Archive for the ‘Information’ Category

Perspectives on how to respond to the Trump Administration

In the wake of Donald Trump’s disastrous first week in office, I offer here two perspectives on how to respond to the new administration. I do not advocate for either, but offer them for your consideration.

The first comes from the liberal editors of the literary/intellectual magazine n+1, who call for each individual to join “a collective will to refusal” — a general policy to oppose and ignore the President’s directives at every level of government. The underpinning of this argument is Trump’s own lawlessness, absence of values, and contempt for civil process. “Through the paradox of the legitimate election of an illegitimate officeholder”, we have, in effect, “no president”. Since the article was written before revelations that Trump rode to power on Russian hacking, an even stronger case can be made now for his illegitimacy.

The risk of obstructionism is that it misses any opportunities for positive change to be had from compromising or working with the Administration. Obstructionism, as we have seen from the recent past, also erodes the machinery of the civil process. However, the editors argue that this moment is a special case:

“It is far better to ‘overreact’ to a moment that sets up the means for tyranny than not to react. Better to seize hold of the abnormal than turn violation into the normal.”

And so the editors give this recommendation for how to respond to the situation:

“For the time being, many Americans may have to be political to an unusual degree, and political in a new way. [...] The ordinary, unromantic, and vilified forms of disobedience may turn out to be most needed. Refusal of allegiance. Refusal of participation. Not showing up. Leaving key government jobs, or staying in those jobs to slow down or stall illegitimate actions. Daily refusal to go along with orders coming from an illegitimate executive. Refusal of bureaucrats, tasked with reporting on citizens, to report if it could put their subjects in jeopardy. Refusal of enforcement agencies to enforce. Refusals and resignations in the armed forces. Refusal of those tasked with cooperating with the government to cooperate.”

While those actions apply mainly to people working in and for the public sector, others should focus on building civic infrastructure:

“Along with this must come greater cooperation among ourselves, a commitment to building democratic institutions inside and outside the existing parties.”

On the other hand, we have a perspective from Eliot Cohen, a foreign policy expert and true conservative, having served as counselor to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and written a book advocating for military force in American foreign policy.

Writing in The Atlantic, Cohen predicts that the Trump presidency will continue to get worse as Trump is intoxicated by power, and eventually end in calamity. Like the editors of n+1, Cohen identifies the current situation as a special case, “one of those clarifying moments in American history” that will test our moral resolve. Cohen offers this advice to fellow conservatives considering working for the Trump administration:

“Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.”

Cohen here advocates noncooperation in a similar way, especially warning his conservative colleagues against the temptation of working with the Trump Administration for the promise of power and influence. In a striking parallel with the recommendations from n+1, Cohen suggests that those people not in a position to fight Trump’s policies directly should focus on building (or in this case, “restoring”) the social values and social institutions that Trump disdains:

“Some Americans can fight abuses of power and disastrous policies directly—in courts, in congressional offices, in the press. But all can dedicate themselves to restoring the qualities upon which this republic, like all republics depends: on reverence for the truth; on a sober patriotism grounded in duty, moderation, respect for law, commitment to tradition, knowledge of our history, and open-mindedness.”

Ultimately, the liberal and conservative strategies to oppose Trump read as hearteningly similar: We should begin with principled noncooperation. And for those without a role in government, we should protest, yes, but do so with renewed commitment to the qualities that Trump lacks: rationality, respect for facts, kindness, empathy, and personal vulnerability.

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Policy Proposals for Black Lives Matter

The media coverage and online conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement has included substantial discussion of specific shootings, the general problem of police violence, the character of protests events, and even the remarks of activists at several college campuses. However, after reading many articles and having many conversations on the topic, it was, for a long time, unclear to me what specific policy proposals that allies of the movement should advocate. Anyone else seeking clarity on this topic should look to the policy platform of Campaign Zero.

Campaign Zero (as in, zero police killings) is an initiative aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement (writ large) and growing out of the Ferguson protests. It is not connected to the official #BlackLivesMatter (of the hashtag and website) organization, but it is the most prominent source of policy proposals that I have found related to the movement. It also has political recognition, as representatives of Campaign Zero, along with other leaders of Black Lives Matter, have met with President Obama and with the Sanders and Clinton campaigns.

Campaign Zero identifies 10 strategies to reduce police violence, each having one or more specific policies. Some of these include:

  • End Policing of Minor “Broken Windows” Offenses, such as trespassing and marijuana possession
  • End Profiling and “Stop-and-Frisk” tactics
  • Establish Alternative Approaches to Mental Health Crises, e.g. Mental Health Response Teams
  • Require the use of body cameras by police
  • End the Federal Government’s 1033 Program Providing Military Weaponry to Local Police Departments
  • Establish a permanent Special Prosecutor’s Office at the State level for cases of police violence

The full list is worth reading. These are reasonable and actionable policies that we can bring not only to the national primary campaign, but also to our local races, where many of them would be implemented. We can judge candidates based on their support of these policies and nudge them to do so. The Campaign Zero website summarizes the presidential candidates’ positions on each policy (Sanders currently shows a substantial edge over Clinton).

Overall, these policies are well-grounded in research and supported by data. I am especially impressed by the way the Campaign team solicits policy ideas, and posts and responds thoughtfully to criticism, including making changes to the platform.

The policies proposed are all focused on policing and criminal justice. This is by design, as the team feels a narrow focus is most effective. The implicit assumption is that police violence is not merely a symptom of socioeconomic problems, i.e. one that is best solved by education and social welfare, but an additional and distinct problem that requires its own initiative. The data seem to bare this out.

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The Paris Agreement: A New Hope

It was a long time in coming, and marks as much the beginning of hard work as the conclusion, but the climate deal reached in Paris is an amazing advance that far exceeded my expectations and those of many of my climate science colleagues.

The last major attempt at a global agreement on climate change, 6 years ago in Copenhagen, was basically disastrous. It left many in the climate community believing that a global accord was impossible, and the only path would be unilateral and bilateral action among the larger countries. But it was hard to see how any such strategies could have enough of an impact to stave off the expected waves of deaths, displacement, and hardships that scientists see coming.

Yet last week in Paris, 195 countries remarkably agreed to a stringent temperature target, and additionally that all countries must act to reduce emissions, and rich countries must provide money to help the poor ones. Under the agreement, each country provides its own target for emissions cuts and plans for how to achieve it, but all countries’ plans must be reviewed every 5 years against the temperature target.

Compared to six years ago, the Paris agreement is a triumph of French diplomacy where Danish diplomacy failed, a testament to Obama’s 2nd-term commitment to the climate where his 1st-term commitment faltered, a consequence of the Chinese people choking on far more smog, a response to six more years of heat waves, droughts, storms and blights, and a credit to all the leaders who signed on.

Since the mechanisms to reduce emissions are left up to the individual countries, the hard political and economic work of implementing the plan must now be fought country-by-country. In the U.S. especially, continued political pressure is essential. An anti-environment president could derail the entire plan. More than that, we’ve got to push climate policies and clean energy technologies far harder than we are now.

The implications of the temperature target challenge the imagination. To seriously meet it, fossil fuels that oil companies already have plans to exploit will have to stay in the ground. Coal plants that have just been built will have to be shuttered in less than half their useful life, or else expensively retrofit. Gasoline cars will disappear in the span of a single generation. Entire sectors will have to be cleaned up for which we have almost no solutions today, like air travel and livestock.

Nobody said saving the planet was easy. But getting 195 countries to agree on anything is a miracle. And now we have an agreement that should give us a lot more hope for the planet’s future.

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Digital Abundance and Spotify

At some point abundance goes from a benefit to a liability. We know this about material goods. Obesity, environmental destruction, and (arguably) mental illness are liabilities of a fantastically abundant consumer economy.

In some cases, abundance becomes its own enemy. For example, Walmart brings consumer abundance to small towns with its enormous selection of low-priced, imported goods, allowing the residents to buy more with the money they have. But Walmart advances a system that removes jobs from that small town, ultimately leaving the residents with less than they started with.

I don’t know the mechanism by which digital abundance becomes a liability, but I can feel it is happening. Some theories have been advanced.

Jaron Lanier, in books and numerous interviews, argues that the Internet is destroying the middle class. In simple terms, the cheap and free distribution of information, and the expectation that people should contribute content for free, undermines the ability of content producers (writers, musicians, journalists, entertainers, programmers) to make a living at their craft. For Lanier, the principle drawback of digital abundance is that it destroys jobs and hurts the generation of new content. It ultimately makes us poorer in the literal sense (the Walmart effect) and in the cultural sense.

Thom Yorke’s recent protest of the music-streaming service Spotify brings to light an example of this effect. As an example, musician Damon Krukowski describes the revenue that small artists get from the music streaming services: “it would take songwriting royalties for roughly 312,000 plays on Pandora to earn us the profit of one– one– LP sale. (On Spotify, one LP is equivalent to 47,680 plays.)” The New York Times offers this more comprehensive chart on the dire math. A solo artist would have to garner 4 million plays on Spotify per month to make minimum wage.

As another example, Evan Hughes argues that Amazon’s efforts to shut down physical bookstores will ultimately hurt its own sales, since most people discover most books that they buy in physical bookstores (though many go on to buy them cheaper online).

Taking a different approach to the question of digital abundance, Nate Silver, in his book, The Signal and the Noise, argues that data does not equate to meaning (signal). Although we have access to increasingly massive amounts of data, the problem we now face is that the noise is increasing faster than the signal, leaving us with less meaning than we had before. For Silver, this explains why predictions have not been improving with the increase in data and may continue to get worse for some time.

The notion is distinct from Lanier’s. Apart from the tendency of digital abundance to destroy jobs and thereby ultimately reduce the flow of important data (abundance as its own enemy), Silver argues that the increase in data itself hurts our ability to understand the world (abundance is the enemy).

Recently, I have been trying Spotify for listening to music. In principle, Spotify provides something I ought to be enormously excited about: instant access to almost any song I want to listen to, as if my personal mp3 collection had just grown to include not only my favorites, but any song I have a whim of an inclination hear. I was excited for about 5 minutes. It is hard enough choosing what I want to listen to out of my sizable mp3 collection, but choosing what I want to listen to out of anything? I run into something like a combination of decision fatigue and an unsettling feeling that Spotify is cheapening music (in the figurative sense; we already know it does so literally).

Taking Nate Silver’s notion somewhat far afield, perhaps access to any recording ever made, any time, increases the noise more than the signal. The “meaning,” if you will, the happiness or personal enrichment, one gets from music may be enhanced by having access to just the right song at the right time, but may be more-so diminished by the deluge of choices. The deluge may prevent one from spending much time with any one album, strip the personal significance from the way collections are obtained and cultivated, and limit the formation of the shared musical context that traditionally develops among friends and family members.

There is no doubt that digital music, and especially digital streaming services, enable you to get exactly what you want at any time. What I suggest is that getting exactly what you want is not the right goal in listening to music. Nor in life.

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Chicago prepares to use LRAD sound cannon on protestors

This point bears repeating since the irony is so sickly rich:

  1. Since 2001, U.S. police departments have been militarized at great expense in order to defend against Terrorism.
  2. As thanks, U.S. police departments are now using military weapons against hundreds to thousands of peaceful protesters, the very taxpayers that provided the funds in order to be kept safe.

The abuse of chemical weapons (tear gas, pepper spray) by police here in Oakland and across the country is now so well-known as to be cliché. But Chicago is preparing to step up its abuse with acoustic weapons aimed at protesters of the upcoming NATO summit. The city is poised to repeat the mistakes of Pittsburgh police by deploying a weapon better known for its use against Somali pirates against unarmed crowds. The type of device that Chicago and many other cities now own can cause permanent hearing damage to anyone within 15 meters, and severe pain and other symptoms at much longer distances.

The Chicago police claim that the sound cannon is meant to be used as a “communication device,” and that could very well be the initial intention. However, recent history demonstrates U.S. police departments’ inability to resist using (and abusing) military gadgetry once they own it.

Take note. Carry earplugs.

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Letter to Senator Feinstein on the FBI’s expanded invasions of privacy

I sent this message to Diane Feinstein (links added for this post).

Dear Senator Feinstein,

It was reported by the New York Times recently that the FBI plans to
expand its already invasive practices by conducting database searches,
surveillance, and going through the trash of American citizens who are
not even suspected of wrongdoing.

This is one more outrage in a long series of outrageous secret and
illegal violations of civil liberties by the Federal government which
are destroying America. Since its founding, this has been a country of
laws, and that is what made us great. America is becoming an oligarchy.
When that transition is complete, we will be no better than the
tyrannical dictatorships we are fighting against.

I know that, as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you are
privy to even more of the lawless, power grabbing activities than the
substantial abuses that are publicly known. If you are a patriot, I urge
you to fulfill your Constitutional responsibility as a check on
Executive power and oppose the new FBI guidelines as well as other
attacks on civil liberties.

Thank you.

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Life underground

A fascinating thing I learned in a seminar today: there is life almost 6 km (3.7 mi) underground — basically as far down as we can drill, we’ve found living microbes. We don’t know the limits of life below the surface, so it could go much deeper. Estimates indicate that more than half of the earth’s biomass could lie in the “deep biosphere”, that is, on a mass basis there could be as much or more life deep underground as there is on the surface and near-surface.An interesting feature of the organisms that live down there is that they live very slowly, with lifetimes of a thousand years or more. The seminar was on the “Deep Carbon Observatory“, a new, 10-year research effort to understand the deep carbon cycle.

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5-song demo and music video are out!

I recorded a demo EP. 5 songs, full-band arrangements, all originals. Themes include climate change, the financial crisis, disillusionment with the Obama administration, the dystopian future, and turning 30. There is even a music video. Check it out on my music website:

I started working on this project maybe a year and a half ago. It turns out, recording an album on your own is a lot of work. Why do many of us take on challenging creative projects with dubious rewards? It’s something I continue asking myself, and I think I’ve explored it far enough to know that the answer is not, simply, “for fun”.

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The many hands of capitalism

The beauty of capitalism, argues Adam Smith and my textbook, is that resources are magically guided by the invisible hand of the market to their most efficient uses. No central planning body is needed, as it is in communism, to decide how much of each product should be produced and who should receive it.

On the micro-scale, this is true in many ways. The individual decisions of millions of businesses, communicating through prices, add up to a system that satisfies most people’s wants with a dizzying array of constantly-improving products. We don’t need a giant bureaucracy to set the price of raisin bagels or determine how many electric lawnmowers should be built.

However, what I’m now discovering is that there is no “invisible hand” analogy on the macro-scale. The “natural” macroeconomic outcome of an entirely free market is abhorrent. Devastating cycles of boom, bubble, and recession; ever-more concentrated wealth; terrible working conditions for the poor; and, perhaps, resource depletion and collapse. It’s entirely up to the government (and, in some cases, labor unions), to guide the market with fiscal policy (government spending), monetary policy (mainly the interest rate), and human rights protections, and to clean up after the market with social welfare programs.

The hands are quite visible. So how much do you trust your government? They’ve been doing a bang-up job lately. Poor monetary policy (years of super-low interest rates, among other problems), contributed greatly to the housing bubble and our current Great Recession.

I just think it’s important to remember when certain pundits and Wall Street executives plead for small government and financial deregulation, that there is no reason to believe that would help in macroeconomic terms.

On the micro-level — when you are talking about things like price tariffs, subsidies, restrictions on trade, product standards — there is a justification, at least in theory, to call for “smaller government” or deregulation. Because here the market allocates resources more efficiently than the government would (again, at least in theory). But we already know what happens to the macroeconomy, left to its own devices, and that is everyone but the fabulously rich and very lucky gets smacked around by the invisible hand.

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Design issues in a mandatory greenhouse gas emissions registry for the United States

My latest paper1, going by the title above and written with Chris Weber and Scott Matthews, has been published online. It refers to the Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule proposed by the EPA, which is out for public comment until June 9th.

The point of the rule is to collect greenhouse gas emissions data from facilities in order to support future regulations and climate policy development. It is an exciting first step toward controlling emissions from the majority of sources across the economy. Many of the issues that have to be hammered out about who is in or out of the system and what kinds of emissions are included are the same for the reporting rule as for a cap-and-trade system. In this way, the reporting rule may very well set the groundwork and the boundaries of a cap-and-trade system or other regulation. Cap-and-trade, however, will not be enough to solve the climate problem.

Our major point in the paper is that the reporting rule can be easily augmented to collect more data to support a wider array of future policies and regulations. We also discuss the choice of reporting thresholds (the proposed rule did not use any objective criteria to set the threshold of 25,000 tons CO2e/yr across the board) and basically recommend a lower threshold than what was chosen.

I encourage interested members of the pubic to (read our paper and) submit a comment on the rule.

1Joshuah K. Stolaroff, Christopher L. Weber, and H. Scott Matthews. “Design issues in a mandatory greenhouse gas emissions registry for the United States.” Energy Policy. In Press, Available online 15 May 2009.

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Update: Torture by any other name…

The Post has apparently declined to publish my letter. As the stories of U.S.-sponsored torture and the Obama Administration’s continuing support of it continue to unfold, I encourage everyone to pressure the mainstream media to present the situation accurately. I also encourage everyone to read Glenn Greenwald, who continues to give clear, honest, and comprehensive accounting of our government’s violation of laws and civil rights.

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Torture by any other name…

Waterboarding is torture. It’s a well known and accepted fact by everyone except a small number of extremists like Dick Cheney, and unfortunately, editors of major newspapers like the Washington Post. The torture memos recently released by the Justice Department describe waterboarding, among other forms of torture. However, as one example in a pattern of underplaying torture committed by the U.S. Government, today in a news article the Washington Post referred to the techniques described in those memos as “harsh tactics that critics liken to torture”. This is akin to describing carbon dioxide as “an industrial byproduct that critics liken to pollution” or referring to current economic conditions as “a slowing of the market that critics liken to a recession”.

Of course you can find many people, even people in prominent or powerful positions, who believe carbon dioxide is not a pollutant (e.g. Senator James Inhofe), or who don’t characterize current economic conditions as a recession. But that does not justify presenting a widely-held and generally-accepted fact as a fringe belief. Waterboarding is widely and generally accepted to be torture, not “likened” to torture and not only by “critics”, just as carbon dioxide is not merely “likened” to pollution and not only by “critics”.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Post about this; I’ll let you know what happens.


Fun with maps

This link comes via Vinney via someone in the EPA smart growth office: a fascinating picture of subway systems of the world, presented on the same scale. Check it out.

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Transportation, climate change, and economic growth

I went to a panel discussion last night on “Merging Climate and Transportation Policy”. There were panelists from roughly the political left, right, and center, but all were thoughtful, had many good points, and agreed that the current system for spending federal transportation dollars is terrible. A lot of discussion about transportation and climate change tends to focus on technological fixes, like electric cars or biofuels, but this one focused on reducing driving — essentially changing behavior. The center and left panelists seemed to be boxing at the shadow-accusation that any such attempt is “social engineering”, largely by arguing that putting the right price on driving (i.e., making it significantly more expensive) isn’t about changing behavior, it’s about letting people make the right choices.

Well, prices changes behavior. That’s the point. There is some psychological value to giving people options, even ones they can’t afford, as opposed to mandating something (“You can only drive on odd-numbered days”), but it’s still about changing behavior. We know that raising the price of driving causes people to do it less (cf. recent increases in gas prices and subsequent fall off in car travel), but it’s not a terribly strong effect. If we want big reductions, like cutting miles driven in half, it’s hard to imagine that just pricing people out of their cars ($15 gas?) will be acceptable. I’m convinced the much more powerful (and palatable) tools will be land-use planning, making urban cores more attractive places to live (e.g. by improving urban schools), and cultural shifts toward valuing neighborhoods and urban features.

One of the interesting questions that came up was, “will policies to reduce miles driven also suppress economic growth?” This is something the right and center panelists were very concerned about. And actually, it’s hard to see how a pricing-based policy wouldn’t. There could be some rebound effects, like a more vibrant commercial economy if congestion-pricing makes the city more pleasant to shop and do business in. Or perhaps everyone would save fuel on balance because congestion-pricing eliminates gridlock. However, the main effect of charging more for driving is that people have less money to spend on other things. But let’s think about the other types of policies — the ones that get people replacing cars with transit and living closer to things. Offhand, I would say the economy becomes more service-oriented. People go out to eat more, spend more on cultural attractions, meet each other in bars and so on — the classic urban lifestyle model. They have smaller houses which they spend less to fill with things and, or course, less on cars. Bad for the economy? It’s not obvious, but I’d guess it’s better for communities to have more-local economies in the long run. Another direction it might go is that car travel gets expensive/unpleasant but the alternatives aren’t great either, so people just stay home. Probably yes, this would slow economic growth. Although that shouldn’t be the question. Are people less happy? Spending more time with the family and less time commuting to far-flung jobs is not bad. Staying home to watch tv and get isolated and depressed, on the other hand, probably is bad. So there is a right way and a wrong way to reduce driving. I expect that the strategies based on building vibrant communities support both economic growth and movement to a service-based economy that is better for the environment and connects people with each other.

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Japan to launch carbon footprint labeling scheme

Thanks to Vinney for passing on this story. Apparently Japan is starting a program to label certain types of consumer goods with their carbon footprint, that is, with the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted over the life cycle of the product, from extracting raw material to disposal or recycling. The UK has a similar system in the works, and there have been some voluntary programs in Europe, but, as far as I know, this will be the first mandatory carbon labeling program. It’s easy to argue with the details of such a scheme — measuring carbon footprints is a highly uncertain venture, but personally I welcome the attempt. I have been pushing for the development of life cycle emissions reporting from my small corner of the EPA and to my friends on the Hill for about a year now, and I’ve had little to point to by way of precedent.

On the one hand I find it a little disingenuous that the Japanese plan focuses on food product labeling when the climate impact of individual food items are pretty small for consumers to be constantly worried about, and the differences between comparable food items (say, one brand of soda versus another) are likely to be within the margin of error of the footprint values. It might make more sense to start with the big-ticket items, like consumer electronics or furniture, and not overwhelm already-complicated food purchasing decisions with more cryptic labeling. On the other hand, it might be good to get carbon labeling on to something that people see and worry about every day. Maybe the impact of people shifting their food purchases won’t be that big, but there could be a spillover effect from the raised awareness of carbon footprints. It could be one of those things where you add up carbon labels, recycling, reusable bags, and suddenly you get a conservation society — the much-sought-after cultural shift where people start to think about their impact on resources and not just the cost of things. After a while, it becomes natural, like wearing a seatbelt. Of course you choose the house with the lower carbon footprint. You wouldn’t throw a can in the trash, would you?!

Well, a fellow can dream.

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The death of biofuels

A pair of articles that just became available in Science (1-2) and a slightly earlier article (3) have found that biofuels like ethanol produced from corn are net greenhouse gas (GHG) losers over decade to century timescales (also reported by the Times here).

The debate about whether plant-derived ethanol saves GHG’s over its life cycle compared to gasoline has been going on for years. The basic story is that bio-ethanol and gasoline emit similar amounts of CO2 at the tailpipe, but on the bio-ethanol side, when plants regrow they capture some of that carbon back from the atmosphere. However there are other energy inputs to make fertilizer, run farm equipment, process the plants, and transport the fuel. On balance, looking across many studies, it appears that ethanol from corn provides a modest GHG benefit over gasoline, and technology in development to make ethanol from a whole plant (“cellulosic ethanol”) would provide a big benefit (4).

The new contribution of the first three references is to look at the carbon lost from plants and soil when you convert land from some other use to grow biofuel crops like corn, soy, palm, or sugarcane. The stunning result is that you lose so much carbon converting a piece of land to cropland, that it takes decades or centuries of making biofuels from it to even break even on GHG emissions. What is really disturbing is that as prices for corn and ethanol have gone up, people are already chopping down tropical rainforest to grow more biofuel crops. Even if you make sure to buy ethanol produced from land that was already cropland, that is just pushing land for food crops to be converted somewhere else (since the total demand for food is relatively inelastic).

Even in the U.S., taking out-of-use cropland, of which we have millions of acres, and converting it to grow corn for ethanol, results in a carbon debt that takes about 50 years to pay back (1). That is essentially because when ag land is out of use for while, it turns back into grassland or forest. With future, more efficient means of producing biofuels, the payback times will be shorter, but still substantial.

Does this mean biofuels are a Bad Idea? My opinion is, on a grand scale, yes. There are some exceptions. Fuels from agricultural wastes are still a good idea. And cellulosic fuels from a careful mix of native grasses grown on marginal land is still a good idea with significant potential. But can we rely on biofuels to make deep cuts in transportation sector emissions? Probably not. And this is an important salvo in the climate policy debate.

And there is a larger story underpinning the findings of these papers, and that is that land-use change is a key element of climate policy, one which hasn’t got enough attention so far. There is a huge amount of carbon currently stored up in natural lands and we are rapidly setting it free, whether by converting it to cropland to feed a growing and increasingly meat-hungry population, converting it (perversely, it seems) to grow biofuels, or clearing it for urban development. Continuing to do so will undercut our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

There is also an interesting connection here to my research on capturing CO2 from air. In principle, one could extract CO2 from the atmosphere using industrial methods (as opposed to using plants), add a lot of energy, and get liquid fuels. The industrial method uses at least 10,000 times less land than the corn-ethanol method, and so basically avoids the land-use change issues we are talking about. On the other hand, the biomass method runs largely on solar energy but the industrial method would require a huge amount of energy from somewhere to synthesize the fuel. Back in the ’70′s, Steinberg proposed doing it with nuclear (5). Now maybe we can find something better.


  1. Fargione, J.; Hill, J.; Tilman, D.; Polasky, S. and Hawthorne, P. “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt.” Science, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747
  2. Searchinger, T.; Heimlich, R.; Houghton, R. A.; Dong, F.; Elobeid, A.; Fabiosa, J.; Tokgoz, S.; Hayes, D. & Yu, T. “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change.” Science, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science.1151861
  3. Righelato, R. & Spracklen, D. V. “Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests?” Science, 2007, 317, 902-.
  4. Hammerschlag, Roel. “Ethanol’s Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present.” Environmental Science and Technology. 2006, 40, 1744-1750.
  5. Steinberg, M.; Dang, V. D. “Production of synthetic methanol from air and water using controlled thermonuclear reactor power: Technology and energy requirement”. Energy Conversion. 1977, 17, 97-112.

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How is sex like religion

The following quote comes from Laura Miller’s review of “The Secret History of the World”, a new book compiling the mythologies Eastern and Western secret societies like the Freemasons and Rosicrucians. She skewers the book as well as esoteric belief systems and other books about secret spiritual societies in general, noting that the power and allure of secrecy is the main thing that many such societies have going for them. When the details of, for instance, Scientology, are exposed, it all just seems kind of absurd. Miller concedes that the author has a point that while Richard Dawkins derives sufficient awe from the material universe, a lot of people need something else:

Most people will still choose to believe in something “more,” whether it’s the ninefold path of the Buddha or the pillars of Islam or pyramid power. Chances are that whatever they choose will sound ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t also believe. That’s something religion has always had in common with sex: If you’re not into it, it looks silly. Which explains why all the really clever people do it behind closed doors.

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Cybersecurity and implicit contracts

I generally feel that people are not worked up enough about corporate invasions of privacy. So it’s good to see an article like this in the Times talking about these issues. People think I’m a little crazy when I tell them I trade supermarket club cards with other people to confuse the consumer profiling system. Maybe that’s because, according to the sidebar, 64% of people don’t realize supermarkets can sell their customers’ purchase information to other companies.

The author makes an interesting framing of personal privacy as an implicit contract. It’s not illegal for someone to follow you around from store to store and record your purchases, but we would consider it an invasion of privacy. We implicitly regard such information as belonging to you. The information has value to every company that can sell you more things if they know your purchasing habits, but this information has (largely) not been monetized. Apparently, the main way that buyout artists made money on hostile takeovers in the ’80′s was by breaking implicit contracts, like the implicit contract to pay senior workers more.

From my own experience from my father’s work in wholesaling, this seems to be a major way that large companies push out small businesses. Some of it is due to higher efficiency from economies of scale, but a lot of the lower prices come from breaking implicit contracts. A small sales business relies on personal relationships. “Good service” is based largely on the understanding that if something goes wrong, it will be fixed at no charge. The small businessman builds loyalty with the customers, often investing a lot up front in samples, demos, and time. The implicit contract is that the customer will stay on board for a while if she finds value in the product. A big company, on the other hand, can offer lower prices, but demos and personal time are short. Likewise, service is more an “our way or the highway” approach. Big companies can freeload on the value that smaller companies invested to get a new product adopted by coming in afterward, perhaps with a cheaper knockoff, and undercutting. At the same time, they keep costs low by redefining the implicit rules of good service and doing less for the customer.

If a small company who you’ve been doing business with for years says, “okay, I’m going to renege on all our agreements, but my prices will drop a little next year”, you’d probably be mad and find another supplier. But a new entrant has an easier time changing the rules, like the way the buyout artists could hire new managers who hadn’t made any promises about future salary. Similarly, online entrepreneurs have this incredible opportunity to break implicit contracts because the social rules of the Internet are still fuzzy. Corporate behavior is checked to some extent by consumer opinion, and behavior that really breaks the social code is sometimes met with a profit-shrinking backlash. But when the social code is fuzzy, this mechanism is less of a protection. Facebook bungled its attempt to spy on users’ purchases by going too far too fast. But I suspect if they made a more staged, strategic invasion of privacy, they would have gotten away with it. How did Google get away with reading private email? If a corporation started scanning our paper mail for keywords and tacking ad fliers on the envelopes, people would not stand for it. But now no one seems to mind the Google approach.

The capitalist compulsion is to monetize everything that can be legally (or sometimes illegally) monetized. It looks to me like the social lawlessness of the Internet and ill-formed social views about digital information are openings allowing personal identities to be rapidly monetized. Perhaps a partial solution is for online communities to coalesce around certain principles and defend them, as seemed to work in the Facebook case. If a major online community really drafted the “Internet Rules of Privacy” and got some prominent other communities to sign on, perhaps pledging to boycott companies that don’t follow the rules, that might really change the game.

As much as I’d like to see a landmark piece of legislation that defines ownership of personal information and restricts the collection of personal data, I wonder if the bottom-up approach, a sort of citizen-union, could work faster in the case of the Internet.

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Visualizing global human development statistics

Thanks to Costa at Sustainable Research for pointing out this amazing data visualization tool. The folks at Gapminder have put together an interactive graph that lets you plot a variety of statistics by country, like “physicians per 1000 people”, and “percent urban population”. After looking at a lot of different relationships (hmm, what happens with % women in the labor force vs. % of government spending on the military?), I’m surprised how few variable pairs have a clear relationship. Most of them look random, or maybe have different trends for different regions. But what begins to become interesting is identifying the outliers, like, who has higher per capita CO2 emissions than the US? Who would’ve guessed Trinidad and Guam? Looking at trends over time is also fascinating. Time runs as a variable-speed animation, so you can step through the decades and watch China’s life expectancy dip during the cultural revolution, and watch Rwanda’s make a startling plummet during the genocide.

Beyond the specific statistics available, this is an amazing tool for visualizing data. Between the x-axis, y-axis, dot color, dot size, and time animation, you can individually select and see 5 dimensions of data at the same time, all with a friendly and effective user interface. Of course, it raises the question of whether people can actually process that much information. I found myself turning one or more dimensions off so as not to confuse myself. Maybe with experience you could train yourself to detect patterns or outliers in a 5-D visualization, but I wonder if you’d be able to see, for instance, a 3-way interaction that wasn’t obvious in any 2-D representation.


The cultural consequences of fast food

Many of us know of chef Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and an originator of California Cuisine. In her new cookbook, she promotes local, seasonal, organic, and minimally-processed foods, and a philosophy of paying attention to where your ingredients come from, taking time and care with your food, and eating with friends and family. These are all things I agree with. And I’ve spent time thinking about the health and environmental consequences of my food. But Waters elevates the importance of our food choices above the direct impacts of the ingredients. In an interview in Salon, she makes the most eloquent case that I’ve seen so far that food choices have cultural consequences:

When we’re eating fast food, we’re not just eating the food, we’re eating a set of values that comes with the food. And it’s telling us that food should be cheap. It’s telling us that food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet. It’s telling us that advertising confers value. That it’s OK to eat 24 hours a day. That there are unlimited resources. It’s telling us that the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant — in fact we don’t even need to know. And all of those values are informing what’s happening in the world around us. We’re ending up with malls instead of beautiful places to live in.

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