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Posts Tagged ‘environment

“What is common to many is least taken care of”*…

 

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As an evolutionary biologist who received my PhD in 1975, I grew up with Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science magazine in 1968. His parable of villagers adding too many cows to their common pasture captured the essence of the problem that my thesis research was designed to solve. The farmer who added an extra cow gained an advantage over other farmers in his village but it also led to an overgrazed pasture. The biological world is full of similar examples in which individuals who behave for the good of their groups lose out in the struggle for existence with more self-serving individuals, resulting in overexploited resources and other tragedies of non-cooperation…

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009…

David Sloan Wilson on the design principles that can solve the tragedy of the commons: “The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas.”

For more on the tragedy of the commons, see here— also the source of the cartoon above.

* Aristotle

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As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that we– the entire population of the earth– narrowly avoided total obliteration, as the 500,000 ton asteroid/planetoid 69230 Hermes failed to collide with our planet.  It missed by twice the distance of the Moon… but that’s only three seconds.  (In 1989, the earth had an even closer approach, but by the smaller 4581 Asclepius.)

69230 Hermes

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Written by LW

October 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I think calling it climate change is rather limiting. I would rather call it the everything change.”*…

 

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The Trump administration released a report that predicted global temperatures will be four degrees higher by the end of this century, assuming current trends persist. World leaders have pledged to keep global temperatures from rising even two degrees (Celsius) above pre-industrial levels, with the understanding that warming beyond that could prove catastrophic. The last time the Earth was as warm as the White House expects it to be in 2100, its oceans were hundreds of feet higher. Which is to say: The Trump administration ostensibly, officially expects that, absent radical action to reduce carbon emissions, within the next 80 years, much of Manhattan and Miami will sink into the sea; many of world’s coral reefs will be irreversibly destroyed by acidifying oceans; vast regions of the Earth will lose their primary sources of water; and a variety of extreme weather events will dramatically increase in frequency.

And the White House believes that this fact is an argument for loosening restrictions on carbon emissions… the administration uses its four-degree warming estimate to argue that eliminating 8 billion tons worth of emissions won’t be enough to change the climate outlook, by itself, so the federal government shouldn’t bother…

This argument is deplorable in its nihilism. But its core assumption is also patently absurd. The administration’s analysis is premised on the notion that there is no relationship between what the United States does with regard to climate regulation, and what the rest of the world’s countries do. Which is totally bogus: Not only can the U.S. lead by example, it also has the power to coerce other countries into emulating the carbon standards we set for ourselves…

That said, if one assumes that the entire leadership of the Republican Party has concluded that human civilization will not survive Barron Trump, then their governing agenda starts to make a lot more sense. Exacerbating inequality and subordinating the commons to short-term profit maximization isn’t in the enlightened medium-term interests of the GOP donor class — but in the medium-term, we’ll all (apparently) be dead!

The whole sad story in full: “The Trump Administration Anticipates Catastrophic Global Warming by 2100.”

* Margaret Atwood

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As we we recall, with Marshall McLuhan, that there are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, only crew, we might take a celebratory trip in honor of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and anthropologist who became famous for his Kon-Tiki  Expedition in 1947 (though he went on many others as well); he was born on this date in 1914…  He once responded to an interviewer, “Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of most people.”

220px-ThorHeyerdahl source

 

“Some people call it global warming; some people call it climate change. What is the difference?”*…

 

The Battle of Terheide.

Climate change has had, and probably will have, very unequal consequences for different groups of people. We often assume that developed societies will fare better in a warmer future than the developing world. Yet the Dutch thrived in the 17th century not simply because their republic was rich, but because much of its wealth derived from activities that benefited from climate change.

Today, we can learn from the republic by strengthening social safety nets, investing in technologies that exploit or reduce climate change, and thinking proactively about how we will adapt to the planet of our future. It just so happens that much of the federal government in the United States is abandoning these policies, but there are more optimistic stories at the state and municipal levels, and there is exciting news coming out of China and India…

Compared to the climate change we’re experiencing now, the Little Ice Age — which chilled the globe from the 13th to the 19th century — was modest. “The world has already warmed more, relative to mid-20th-century temperature averages, than it cooled in the chilliest stretches of the Little Ice Age,” says Dagomar Degroot, a historian at Georgetown University. “And there is much more warming to come.”

In his new book, “The Frigid Golden Age,” Degroot argues that the Little Ice Age– and more specifically, the Dutch experience of the period–  has a lot to teach present-day societies about coping with climate change.  He summarizes his findings at: “When the World Was Cold.”

* Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and political consultant

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As we beat the heat, we might recall that it was on this date in 1955, at General Motors cars how in Detroit, that G. M. engineer William G. Cobb unveiled the “Sunmobile”– a 15-inch prototype of an electric car powered by the sun, the first working solar-powered car.

Sunmobile_detail source

 

Written by LW

August 31, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover becomes an economist”*…

 

Nobel-winning economist Eric Maskin delivers a 24/7 lecture, in which he explains his research in 24 seconds, then in seven words [source]

 

Congratulations are in order to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom, winners on 10 October of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Even though economics is not a full-fledged Nobel Prize, it has been earned by some splendid social scientists over the years — including a number of people who are not economists at all, from Herbert Simon and John Nash to Daniel Kahneman and Elinor Ostrom.

Yet this week I would rather discuss a different prize: the Ig Nobel prize for economics. The Ig Nobels are an enormously silly affair: they have been awarded for a study of dinosaur gaits that involved attaching weighted sticks to chickens (the biology prize), for studying stinky feet (medicine) and for figuring out why shower curtains tend to billow inwards when you’re taking a shower (physics).

But one of the Ig Nobel’s charms is that this ridiculous research might actually tell us something about the world. David Dunning and Justin Kruger received an Ig Nobel prize in psychology for their discovery that incompetent people rarely realise they are incompetent; the Dunning-Kruger effect is now widely cited. Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith won an Ig Nobel in physics for their discovery that hair and string have a tendency to become tangled — potentially an important line of research in understanding the structure of DNA. Most famously, Andre Geim’s Ig Nobel in physics for levitating a live frog was promptly followed by a proper Nobel Prize in the same subject for the discovery of graphene.

A whimsical curiosity about the world is something to be encouraged. No wonder that the credo of the Ig Nobel prizes is that they should make you laugh, then make you think…

The Undercover Economist (Tim Harford) on “The Ig Nobel prizes in Economics – in praise of ridiculous research.”

* Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms

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As we prepare our entries for the Golden Fleece Award, we might recall that it was on this date in 1948 that residents of Donora, PA went to bed as usual, not knowing that a suffocating cloud of industrial gases would descend upon them during the night.  The cloud, a poisonous mix of sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and metal dust, came from the smokestacks of the local zinc smelter where most of the town worked. Over the next five days, twenty residents died and half the town’s population – 7000 people – needed medical attention for their difficulty breathing.  The Donora tragedy shocked the nation and marked a turning point in the national dialogue about industrial pollution and its effect on health.

A Donora street at noon, October 29, 1948

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Written by LW

October 26, 2016 at 1:01 am

“We are the USDA! Without us people would be eating dirt and chairs!”*…

 

d’après Johannes Vermeer

 

Works of art…

d’après Robert Doisneau

 

, … with and without gluten…

d’après Wayne Thiebaud

 

Oh so many more at “Gluten Free Museum.”

* South Park, “Gluten-Free Ebola” (2014)

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As we whisk away the wheat, we might spare a thought for Rachel Carson; she died on this date in 1964.  A pioneering environmentalist, her book The Silent Spring— a study of the long-term dangers of pesticide use– challenged the practices of agricultural scientists and the government, and called for a change in the way humankind related to the natural world.

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.
– Rachel Carson

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Written by LW

April 14, 2015 at 1:01 am

“To see a world in a grain of sand”*…

 

A stretch of your correspondent’s childhood “front yard”

John R. Gillis writes in the New York Times that to those of us who visit beaches only in summer, beaches seem as permanent a part of our natural heritage as the Rocky Mountains but shore dwellers know that beaches are the most transitory of landscapes, and sand beaches the most vulnerable of all. Today, 75 to 90 percent of the world’s natural sand beaches are disappearing, due partly to rising sea levels and increased storm action, but also to massive erosion caused by the human development of shores. The extent of this global crisis is obscured because so-called beach nourishment projects attempt to hold sand in place (PDF) and repair the damage by the time summer people return, creating the illusion of an eternal shore. But the market for mined sand in the U.S. has become a billion-dollar annual business, growing at 10 percent a year since 2008. Interior mining operations use huge machines working in open pits to dig down under the earth’s surface to get sand left behind by ancient glaciers.

One might think that desert sand would be a ready substitute, but its grains are finer and smoother; they don’t adhere to rougher sand grains, and tend to blow away. As a result, the desert state of Dubai brings sand for its beaches all the way from Australia. Huge sand mining operations are emerging worldwide, many of them illegal, happening out of sight and out of mind, as far as the developed world is concerned. “We need to stop taking sand for granted and think of it as an endangered natural resource,” concludes Gillis. “Beach replenishment — the mining and trucking and dredging of sand to meet tourist expectations — must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, with environmental considerations taking top priority. Only this will ensure that the story of the earth will still have subsequent chapters told in grains of sand.”

– via Hugh Pickens

* Wiliam Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

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As we wriggle our toes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1926 that the first civilian airplane bombing in the U.S. occurred.  The Shelton Brothers Gang dropped three explosives on “Shady Rest,” the rural Illinois hide-out of Charlie Birger and his gang.  The bombs missed; and the rival bootleggers resorted to “tank warfare,” attacking each other with armored trucks with mounted guns.  The Sheltons succeeded in burning Shady Rest to the ground in January of 1927, effectively winning their war with Birger.  Six months later, Birger was arrested (later, tried and hanged) for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, the mayor of a nearby town, whose garage was used to service the Shelton’s “tanks.”

Birger and his gang at Shady Rest

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Written by LW

November 12, 2014 at 1:01 am

While you were sleeping…

 

The Rip van Winkle of the insect world, the “periodical cicada,” is awakening across the East Coast of North America after a 17 year hiatus.  Since 1996, these “Brood Two” cicadas have lived as nymphs two feet underground, sustaining themselves on liquid they suck from tree roots.  While biologists don’t know exactly how the cicadas set and keep their rigid schedule, they do know that these occasional visitors will crawl up to the surface, molt, swarm (sounding rather like a chorus of jackhammers), mate, lay eggs, and die– all within a month… at which point the cycle begins again.

One month isn’t a lot of time, and the cicadas will be busy…  still, they’re bound to discover that, while they were sleeping these past 17 years, entomologists have made some pretty impressive advances. From figuring out how insects fly to discovering an entire new order of insect, check out “Leaproaches, Mutant Butterflies and Other Insect News That the 17-Year Cicadas Missed.”

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As we remind ourselves that it could be worse, it could be locusts, we might send sustainable birthday greetings to Rachel Louise Carson; she was born on this date in 1907.  Trained as a marine biologist, she began her career at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.  She turned to nature writing in 1950– and won the National Book Award for her first full-length effort, The Sea Around Us.  Her next two books, also on the ocean and the life within it, were also best-sellers.

In the late 1950, she became concerned with threats to the environment, especially the advent of synthetic pesticides.  The result was Silent Spring (1962)– a book that brought environmental awareness to an unprecedented number of Americans (even as it elicited vicious counter-attacks from the chemical industry) and spurred a grass-roots movement that led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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Written by LW

May 27, 2013 at 1:01 am

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