Friday, November 12th, 2010
The Atlantic is featuring an interesting back-and-forth between rancher and author, Nicolette Hahn Niman, and philosopher Adam Phillips.
This debate focuses on whether eating pigs carries the same ethical considerations as eating dogs. But it has deeper roots in a centuries-old debate about objective vs. relative moral truths in our world.
For a current example of how this deeper debate is playing out, check out Sam Harris’ latest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.
Photo credit: nao-cha
Sunday, November 7th, 2010
Here’s an interesting idea: Get a bunch of people writing about environmental disasters to help raise awareness about what these are like (and may become) and to spur planning efforts for preventing/dealing with them. That’s the latest from io9:
We can’t prevent environmental disasters without preparing for them. That’s why io9 is going to pay $2000 each to two people who write the best stories about environmental disaster. It’s io9′s Environmental Writing Contest – for science fiction and non-fiction.
io9 is looking for stories that deal with environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. We believe that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth’s history.
We’re holding this contest to reward people for coming up with ideas that could help avert the next Deepwater spill and Pacific garbage gyre – or help people prepare better for the next Indian Ocean tsunami and Haiti earthquake. Storytelling is a powerful tool. We want you to use it well.
Our awesome team of judges includes Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker’s environment reporter), Paolo Bacigalupi (author of Ship Breaker and Windup Girl), and Jonathan Strahan (editor of the Eclipse anthologies), as well as others to be announced.
Interested? The contest rules can be found at the link above.
Photo credit: Reinante El Pintor de Fuego
Wednesday, October 20th, 2010
Matt Nisbet has an excellent new post, Investing in Civic Education about Climate Change: What Should Be the Goals?, highlighting some of the next-generation approaches to helping people engage climate change.
Why don’t people engage climate change?
Wednesday, October 20th, 2010
In his latest blog post in Time Magazine, Bryan Walsh laments the fact that—6 months after the Gulf Oil Spill— it appears no lessons have been learned:
…We all wanted to find the “lessons of the spill”—even while the oil was still flowing. (Look back at that first story I did—it was written during the first week of May, more than 2 months before BP’s blown well was capped.) But we haven’t gotten smarter since the spill. We’ve gotten stupider.
…It’s now six months to the day after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, and it’s safe to say that the BP spill will not be remembered as the modern green movement’s march on Washington. Climate legislation is dead in the Senate, and if the midterm polls are accurate, next year’s Congress will be even less inclined to act on global warming—or even believe it. President Obama—under constant pressure from the same Gulf Coast states that were drenched in oil—lifted his moratorium on deepwater drilling earlier this month, before the initial deadline of Nov. 30 and before investigations into the true cause of the accident were complete. The government response to the disaster, while heroic at times, was deeply problematic, with evidence that Washington kept the public in the dark for weeks about the true size of the spill. The response on the ground was marred by obstructionism on the part of BP, to the point where off-duty cops in Louisiana seemed to be acting as hired muscle for the oil company that—let’s not forget—was chiefly responsible for spill in the first place. The legacy is a climate of distrust and paranoia in the Gulf—academic researchers and government scientists quarreling over underwater oil, conspiracy theories about BP burning sea animals, and anger along the Gulf coast among those who feel they’ve been left behind, as the rest of the country has moved on.
Forget energy reform—the biggest change in the Gulf seems to be the flood of money from BP, as part of its $20 billion promise to “make this right,” as former CEO Tony Hayward put it.
…It’s not exactly a clean energy revolution.
None of this is surprising. It’s what I predicted at the beginning:
Wednesday, October 13th, 2010
In a fascinating new article in PLOS One (open access), Daniel Nettle asks why we see social gradients in preventative health behaviors:
People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to smoke more, exercise less, have poorer diets, comply less well with therapy, use medical services less, adopt fewer safety measures, ignore health advice more, and be less health-conscious overall, than their more affluent peers. Some of these behaviors can simply be put down to financial constraints, as healthy diets, for example, cost more than unhealthy ones, but socioeconomic gradients are found even where the health behaviors in question would cost nothing, ruling out income differences as the explanation.
Socioeconomic gradients in health behavior are not easily abolished by providing more information. Informational health campaigns tend to lead to greater voluntary behavior change in people of higher socio-economic position, and thus can actually increase socioeconomic inequalities in health, even whilst improving health overall. Thus, we are struck with what we might call the exacerbatory dynamic of poverty: the people in society who face the greatest structural adversity, far from mitigating this by their lifestyles, behave in such ways as to make it worse, even when they are provided with the opportunity to do otherwise.
What are some of the possible explanations for this pattern, and are they sufficient?
Underlying socioeconomic differences in health behavior are differences in attitudinal and psychological variables. People of lower socioeconomic position have been found to be more pessimistic, have stronger beliefs in the influence of chance on health, and give a greater weighting to present over future outcomes, than people of higher socioeconomic position. These explanations seem clear.
However, they immediately raise the deeper question: why should pessimism, belief in chance, and short time perspective be found more in people of low socioeconomic position than those of high socioeconomic position? These deeper questions are at the level which behavioral ecologists call ultimate, as opposed to proximate causation
To develop more of an ultimate explanation, Nettle hypothesized that lower socioeconomic groups are subject to greater hazard or environmental harm or even simply the perception of living a more hazardous life. This, in turn, discourages healthy behavior.
To test this hypothesis, he developed a mathematical/statistical model predicting the probability of dying in a given year, which is a combination of extrinsic risks that people cannot control as well as intrinsic risks that they can control through modified health behavior. Thus, people choosing to take the time to engage healthier opportunities reduce their mortality risk. Now there’s a tradeoff, however, because the more time people choose to undertake healthy behavior, the less time is left over for leisure activities and other life events.
Overall survival is therefore a combination of all of these factors, which can easily be modeled by assuming a range of values for time spent on health vs. other activities to see what kinds of mortality outcomes arise.
Here are the interesting results he found…
Tuesday, October 12th, 2010
In 40 years, there will be about 3 billion additional people living on the Earth (~9.5 billion total). With all of these new folks, it’s easy to think about the added demands of energy, food, and water required to sustain their lifestyles. And in terms of climate warming, it’s hard to escape the fact that significantly greater energy consumption will lead to rising rates of carbon emissions, unless there’s a shift to decarbonize the economy.
In this week’s early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Brian O’Neill and colleagues note that emissions are not just controlled by the sheer size of the human population but also by important demographic changes.
For example, how might an aging or more urban population affect emissions? How about changes in household size? Modelers of carbon emissions don’t usually ask these kinds of questions, so the conventionally projected emissions might be off if these additional demographic details matter.
The researchers developed a global economic model (Population-Environment-Technology, or PET) in which they specified relationships between demographic factors like houshold size, age, and urban/rural residency and economic factors like the demand for consumer goods, wealth, and the supply of labor. Here’s a bit more on how this works:
In the PET model, households can affect emissions either directly through their consumption patterns or indirectly through their effects on economic growth in ways that up until now have not been explicitly accounted for in emissions models. The direct effect on emissions is represented by disaggregating household consumption for each household type into four categories of goods (energy, food, transport, and other) so that shifts in the composition of the population by household type produce shifts in the aggregate mix of goods demanded. Because different goods have different energy intensities of production, these shifts can lead to changes in emissions rates. To represent indirect effects on emissions through economic growth, the PET model
explicitly accounts for the effect of (i) population growth rates on economic growth rates, (ii) age structure changes on labor supply, (iii) urbanization on labor productivity, and (iv) anticipated demographic change (and its economic effects) on savings and consumption behavior.
Although there are some exceptions, households that are older, larger, or more rural tend to have lower per capita labor supply than those that are younger, smaller, or more urban. Lower-income households (e.g., rural households in developing countries) spend a larger share of income on food and a smaller share on transportation than higher-income households. Although labor supply and preferences can be influenced by a range of nondemographic factors, our scenarios focus on capturing the effects of shifts in population across types of households.
To project these demographic trends, we use the high, medium, and low scenarios of the United Nations (UN) 2003 Long-Range World Population Projections combined with the UN 2007 Urbanization Prospects extended by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and derive population by age, sex, and rural/urban residence for the period of 2000–2100.
What did they find?
Monday, October 4th, 2010
There has been a lot published recently on the source of happiness and what constitutes the good life, with many articles focusing on levels of personal income that mark tipping points, such as the recent claim that we need $75,000 to be happy.
In this week’s Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access), Bruce Headey and colleagues describe how happiness is also being explored in terms of fundamental differences between psychological and economic theory:
Research on life satisfaction or happiness used to be a minor branch of psychology, became a major branch, and then in the past decade has attracted huge interest among economists. Some of these economists now use satisfaction measures as proxies for the outcome which economic agents are assumed to maximize—namely, individual utility. But the assumptions and findings of psychologists and economists are contradictory.
In one corner, psychological theory:
The dominant theory in psychology is probably still set-point theory…[which] holds that long-term adult happiness is stable—it has a setpoint—because it depends mainly on genetic factors, including personality traits molded and expressed early in life. It has been shown that major life events can temporarily change happiness levels, but that most people revert to their previous setpoint within a year or two. The theory can be summarized by saying that, “We are all on a hedonic treadmill”.
…An obvious implication is that neither individual choices nor public policy can make a substantial long-term difference to happiness.
In the other corner, economic theory:
Economists who, following the recent advice of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, now intend to use direct satisfaction-based measures of utility [happiness] must necessarily assume the opposite. There is no point in deploying such measures if individual preferences, behavioral choices, and public policy could not increase long-term satisfaction.
Research on happiness (relabeled as subjective utility) by economists developed rapidly in the 1990s, ironically just as setpoint theory became dominant… Economists have not developed a counter theory, but pursue a strategy of seeking to account for variance in life satisfaction due to individual utility maximizing behavior and policy interventions.
Economists have also developed explanations for why happiness may not appear to change over time that have nothing to do with happiness set points:
…Contrary to what a layperson might suppose, modern economists, starting with Richard Easterlin (the Easterlin paradox), have repeatedly claimed that money does not buy much happiness, especially in wealthy Western countries. The paradox
has been challenged…but critics have never been able to show that long-term income growth produces long-term gains in happiness. This nonoutcome arises mainly because rising incomes are subject to social comparisons with the neighboring Jones’s, whose incomes also keep going up. People adapt to their own and their neighbors’ new levels of income by raising their expectations, with the result that no lasting increase in happiness occurs.
How do you study these ideas? By using an enormous data set:
…The German Socio-Economic Panel Survey (SOEP) provides by far the longest data series available worldwide. It reports interviews with a very large national representative sample aged 16 and over, who have answered questions about their life satisfaction every year from 1984 to 2008.
What did they find, and who cares?
During this quarter-century, large numbers of respondents recorded substantial and apparently permanent changes in satisfaction…[T]he scale of change indicates that set-point theory is seriously flawed. A key implication is that the economist’s goal of enhancing (subjective) utility via changes in individual behavior and public policy is not condemned to inevitable failure by human psychology. Nonfixed, nongenetic factors, including individual choices and public policy, may influence satisfaction levels, or utility so measured.
The authors go on to talk more about life factors that drive happiness, showing that things people can change about their lifestyle matter as much or more than personality traits or being married—things we might consider to be fixed in our lives. Some we’ve heard before, but other insights are new and interesting (emphasis mine):
…[W]e have shown that life goals, religion, and personal choices matter for happiness. Key choices relate to one’s partner, the tradeoff between work and leisure, social participation, and healthy lifestyle. Life goals and choices have as much or more impact on life satisfaction than variables routinely described as important in previous research, including extroversion and being married or partnered. If we use these last two variables as benchmarks, it appears that partner’s level of neuroticism, one’s own commitment to family and altruistic goals, church attendance, participation in social events, and regular exercise are all equally or more important than being extroverted.
…For both men and women, doing fewer paid hours of work than they want apparently has close to the same impact on life satisfaction as not being married/partnered. For women, being obese actually reduces life satisfaction more than not having a partner.
…people who find themselves working much more or less than they want are significantly less satisfied with life than those who come close to making their preferred tradeoff between work and leisure. For both men and women, being underworked is much worse than being overworked, presumably because lost consumption rankles worse than lost leisure.
…people who consistently prioritize non–zero-sum altruistic goals or family goals are more satisfied with life than people who prioritize goals relating to their own careers and material success. Giving priority to altruistic goals is strongly associated with higher life satisfaction, whereas family goals are also satisfaction enhancing. Corroborating some previous research, it appears that prioritizing success and material goals is actually harmful to life satisfaction.
Headey, B., R. Muffels, and G.G. Wagner (2010). Long-running German panel survey shows that personal and economic choices, not just genes, matter for happiness Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences : 10.1073/pnas.1008612107
Photo credit: wili_hybrid
Sunday, September 26th, 2010
The NY Times and Huffington Post are running a story by Kim Severson, Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries, lamenting how hard it is to get people to eat healthy.
The thing that struck me about this article, as its title suggests, is how nutrition in America is often pitched top-down. A strategy is bound to fail when it consists simply of government experts making recommendations about nutrition, as one of the folks interviewed notes:
“It is disappointing,” said Dr. Jennifer Foltz, a pediatrician who helped compile the report. She, like other public health officials dedicated to improving the American diet, concedes that perhaps simply telling people to eat more vegetables isn’t working.
…The government keeps trying, too, to get its message across. It now recommends four and a half cups of fruits and vegetables (that’s nine servings) for people who eat 2,000 calories a day. Some public health advocates have argued that when the guidelines are updated later this year, they should be made even clearer. One proposal is to make Americans think about it visually, filling half the plate or bowl with vegetables.
The article explores the usual things claimed to be preventing people from eating better—convenience and cost:
“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it,” Mr. Balzer said.
In the wrong hands, vegetables can taste terrible. And compared with a lot of food at the supermarket, they’re a relatively expensive way to fill a belly.
“Before we want health, we want taste, we want convenience and we want low cost,” Mr. Balzer said.
Melissa MacBride, a busy Manhattan resident who works for a pharmaceuticals company, would eat more vegetables if they weren’t, in her words, “a pain.”
“An apple you can just grab,” she said. “But what am I going to do, put a piece of kale in my purse?”
“It’s just like any other bad habit,” he said. “Part of it is just that vegetables are a little intimidating. I’m not afraid of zucchinis, but I just don’t know how to cook them.”
The solution is presented as a problem of overcoming access to good food:
But clear guidance probably isn’t enough. Health officials now concede that convincing a nation that shuns vegetables means making vegetables more affordable and more available.
I’m a fan of nutritional literacy, as I am with environmental literacy, but only as one of several approaches in a portfolio of strategies for improving the quality of life and the environment. Nutritionists and climate change educators should team up in this regard because they face the same challenge—winning hearts and minds (or, in this case, stomachs) and changing behavior.
The problem is that a top-down nutritional literacy approach, by itself, is woefully inadequate (more information, alone, simply won’t accomplish this), and access to good food is only part of the challenge.
If you want engagement, then nutrition needs to be turned into a bottom-up venture. It’s not simply a matter of food pyramids and access to good food. People need to experience growing and cooking their own food. They need to be engaged with how good it can be, how it can be grown cheaply, and how plant-based diets are easy to prepare.
There are several ways to begin accomplishing this:
1. Start early. Make gardening and cooking a part of the elementary school experience. All kids should take an active role in planting, tending, and harvesting food. Then they should take part in preparing the foods they have grown in ways that are appealing to eat. The power of this should not be underestimated. The only thing I remember from kindergarten is making bread and butter from scratch.
2. Diffuse this knowledge to home or community gardens. When kids are taught how to prepare healthy, tasty food, they can bring what they learn home, starting home gardens and helping out with making dinner by showing parents what they learned in school (maybe accompanied by some kind of creative incentive from parents to do this). People can see for themselves that is is often less expensive to grow healthy food, especially if communities team up and share their bounties, than it is to buy junk food that makes up much of their diet.
3. Involve the community in a contest to generate a list of the most popular recipes for different fruits and vegetables. Perhaps engage the help of local chefs for fun. I have a 100% whole fruit smoothie recipe that most kids would mistake for dessert.
4. Disperse these recipes widely and incorporate them into school education programs and lunches, as Alice Waters is accomplishing in California.
5. Not only should farmers markets accept SNAP (food stamps), there should be classes/demos to show people how to prepare foods. Also, having samples and recipes that are tasty and convenient would be helpful. People should be convinced, by seeing with their own eyes and taste buds, that they can do this and that it’s worth their time.
And that’s part of the larger problem: overcoming the psychological barrier that fresh food prep is time consuming:
“The moment you have something fresh you have to schedule your life around using it.”
Although I see the point here, I think it’s a poor reason for not eating healthy. People schedule time around education, sleeping, exercising, soccer practice, vacation, being with friends, spirituality, and visits to the doctor/dentist because these things are considered necessary to living well. Is preparing healthy food not a similarly meaningful part of our lives? Is it really impossible for families to schedule 30-45 minutes preparing meals? Should leisure time or other competing interests really be that high an opportunity cost?
Perhaps that’s one lesson: So long as Americans treat preparing and enjoying healthy meals as a tradeoff with leisure time or other activities, American diets will suffer. No amount of top-down government nutrition guidelines will overcome that.
Related news: Bill Clinton now eats vegan
Photo credit: hellochris
Friday, September 24th, 2010
Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark at The Guardian have a recent post in the series examining the carbon footprints of daily life activities. Their post asks how much carbon emissions results from the direct and indirect activities of building a car.
The carbon footprint of making a car is immensely complex. Ores have to be dug out of the ground and the metals extracted. These have to be turned into parts. Other components have to be brought together: rubber tyres, plastic dashboards, paint, and so on. All of this involves transporting things around the world. The whole lot then has to be assembled, and every stage in the process requires energy. The companies that make cars have offices and other infrastructure with their own carbon footprints, which we need to somehow allocate proportionately to the cars that are made.
….The best we can do is use so-called input-output analysis to break up the known total emissions of the world or a country into different industries and sectors, in the process taking account of how each industry consumes the goods and services of all the others. If we do this, and then divide by the total emissions of the auto industry by the total amount of money spent on new cars, we reach a footprint of 720kg CO2e per £1000 spent.
This is only a guideline figure, of course, as some cars may be more efficiently produced than others of the same price. But it’s a reasonable ballpark estimate, and it suggests that cars have much bigger footprints than is traditionally believed. Producing a medium-sized new car costing £24,000 may generate more than 17 tonnes of CO2e – almost as much as three years’ worth of gas and electricity in the typical UK home.
17 (metric) tons is 17,000 kg or about 37,400 pounds. The U.S. EPA estimates that the average passenger vehicle in the U.S. emits 5-5.5 metric tons CO2e per year, assuming 12,000 miles driven.
If you do the math, this means the embodied CO2e emissions to make a car is about 3-3.5 years worth of tailpipe emissions from driving. Assuming that most people own their cars for longer than three years, this figure doesn’t jive with what the authors claim:
The upshot is that – despite common claims to contrary – the embodied emissions of a car typically rival the exhaust pipe emissions over its entire lifetime. Indeed, for each mile driven, the emissions from the manufacture of a top-of-the-range Land Rover Discovery that ends up being scrapped after 100,000 miles may be as much as four times higher than the tailpipe emissions of a Citroen C1.
If people held onto their cars for 10 years (assuming 120,000 miles), tailpipe emissions would equal 50 metric tons of CO2e, and embodied emissions would be about 34% of tailpipe emissions. If people drove their cars for 20 years (assuming 240,000 miles), the exhaust emissions would rise to 100 metric tons CO2e, with embodied emissions dropping to 17% of tailpipe emissions.
While most folks generally agree with the notion of driving their vehicle into the ground (as my recently dead 16-yr-old truck illustrates), you’d have to be driving a Toyota Prius to get a lifetime tailpipe emission that equals the embodied emissions of building it (assuming that a Prius achieves three times the mpg of a typical car, which would drop CO2e tailpipe emissions from 5 to 1.7 metric tons CO2e per year, making a 10-year total tailpipe emission of 17 metric tons reasonable).
Thus, if you drive an average car for 10 years, your lifetime tailpipe emissions (50 metric tons) will be a lot larger than the embodied emissions to build the car (17 metric tons) (for a total emission of 67 metric tons). If you drive a hyper-efficient vehicle for 10 years, tailpipe and embodied emissions may be comparable (17 metric tons each, 34 metric tons total). This means you could buy a new Prius every three years, and the embodied emissions from all of these purchases plus tailpipe emissions would roughly equal a normal car driven for 10 years.
This raises an important question: What matters here? If the goal is to reduce total emissions, the best thing is to buy a car with a very high fuel efficiency and drive it for its full life, as the above examples illustrate.
Photo credit: atomicshark