Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Moral Case for Globalization

There is lots of debate on the impact of globalization on the US and on poorer countries. Here I lay out the moral case for globalization and why it is good for the world.

By globalization I am taking about increased trade between nations. In particular I am focusing on jobs that are created in 3rd world countries to create goods for the first world. This covers the most talked about aspect of globalization: outsourcing to India and manufacturing in China.

I am excluding the trade of natural resources in this topic. Natural resource wealth such as oil or minerals can lead to the resource curse of corruption, competitive rent-seeking, and exchange-rate appreciation crowding out other economic activity. Natural resources can cause these problems even when they aren't traded between nations. So, I don't see this as a problem caused by globalization but globalization does exacerbate it.

Lets let the maestro Greenspan define globalization and give the key moral argument for it:

Globalization as generally understood involves the increasing interaction of the world's peoples through their national economic systems.

Indeed, probably the single most effective action that the industrial countries could implement to alleviate the terrible problem of poverty in many developing countries would be to open, unilaterally, markets to imports from those countries.

I have 3 main points why globalization is good.

1) Globalization leads to faster economic development in poor countries helping to bring them out of poverty

From an article in the Washington Post:
Why is openness important? According to World Bank economists David Dollar and Aart Kraay, developing countries that have opened themselves the most to trade have outperformed all other economies. In the 1990s alone -- and this excludes the East Asian tigers -- the gross domestic product of poor but open countries rose twice as fast as that of rich nations. Thanks to the economic growth brought on by trade, millions were spared the misery of abject poverty.
The opening up of economies brings the rich countries' capital and knowledge to poor countries. China has been accused of "stealing" the intellectual property of other countries that do business there. While the fairness of this is up for debate, this is a transfer of know how from the rich countries to a poor country. Such transfers will help poor countries build stronger economies and bring more out of poverty.

Outsourcing in particular is good for poor countries as Salon explains:
There is no better form of trade a developing nation can engage in than to sell services provided by an educated population. Compare it to anything else a developing nation can sell -- natural resources like oil or minerals or agribusiness, hard labor in manufacturing, for instance -- and you'd probably find that white-collar jobs would be the most sustainable and most eco-friendly of any of them.
There is also a case that can be made that trade is better than foreign aid. While both have their places, foreign aid can lead to dependency. It can lead to government officials becoming good at attracting aid money from rich countries rather than building a robust local economy which they can tax. While there should be no taxation without representation, the converse is also true that there is no representation without taxation. Accountability goes to those that pay the bills. If a country's government gets a lot of money from aid they are accountable to the donor nations rather than to their local people. Trade builds up local businesses which allows the people to be taxed which makes the government accountable to their people.

Economic growth is good beyond lowering poverty. Women's rights are stronger in industrialized countries. Women who can choose to work can support themselves and therefore have control over their lives. They can choose when and who they want to marry rather than this being determined by their parents.

Industrialization also leads to smaller families. If you look at birth rates between poor and rich countries, they are much lower in rich countries. Almost all agricultural based economies have high birth rates, while the industrialized countries like Japan and Italy have the lowest. Fewer children means that more resources can be given to them such as better education. They also are much healthier as seen by the lower infant mortality and higher life expectancy in rich countries.

As Benjamin Friedman writes in his book “The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth”:
A society experiencing economic growth is likely to be happier and more successful than another that is not, even if the no-growth society has achieved a higher (but stagnant) standard of living.

Growing prosperity, history suggests, makes people more tolerant, more willing to settle disputes peacefully, more inclined to favour democracy. Stagnation and economic decline are associated with intolerance, ethnic strife and dictatorship.
Trade helps poor countries to develop faster economically which helps to bring millions out of poverty. It is likely more valuable than aid to help poor countries. Beyond lowering poverty, economic growth also leads to increased women's rights, better health and education, and more tolerance and happiness.

2) Globalization leads to the world being more interconnected

As issues become more global, we need more connections with the rest of the world. Free trade and business are a great way to create those connections. By being economically linked, the citizens of the US now have a stake in problems that occur throughout the world.

As stated in WorldChaning:
Some people say that one of the biggest challenges facing us as a planet is that our problems are all global, and so their solutions must necessarily be global, but our circles of compassion -- the kinds of people who we feel are worth our empathy and help -- remain generally local and provincial.
One way to start solving this problem is to switch the Buy Local campaigns into Buy Global campaigns. While local community ties are valuable, so are global ties. Having the connections makes it easier to deal with global environmental issues like climate change, loss of species and loss of forests. Americans would be much more concerned about climate change leading to less water for African agriculture if we were importing those agricultural goods.

If the US had stronger economic ties to Rwanda or Darfur, do you think we would just idly sit by? It is much easier to ignore parts of the world that we have no trade with.

Because we are trading with China, we have a say in how they produce the products. We can have an impact on the way they produce them. Hank Paulson as the CEO of Goldman Sachs (now the Treasury Secretary) had many opportunities to speak with the leaders of China. He is an strong environmentalist and used his leverage to push the Chinese leadership on this issue. In Myanmar on the other hand, we have no trade and therefore have little say about the environmental damage that is going on there.

Because Nike produces shoes in Thailand, Americans now have a say in how workers are treated there. We can use globalization as a way to push for stronger worker rights as we believe they should be. Poorer nations are usually more corrupt. Interacting with them through trade gives us an opportunity to push for better reporting, transparency and accountability.

NPOs like Clean Clothes are able to fight for the rights of garment industry workers in the 3rd world from the 1st world because of globalization. Working conditions in Somalia are probably much worse than those of the sweat shops but because we have no trade with Somalia, no NPOs are able to fight to improve the living condition of Somalians.

A world that is more interdependent due to increased trade is also less likely to go to war. When India and Pakistan were thinking about going to war, the Indian government was protested by the high tech industry that knew that they would lose their outsourcing business to the US if India went to war. As Tom Friedman said "the cease-fire brought to you not by General Powell, but by General Electric". If India and Pakistan's economies were isolated, they could have gone to war with each other with much fewer repercussions. But, by being integrated in the world economy, going to war now had a much larger economic impact.

And there is Tom Friedman's Golden Arches law that no two countries that have a McDonalds have ever gone to war with each other. By being economically linked, the chances of going to war are greatly reduced. There is always an economic reason for going to war, and if businesses are going to lose, they will be against it. There are those that argue that America would be secure if everyone bought locally. I would argue the opposite. By having trade between countries, be being dependant and interdependent on each other for things as important as food, there is very little chance that they will go to war with each other. If the US were to go to war with China, we would risk losing all sorts of cheap goods, and China would lose all sorts of jobs. By being economically dependant on each other it makes the risk of war much less likely.

Globalization and trade leads to a more interdependent and connected world. This is valuable when dealing with global issues like climate change and loss of wilderness. It also makes the US more aware of problems throughout the world, and gives us influence to push for stronger environmental and worker protection.

3) Freedom

In general, I think we should give adults the freedom to engage in any business transactions they would like with each other. There are some exceptions to this, but the goal should be to allow for the maximum amount of freedom unless there is an overriding concern. Globalization allows people the freedom to have those business transactions with people in different countries.

Along with this, people should be allowed to immigrate to the country of their choice, as much as possible. Allow people to decide where they would like to live, and where they think their talents would best be used. In some cases this does lead to a brain drain, such as when doctors get trained in Africa and then immigrate to the US. But as stated in the Economist:
“Better brain drain than brain in the drain,” was the much-quoted verdict of the
late Rajiv Gandhi, an Indian prime minister.
As I wrote about in the Brain Drain Myth, the brain drain is over rated as the immigrants earn more money in America and send large amounts of it back home via remittances. As the situation improves in their home country, they have skills they would never have learned at home which they can bring back and build 1st class companies. Devesh Kapur and John McHale argue in “Give Us Your Best and Brightest” that the threat of losing high skilled workers to America causes countries to invest more in education.

There are other issues with immigration as well such as how many people can be assimilated at a time. Also with freer trade there is less reason to immigrate as individuals are now able to do the same job in their home town and then trade the good over the border.

Globalization leads to greater freedom and this is a good thing.

Now lets take a look at 4 commonly heard points against globalization

1) It costs American workers jobs

When outsourcing to India was starting to take off, there was lots of press about it and how Americans were (supposedly) losing jobs. As Greg Mankiw explains on his blog, this is not the case.

Job outsourcing increased productivity and real wages for low-skilled U.S. workers (1)

McKinsey researchers tallied up the costs and benefits associated with outsourcing and found that for every dollar the United States sends abroad, we get back about $1.12, resulting in a net gain of $0.12.(2)

However, it also finds that offshoring has boosted labor productivity in the United States and that, partly because of this, there has been offsetting job creation elsewhere in the economy.(3)
As long as productivity is increasing due to outsourcing, new jobs will be created to replace those that are lost. It is true that some Americans will lose their jobs, and that some might not be able to find a new job that was as good as the old. In general Americans will be better off.

But, even if it did cost American jobs, I would argue that from a global standpoint we are still better off. If outsourcing causes 1 job to be lost in America but creates 2 in India (as you can employ more for the same amount of money), this is a good thing. If we believe that we are all human, and use the concept of greatest good for the greatest amount of people and that we should help the least fortunate, such outsourcing leads to a better world.

As Peter Singer writes:
Half the point of NAFTA was to ship American jobs to Mexico, which is bad for American labor but great for Mexicans. "Any transfer of work from the United States to Mexico can be expected to raise the income of people who are, on average, much worse off than those U.S. workers who lose their jobs," Singer writes. "Those who favor reducing poverty globally, rather than just in their own country, should see this as a good thing." Indeed, NAFTA has always struck me as a huge gift from the people of the United States to the people of Mexico, if a gift that not all Americans wished to give. Why the globalization debate does not see it this way is hard to fathom, other than that, perhaps, it is simply taboo to say anything favorable about the current trends in free-market economics.

2) Workers are exploited

Some argue that globalization exploits workers in poor countries. For many, being "exploited" is actually better than how they are currently living. In poor countries, there are people earn their livelihood by going through the garbage searching for anything of value. For them having a chance to work at a sweat shop even in bad conditions would be a step up.

Nicholas Kristof explains more:
Mr. Shaanika and the other young men noted that the construction jobs were dangerous and arduous, and that they would vastly prefer steady jobs in, yes, sweatshops. Sure, sweatshop work is tedious, grueling and sometimes dangerous. But over all, sewing clothes is considerably less dangerous or arduous -- or sweaty -- than most alternatives in poor countries.

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program.

So companies like Nike, itself once a target of sweatshop critics, tend not to have highly labor-intensive factories in the very poorest countries, but rather more capital-intensive factories (in which machines do more of the work) in better-off nations like Malaysia or Indonesia. And the real losers are the world's poorest people.
I would disagree with Kristof in that I think that NPOs should fight to make sure that owners abide by the local laws and push for better worker conditions. As I argued above, globalization gives NPOs more leverage to help the workers.

This raises the question of how far the companies can be pushed. From the Seattle Times:
"It's good that they monitor, but not if it costs our jobs," said the Shenzhen factory worker, who has performed a variety of tasks for a Mattel contractor in the last two years, most recently stamping eyes onto plastic animals. "It's better to have bad conditions than no job at all."

For a company like Mattel, it is a tricky matter figuring out what its obligation to workers — as well as to society — should be.

"Is it Mattel's responsibility to determine and pay a living wage? I don't think so," said Walter, the company's quality-assurance chief. "But should Mattel prompt a local government to determine what a reasonable wage is? We should have some impact on that."

The struggle between morality and profitability goes right to the top of the company.
"Do we want to make people's lives better? Absolutely," said Eckert, Mattel's CEO. "Do we want to unilaterally do things that make us uncompetitive and therefore our products don't sell and therefore nobody gets employed? No."
It is a fine line between trying to improve the workers conditions, and pushing too hard and having the factory move somewhere else.

In fact, it is questionable whether paying above market wages really ends up going to workers as Kristof reports:
Moreover, when Western companies do pay above-market wages, in places like Cambodia, local managers extort huge bribes in exchange for jobs. So the workers themselves don't get the benefit.
While unions and other pressures can help to improve workers wages and conditions, the greatest impact can be had by a strong economy with low unemployment. This is starting to occur in China:
But as labor shortages develop, Chinese workers are starting to demand more money, adding to cost pressures from more expensive commodities and creating the classic conditions for rising export prices.
So even when exploitation occurs it is only temporary until the economy improves and everyone is better off. Going once again to Kristof:
Over the past 50 years, countries like India resisted foreign exploitation, while countries that started at a similar economic level -- like Taiwan and South Korea -- accepted sweatshops as the price of development. Today there can be no doubt about which approach worked better. Taiwan and South Korea are modern countries with low rates of infant mortality and high levels of education; in contrast, every year 3.1 million Indian children die before the age of 5, mostly from diseases of poverty like diarrhea.
While the exploitation issue is real and should be fought against, many workers are better off at sweat shops then they are without it. Ultimately as the economy develops, the sweat shop phase of development will be passed through and all workers will be better off.

3) The environment is harmed

Some argue of globalization causing environmental harm due to a "race to the bottom". Companies will move to countries with the lowest environmental regulations. While this is possible, but I have seen no evidence that this is actually happening to a serious degree. There are many factors that come into play when a company is determining where to locate and environmental regulations are low on the list.

It is just as possible that there will be a "race to the top". Europe is imposing strong environmental standards on any products sold in Europe. Electronic manufacturers just want to make one version of their products to be sold everywhere in the world, so when the EU adds a restriction, it is actually added for all products globally. Certifications like FSC for sustainable logging can help to minimize the unsustainable activity on the global scale.

Globalization allows the best environmental practices to be implemented worldwide. When an engineer in Silicon Valley creates a new more efficient and economical way to make solar cells, with globalization the Chinese will be able to buy the product and benefit from this success. Likewise, if that solar panel breakthrough happened in China, I could benefit as a consumer in the US.

Another issue is that globalization uses more transportation fuel as goods have to travel a longer distance. This is true and something to be aware of. But, I think the amount of energy used to transport goods is small when compared with the amount of energy required to make them in the first place. The transportation from China to the US via barges is extremely efficient. It might actually take less fuel to travel across the ocean via a barge than it does to go from the port to your local store via a truck.

To the extent which poor countries use production techniques that are not as clean as those in the US, such as China using coal to power its industrialization, I am ambivalent. On the one hand it creates lots of environmental damage in the form of particulate matter emissions, carbon dioxide emissions, acid rain and polluting rivers. This will likely cause the premature deaths of many hundreds of thousands of Chinese. The increase in CO2 will lead to global warming impacting all people on earth.

On the other hand, higher incomes also go along with greater environmentalism. China is going through a dirty phase right now, but when incomes increase a bit more then the citizens will push for stronger environmental laws just like they have in Europe and the US. And as I mentioned before, the US can now push China for greater environmental action because we have so much trade between us.

4) It is better to buy local.

The basic premise on this is that it is better to support your neighbors and those that you can physically interact with. It builds stronger communities and deeper customer to business relationships. There is less of a chance for a company to exploit the environment or its workers because of the closer ties and the ability for everyone to see what the company is doing for themselves.

It is true that the farther away that something is, the harder it is to keep track of. Environmental degradation that is going in in China due to manufacturing plants is much easier to hide from America consumers than a plant in Detroit. There is more reporting that is going on as well as citizens that can view what is happening first hand.

But, with the internet it is now possible for reporting going on in China to be as accessible as anything that is published in the US. Transparency and reporting on companies is key not their location. Just as the internet and globalization have made it easy to manufactured products anywhere in the world, it should also be possible to monitor companies anywhere they operate in the world.

As I stated before, there are lots of benefits to greater economic integration with other countries. It gives us influence in their country and therefore gives us a right to press for better worker conditions or better environmental standards. It builds more ties between the countries and makes it easier to deal with global issues like climate change and loss of wildlife. It makes us more concerned about people throughout the world because things that affect them now affect us. And greater interdependence leads to greater peace.


The impact of globalization on the world is a contentious subject. There are those that don't like it because they believe it harms the US. There are those that don't like it because they believe it exploits workers in poor countries.

I believe in general that globalization is a force for good. It brings faster economic development to poor countries, reducing poverty along with other positive changes. It makes the world more interconnected so we can solve the worlds problems and reduces the chance of war. Globalization promotes freedom.

Quick, get me one of those "I buy goods from poorer countries" wrist bands.


Made in USA? Now, Customers Choose

In the beginning, there was "Made in the USA." Then came "Made in China" and "Made in India." Now comes a different twist: "Made in the USA, China or India. You choose."

Pacific Plastics & Engineering, a privately held Soquel, Calif., maker of specialized devices for medical companies, lets customers decide whether to have their product made in California, or -- for at least 25 percent less -- at plants in India or Taiwan. Now 70 percent of PP&E customers opt for production in India or Taiwan.

United Plastics Group Inc., Oak Brook, Ill., and the Tech Group division of West Pharmaceutical Services Inc., Lionville, Pa., also offer customers a choice between costlier domestic products and less expensive ones made overseas. Mr. Podesta says between 15 percent and 25 percent of his customers opt to have items produced at Tech Group plants in Latin America; the rest choose from its plants in the U.S.

Online lender E-Loan gives consumers the option of having mortgage applications processed faster if they have it reviewed by workers in India. The company says roughly 80 percent to 85 percent of customers choose the Indian option, which saves E-Loan money on labor costs.
If you could choose where your products were made, where would you choose?

via Pittsburgh Post Gazette


Trust Your Instincts

New research by Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam suggests that we would be better off thinking about the simple choices, and leaving the life-changing decisions to our unconscious mind.

Dijksterhuis asked his test subjects to choose between four hypothetical cars on the basis of a set of specifications (whether the car had a sunroof, low mileage, etc) that could be either simple (only four specifications) or complex (12 specifications). One group was given four minutes to consider the problem; the other group was shown the specification and then immediately distracted by another task. Surprisingly, the subjects with plenty of time to think fared better when faced with a simple decision (four specifications) but worse when the problem was more complex (12 specifications).
Interesting. I wonder though if what we call the "unconscious" could also be thought of as the "previously conscious". When you are looking at the words in this post, you are not consciously aware of figuring out what each letter is and how it forms the word. This is all occurring unconsciously. But, when you were a kid you had to consciously figure out each letter and turn them into words.

The point being that we often times think of the unconscious mind as being outside of our control. But if we think of it instead as the previously conscious mind, then we can affect how it works through repeated training.

via The Guradian


Iraq vs. Philly

Crazy stat of the day: a young black male has a higher chance of being killed in Philadelphia than he does in Iraq.

Between March 21, 2003, when the first military death was recorded in Iraq, and March 31, 2006, there were 2,321 deaths among American troops in Iraq. Seventy-nine percent were a result of action by hostile forces. Troops spent a total of 592,002 "person-years" in Iraq during this period. The ratio of deaths to person-years, .00392, or 3.92 deaths per 1,000 person-years, is the death rate of military personnel in Iraq.

The death rate for U.S. men ages 18 to 39 in 2003 was 1.53 per 1,000 -- 39 percent of that of troops in Iraq. But one can also find something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil. The death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia was 4.37 per 1,000 in 2002, 11 percent higher than among troops in Iraq.
And it might be even worse than that as:
Hispanics have a death risk about 20 percent higher than non-Hispanics, and blacks have a death risk about 30 to 40 percent lower than that of non-blacks.
What does that say about being a young black male in Philadelphia that it is actually safer to be in Iraq?

I think this also speaks to the fact that the death rate in Iraq is low compared to other wars the US has been involved in.
The death rate of American troops in Vietnam was 5.6 times that observed in Iraq.
Another thing I am curious about is how the death rate for a solider signing up for the Army compares with that of being an Alaskan king crab fisherman, a police officer or other dangerous jobs? If I knew the percentage of time that the average solider spends in Iraq while enlisted I think I could figure it out. My guess is that being in the Army (or the Marine Corp especially) is more dangerous than these other jobs but not by as much as you would think.

via The Washington Post


In a Decade Batteries will Last Twice as Long

Technology Review interviews MIT materials scientist and battery expert Yet-Ming Chiang, who cofounded the battery startup A123 Systems of Watertown, MA, about battery technology and possible future increases.

One thing we have to keep in mind is you can't really conceive of anything like Moore's Law for electrochemical energy storage. Moore's Law was based on being able to perform similar functions [for computing] using either fewer electrons or, more recently, fewer photons. But energy is constrained by chemistry and the periodic table. Expecting Moore's Law from battery chemistry is like expecting steel next year to weigh half as much and be twice as strong.

People who are working on better batteries are very optimistic. There's definitely room for growth; there are many avenues for improvement. If you look at it realistically, I'd say a factor of two improvement in the next decade is quite realistic. A factor of 10 is not.
I think battery technology is key to improving a lot of other technologies. On the small scale we need them for longer lasting cellphones, iPods, laptops and other portable electronics.

We also need them for our cars so we can transition from gasoline to clean electricity. I think that long term there is a better chance that our electric vehicles are powered by batteries than fuel cells, but this depends on the battery technology improving. A doubling in 10 years wasn't as much as I was hoping for, but it still is a serious improvement.

via Technology Review


Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Windmill for Your Backyard?

I am a big fan of wind power because it is the cheapest form of renewable energy currently available. The larger they are the more economical they become, so I had assumed that they would only make sense for large projects. This Southwest Windpower turbine might actually make sense for individual usage.

The Skystream 3.7, a wind generator from Southwest Windpower in Flagstaff, Ariz., stands 35 to 100 feet tall — depending on the location — and costs about half that of conventional turbines currently available.

Southwest Windpower is planning to mass produce the Skystream and sell it for between $10,000 to $12,000 installed, about half the cost of similar size turbines, which are typically assembled by hand on a much smaller scale.

According to the developers, the system could save the average homeowner $500 to $800 per year on electricity.

"I think Skystream has a chance to break the 10 cent per kilowatt hour at the best sites," said Jim Green, senior project manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's National Wind Technology Center in Golden, Colo.
$500 on a $10,000 investment is 5% a year (or if you assume it will just work for 40 years it goes down to 3.9%), which is not too bad. $.10 per kWh would make it price competitive with most residential power. If you live in a windy area, especially one that currently uses coal based electricity, this might make sense for you.

via Discovery Channel


Fast-Growing Trees Could Take Root as Future Energy Source

A bold plan to replace 80% of the nation's transportation fuel with ethanol derived from poplar trees.

A hybrid tree that can reach 90 feet in six years and be grown as a row crop on fallow farmland could represent a major replacement for fossil fuels.

Purdue University researchers are using genetic tools in an effort to design trees that readily and inexpensively can yield the substances needed to produce alternative transportation fuel. The scientists are focused on a compound in cell walls called lignin that contributes to plants' structural strength, but which hinders extraction of cellulose. Cellulose is the sugar-containing component needed to make the alternative fuel ethanol.

"Poplar is a low-maintenance crop; plant it and wait seven years to harvest it," Meilan said. "You're not applying pesticides every year; you're not trampling all over the site every year and compacting the soil. You're allowing nutrients to recycle every year when the leaves fall and degrade. In addition, you are more likely to have greater wildlife diversity in poplar plantings than in agricultural fields."

Experts are proposing planting the trees in rows just like any field crop. The basis of these tree plantations will be tens of millions of acres that the DOE and USDA have inventoried as being unused or fallow - previously used farmland that is standing empty because farmers are paid not to grow anything.

Researchers believe that using the hybrid poplar in its present form could produce about 70 gallons of fuel per ton of wood. Approximately 10 tons of poplar could be grown per acre annually, representing 700 gallons of ethanol. Corn currently produces about 4.5 tons per acre per year with a yield of about 400 gallons of ethanol. Changing the lignin composition could increase the annual yield to 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, according to experts. Planted on 110 million acres of unused farmland, this could replace 80 percent of the transportation fossil fuel consumed in the United States each year.
Previously I looked at a plan to grow switchgrass which had similar sort of numbers, 1,312 gallons of ethanol per acre on 114 million acres to create 108 billion gallons. Not sure the relative merits of switchgrass vs. poplar but either way we are looking at lots more biofuels in the future.

via Newswise


Interesting Articles of the Day Week

Turns out I only end up publishing one of these posts a week, so might as well change the name.

Advertisements are coming to college textbooks.

Internet companies and workers are moving from the big cities to rural Washington.

The people terrorists kill are not the targets; they are collateral damage. The real targets of terrorism are the rest of us: the billions of us who are not killed but are terrorized because of the killing. The real point of terrorism is not the act itself, but our reaction to the act. To beat the terrorists, we must refuse to be terrorized.

As a kid I always dreamed of a fogless mirror. Looks like my dream is about to become a reality.


Count Your Blessings

From a speech given by Sir John Templeton to the Financial Analysts Federation in 1984.

In 208 years of relative freedom, the yearly output of goods and services worldwide has increased more than a hundredfold. This is a hundredfold increase in real goods and services consumed, net after eliminating inflation

In the days of Adam Smith, 85 percent of the people were needed on the farm, but now less than 4 percent on the farms in America produce a surplus of food.

In America alone this year, over $100 billion will be dedicated to research and development — more in one year in one nation than the total research for all the world's history before I was born.

Awesome new blessings are visible also in health, entertainment, spiritual growth and charity. In America alone, over $50 billion will be donated to churches and charities this year. Each year the generous and voluntary giving by Americans alone exceeds the total income of all the world's people in any year before Adam Smith.

More than half of the scientists who ever lived are alive today. More than half of the discoveries in the natural sciences have been made in this century.

More than half of the goods produced since the Earth was born have been produced in the two centuries since Adam Smith. Over half the books ever written were written in the last half-century. More new books are published each month than were written in the entire historical period before the birth of Columbus.

If you do not fall down on your knees each day with overwhelming gratitude for your blessings — your multiplying multitudes of blessings — then you just have not yet seen the big picture.
via The Seattle Times


History of Globalism

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has a nice overview of the history of globalism. Long in terms of an article, but I guess really short when you consider the topic.

The most interesting nugget of knowledge?

Two thousand years ago, the Romans unified their far-flung empire through an extensive transportation network and a common language, legal system, and currency. One historian recently observed that "a citizen of the empire traveling from Britain to the Euphrates in the mid-second century CE would have found in virtually every town along the journey foods, goods, landscapes, buildings, institutions, laws, entertainment, and sacred elements not dissimilar to those in his own community.
Yeah, but did they have a Starbucks in each one?

via The Federal Reserve Board via Makiw Blog


Average American Entertainment Budget

The average American spends more on entertainment than on gasoline, household furnishings and clothing and nearly the same amount as spent on dining out, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among the affluent, the 20 percent of households with more than $77,000 a year in pretax income, more money is spent on entertainment - $4,516 a year - than on health care, utilities, clothing or food eaten at home.
That is some serious cash that American's are throwing down for their entertainment. As a percentage of income it is only around 5% though.

What if we look at it on an hourly basis?
The game industry is trying to push prices higher for the hottest games, to as much as $60, but even at that price, on a dollar-to-minutes-of-enjoyment basis, video games may be one of the best values, about 12.5 cents a minute for the easily bored, or fractions of a penny for those who can play "Half Life" their whole life.

Live opera works out to about 37 cents a minute, for a middling seat in the New York Metropolitan Opera house to hear "Aida," compared with 7 cents a minute for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" at a Loews Cineplex.

But a Gwen Stefani concert, in again, middling seats, is about $1.25 a minute and that's with a serving of Black Eyed Peas thrown in.

If you accept statistics that the average American's TV is on eight hours a day, a $100-a-month cable bill is really only a bit more than half a cent for each minute of entertainment.
Their values are similar but a little different from the ones I calculated earlier. Of course, with media goods the real cost is your time.

via The New York Times


Friday, August 25, 2006

Isaac Newton vs. Genghis Khan

Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist in history and, perhaps more than anyone before or since, changed the world with his ideas. 'Nearer the Gods' said Edmond Halley 'no mortal may approach'.

Newton never had any children and is believed, like Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, to have died a virgin. So arguably, the three most influential intellectuals of modern times never had sexual relations with a woman. Maybe there's a lesson there.

Genghis Khan ruled the largest land empire ever known and was the most prolific human breeder on record. An estimated one in every 200 persons alive carry his genes.

Who was the more successful individual, Isaac or Genghis? What matters more, genes or ideas?

On a less cosmic scale, the genes versus ideas concept has demographic applications. For the West has dominated the modern age militarily and economically, with Europe and its descendant nations like America, Australia and Canada leading the world in almost every measurable index. Yet in sheer genetic terms, i.e., population growth, the 20th century was actually a triumph for the non-European world.
Interesting question, anyone have any opinions?

via Jamaica Gleaner


'Friendly Bacteria' Gum for Teeth

Scientists have developed a chewing gum containing friendly bacteria which they say can help prevent tooth decay.

Toothpastes and mouthwashes containing Lactobacillus anti-caries are also in the pipeline, German chemical company BASF told Chemistry and Industry.

The bacterium responsible for dental cavities, Streptococcus mutans, persistently colonises the surface of the teeth, where it converts sugar into aggressive acids that breaks down the enamel.

L. anti-caries reduces the concentration of this harmful bacterium in the mouth making S. mutans clump together, preventing them from adhering to the teeth.
I am a big fan of the probiotics movement and cavity stopping bacteria. I am glad they are finally coming out with a product. If bacteria make up more than 9/10 of our cells and 2/3 of our genes, I want the best bacteria possible for my body. None of this letting nature decide for me nonsense.

Cavity fighting bacteria is nice, but any other uses?
Another potential use of Lactobacillus include the prevention of body odour. BASF are looking to produce a deodorant which can stop the odour-producing bacteria in the armpit.
Now we're talking.

via BBC


Mexicans' Medical Bills Paid With Friends' Blood

In Mexico, patients who have no health insurance or who are covered by bare-bones government plans are required to recruit two to six blood donors — friends, relatives, even total strangers — in order to receive free or discounted medical care.

It is an obligation accepted matter-of-factly. Nearly half of the population had no health insurance in 2005, and almost everyone — except for the estimated 5 percent of the population that can afford deluxe private insurance — can readily spool off a list of surgeries that their blood has made possible.

But in Mexico, where the World Bank estimates half the population lives below the poverty line, a person's blood type is essentially common knowledge. It's the sort of thing that gets talked about at sidewalk taco stands and, thankfully for Morales, at bars.
That is such an interesting setup. I wonder if it makes people feel more interconnected as they know exactly who helped save their life.

It reminds me of this article I read before about blood donations in Britain.
"In Britain, blood is given free of charge. Donors are proud to be known as good, altruistic people. There is never a shortage, and the quality of blood is very high because the healthiest people give blood. In America, it's the opposite. People are frequently paid to give blood, and so you've got two big problems: The quality of blood is bad, because drug addicts and the poor have an incentive to donate, and there tend to be many shortages of blood.

"Two years ago, there was talk in Britain about selling blood to make money for the new blood-donor service. Immediately, there was an uproar. People didn't want to give blood, even though that money was to go back into the blood-donor service. People felt it was no longer a gift relationship.

"The number of people giving blood dropped dramatically in the weeks following that decision. The currency changed. Therefore, the emotions changed. When someone gives you money, you don't feel the same emotions that you feel when someone demonstrates a kindness. We are too quick to interpret everything as marginal that does not fit our economic model," says Cronin.
via The Seattle Times



VideoJug is a site with cool little video explanations of how to do things like make a Mojito all delivered with a pleasant British accent. If you need to know how to eat sushi, pop a pitch tent, or perform a self breast exam this is the site for you. So go checkout VideoJuggs, err, VideoJug.


Where Does the Rest of the Water Go?

The UN takes a look at water usage in the world.

The bad news is that a third of the world’s population, some two billion people, are already short of water. But things do not have to be this way.

Roughly 900m people, the assessment finds, live in river basins where there is barely enough to keep rivers flowing and lakes filled. Another 700m live in basins rapidly approaching this “closed” state, and a billion more live within reach of adequate water supplies but cannot afford to make use of them. The water table is falling fast in densely populated and poor regions of China, Mexico and India.

In theory, the world would still have more than enough water to feed everyone, under most scenarios. But it might require much more food to be traded from sodden parts of Europe, North America and Russia to parched bits of Africa and Asia. Needless to say, subsistence farmers in those continents are in no position to pay for imports of food—and will become even poorer, presumably, if their water runs short.

The main culprit is agriculture. It takes roughly 3000 litres of water to grow enough for one person for one day, or about a litre for each calorie.
I have read similar numbers before, and the thing I always wonder is, where does the rest of the water go? A calorie of carbohydrates is 1/4 of a gram. A liter of water weighs 1 kg. So less than 1/400 of the water ends up in the food we eat. Some ends up in the part of the plants that we don't eat. But where does the rest go? Too often it seems like people treat water like gasoline that gets used up when you use it. Unless the water is chemically changed into something else like carbohydrates, it just passes on.

I would guess that some of the water evaporates and falls as rain somewhere else (either on other land or over the ocean). Some sinks into the ground and ends up in the ground water. And the rest ends up in rivers. As far as I know, that is the only places it can go.

My point is that water that ends up in a river, or in an aquifer or falls to the ground as rain can be used by someone else. That of the 400 liters used, some amount (quite possibly most of it) is available for others to use and therefore counting it as "being used" by the farmer is deceptive.

If anyone knows where the water ends up, please leave a comment.

via The Economist


Azerbaijan and Oil

Today's instance of the oil curse: Azerbaijan.

By 2010, oil production is expected to triple, to 1.3m barrels a day, and gas output to quadruple, to 28 billion cubic metres a year. The first oil was delivered through the BTC pipeline in June. A Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline will open later this year. If oil prices average $50 per barrel (they are now over $70), these two will bring a massive $140 billion into Azerbaijan's state coffers over the next 20 years, claims President Ilham Aliev.

Such a gushing of money ought to be a blessing for this impoverished country. It has just 8m people, but that includes some 800,000 refugees left from the war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. Yet few oil-rich countries have avoided the triple threats of corruption, competitive rent-seeking or “Dutch disease”—in which, thanks to exchange-rate appreciation, oil production crowds out other economic activity.
Once again, while it would seem this money would help out the 8 million Azerbaijanians, odds are it won't.

But wait, maybe we have learned from our mistakes and found a way to make it work this time.
A national oil fund, set up in 1999, holds some $1.6 billion. Azerbaijan has also signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an anti-corruption scheme established by Britain's Tony Blair in 2002. Oil companies report payments to the oil fund, which publishes full details. An independent auditor checks the fund. “I think it has worked very well,” says David Woodward, associate president of BP Azerbaijan, the biggest foreign investor in the oil industry.
Sounds good, but something tells me the next paragraph is going to be a downer.
The problem is that, even if revenues are well-monitored, spending is not—since it is not covered by the EITI. Observers in Baku say the government is already spending too much money, too quickly and with too little oversight (needed to stop such things as the awarding of contracts to close relatives).
Curse you oil curse!

via The Economist


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Put Your Game Machine To Work

Looks like it is going to be possible to donate your PS3's spare cycles to science.

This advance utilizes the new Cell processor in Sony’s PLAYSTATION 3 (PS3) to achieve performance previously only possible on supercomputers. With this new technology (as well as new advances with GPUs), we will likely be able to attain performance on the 100 gigaflop scale per computer. With about 10,000 such machines, we would be able to achieve performance on the petaflop scale. With software from Sony, the PlayStation 3 will now be able to contribute to the Folding@Home project, pushing Folding@Home a major step forward.
After the bad press of the PS2 being used by Saddam to build weapons of mass distruction (or maybe not) looks like Sony decided to get ahead of the curve and setup a constructive use for the PS3's spare time.

Of course if the PS3 uses wattage anything like the Xbox 360, you will be donating more than just your hardware to the cause. At 165W running for 20 hours a day for 30 days at $.10 a kWh, gives you a monthly electricity bill of $10 a month.

via folding@home via Engadget


Can the Earth Handle all Humans Consuming at American Levels?

With the average levels of American consumption rivaling Egyptian pharaohs, the question of whether we are over consuming arises. Is our consumption sustainable, or will we ultimately need to cut back? Are we using more than our fair share of the Earth's resources? This all leads to one basic question: can the Earth support all humans consuming like Americans?

Lets break this question into two parts. First, can the Earth support everyone on the planet consuming like Americans today? Second, can the Earth in 2050 support everyone consuming like Americans with 2050 technology?

To answer the first question, lets once again refer to the WWF's Living Planet Report. On page 28, they break down the ecological footprint of the US. Per capita, Americans have a 9.5 hectare footprint, made up of 3.0 hectares in food and fiber (0.96 cropland, 1.35 forest, 0.44 grazing land, 0.23 oceans), 6 hectares in energy and .45 hectares in built up land.

If you take the 9.5 hectares and divide it by what they consider the world per capita sustainable amount of 1.8 hectares, you get a value of 5.3 Earths required for everyone to live at American standards. Likewise, if you measure your own footprint using this Ecological Footprint Quiz, you will likely get a value around 5 Earths required to support your consumption.

Would it really require 5.3 Earths worth of land and resources for everyone to consume at the level of the US?

I don't think so. First, as I wrote about before, I don't think energy belongs in the calculation. Removing the 6 hectares of energy, the footprint goes down to 3.5 which means we need 2 (well really 1.94) Earths. Energy is a separate issue which I will come back to in a moment.

Brief Aside: Could the US sustain its consumption if isolated from the rest of the world?

The US has 4.9 hectares of biocapacity (p 29) so, excluding energy, we are only using 71% of our total capacity. This explains how the US has been able to reduce the amount of farm land and increase the amount of forests which wouldn't be possible if we were living beyond the biocapacity of our land. On the energy side, there isn't enough oil for the US to use, but there is enough coal to maintain our energy usage if we could convert coal into gasoline.

I think even the 2 Earths number is an overstatement based on a methodology issue I have with the report.

Not all land is equally productive. The amount of sunlight and temperature varies due to latitude. The quality of the soil and the amount of rainfall also varies due to location. A given piece of land also varies in productivity based on farming practices, amount of fertilizer use, pesticide use and crop genetics. To make things equal for reporting, the researchers figured out what the average productivity was for a given hectare of land and adjusted the weight of the land accordingly (more details on page 36 and 37 of the report).

While I understand the need to do this, it leads to some strange conclusions. For example, New Zealand's forests are 2.4 times as productive as the world average. One hectare of forest land in New Zealand is therefore counted as 2.4 global hectares of biocapacity. Meanwhile, Algeria's forests are .1 times as productive as average. 10 hectares of forest land in Algeria are counted as 1 global hectares of biocapacity. What this means is that all efficiency gains that countries have created due to smarter farming or harvesting techniques are lost when calculating the countries footprint. Based on how the footprint is calculated, an Algerian that uses 10 hectares of land to produce 5 tons of lumber has the same footprint as a New Zealander that uses .41 hectares.

If a New Zealander comes up with a technique to double the productivity of his land and chooses to increase his consumption by 10%, he now has a surplus that he can sell. I would think this would mean he has decreased his footprint because he no longer needs as much land to produce the same amount of goods. But, due to the way the ecological footprint is calculated, this would show him actually having a larger footprint, as his consumption has increased by 10%, but the efficiency gains he created don't stay with him but rather are averaged around the world in the global hectares of biocapacity number.

Paradoxically, if farmers in Africa get smaller crop yields per hectare of food due to over population and bad farming techniques (see Jared Diamond's chapter on Rwanda in Collapse), this actually increases the footprint of the average American. Even though America didn't change anything, because African yields are smaller the average world yield per hectare is smaller and this makes the American consumption in terms of global hectares of biocapacity go up. And because these values are all based on averages per capita, as the world population increases, the land per capita goes down. So high birth rates in the 3rd world also make America's per capita percentage of the Earth's resources go up, even if nothing changed in America.

The countries that have the largest food, fiber and timber footprint are Finland, Sweden, New Zealand, and Norway (see page 12). This could either be because they eat tons of food and cut down trees like crazy, or because their land is so much more productive than average that their consumption looks a lot larger than it really is. Considering that those countries are usually listed among the more ecologically responsible nations on the Earth, I would guess the later.

If it were up to me, I would allow countries that have productivity gains to be reflected as a smaller footprint. What would happen to America's footprint if we allow our productivity to be included in the calculation?

According to the FAO, the US has a yield of 10 tonnes/ha of corn vs. a world average of 5 or excluding the US 3.6. So the US gets almost 3 times as much corn from each acre of land as the rest of the world does. While this is the most important crop it terms of total tonnage, wheat and soybean yields in the US are just at world averages (this is surprising to me). Overall, I would guess then that the US is much more productive per acre of land than the rest of the world, but I would guess it doesn't quite reach the 2 times level that would be required to say that we are living within our fair share of the world's biocapacity (fit our 3.5 hectare footprint into the 1.8 hectares of sustainable capacity). Another way of putting this is if all of the world's agricultural land was as productive as America's, I think the world would be very close to being able to eat like Americans.

Can the world consume energy like America? No. The US consumes 25% of the world's oil with only 5% of the world population. For the entire world to consume oil like Americans we would need 5 times as much oil or 400 million barrels of oil a day which I don't think is possible. Likewise there is not enough natural gas or coal to allow everyone to consume like Americans.

To answer the first question, using the average world land productivity, the Earth could not support everyone to consume like Americans (we would probabaly need 2 Earths). If the entire world had the same productivity as the US, I think everyone could almost consume like Americans. And there are not enough fossil fuels available for everyone to use energy like Americans.

Now on to the second question: can the Earth sustain an American level of consumption in 2050 with 2050 technology?

First, lets assume that in 2050 there will be 10 billion people on the planet (this is slightly more than the UN's estimate of 9 billion). Some estimates put 10 billion at the number where human population will ultimately peak.

Second, what kind of improvements do we need to see with agriculture to allow all humans to eat like Americans? The increase in population from 6.1 billion to 10 billion would mean that the sustainable level of 1.8 hectares would go down to 1.1 hectares. To allow everyone to be at the level of Americans we would need to make that 1.1 hectares 220% more productive to get to the 3.5 hectares an average American uses. Is that kind of improvement possible?

Lets look at what the level of improvement that has already occurred.

From Against the Grain:

In just 11 year period 1975-86, rice yields jumped 32% worldwide, wheat yields by 51%.
US corn yields stood at about 20 bushels/acre in 1900, as they had through most of history, at century's close 130.
From the Skeptical Environmentalist:
World yield of wheat went from 1.0 tons/ha in 1940 to 3.0 in 2000
World yield of rice went from 1.5 in 1880 to approximately 4.5 in 2000
Yield of rice, corn and wheat in developing countries has gone from about 1 ton per ha in 1960 to 2.5 in 2000
In Andhra Pradesh, India, research stations regularly attain yields 5 to 10 times the yields experienced by traditional peasants.
As these examples show, we have been able to triple productivity in the past, and I believe we can see another tripling in the future. I don't know if the same would be possible with timber but I would guess that it would be. And most wood products can be replaced with other products like ebooks for paper and concrete or bamboo for building materials. With fishing I would not think we will see such gains, although if we do some unconventional things like fertilize the open oceans, maybe.

Third, on the energy front we need to transition to sustainable sources of energy. There is solar and wind to allow everyone to consume energy at the level of Americans. The economics will dictate how long this transition takes. By 2050, I think renewable energies will be cost competitive with fossil fuels. I am hopeful new battery technologies or fuel cells will allow our cars to use solar or wind electricity as a power source so we will no longer need to use oil.

Long term, I think it is possible with better technology for all humans to be able to live at American levels of consumption in a sustainable fashion. In the short term this will not be possible, so Americans might need to cut back on their consumption to allow nature and 3rd world countries to have access to more resources.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Nobel Peace Prize Pop Quiz

Which of the following didn't win a Nobel Peace Prize: Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat or Mahatma Gandhi?



Friday, August 18, 2006

Crazy Charts

This site has a ton (and I mean a ton) of charts on housing and other financial issues. Some really good stuff here. Lots of signs that we are in a housing bubble. The only question is if there will be a hard or soft landing.

This one is indicative of what is on the site. Americans are taking on more debt, and whenever housing prices stop going up, they are going to feel some pain.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Terra Preta: Black is the New Green

I first learned learned of terra preta while reading the fantastic book 1491 (see previous post). Terra preta or Amazonian Dark Earth was created by ancient Amazonians by burning old crop waste until it was charred rather than burning it all the way. The resulting soil retained more water and nutrients and greatly increased crop yields. Turns out it is also a great way to sequester carbon.

Bruno Glaser, of the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a sometime collaborator of Sombroek's, estimates that productivity of crops in terra preta is twice that of crops grown in nearby soils

According to Glaser's research, a hectare of metre-deep terra preta can contain 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes in unimproved soils from similar parent material.

That difference of 150 tonnes is greater than the amount of carbon in a hectare's worth of plants. That means turning unimproved soil into terra preta can store away more carbon than growing a tropical forest from scratch on the same piece of land

He estimates that by the end of this century terra preta schemes, in combination with biofuel programmes, could store up to 9.5 billion tonnes of carbon a year — more than is emitted by all today's fossil-fuel use.
Wow! Not only do you get a soil that could increase crop productivity by 200-300%, you also have a way to sequester carbon on a scale that could offset all fossil fuel emissions. Instead of being carbon neutral, they are now talking about going carbon negative.

Sounds like a sure winner, what is the downside?

One problem is that the purported benefits of char do not slot easily into the framework of the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

Then there are your risk-averse farmers.

"Can you do this in a no-till way?" is one tricky query.
Cellulosic ethanol might also compete with it for crop wastes to turn auto fuel rather than char.

Eprida is a company that is creating terra preta along with hydrogen rich bio-fuels.

All in all it looks like a very promising technology and one to keep your eyes on.

via World Changing and Nature


Energy Should Not Be Part of Ecological Footprints

The WWF has measured the ecological footprint of humans in their Living Planet Report. I like the concept of the ecological footprint. It is a metric that allows you to determine how much of the earth's productive land and seas are humans using. It lets us know if we are living beyond the earth's capacity, by chopping trees down faster than they can grow, or catching fish quicker than they can replenish. But, I disagree with the way they handle energy use for reasons I explain below. Energy should be its own measurement outside of the ecological footprint. While they report that we are living 20% beyond the carrying capacity of the earth, if you remove the energy footprint then we are well within the carrying capacity of the earth.

The WWF reports that:

This demand on nature can be compared with the Earth’s biocapacity, based on its biologically productive area – approximately 11.3 billion global hectares, which is a quarter of the Earth’s surface. The productive area of the biosphere translates into an average of 1.8 global hectares per person in 2001. The remaining three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, including deserts, ice caps, and deep oceans, support comparatively low levels of bioproductivity, too dispersed to be harvested.

In 2001, humanity’s Ecological Footprint was 13.5 billion global hectares in 2001, or 2.2 global hectares per person. The Ecological Footprint exceeded global biocapacity by 0.4 global hectares per person, or 21 per cent.
Of the 13.5 billion global hectares footprint, food and fiber uses 5.75 (46%), energy: 7.28 (54%) and built up land: 0.44 (3%).

The report bases the amount of land that is needed for energy on the CO2 absorbing ability of the land.
One global hectare can absorb the CO2 released from consuming 1,450 litres of gasoline per year.
This doesn't make a lot of sense to me, as the extra carbon dioxide is not absorbed by the land. The extra CO2 that you emit just increases the concentration in the air.

It also implies that there is a trade of between how much fossil fuels you can use and the amount of land you use it terms of food and wood. That using one gallon of gasoline has the same impact on your ecological footprint as something like buying a chair made of wood. It implies that if you cut back on your food and wood footprint you can then use more fossil fuels. I don't think that is possible. No amount of fossil fuel usage is sustainable, because we are going to run out.

As this graph shows, there are many different ways to estimate the footprint of energy. If we were to replace fossil fuels with biocrops, then adding it to the footprint would make sense to me. But, the amount of land required for biocrops would probably be about 1/2 that of CO2 sequestering. If we use cellulosic ethanol, we would use land that is currently considered unproductive to create our energy which would have an even smaller impact on the footprint.

If we base replacing all energy with solar or wind, the amount of land goes away completely. In their analysis they count nuclear power as having a footprint equal to the amount it would have if it were fossil fuels, as they believe nuclear will be replaced with coal or other fossil fuels. But, if you were to use the same logic and say that in the future most fossil fuel energy will be replaced with solar panels on land that is considered biologically unproductive, then the footprint of energy goes down to zero. It is true that fossil fuel usage is not sustainable and needs to be replaced, but should it really count against the carrying capacity of the planet? I don't think so.

They calculate our footprint being 20% higher than the carrying capacity of the earth. If you remove energy from the picture, you are left with a footprint of 6.19 billion global hectares which is 54% of the earth's capacity. While you can argue whether or not humans should be able to use 54% of the earth's capacity, you can no longer argue that we are using the earth beyond its carrying capacity.

Even the 54% might be an over estimation. It is a much higher than the intermediate estimate of 19.0% of total net primary production that humans are using in this study. I am not quite sure why the discrepancy, I think it has to do with the footprint looking at acres of land (and only counting 1/4 of earth as being productive), while this study is looking at biomass being created everywhere on earth.

I like the ecofootprint concept, but it doesn't make sense to me to add in energy usage from fossil fuels based on the amount of land that would be required to sequester their carbon dioxide. If you instead assumed fossil fuels will be replaced by solar and wind energy then their impact on the footprint goes down to zero. This is not to say that replacing fossil fuels with alternative energy isn't important, just that it doesn't belong in the the ecological footprint.


Is Bush an Idiot?

Many funny clips of Bush attempting to speak. My favorite: "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully."

via Crooks and Liars


Gene May Be Key To Brain Evolution

Scientists think they have found a key gene that helped the human brain evolve from that of humans' chimplike ancestors.

In just a few million years, one area of the human genome seems to have evolved about 70 times as fast as the rest of the genetic code and appears to have had a role in the rapid tripling of the size of the brain's crucial cerebral cortex, scientists reported today in the journal Nature.

Co-author David Haussler of the University of California at Santa Cruz said his team found strong but circumstantial evidence that a gene called HAR1F played a key role.

The scientists still don't know specifically what the gene does, but it is involved with early development of the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for some of the more complex brain functions, including language and information processing.
How long do you think it is going to take before somebody genetically engineers a chimp with the human version of HAR1F? Planet of the Apes, here we come.

via Washington Post


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Meat Eaters Without The Guilt

An interesting Op-Ed on the ethics of eating meat.

Animals convert calories that human can't eat (such as grass) or prefer not to eat (such as grubs) into calories humans want to eat (such as chicken).

But there's a strong case that giving a farm animal a happy life making a constructive environmental contribution and slaughtering it humanely to feed people is ethical. Even animal rights hard-liner Peter Singer, in "The Way We Eat" (co-authored with Jim Mason), can't condemn "the view that it is ethical to eat animals who have lived good lives and would not have existed at all." He concludes that it's "more appropriate to praise" this relatively enlightened view than to criticize it for not being the veganism he prefers.
I have made that case before (well at least to myself when that hamburger looks sooo good). If an animal gets to live a good (although a little short) life, what is wrong with eating it? And, if the whole world went vegan, we would not be able to take advantage of the ruminants ability to turn grasses that we can't digest into milk and meat that we can.

Every time I see pictures of Ethiopia, I wonder how can people live there? It is only by having goats or cattle that can eat plants that we can't are they able to live there. Speaking of Ethiopia, the Economist has a nice, er make that depressing, look at the Horn of Africa. All I can say is that it sucks to be them.

On the other hand, not eating the meat would allow for more wild animals to exist. Instead of raising a cow, that same land could support a wild buffalo. Or you could raise the cow but instead of eating it allow another carnivore like a bear, mountain lion or a tiger to eat it instead. There is a trade off between how well we as humans want to eat and how large the population of other wild animals, especially carnivores, on earth can be. In a way it is like vegetarians and other low calorie eaters are donating their "uneaten" calories to nature.

Speaking of tigers, this article has an interesting take on how to protect them from going extinct. Farm them like cows or goats and sell their products.
For instance, there are perhaps 1.5 billion head of cattle and buffalo and 2 billion goats and sheep in the world today. These are among the most exploited of animals, yet they are not in danger of dying out; there is incentive, in these instances, for humans to conserve.

Wildlife farming and ranching could potentially break the poverty trap that most forest villagers find themselves in. In Zimbabwe, before the current spiral into chaos, villagers had property rights on the wildlife in the forests around them, and they earned revenue by selling a limited number of hunting licenses.

But tiger-breeding facilities will ensure a supply of wildlife at an affordable price, and so eliminate the incentive for poachers and, consequently, the danger for those tigers left in the wild. According to senior officials I met in China, given a free hand, the country could produce 100,000 tigers in the next 10 to 15 years.

Given the growing popularity of traditional Chinese medicines, which make use of everything from tiger claws (to treat insomnia) to tiger fat (leprosy and rheumatism), and the prices this kind of harvesting can bring (as much as $20 for claws, and $20,000 for a skin), the tiger can in effect pay for its own survival. A single farmed specimen might fetch as much as $40,000; the retail value of all the tiger products might be three to five times that amount.
Reminds me of salmon, where humans run salmon hatcheries to make sure enough young salmon make it back to the ocean each year. I don't know if this scheme would work, but the idea of actively managing the tiger population to help their numbers increase sounds good to me. If you breed extra to allow for more hunting, but their population increase, fine by me.

But wait you say, the tiger is a wild animal, it could never be tamed. Think again.
Of the planet’s estimated 5,000 wild tigers, about 75 percent are in India, which, like most nations, believes that commerce and conservation are incompatible. Only a relative handful of tigers — probably a few dozen — can be found in China’s forests. (The United States is home to some 10,000 tigers, owned by zoos and private citizens.) The tiger, in short, is still staring at extinction.


Wall Street Invests Big in Green Technologies

You know a cultural movement is real when the money men get on board. In just the past year a broad swath of financiers -- venture capitalists, hedge funds, investment banks, public pension funds, and even stodgy insurers -- have begun sinking billions of dollars into producers of ethanol, fuel cell superbatteries, microscopic bugs that turn glucose into plastic, environmentally friendly pesticides, anything that might tap into the green craze.

Last year, $17 billion poured into clean-energy projects in the U.S. -- 89% more than in 2004, estimates researcher New Energy Finance Ltd. Worldwide, the $49 billion collected in 2005 was up 62% from 2004.

Of course, the green gains of the past few years are directly related to the price of oil, which has doubled since 2003. Oil remains the main lens through which all energy is viewed, and it takes high prices to stir demand for alternatives. Some economists are forecasting $100 a barrel for the foreseeable future. Others say it would take only the briefest of global recessions to push the price of oil below $40. Certainly the big payoffs for alternative energy would vanish in a second if oil prices were to plummet suddenly.
As they say, the solution to high prices is high prices. While some complain about the huge profits the oil companies are making, those profits entice Wall Street to invest in alternative energy companies in hopes of making some huge profits for themselves.

via Business Week


"Drilled In" Gasoline Labeling

The Chicago Tribune has a nice series on oil. They trace oil from where it is pumped out of the ground to where it is pumped into your car and discuss all the issues surrounding it.

The following shows where the oil originated from that ended up at a gas station in Chicago:

Gulf of Mexico crudes--31 percent
Texas crudes--28 percent
Nigerian crudes--17 percent
Arab Light from Saudi Arabia--10 percent
Louisiana Sweet--8 percent
Illinois Basin Light--4 percent
Cabinda crude from Angola--3 percent
N'Kossa crude from the Republic of Congo--.01 percent

Which got me to thinking, why shouldn't all gasoline be labeled by where the oil was drilled? Just like clothing has a label that tells you where it was made, I think gasoline stations should have to tell you where the oil originated from.

The idea would be to understand where you, and the US in general gets its oil. The image on the left shows where oil in produced and consumed in the world. The size of the countries reflects their impact on consumption or production. As expected the Middle East is a huge producer of oil, but Russia, Venezuela and the US are also large producers. On the consumption side, the US leads and Europe and Japan are also large consumers.

I was thinking this "drilled in" label could be used by customers to purchase gasoline from companies that get their oil from countries they support and boycott those they don't. If you want to make sure your money doesn't go to Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, you as a customer would now be able to do that.

But, I question how well that would work given that the world demand for oil is greater than supply. If you, or you and a bunch of your friends, or even the entire country decided to boycott Saudi Arabia, you would have to increase your oil purchases from somewhere else like Nigeria. Since Nigeria is already pumping as much as they can, an increase to the US means a decrease to somewhere else, lets say Canada. Now Canada needs to get more oil so where do they go? Saudi Arabia. So while demand for oil is so strong, I don't think you can have much of an effect. But, when demand drops below supply, then it could have an impact.

Regardless, knowing where we get our oil from is an important piece of information in this globalized world with a limited supply of oil.

via Chicago Tribune


Oil is the Earth's Blood

While the Amazon might be the earth's lungs, Paul Salopek
makes the case that oil is the earth's blood.

In some respects, crude really does resemble blood. It scabs on exposure to air. It is organic and viscous. Some companies warm oil to about 90 degrees to make it slip more easily, with less friction, through pipelines. This temperature approximates that of the human body. Cold oil will coagulate. It coats the inner surfaces of the pipes with waxy buildups, much like arterial plaque. Pipelines must be cleaned regularly with the industrial equivalent of a cardiac balloon: a plastic plug that oil workers call a "pig."

Oil is not sterile. It supports bacteria and fungi. Terminal managers tell of draining old storage tanks and finding "vines" of oil-eating algae growing inside--some of them many feet long.
Interesting. I did not realize that bacteria and fungi grew in it. You never really think of oil being organic, but it is in the o-chem sense of the word.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about oil is this: After 150 years of unleashing its explosive power to shrink the world and expand our dominion of nature, and after reshaping it into innumerable useful byproducts--from plastic cradles to vinyl body bags--we still do not understand fully where oil comes from or how it was made.

The notion that it is the cooked and condensed remains of dinosaurs is at best marginally correct. Most geologists agree that terrestrial life never existed in sufficient abundance to explain the vast amount of crude now lurking in the ground. Instead, many scientists believe petroleum was born in water--as algae and minute life forms called plankton that once drifted in ancient seas. Fed by ancient sunbeams, the plants bloomed in oceanic quantities, died and were buried in sea-bottom silts.

Because of this, some experts call the energy locked inside oil "fossilized sunlight." But this remains a theory. No one has yet synthesized crude from dead plant matter.
Huh. I am surprised that no one has been able to create oil in the lab. I thought it was an established fact.

via Chicago Tribune


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More Overweight than Starving People in the World

There are now more overweight people across the world than hungry ones, according to experts.

He told the International Association of Agricultural Economists the number of overweight people had topped 1bn, compared with 800m undernourished.

Professor Popkin, from the University of North Carolina, said that the change had happened quickly as obesity was rapidly spreading, while hunger was slowly declining among the world's 6.5bn population.
I don't know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but a bet it is a first in the history of humanity.

via BBC News


Sinful Second Homes

Tierney weighs in on second homes.

No matter how many fluorescent light bulbs you install in your second home’s basement, you could save a lot more energy by eliminating the whole place. Even if you dutifully shut down each home when you leave it — turning off the electricity, draining the pipes and turning off the heat, etc. — you’re still expending extra energy commuting between your homes. A trip to a weekend house can easily burn more gasoline than a commuter uses all week.

Yet somehow, in all the years I’ve been reading lists of energy-saving tips, I’ve never noticed, “Sell second home.” A cynic might attribute this oversight to a high correlation between fervent environmentalism and second-home ownership — Robert Redford and his place at Sundance, the Kennedys and their compound on the Cape, Laurie David and her home on Martha’s Vineyard, John Kerry’s seaside and mountainside manses.

Granted, some environmentalists deal publicly with their carbon footprints. Gore and David say they offset their energy usage by sponsoring reductions in greenhouse gases through alternative forms of power and energy conservation (like building wind farms and paying farmers to turn methane into electricity). But are “carbon offsets” sufficient compensation? Not to activists like Charles Komanoff, an economic consultant to environmental groups.

I’m not such a purist myself — I’d let the average person salve his conscience with a carbon indulgence. But I’d hold environmentalist preachers like Gore to higher standards, especially when they’re engaging in unnecessary energy use.
I agree. Large homes and second homes use a lot of energy regardless of how efficient or green they are.

I think part of the green movement should be to try and get people to live in smaller houses and not to buy second homes. A second home is not lived in most of the time and is therefore wasteful with the energy it took to build it. Better to vacation and use a hotel or timeshare that is used all of the time. Less wood, metal and other resources would be needed as fewer houses would be built and more land could be set aside for nature.

If Gore and other environmentalist could make this sacrifice and sell their second homes, their message would be so much stronger.

via New York Times


Monday, August 14, 2006

More Liquids on a Plane

via Wonder Mark via Boing Boing


Saturday, August 12, 2006

100 Energy Slaves per American

I was watching this guy, James Howard Kunstler, on TV talk about his book The Long Emergency who believes that we are going to run out of energy soon and it will dramatically change life in America. He said that buildings over 7 stories were going to go away because we wouldn't have the energy to run elevators and we were all going to live in small agricultural communities because the energy to transport things would no longer be available. Overall I thought he was crazy. But one questioner made a statement that I found interesting. He said that each American had 100 "energy slaves" working for us. So I decided to run the numbers and see if it is true.

The average American consumes 2,200 calories a day. The US uses 100 quadrillion BTU of energy a year (as of 2004). Divided by 300 million Americans that works out to 913,000 BTU a day. And Google tells us that converts to 230,226 calories or just over 100 times the 2,200 we eat a day. So it is true that we have 100 energy slaves each.

Our energy slaves allow us to consume much more than we would otherwise. In manufacturing, energy slaves in the form of machines build our cars, sew our clothes, and create our TVs. Our slaves provide so much that the typical American family owns more than most Egyptian pharaohs. At home we use energy slaves to wash our clothes and clean our dishes.

Of course, there are also other forms of energy we use that don't really have a slave equivalent: heating, air conditioning, refrigeration, lighting, transportation, and computing. While the slave analogy might be a little off, it is true that we feed our air conditioners, water heaters, computers, cars, factory machinery and appliances 100 times as much energy as we feed ourselves and our standard of living would be no where near as great without them.

I then became curious, how much land is needed to feed us compared to our machines?

Each year, each average American uses 341 mil BTU or 100,000 kWh. How much land would that require? As solar is the long term solution, let's calculate in terms of solar cells. 11% efficient solar cells in Austin can capture 200 kWh/yr/m^2. The average American therefore needs 500m^2 of solar cells to produce the energy he uses.

To feed humans, lets look at how much land it would require to supply all of our calories with wheat. Many foods such as meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts yield fewer calorie per acre than wheat. Others like sugar (and I believe corn) yield many more calories per acre than wheat. Using wheat might underestimate the amount of land needed, but it gives a feel for what is needed.

The FAO puts the wheat yield in the US at 3 tonnes/ha. There are approximately 1100 calories (or kCal) per pound of bread, which we will assume is the same as wheat. This works out to 2428 kCal per kg. 3 tonnes/ha therefore equals 7,284,000 kCal/ha or 728 kCal/m^2. The average American eats 2,200 kCal a day or 800,000 kCal a year. This requires 1,100 m^2 of land planted in wheat to produce that many calories.

So while our energy slaves use 100 times as much energy, they only require 1/2 as much land in order to produce that energy. This is because solar cells are approximately 200 times more efficient than creating energy through wheat. These numbers are rough, so they could be off by quite a bit, but it is definitely true that our energy slaves are much more efficient in terms of land needed to feed them than humans are.