 10,000 pounds a year would be exempt.

Funds generated from the toxic-emissions fee would be used to replenish a program started under the late Gov. Robert P. Casey, the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund, which is now nearly out of money. "Make people who pollute the environment pay the costs of cleaning it up," Rendell said.

... "One man's fees are another man's taxes," said State Sen. Robert J. Thompson (R., Chester County), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "No matter how you cut it, it is an increased cost to somebody."

Thompson said the question he and his colleagues were looking at was how the programs could be funded without adding undue burdens on businesses or taxpayers.

That's funny, it sounds to me like the proposed fees/taxes are quite likely to decrease costs to businesses and taxpayers. Monetary costs are easy to point to. But pollution -- both the stuff whose emission is being taxed and the stuff that would be cleaned up with the resulting revenues -- impose costs on the businesses and citizens exposed to it. If taxing emissions burdens industry, then perhaps they'll have an incentive to cut down.


Cartoon Creativity

Maybe this is why I haven't made it big with my cartoons -- when I draw cartoons, I try to make them have a point or illustrate some sort of argument. But it seems that only around 50% of actual professional cartoons do that. If that's the price I'd have to pay, it's not worth it. I don't think I could look at myself in the mirror if I drew yet another cartoon showing Martha Stewart decorating her jail cell.

Remedial Statistics For The Bush Administration

I just came across this mention of another case of the EPA ignoring an executive order that eerily parallels the logic used to set aside the environmental justice order. Their philosophy is that as long as the mean looks good, it doesn't matter if the variance puts some people in really bad shape.

In late January, Inside EPA reporter Liz Heron obtained EPA documents through the Freedom of Information Act revealing that the agency failed to comply with two executive orders requiring it to study how the administration's mercury plan would affect children, minorities, and low-income populations.

"What they said to me was that they were trying to protect the entire population, so it wasn't necessary to look at the effects on specific population subsets," said Heron. "Their logic is that if their end goal will benefit everybody, it will help susceptible populations as well."

Come to think of it, this is more or less the logic of Bush's argument about the economy -- as long as GDP is growing, there's more total wealth around, so on average everyone is better off. It's irrelevant from his point of view that lots of people are out of a job and so aren't actually getting any of that extra wealth, which is concentrating in a few hands.


Hey Big Spender

If you want to know how bad our current Congress's financial irresponsibility is, consider this: It has provoked Dave Barry into writing a column that, while referencing sex with squid, is for the most part overtly political.

Same-Sex Wildfire

I have a Google News Alert set up to notify me of stories about wildfire. But since Google lacks reading comprehension, I wind up getting emailed about stories that use the word "wildfire" as a metaphor as well. The latest round of such stories to hit my inbox relate to comments by conservative leaders such as Bill Frist comparing same-sex marriage to wildfire. My initial reaction was "sounds good to me," akin to Morat's comparision of same-sex marriage to an avalanche that can't be stopped.

But being a fire ecologist, I thought it might be interesting to dig into the metaphor a bit deeper. I think the conservative use of the wildfire idea draws on outdated ideas of what wildfire means, and that looking at same-sex marriage through the lens of fire ecology shows how the same-sex marriage* wildfire is good for our society.

The associations that Frist wants to evoke are that wildfire is destructive, out of control, and demanding of almost paramilitary measures to keep it down. Wildfire is started either by a cruel vagary of nature (lightning) or a malicious person, and comes to bring woe to all the innocent homeowners and cute forest animals. It seems lively and exciting, but leaves lifeless desolation in its wake. This parallels the idea that same-sex marriage is ignited by either a cruel vagary of genetics, or by wilful indulgence in sin. It brings woe to all the innocent heterosexual marriages by threatening their sanctity. And it seems exciting (witness the flamboyance of stereotypical gay culture, and the appeal -- irresistable to the straightest of us, by some accounts -- of the idea that sex should be fun), but leaves behind it the heartbreak of meaningless irresponsible sex and the destruction of procreation and child-rearing. Wildfire in its most fearsome aspect laughs at barriers placed in its way -- crown fires leaping the widest firebreaks, hot winds lofting firebrands over firefighters' heads. This parallels the fear of a slippery slope, on which gay marriage propels us past legal barriers like defense of marriage acts as well as past any philosophical or moral standards that could justify condemning pedophilia or "man-on-dog." Under the old view of wildfire, massive paramilitary measures were necessary to keep things under control -- what Stephen Pyne calls the "Cold War on fire," using high-tech planes, bulldozers, and chemicals and loads of footsoldier manpower to quench any stirrings of flame. Similarly, conservatives feel same-sex marriage calls for drastic measures, from amending the constitution to blocking schools from hinting to kids that homosexuality may exist or be legitimate to "ex-gay" reeducation programs.

So much for the Smokey the Bear/Bambi vision of wildfire. What have fire ecologists learned over the last quarter century? First: wildfire is inevitable. Suppression worked at first, but costs spiraled out of control and wildfires came back with a vengeance. The structure of wildland fuels makes it necessary. Similarly, same-sex households will not go away, both because the causes (be they genetic or environmental) of homosexual desire will not go away and because the structure of a liberal democratic society ensures that people will have a rationale and an ability to put the question on the table again and again.

Second: fire is good for the environment. The scorching heat of a fire releases seeds from cones. The treeless postfire landscape is a landscape of opportunity for vigorous new growth. Ash is nature's fertilizer. Similarly, same-sex marriage is, in the long run, good for society. It helps homosexual people, obviously, releasing them from the bonds of homophobic institutions. It's good for straight people like myself because it affirms and activates our society's commitment to equality and liberty.

Third: fire is good because it is disruptive. An undisturbed climax forest may not be an ideal realization of a landscape's biological potential -- rather, it may be an ecosystem in a rut, limping along under its own dead weight. The same can happen to societies, dragged down by an encrustation of tradition. Further, fire's disruption has a random element, leaving a mosaic of landscapes with different patterns of growth, fostering a healthy biodiversity. Same-sex marriage does the same in pointing to a society that doesn't put all its eggs in one family structure basket.

Fourth: fire forces us to make hard choices. Fire management is a prime example of the way not choosing is itself a choice. Homeowners, municipal planners, and foresters have to decide what kind of tradeoffs they're willing to make in managing the environment. You can't expect to write fire out of the landscape -- rather, you have to learn to live with it (and it with you -- our ecosystems evolved in the presence of anthropogenic fire). Similarly, the push for same-sex marriage forces us to make choices about how we structure society, how we deal with sexuality and family. Ignoring homosexuality or passing the buck to tradition don't cut it in a situation that demands justification and taking responsibility for choices.

*I think most of what I'm saying can be applied to the gay rights movement in general.


Environmental Justice

I'm working my way through a report (pdf) by the Inspector-General reviewing the EPA's commitment to implementing the idea of environmental justice as ordered by President Clinton in 1994. The findings are rather startling -- despite the fact that Clinton's executive order was titled "Federal Actions To Address Environmental Justice In Minority Populations And Low-Income Populations," the current EPA maintains that it is aiming at "environmental justice for all," i.e. without special emphasis on disproportionately impacted minority or poor people. That position is consistent with the general Republican philosophy of willful colorblindness when it comes to racial matters, but it's pretty obviously inconsistent with the law on the books.

So should the law on the books be changed? There's a certain agreeableness to the idea of environmental justice for all. After all, a given exposure to PCBs will give a white person cancer at just the same rate that it will give a Native American cancer, so why should the latter get special protection? The report's rationale is:

Based on concerns raised in the early 1990s, these segments of the population were found not to be benefitting from the Agency's overall mission, and the Executive Order was issued in an attempt to draw more attention to this specific part of the population. The Administrator's August 2001 memorandum and the Office of Environmental Justices actions, returns the Agency to pre-Executive Order status, where everyone is assumed to be afforded protection under the environmental laws and regulations. It does not address the need to ensure that minority and low-income populations are protected from disproportionate environmental risks.

In other words, before the executive order the EPA thought it was providing environmental justice for all, but in actuality wasn't. The order is a corrective, pointing out a failing and urging the EPA to take especial care that it doesn't fall into that particular pitfall on the road to environmental justice for all. There's certainly some truth to that. For the reasons that I'll refer to momentarily in the context of a wider justification of environmental justice, it's easy for a mostly white middle-class group of bureaucrats in Washington to falsely imagine that their programs are providing equal protection to socially disadvantaged populations. Further, there's a real danger of discrimination by those bureaucrats (since in America the poor and minorities are the traditional targets of discrimination) that justifies taking explicit additional steps to guard against.

However, I think a justification of an environmental justice program explicitly targeting the poor and minorities can go farther. In the context of a society in which those groups are also disadvantaged in non-environmental ways, poor and minority populations have a special need for extra attention and extra protection.

The main issue is vulnerability. The impact of an environmental hazard is a combination of exposure (how much hazard you encountered) and vulnerability (how well you can cope with a given level of exposure). Disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards on the part of minorities and the poor is well documented (at least in the classic case of toxic chemical hazards -- in the US I'm not so certain about "natural" hazards like floods and wildfire). However, this disproportionate impact is accounted for under the rubric of "environmental justice for all," as there's no reason in terms of exposure why having four coal fired power plants in your neighborhood is worse if you're black than if you're white.

Where environmental justice needs to focus on the poor and minorities is the question of vulnerability. In general*, minorities and poor people are much more vulnerable to hazards. Because of a history and continuing condition of social disadvantage they lack the resources -- wealth, education, political clout, mobility, useful social networks, etc. -- that would enable them to rebound from environmental hazards. Thus, the impact of a given hazard exposure will likely be greater on a minority or poor community than on an affluent white one. The EPA's ability to affect the vulnerability side of the equation is limited (though the executive order does require cooperation with other agencies like HHS and HUD that could help with that -- indeed should help with that as a side effect of their non-environmental programs). So insofar as the EPA's mission is to achieve acceptable standards of environmental impact for everyone, it should take especial care with the exposure of disadvantaged groups to environmental hazards**.

As part of a liberal political system, the EPA shares in the government's joint mission of realizing substantive equality of opportunity for all its citizens. Thus, the EPA must confront the question of compounding, of which vulnerability is an example. Various forms of disadvantage (or advantage), both social and environmental, do not operate independently. They compound each other, potentially dragging people down by more than the sum of their disadvantages. An elevated exposure to an environmental hazard will thus not only disproportionately impact a poor Puerto Rican's environmental health as compared to an affluent white's, it will also disproportionately impact her overall achievement of social equality. Given that the EPA's ability to affect prejudice, the class structure, etc. is limited, it is irresponsible of the agency to allow exposure to environmental hazards to compound the factors holding poor and minority people back.

With each step toward substantive equality on the part of poor and minority Americans, the need to take specific account of environmental impacts on disadvantaged populations decreases. A successful environmental justice program would make itself obsolete. A concerted long-term effort by all government agencies as well as all non-government portions of society could concievably eliminate disadvantage, thus allowing the EPA to engage in a straightforward pursuit of "environmental justice for all."

*To avoid tempting the ecological fallacy, a more sensitive measure of actual social disadvantage than "minorities and the poor are disadvantaged, affluent whites aren't" would be useful, but the crude distinction drawn in the Executive Order is a good start and potentially less susceptible to opportunistic manipulation.

**The EPA's emphasis on the exposure side may explain why gender is not included among the categories of disadvantage that must be taken into account. Hazard exposures are geographically located, thus affecting communities, but the population is pretty evenly mixed-gender. Widespread heterosexuality and the random sex of children ensures there's no residential gender segregation on the level observed for racial and income-based residential segregation. Thus it's easy to think there are no "female communities" that must be especially protected, since for any given hazard men and women will be exposed more or less equally. This assessment, while intuitive, is probably not exactly true -- gendered social roles likely expose women to a different suite of environmental hazards than men experience. But I don't know enough about the issue to say what would be "women's hazards" that, by the logic laid out in this post, ought to have special attention given to them.


Default Donation

Via this interesting paper, it comes to my attention that there are people pushing for organ donation in the US to become an opt-out, rather than opt-in, system. Based on the experience of numerous European countries who do it the other way, it looks like opt-in greatly increases the number of organ donors by influencing people who don't have a strong preference or just go with whatever sounds normal. On that basis I entirely support the idea of switching to opt-out for the US. Of course, that's easy for me to say given my metaphysical belief that a corpse is just a wad of meat -- once consciousness is gone for good, there's no person there anymore. So the default seems naturally to fall on the side of donation, since the only harm that donation could cause would be the violation of a well-formed preference on the part of the deceased. If I held a belief that stated that the corpse was still a person in some respect (such as the injunction against corpse desecration held by many societies which has caused so much consternation to archaeologists), then the situation would be different. In that case it would make sense to want the default to be to not donate, preserving people's posthumous dignity unless they made a conscious and well-formed decision to damn themselves by donating their organs.


Don't Rock The Methyl Bromide

U.S. Requests Exemptions To Ozone Pact For Chemical

The United States is seeking to make more American farmers and industries exempt from an international ban on methyl bromide, a popular pesticide that damages Earth's protective ozone layer, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

Last year, the administration sought to exclude a variety of farmers and food producers from the ban, which takes effect next year under a treaty outlawing substances that harm the ozone layer. The exempt businesses would be allowed 21.9 million pounds of methyl bromide next year and 20.8 million pounds in 2006 in uses like fumigating stored grain and treating golf-course sod and strawberry fields.

... Some American growers say methyl bromide remains vital to compete with countries where cheap laborers do weeding and pest control. Critics of the American requests said the exemptions could undermine the 1987 ozone treaty. Use of methyl bromide has been cut 70 percent in industrialized countries since 1999 under the treaty.

Ah, the threat of imported golf course sod.

I'm not a chemist or an economist, so I can't judge the accuracy of the US's claims (pdf) regarding how vital MeBr is to the various affected industries. What I can do is voice concern over the standards that the Protocol sets for MeBr exemptions. Unlike most chemicals that are being phased out, which have to be "critical to the health, safety, or functioning of society," MeBr uses can be continued if elimination would cause "a significant market disruption" (hence the golf sod). The standards go on to explicitly note that alternative agricultural chemicals may be toxic in their own way. While I'm glad the Protocol is thinking ahead to avoid an MBTE-like situation where one environmental regulation prompts a different environmental problem, there's a certain narrowness to the assumption that we must be using chemical fumigants.

The Montreal Protocol is often hailed as an example of how international cooperation to solve environmental problems can work. But the reason it's worked as well as it has is that it's a triumph of the "don't rock the boat" approach. The phasing out of CFCs in aerosol cans, for example, has been barely a blip on the public radar because we found a alternative technological solutions. On MeBr, the parties decided to make not rocking the boat a precondition of action, allowing only relatively costless solutions rather than sucking it up and letting the threat of market disruptions hang over industries that continued to practice ecological disruption.

Fighting Blind

... is the title of my latest post on Open Source Politics. Unfortunately it may be some time before I can post my commentary and comics from this week's issue of The Scarlet, as I forgot to email them to myself while I was in the office.

Wyoming Has Gas

Energy Boom Has Wyoming Coffers Overflowing

... While many other states are still struggling to find their financial footing after years of budget turmoil, Wyoming's tiny government is awash in cash.

... The tax transfusion is driven by the energy industry, as most things in Wyoming tend to be. Extraction of natural gas, especially through the process called coalbed methane mining, has boomed, and gas prices have surged at the same time. Wave has built upon wave, resulting in what budget officials now expect will be about $1.2 billion more in tax revenues over the next two years than the state had anticipated.

... [Governor Dave] Freudenthal, a Democrat, has argued that a structural change in the energy business, notably the recent completion of some big pipeline projects in Wyoming, creates at least the possibility of a long-term wave that could keep the tax money flowing for years.

If that happens, the governor said in an interview, Wyoming will have an obligation to start thinking more broadly about the consequences and costs of the boom — and the energy extraction that produces it — in order to protect wildlife and environmental quality for generations.

... Republican leaders in the Legislature say the evidence is not convincing that this economic cycle will be different. High gas prices cannot last, they say, especially in a presidential election year, when pressures are likely to be intense from Washington to bolster the national economy, which is dominated by energy buyers, not sellers.

-- via The Hamster

Now there's a new argument against environmental regulations -- "don't worry, the economy will collapse." But maybe that's Bush's devious strategy -- rather than going head-to-head with polluting industry, he gives them short-term favors that undermine the long-term economy of the nation. It worked splendidly for Russia, where the post-Soviet collapse allowed them to easily meet their Kyoto targets.


Massachusetts, San Fransisco, Oregon ... Haiti?

Here's a screenshot from Yahoo! News today. Yes, that's a picture of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide next to the story about Dick Cheney's views on gay marriage.

Maybe Cheney is hoping that if the marriage amendment passes, he can talk his disappointed daughter into tying the knot with Aristide.

Wildfire Challenges

It seems that some of the same issues are being raised in inquiries about wildfire all around the world (or at least around the English-speaking world). A recent report on fires in British Columbia says that two of the biggest issues are communication with the public and coordination among firefighting agencies. Meanwhile, hearings about the Canberra wildfires last year are raising complaints that residents weren't well-informed about the danger. The California fires, meanwhile, are being blamed in part on poor coordination among fire agencies, for example with some firefighters being deluged with so much data that they couldn't process it all and had to rely on their instincts.

That these are major issues shouldn't be a surprise, given that the fires in question occurred in the urban-wildland intermix area. People in this area have less "local knowledge" of their environment, given that they're often recent arrivals to their subdivisions and work in city offices rather than on the land. Therefore they're more dependent on the government and media to supply them with necessary information, and to serve a coordinating role by selecting and enforcing a fire policy (for example, during the California fires many people felt entitled to an exemption from evacuation orders and wanted to go home before fire officials felt their area was safe). The urban-wildland location presents a coordination problem because it mixes two styles of firefighting and fire management. Total suppression is necessary and feasible in the dense built environment of the city, whereas some burning is necessary and feasible on "natural" land. Suburban areas are built-up enough to make it unfeasible (or at least incredibly risky) to burn, while being "natural" enough to make it unfeasible (or at least incredibly risky) to attempt to not burn.

On a related note, it says something about my tendency to look at California through the lens of fire that, after reading the 11th paragraph of this article, I thought "what kind of idiot homeowners' association would mandate shake roofs?" Oh yeah, people have other values than fire safety. (Even so, making the option of fire-resistant roofing available to everyone seems eminently sensible to me.)


An Advantage Of The Two Party System

Another thought on the "just trust the experts" thesis: It seems that the two-party system has the advantage of allowing one to be agnostic on more issues, in recognition of one's lack of competence to decide. For example, I remain deliberately agnostic on the question of abortion* -- I go out of my way to avoid arguments and information that could dispose me to feeling that we either should or should not ban the procedure (or that, given an unwanted pregnancy and access to legal abortion, a woman should or should not get one). This would be a tough position to maintain if there were political parties representing every different combination of policy views. I'd be confronted with a decision of voting for a party that agreed with me on all issues and was pro-life, and one that agreed with me on all issues and was pro-choice. I'd have to make some sort of decision on abortion, even if it was just to throw my lot in with some professional ethicist whose other views I agreed with. But with only the Democrats and Republicans to choose from, my decision is much easier. I would have to be consumed with passion for the pro-life cause before my views on abortion swayed me to vote for a Republican in most circumstances, because I align with the Democrats on so many more issues. The two-party system allows me to be pro-choice in practice while remaining philosophically agnostic. Of course, this situation wouldn't help if my political views were less liberal and so the Democrats' and Republicans' respective faults on all the issues I cared about evenly balanced, leaving abortion as the tiebreaker (the libertarian conundrum).

*Granted, my reasoning for this choice is more about efficient allocation of my intellectual resources than about my inability to achieve expertise -- indeed, it's the fear that I could easily come to a well-grounded opinion that makes me put forth effort to avoid the temptation to engage in the debate.

Trust The Experts

Various blogs have been tossing around a draft paper by Neil Levy arguing that we shouldn't try to become more well-informed on complicated issues, and instead should defer to whatever experts share our political/ethical commitments (see this thread for a discussion in which Levy himself participates). There's certainly something to be said for deferring to people who have studied things more thoroughly (see Morat's comments on the futility of lay arguments against evolution), though there's likewise much to be said for John Stuart Mill's view that to hold an opinion obliges you to understand the other side's arguments. What caught my interest, though, was Levy's use of environmental issues as examples of controversies we should let the experts decide. For example, he says:

The problem, for the non-expert, in these environmental debates, is how to assess each side’s claim that the type-one evidence [basic facts] they cite better supports its case than that cited by the opposition. Reduction in forest cover worldwide has slowed to a near stand-still; that’s the good news. Tropical forests are shrinking faster than ever; that’s the bad. Does this add up to environmental degradation or improvement? It is extremely hard -- for the non-expert -- to say, even if we limit our attention to this single issue alone.

The thing is that environmental experts can't say whether it's degradation or improvement. That isn't an objective question. Expertise is certainly useful in informing the debate, but the answer is relative to the desires, interests, and acceptance of affected lay people. It's not just that the experts don't know enough and hence can't resolve the issue, it's that outsiders are incapable of making a justified decision.

It's increasingly the consensus among environmental experts that lay people should call the shots (witness the move toward participatory approaches). So if anyone is thinking of deferring to me as an expert on environmental issues, my expert judgement is that you should become as well-informed as you can and contribute to the debate.


Kevin Drum points out that math professors are the recipients of crackpot theories about squaring the circle, physics professors have to deal with blueprints for perpetual motion machines, and economists get "free lunch" schemes. I'd add that biology professors probably hear from creationists all the time, and archaeologists get tracts about Atlantis and how aliens built the pyramids. But what do geography professors get? Are there crackpots out there working feverishly on half-baked theories about public participation in environmental planning or the influence of market penetration on agricultural intensification, waiting to send them to me as soon as I get tenure?