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Why we really should care about boosting farm yields

Mon, 2014-09-01 12:08

Crystal-ball gazers looking for the future of food often start with this question: How the heck are humans going to grow enough food to feed our teaming masses without wrecking the planet?

There are two assumptions embedded in that question: first, that we’re going to have trouble growing enough food; and second, that we must race to keep food production up to speed with population growth, rather than reining in population growth. In questioning those assumptions over the last two weeks, my focus has shifted. If we want to prevent famine and ecological collapse, we should be thinking primarily about poverty, not food.

However, looking for ways to deal with poverty takes us right back around to increasing food production. If we fail to deal with poverty and hunger, Joel Cohen told me, we are (counterintuitively) consigning ourselves to explosive population growth. To make sure everyone gets a healthy portion of the world’s pie, he said, we’ll need a bigger pie (more food), fewer forks (level off population growth), and better manners (share more equitably). And while each of these approaches has its partisans, Cohen thinks we’ll almost certainly need all three.

As I found previously, if you can help small farmers grow more food, it’s a double whammy: It helps lift them out of poverty (better sharing) and gives us more food (bigger pie).

That means that we really do need to ask, how the heck we are going to feed ourselves? It’s not the main issue (poverty), but it’s an effective lever to work on that main issue. So we still need a contingent of farmers and scientists working on increasing yields. And that’s a problem, because for years countries around the world have been pulling money out of agricultural research.

“For almost thirty years, since the early 1980s, neither the private sector nor governments were interested in investing in agriculture,” wrote Olivier De Schutter, who recently concluded his stint as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

The amount of money that we invested in farming R&D has actually risen a tiny bit every year, but it’s so tiny that the amount has shrunk relative to the size of the farm economy — that is, the size of the investment wasn’t keeping up with the size of the job. Between 1990 and 2000, the world increased agricultural research investment by 1.9 percent a year. That’s about what you’d want for a cost of living increase — it doesn’t leave room for breaking new ground.

Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators – Global Assessment of Agricultural R&D SpendingBIC = Brazil, India, China – click to embiggen

“You need a certain minimum investment in agricultural science that continues year after year, because you don’t answer all the questions the first time, it’s a moving target,” said Melinda Smale, a professor of international development at Michigan State. “You need to invest in scientists, invest in institutions. Things like salaries have a recurring cost.”

When I suggested to Smale that some argue for spending money on one transformative technology that could be used everywhere, rather than pouring money into local institutions every year, she scoffed: “We should dispel this myth of the silver bullet. That’s just bullshit. What works in one place will not work in another. You cannot export a single uniform model.”

The Green Revolution — the modernization of agriculture that occurred between the ’40s and ’60s —  is often the poster child for the single uniform model. After all, Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was able to rapidly spread improved seeds around the world, instead of breeding strains to be adapted to local conditions. But the seeds were only part of the Green Revolution, Smale said. It also relied on tremendous investments from governments around the world to pay for wells, canals, and transportation systems to move harvests and fertilizers.

To build agricultural systems that are truly adapted to local environmental conditions, we’d need enough investment in agriculture to sustain various types of research, and farmer training institutions in each of those environments. The question of what that money should pay for (agroecology research? fertilizer?) is a contentious one, and I’ll get to that soon. But first: there was an increase in agricultural R&D after 2008, when food price spikes scared a modest amount of money out of leaders around the globe.

Were those price spikes a sign that we really we’re closer to running out of food than I’ve suggested here so far? I’ll try to answer that next.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Will I poison myself if I reuse this plastic water bottle?

Mon, 2014-09-01 10:52

Q. Is it OK to reuse the bottles that bottled water comes in? Sometimes when I am at a conference the bottled water they have is in a really sturdy bottle, and it seems like such a waste for it to be single use. But is it safe to refill it from the tap? My primary concern is BPA leaching into the water, but what about sanitation?

Thanks,
Rick C.
York, PA

A. Dearest Rick,

Skip it.

By now, I think the strikes against disposable plastic water bottles are pretty well-established: They’re made from petroleum, require energy to produce and ship, usually end up in the landfill, might leach chemicals into your drink, and can be used to club fuzzy baby seals (okay, I made that last one up). But equally entrenched are the reasons why they’re still so common: Namely, we all forgot our reusable bottles, and we’re thirsty.

So when we’re left with what looks like a perfectly clean empty bottle, many eco-minded folks think like you do, Rick: Wouldn’t refilling this be better than recycling it and grabbing another? Unfortunately, signs point to no.

You’re most concerned about BPA, so let’s start there. The story we’ve all heard by now concerns BPA in polycarbonate plastics (the ones with the #7 on the bottom), which are sometimes used in disposable plastic bottles. And there’s solid evidence to back this story up. One study found increased BPA levels in the urine of people who drank out of them for just a week. Another found that heating the bottles – as one would by washing them with hot water – accelerated the leaching. Longer-term use tends to lead to small scratches in the plastic as well, which also frees BPA to mingle in your drink.

So are you in the clear if the bottles at your conference sport a #1, for PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate), instead? Not so fast. A 2010 study found that PET (probably the most common plastic used in throwaway bottles) may also leach endocrine-disrupting substances. It gets worse: Still another study discovered that pretty much every kind of plastic tested leached estrogenic chemicals – including the ones trumpeted as BPA-free.

And even if you didn’t care a whit about BPA, Rick, I’d still point you and your plastic bottle away from the tap. The bottles are moist, enclosed, and getting a lot of full-body contact with your hands and lips: In other words, they’re bacterial breeding grounds. A study of elementary-school kids’ water bottles detected high bug levels in almost two-thirds of samples. The situation gets worse with extended use, as bacteria love to hang out in the same scratches that leach chemicals. You’d need to wash your bottle out with soap (and probably a bottle brush) and air-dry it completely to vanquish the bugs, and we now know what happens when hot water meets plastic.

Will you face dire bodily consequences if you refill your water bottle once over the course of the day? I’m no doctor, but probably not. You will, however, be consuming a throwaway (recycle-away?) plastic when you could have sipped from a neverending fount of pure refreshment: a reusable bottle made from stainless steel or glass. Following the BYOB (bring your own bottle) philosophy also means you don’t have to worry about estrogenic anything sneaking into your water, which makes the practice pretty darn hard to beat.

All you have to do is remember to pack it: Store it in your briefcase, set a reminder on your phone, clip it to your pants – whatever it takes to get in the habit. And if you find yourself at another conference sans bottle? You can always get up and go for the fountain. Your legs could probably use a stretch anyway.

Of course, it would be even better if everyone at your conference did the same (I presume you’re not in the bottled-water business, Rick?). In a perfect world, organizers would plan for plastic-free events by providing glassware, selling reusable bottles on-site, or even soliciting a slew of donated bottles to pass out. You might want to put a bug in the ears of your next conference gurus on this subject. You’d be saving boatloads of plastic, and perhaps preventing a few intestinal infections along the way, too.

Steriley,
Umbra


Filed under: Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Four reasons that ice bucket challenge went crazy viral

Mon, 2014-09-01 10:40

At a certain point last week the knowledge that people I knew were dousing themselves with buckets of ice water became inescapable.

Other things that have gone viral this summer include #yesallwomen, a Kickstarter for potato salad, and a donation fund for a police officer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager. How they’ve done this is mysterious — while there are entire ad agencies devoted to “viral advertising” and you can pay your way into the “trending” section of Twitter these days, all of the above seemed to spread without any Machiavellian strategy behind them.

What made the ice bucket challenge stick, when so many other fundraisers and attention-getters haven’t?

A few theories.

1) Say my name

It doesn’t just work for Destiny’s Child! The fact that each person who posted an ice bucket video could call on three other people to take up the challenge turned it into, basically, a chain letter.

Chris Christie challenges Mark Zuckerberg!

Mark Zuckerberg challenges Bill Gates!

Bill Gates challenges Elon Musk and Ryan Seacrest!

And so forth….

2) Exploit social networks.

This is also the secret behind Mary Kay, Amway, and nearly every fundraising campaign on earth. We are social creatures, and we’re absolutely more likely to give to or volunteer for organizations that our friends are involved with already.

The fact that ice bucket challengers could challenge anyone — friend, foe or complete stranger — made it more amusing, but the way the phenomenon spread was through social networks. Facebook’s decision last December to set up video posts so that they played automatically made the whole social aspect of the ice bucket challenge even harder to ignore. Check Facebook and there it was in the background, everywhere — just as hard to ignore as those special people in your life when you encounter them in actual meatspace.

3) Keep it simple, stupid.

In general, fads with real sticking power (hula hooping, frisbee) don’t take much skill to master, while the ones that take real dedication (rollerblading, swing dancing) tend to flash and disappear.

There are very few actions that are more simple than dumping a bucket of ice water over your head. You don’t even have to hold your own bucket. If only the rest of life could be that easy.

In this sense, the ice bucket challenge has a lot in common with other ease-of-adoption do-gooder measures, like 350.org’s International Day of Climate Action (directions: Spell out “350” with something; take a picture of it) and Movember (directions: If you can, grow a mustache).

4) Allow room to get weird.

Part of the reason that the ice bucket challenge took off is that it’s already viral — people have been doing variants of this stunt for years, modifying it to suit their own purposes, before it acquired the perfect combination of qualities that made it go big.

Because it didn’t have a clear, set format, people improvised. Bill Gates designed an ice bucket dumping machine for his. Those concerned about drought turned it into the rice bucket challenge, the dirt bucket challenge, and so forth. Compare this to the very well-intentioned but also very rule-bound video campaign for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. I am sure Al’s lawyers made the Climate Reality Project put all that boilerplate in there, but still — it’s like reading a rental car agreement.

Earlier this month, the ALS Foundation moved to copyright the Ice Bucket Challenge. Whether or not it would have been able to is debatable, but it made the right choice when it ultimately withdrew the effort.  If there’s one thing a virus needs to survive, it’s the ability to keep changing.


Filed under: Article, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Do not buy oceanfront property

Sun, 2014-08-31 11:55

The Canadian couple on my television screen tours a small home on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. The couple, on HGTV’s Beachfront Bargain Hunt, are hoping to buy a vacation home for $300,000 or less — something in a secure neighborhood and with an ocean view. This home looks ideal, with a modern kitchen and infinity pool, the back gate just feet from the ocean.

What’s never mentioned are the piles of sandbags sitting between the back fence and the high-tide line. Does the house flood during storms? During exceptionally high tides? Is the ocean eating away at the land?

Home and garden shows sell dreams, not reality. According to them, anyone can have that perfect kitchen with granite countertops, an open-plan first floor, a master bathroom bigger than most New York City apartments — or a home just steps from the ocean.

The first three may empty your bank account, but the fourth is truly dangerous. Sea level is on the rise. What’s oceanfront this year could soon be sitting in the water. The beach is one of the most reckless places to invest in property.

Despite this, recent home shows have capitalized on people’s fantasies of beach living and encouraged them to buy waterside. They follow the formula of the home-buying genre, in which a couple is shown three or four properties and the drama lies in which one they decide to purchase. The difference is only in location—beach towns in the United States, Caribbean, or sometimes farther afield. Beachfront Bargain Hunt and Buying the Beach are on TV now, and a similar show, Island Hunters, aired over the winter. Like a lot of reality TV, these shows aren’t that realistic. (The archetype of these home-buying shows, House Hunters, certainly isn’t.) And avoiding reality is perilous when it comes to the sea.

Buying a home on the ocean has always been something of a gamble. Hurricanes have wiped whole towns off the map. Beaches and barrier islands have never been permanent structures; instead, they wax and wane and move over time. Measures to fix the land in place, such as seawalls and jetties, may protect a home or beach for a bit, but usually at the cost of someone else’s property.

Buying the Beach actually does a decent job of mentioning some of the dangers of coastal living, such as hurricanes, and how to protect waterfront property with features such as sand dunes or stilts. One episode even highlights the moving of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in response to beach erosion. Incorporating the fact that sea level is rising wouldn’t be out of place.

But discussing sea-level rise means mentioning climate change.

Climate change is altering sea level in a couple of ways. As the oceans soak up heat, the water expands. And when glaciers and ice sheets melt, that water drains into the sea.

Sea levels rose mere inches in the 20th century, but scientists estimate that oceans could rise 2 to 7 feet by 2100. Even 1 foot — possible in some places within the next few decades, or less than the length of a 30-year mortgage — will eat away at beaches and destroy homes. Nuisance flooding has already increased significantly on all U.S. coasts, with no hurricanes or other storms required, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in July.

Just play a bit with Climate Central’s Surging Seas sea-level manipulation map and it’s easy to see why coastal areas might be risky places to invest in. Even a tiny increase puts swaths of beach and waterside land at risk of being drowned.

Many buyers believe that flood insurance will save them from losing on this gamble. On one episode of Buying the Beach, two brothers are looking to purchase a home on the Alabama shore. Daniel wants a place where he can park his boat; Mitch wants one where he can relax on the sand. As they discuss a house on Dauphin Island, Daniel notes that it’s right on the beach. “That’s just another thing that’s got me concerned,” he says, already not happy with the lack of a boat slip. He was right to worry — the barrier island has repeatedly flooded during hurricanes, washing homes out to sea. But Mitch disregards the concern, saying, “Well, that’s what insurance is for.”

How easily he dismisses the potential loss of everything he owns. He seems to think the Federal Emergency Management Agency will just send him a check the day after a disaster to cover everything he lost. After every storm, homeowners quickly learn that this is not the case and that insurance may cover only a fraction of their losses. That’s aside from the question of whether taxpayers should be subsidizing the rebuilding of homes that have a high chance of being damaged again and again.

What’s most disturbing about these shows is that they are aimed at people who are least prepared for the financial consequences of losing a home or investment property. The buyers usually aren’t wealthy; they’re just regular people who’ve been diligently saving for their dream. “We’ve been working for several years, just saving up every penny we can, that way we can afford to buy something on the beach,” says Matt, a young buyer from Colorado, on an episode of Beachfront Bargain Hunt.

Even if their properties don’t end up in the ocean, homeowners may lose money on their investments when enough other people finally begin to comprehend rising sea levels. That could happen within a decade or two, according to some estimates, quickly undermining coastal property values.

Wealthy people are better prepared to withstand the financial blow of the loss or devaluing of a beach house — and they may also be more likely to get government help to protect their investments. A group of high-end homeowners in South Carolina recently persuaded legislators to change a law that banned seawalls, which will let them rebuild their crumbling protection. And an NBC investigation revealed earlier this year that FEMA had moved the lines on flood maps to the benefit of wealthy oceanside landowners. (The FBI is investigating.)

Of course, telling people about reality doesn’t ensure they will make good decisions. On Beachfront Bargain Hunt, a woman from Annapolis, Md., considers properties in Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her real estate agent tells her that one property that has no dune between the back door and the ocean is a “nonconforming home.” That means that if storm damage amounted to more than 50 percent of the house’s value, she would not be able to rebuild. “So I could spend $300,000 on a house and not be able to rebuild and have nothing? … That’s very scary.” Yes, it is.

The agent also notes that the house has been there for 60 years. “It could last another 60 years,” she says. “You never know.” (What the agent doesn’t say is that the water was a lot farther away in the 1960s — the Outer Banks are eroding steadily on the ocean side.)

When it came to making a final decision, “I’m willing to take the risk with it,” the buyer said. “It was everything I wanted. It was really important to have a house on the beach, toes in the sand.” For now, at least, the house still stands.

I wasn’t surprised by the decision. People come to the beach on vacation, in lovely weather. They just don’t realize the extent of the bad storms, said Frank Jennings of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management earlier this year when I was visiting the Outer Banks on a reporting trip with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. A nor’easter was parked just offshore, and one night, 50-mile-per-hour winds scoured my face with sand.

In the past few decades, McMansions have replaced salt-box homes that could have been easily picked up and moved away from the water, Jennings noted. In the past, people “built what you thought you could lose.” That’s not bad advice.

Even with climate change, the beach will still be a great vacation destination. The sun and sand will still be there. Kids will still play in the waves and make sand castles. And nothing will stand between you and a great tan (except a healthy respect for skin cancer). But if you want to ensure you have a stress-free time — maybe you should rent.

This story was produced by Slate as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Do not buy oceanfront property

Sun, 2014-08-31 11:55

The Canadian couple on my television screen tours a small home on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. The couple, on HGTV’s Beachfront Bargain Hunt, are hoping to buy a vacation home for $300,000 or less — something in a secure neighborhood and with an ocean view. This home looks ideal, with a modern kitchen and infinity pool, the back gate just feet from the ocean.

What’s never mentioned are the piles of sandbags sitting between the back fence and the high-tide line. Does the house flood during storms? During exceptionally high tides? Is the ocean eating away at the land?

Home and garden shows sell dreams, not reality. According to them, anyone can have that perfect kitchen with granite countertops, an open-plan first floor, a master bathroom bigger than most New York City apartments — or a home just steps from the ocean.

The first three may empty your bank account, but the fourth is truly dangerous. Sea level is on the rise. What’s oceanfront this year could soon be sitting in the water. The beach is one of the most reckless places to invest in property.

Despite this, recent home shows have capitalized on people’s fantasies of beach living and encouraged them to buy waterside. They follow the formula of the home-buying genre, in which a couple is shown three or four properties and the drama lies in which one they decide to purchase. The difference is only in location—beach towns in the United States, Caribbean, or sometimes farther afield. Beachfront Bargain Hunt and Buying the Beach are on TV now, and a similar show, Island Hunters, aired over the winter. Like a lot of reality TV, these shows aren’t that realistic. (The archetype of these home-buying shows, House Hunters, certainly isn’t.) And avoiding reality is perilous when it comes to the sea.

Buying a home on the ocean has always been something of a gamble. Hurricanes have wiped whole towns off the map. Beaches and barrier islands have never been permanent structures; instead, they wax and wane and move over time. Measures to fix the land in place, such as seawalls and jetties, may protect a home or beach for a bit, but usually at the cost of someone else’s property.

Buying the Beach actually does a decent job of mentioning some of the dangers of coastal living, such as hurricanes, and how to protect waterfront property with features such as sand dunes or stilts. One episode even highlights the moving of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse in response to beach erosion. Incorporating the fact that sea level is rising wouldn’t be out of place.

But discussing sea-level rise means mentioning climate change.

Climate change is altering sea level in a couple of ways. As the oceans soak up heat, the water expands. And when glaciers and ice sheets melt, that water drains into the sea.

Sea levels rose mere inches in the 20th century, but scientists estimate that oceans could rise 2 to 7 feet by 2100. Even 1 foot — possible in some places within the next few decades, or less than the length of a 30-year mortgage — will eat away at beaches and destroy homes. Nuisance flooding has already increased significantly on all U.S. coasts, with no hurricanes or other storms required, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in July.

Just play a bit with Climate Central’s Surging Seas sea-level manipulation map and it’s easy to see why coastal areas might be risky places to invest in. Even a tiny increase puts swaths of beach and waterside land at risk of being drowned.

Many buyers believe that flood insurance will save them from losing on this gamble. On one episode of Buying the Beach, two brothers are looking to purchase a home on the Alabama shore. Daniel wants a place where he can park his boat; Mitch wants one where he can relax on the sand. As they discuss a house on Dauphin Island, Daniel notes that it’s right on the beach. “That’s just another thing that’s got me concerned,” he says, already not happy with the lack of a boat slip. He was right to worry — the barrier island has repeatedly flooded during hurricanes, washing homes out to sea. But Mitch disregards the concern, saying, “Well, that’s what insurance is for.”

How easily he dismisses the potential loss of everything he owns. He seems to think the Federal Emergency Management Agency will just send him a check the day after a disaster to cover everything he lost. After every storm, homeowners quickly learn that this is not the case and that insurance may cover only a fraction of their losses. That’s aside from the question of whether taxpayers should be subsidizing the rebuilding of homes that have a high chance of being damaged again and again.

What’s most disturbing about these shows is that they are aimed at people who are least prepared for the financial consequences of losing a home or investment property. The buyers usually aren’t wealthy; they’re just regular people who’ve been diligently saving for their dream. “We’ve been working for several years, just saving up every penny we can, that way we can afford to buy something on the beach,” says Matt, a young buyer from Colorado, on an episode of Beachfront Bargain Hunt.

Even if their properties don’t end up in the ocean, homeowners may lose money on their investments when enough other people finally begin to comprehend rising sea levels. That could happen within a decade or two, according to some estimates, quickly undermining coastal property values.

Wealthy people are better prepared to withstand the financial blow of the loss or devaluing of a beach house — and they may also be more likely to get government help to protect their investments. A group of high-end homeowners in South Carolina recently persuaded legislators to change a law that banned seawalls, which will let them rebuild their crumbling protection. And an NBC investigation revealed earlier this year that FEMA had moved the lines on flood maps to the benefit of wealthy oceanside landowners. (The FBI is investigating.)

Of course, telling people about reality doesn’t ensure they will make good decisions. On Beachfront Bargain Hunt, a woman from Annapolis, Md., considers properties in Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her real estate agent tells her that one property that has no dune between the back door and the ocean is a “nonconforming home.” That means that if storm damage amounted to more than 50 percent of the house’s value, she would not be able to rebuild. “So I could spend $300,000 on a house and not be able to rebuild and have nothing? … That’s very scary.” Yes, it is.

The agent also notes that the house has been there for 60 years. “It could last another 60 years,” she says. “You never know.” (What the agent doesn’t say is that the water was a lot farther away in the 1960s — the Outer Banks are eroding steadily on the ocean side.)

When it came to making a final decision, “I’m willing to take the risk with it,” the buyer said. “It was everything I wanted. It was really important to have a house on the beach, toes in the sand.” For now, at least, the house still stands.

I wasn’t surprised by the decision. People come to the beach on vacation, in lovely weather. They just don’t realize the extent of the bad storms, said Frank Jennings of the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management earlier this year when I was visiting the Outer Banks on a reporting trip with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. A nor’easter was parked just offshore, and one night, 50-mile-per-hour winds scoured my face with sand.

In the past few decades, McMansions have replaced salt-box homes that could have been easily picked up and moved away from the water, Jennings noted. In the past, people “built what you thought you could lose.” That’s not bad advice.

Even with climate change, the beach will still be a great vacation destination. The sun and sand will still be there. Kids will still play in the waves and make sand castles. And nothing will stand between you and a great tan (except a healthy respect for skin cancer). But if you want to ensure you have a stress-free time — maybe you should rent.

This story was produced by Slate as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Why coal is (still) worse than fracking and cow burps

Sat, 2014-08-30 11:48

Is fracking for natural gas good for the planet?

To understand the pitched fight over this question, you first need to realize that for many years, we’ve been burning huge volumes of coal to get electricity — and coal produces a ton of carbon dioxide, the chief gas behind global warming. Natural gas, by contrast, produces half as much carbon dioxide when it burns, and thus, the fracking boom has been credited with a decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. So far so good, right?

Umm, maybe. Recently on our Inquiring Minds podcast, we heard from Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell University, who contends that it just isn’t that simple. Methane (the main component of natural gas) is also a hard-hitting greenhouse gas, if it somehow finds its way into the atmosphere. And Ingraffea argued that because of high leakage rates of methane from shale gas development, that’s exactly what’s happening. The trouble is that methane has a much greater “global warming potential” than carbon dioxide, meaning that it has a greater “radiative forcing” effect on the climate over a given time period (and especially over shorter time periods). In other words, according to Ingraffea, the CO2 savings from burning natural gas instead of coal is being canceled out by all the methane that leaks into the atmosphere when we’re extracting and transporting that gas. (Escaped methane from natural gas drilling complements other preexisting sources, such as the belching of cows.)

But not every scientist agrees with Ingraffea’s methane-centered argument. In particular, Raymond Pierrehumbert, a geoscientist at the University of Chicago, has prominently argued that carbon dioxide “is in a class by itself” among greenhouse warming pollutants, because unlike methane, its impacts occur over such a dramatic timescale that they are “essentially irreversible.” That’s because of carbon dioxide’s incredibly long-term effect on the climate: Given a large pulse of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, much of it will still be there 10,000 years later. By contrast, even though methane is much more potent than carbon dioxide over a short timeframe, its atmospheric lifetime is only about 12 years.

Applied to the debate over natural gas, that could mean that seeing gas displace coal is a good thing in spite of any concerns about methane leaks.

To hear this counterpoint, we invited Pierrehumbert on Inquiring Minds as well. “You can afford to actually have a little bit of extra warming due to methane if you’re using its a bridge fuel, because the benefit you get from reducing the carbon dioxide emissions stays with you forever, whereas the harm done by methane goes away more or less as soon as you stop using it,” he explained on the show. You can listen to the interview — which is part of a larger show — below, beginning at about 4:40 (or you can leap to it by clicking here):

Pierrehumbert’s arguments are based on a recent paper that he published in the Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Sciences, extensively comparing carbon dioxide with more short-lived climate pollutants, like methane, black carbon, and ozone. The paper basically states that the metric everybody has been using to compare carbon dioxide with methane, the “global warming potential” described by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is deeply misleading.

The IPCC, in its 2013 report, calls global warming potential the “default metric” for comparing the consequences, over a fixed period of time, of emitting the same volume of two different greenhouse gases. And according to the IPCC, using this approach, methane has 84 times the atmospheric effect that an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide does over a period of 20 years. But, it’s crucial to remember that that’s over 20 years; at the end of the period, the carbon dioxide will still be around and the methane won’t. The metric, writes Humbert, is “completely insensitive” to any damages due to global warming that occur beyond a particular time window, “no matter how catastrophic they may be.” Elsewhere, he calls the approach “crude.”

To see why, consider this figure from Pierrehumbert’s paper, comparing the steady emission, over 200 years, of two hypothetical greenhouse gases (the solid blue and red lines). One gas lasts in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, and one that lasts only 10 years. Each has the same “global warming potential” at 100 years, but notice how the short-lived gas’ warming effect vanishes almost as soon as the emissions of it end:

Comparison of two greenhouse gases that have the same “global warming potential” over 100 years but very different lifetimes.

The gases in the figure aren’t carbon dioxide and methane, but you get the point. The upshot, Pierrehumbert argues, is that it is almost always a good idea to cut CO2 emissions — even if doing so results in a temporary increase of methane emissions from leaky fracked wells. As he writes:

… there is little to be gained from early mitigation of the short-lived gas [methane]. In contrast, any delay in mitigation of the long-lived gas ratchets up the warming irreversibly … the situation is rather like saving money for one’s retirement — the earlier one begins saving, the more one’s savings grow by the time of retirement, so the earlier one starts, the easier it is to achieve the goal of a prosperous retirement. Methane mitigation is like trying to stockpile bananas to eat during retirement. Given the short lifetime of bananas, it makes little sense to begin saving them until your retirement date is quite near.

And that, in turn, implies that any displacing of coal with natural gas is a good thing for the climate. It’s just less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, plain and simple.

Ingraffea disagrees. By email, he commented that Pierrehumbert “is correct that the long-term risk to climate is from CO2, but he is willing to accept the almost certain short-term consequences which can only be ameliorated by reductions in methane and black carbon.”

But interestingly, there is one major commonality between Ingraffea’s point of view and that of Pierrehumbert. Namely, both emphasize the importance of getting beyond natural gas, and transitioning to 100 percent clean energy.

Here’s the logic: Because carbon dioxide is so bad for the climate, the fact that natural gas burning does produce some of it (even if not as much as coal) means that if cheap natural gas discourages the use of carbon-free sources like nuclear, solar, or wind energy, then that’s also a huge climate negative. So just as natural gas is not nearly as bad as coal from a carbon perspective, it is also not nearly as good as renewable energy. And that, in turn, means that while natural gas can play a transitional role toward a clean energy future, that role has to be relatively brief.

“It’s useful as a bridge fuel,” says Pierrehumbert, “but if using it as a bridge fuel just drives out renewables and other carbon-free sources of energy, it’s really a bridge to nowhere.”

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

This California bill will make electric cars way less pretentious

Fri, 2014-08-29 23:29

Finally, electric cars are for everybody, and not just the snooty, Prius-driving set: California’s legislature has just passed a first-of-its-kind bill that would up the number of electric cars on the state’s roadways by increasing their availability to disadvantaged and low-income drivers.

The Charge Ahead California Initiative – SB-1275 — sponsored by Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), would put at least a million zero-emission and near-zero-emission cars on California roads by January 2023. Gov. Jerry Brown has until the end of September to sign it.

If passed, the bill would phase out the state’s current clean-vehicle rebate ($2,500 for an electric car) for people who can probably afford a clean car even without help from the government. More than 72,000 California residents have received electric car rebates so far, amounting to more than $151 million, though about four-fifths of the state’s rebates have gone to households earning more than $100K per year.

Instead, SB-1275 would help subsidize clean-vehicles for low-income drivers the Los Angeles Times reports:

A family of four with an annual household income of $53,000 could bundle state incentives toward the purchase of a cleaner vehicle. The family could get $1,500 for retiring a high-polluting vehicle, along with the existing $2,500 rebate for buying an electric car.

Low-income families also could qualify for an additional $3,000 incentive for a clean-air vehicle. The incentive could be even larger for a buyer who lives in a neighborhood with poor air quality.

Alternately, residents could retire an older car, without buying a new one, and get $3,000 to pay for public transit passes or a car-sharing program membership.

Equal access to electric cars? We’re sold.


Filed under: Cities, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Thanks to fracking, there’s something in the water in Pennsylvania

Fri, 2014-08-29 21:31

It’s been a bad, bad summer for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. But arguably, it’s been a much worse summer for the actual citizens of Pennsylvania, because they have been repeatedly and consistently screwed over by an unhappy combination of corporate interests, bureaucratic incompetence, and methane. That’s quite a cocktail of misery — when life gives you a Long Island iced tea, if you will.

The latest development: The DEP has released a list of 243 reports of drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania since the fracking boom first started in 2008. The DEP originally alluded to these incidents of contamination in January, but its specifics have not released until now.

From the Associated Press:

The problems listed in the documents include methane gas contamination, spills of wastewater and other pollutants, and wells that went dry or were otherwise undrinkable. Some of the problems were temporary, but the names of landowners were redacted, so it wasn’t clear if the problems were resolved to their satisfaction. Other complaints are still being investigated.

The most incidences of contamination occurred in northeastern Pennsylvania, but they’re widespread throughout the state.

Last month, Pennsylvania’s auditor general issued a report detailing the extent to which the DEP is ill-equipped to properly regulate and monitor the exploding (no pun intended) natural gas industry in the state.

For the record, finding the actual list of incidents on the DEP website was no easy task. In fact, I ultimately found it through a link from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and then searched backward according to the URL to figure out where it actually was. If you think “Water Supply Determination Letters” is a clear and obvious title for the document containing this list, then you have a subtler mind than I do.

Now that we have 243 pieces of evidence that fracking is, well, not great for the people who have to live near it, can we stop pretending otherwise? Please? Quite frankly, DEP, you can’t really afford any more embarrassment here.


Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Why Idaho is doing french fries right

Fri, 2014-08-29 21:11

Blake Lingle
Boise Fry Company
Boise, Idaho

Let’s face it: The Gem State is really the Potato State, and Americans tend to consume their spuds in the form of french fries. Restaurant Boise Fry Company makes its from predominantly organic potatoes.

Why we chose these fries:

Ninety percent of Boise Fry Company’s potatoes are sourced from within an eight-hour radius of Boise, and 80 percent of their potatoes are organic. Lingle won’t rule out a farmer if he or she lacks the official certification, however: “We usually will try to meet with those farmers to make sure that they’re [growing] the organic way.” Recently, Boise Fry Company started working with ReCab, a local biodiesel-powered cab company, to recycle its french fry oil. The cars bear a “Fueled by Fries” sticker.

The argument for “fries with a burger”:

“I’m from Idaho, but when I was living in D.C., it occurred to me that you never really got to choose your fries — they were always kind of thrust upon you,” Lingle says. “I remember just jotting down in a notebook: Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a restaurant where the fries were choice, and the burgers were the side?”

Click to check out the full map.
Filed under: Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Empty study paves the way for fracking in California

Fri, 2014-08-29 21:10

Well, there you have it, ladies and gents: Fracking’s just fine! A study found no significant evidence to suggest that fracking and similar extraction techniques are harmful to the environment.

Energy companies poised to dig into California’s reserves are breathing a sigh of relief. The findings pave the way for the Bureau of Land Management to resume issuing oil and gas leases on federal land in California next year, following a temporary halt to the practice last year and the defeat of an attempted statewide moratorium on fracking this spring.

But here’s the catch: The study didn’t contain much information.

From the Los Angeles Times:

For example, the report found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in California, but the scientist directing the research, Jane Long, said researchers also had no data on the quality of water near fracking sites.

“We can only tell you what the data we could get says,” said Long, a former director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “We can’t tell you what we don’t know.”

Other unresolved issues, besides “the location, depth and quality of groundwater in oil- and gas-producing regions”: Any information about the toxicity of a third of the chemicals involved in fracking and whether or not plants or animals would be harmed by chronic exposure to those chemicals. Scientists behind the study had asked for more time, but the BLM had a seven-month timetable and wouldn’t budge.

BLM admits that this report doesn’t tell the whole story, and that — don’t worry — there will be more environmental impact studies done. They’ll just be done, you know, “as oil and gas development resumes.” Greeeeeeat.


Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Katrina and Sandy cost over 2,000 lives. Will we do better next time?

Fri, 2014-08-29 18:48

Looking back, nine years ago this week, when Hurricane Katrina landed on the Gulf Coast, making a mockery of the federal levees in the process, the looming question is, What did we learn? We want to know the same about Superstorm Sandy, which struck the East Coast two years ago. Fortunately, there are quite a number of films and documentaries that show and tell the lessons from these tragedies, which collectively claimed over 2,000 lives and caused roughly $170 billion in damage.

Today, you can find the synthesis of those lessons in a new multimedia project called Katrina/Sandy, an interactive web timeline of the disasters. Videos are assembled across a narrative arc that spans from the storms themselves, to the immediate aftermath, through the rebuilding stages, and then landing on questions about the future. It was produced by filmmakers Luisa Dantas, whose Land of Opportunity project has been gathering the stories of New Orleans communities recovering in post-crisis mode over the last eight years; and the Sandy Storyline team of Rachel Falcone and Michael Premo, who’ve both worked with award-winning oral history projects like StoryCorps and EarSay, Inc.

“After Katrina, the world was shocked by the devastation, the inequity, and the government’s incompetent response,” Dantas says. “As documentary media producers, we wondered what we can learn by placing stories and scholarship from Katrina and Sand side-by-side.”

Katrina/Sandy also infuses the work of other documentarians such as Leah Mahan, who produced the Gulf disaster documentary Come Hell or High Water, into the timeline. Photographer Nathan Fitch provides his short film, The Darker Side of Dreamland, where he follows an 81-year-old Coney Island native named Adeline as she goes for weeks without heat or electricity after Superstorm Sandy:

All of the videos focus on people affected in myriad ways by the too-big-to-pass storms, and their struggles in piecing their lives back together.

At the end of the web timeline, the project’s creators ask visitors to share their vision for the future.

For Louisiana, that future looks grim. As reported in this joint project between ProPublica and New Orleans investigative news nonprofit The Lens (an organization where I once worked, and helped start), the state is losing its coast at an alarming rate. Its wetlands, which normally would serve as a natural buffer against storms, are eroding away fast and furiously, thanks to the labyrinth of oil and gas pipelines that run through them. Meanwhile, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimate that Gulf sea levels could rise as much as 4.3 feet by 2100, which could effectively wipe out most of Southeast Louisiana.

New York City and New Jersey face their own challenges.

The challenge now is for coastal cities to find ways to take optimum adaptive and protective measures from future hurricanes and climate change impacts, as Grist’s Greg Hanscom has been reporting. The government officials and planners in charge of those processes might be well-served to watch a few of these Katrina/Sandy videos to guide their work.


Filed under: Article, Cities, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

5 terrifying facts from the leaked U.N. climate report

Fri, 2014-08-29 17:56

How many synonyms for “grim” can I pack into one article? I had to consult the thesaurus: ghastly, horrid, awful, shocking, grisly, gruesome.

This week, a big report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was leaked before publication, and it confirmed, yet again, the grim — dire, frightful — reality the we face if we don’t slash our global greenhouse gas emissions, and slash them fast.

This “Synthesis Report,” to be released in November following a U.N. conference in Copenhagen, is still subject to revision. It is intended to summarize three previous U.N. climate publications and to “provide an integrated view” to the world’s governments of the risks they face from runaway carbon pollution, along with possible policy solutions.

As expected, the document contains a lot of what had already been reported after the three underpinning reports were released at global summits over the past year. It’s a long list of problems: sea-level rise resulting in coastal flooding, crippling heat waves and multidecade droughts, torrential downpours, widespread food shortages, species extinction, pest outbreaks, economic damage, and exacerbated civil conflicts and poverty.

But in general, the 127-page leaked report provides starker language than the previous three, framing the crisis as a series of “irreversible” ecological and economic catastrophes that will occur if swift action is not taken.

Here are five particularly grim — depressing, distressing, upsetting, worrying, unpleasant — takeaways from the report.

1. Our efforts to combat climate change have been grossly inadequate.

The report says that anthropogenic (human-made) greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase from 1970 to 2010, at a pace that ramped up especially quickly between 2000 and 2010. That’s despite some regional action that has sought to limit emissions, including carbon-pricing schemes in Europe. We haven’t done enough, the United Nations says, and we’re already seeing the effects of inaction. “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history,” the report says. “The climate changes that have already occurred have had widespread and consequential impacts on human and natural systems.”

2. Keeping global warming below the internationally agreed upon 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (above pre-industrial levels) is going to be very hard.

To keep warming below this limit, our emissions need to be slashed dramatically. But at current rates, we’ll pump enough greenhouse gas into the atmosphere to sail past that critical level within the next 20 to 30 years, according to the report. We need to emit half as much greenhouse gas for the remainder of this century as we’ve already emitted over the past 250 years. Put simply, that’s going to be difficult — especially when you consider the fact that global emissions are growing, not declining, every year. The report says that to keep temperature increases to 3.6 degrees F, deep emissions cuts of between 40 and 70 percent are needed between 2010 and 2050, with emissions “falling towards zero or below” by 2100.

3. We’ll probably see nearly ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean before mid-century.

The report says that in every warming scenario it the scientists considered, we should expect to see year-round reductions in Arctic sea ice. By 2050, that will likely result in strings of years in which there is the near absence of sea ice in the summer, following a well-established trend. And then there’s Greenland, where glaciers have been retreating since the 1960s — increasingly so after 1993 — because of human-made global warming. The report says we may already be facing a situation in which Greenland’s ice sheet will vanish over the next millennium, contributing up to 23 feet of sea-level rise.

4. Dangerous sea-level rise will very likely impact 70 percent of the world’s coastlines by the end of the century.

The report finds that by 2100, the devastating effects of sea-level rise — including flooding, infrastructure damage, and coastal erosion — will impact the vast majority of the world’s coastlines. That’s not good: Half the world’s population lives within 37 miles of the sea, and three-quarters of all large cities are located on the coast, according to the United Nations. The sea has already risen significantly: From 1901 to 2010, global mean sea level rose by 0.62 feet.

5. Even if we act now, there’s a real risk of “abrupt and irreversible” changes.

The carbon released by burning fossil fuels will stay in the atmosphere and the seas for centuries to come, the report says, even if we completely stop emitting CO2 as soon as possible. That means it’s virtually certain that global mean sea-level rise will continue for many centuries beyond 2100. Without strategies to reduce emissions, the world will see 7.2 degrees F of warming above preindustrial temperatures by the end of the century, condemning us to “substantial species extinction, global and regional food insecurity, [and] consequential constraints on common human activities.”

What’s more, the report indicates that without action, the effects of climate change could be irreversible: “Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

Grim, indeed.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.


Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

Here’s what your Hawaiian vacation will look like in 2050

Fri, 2014-08-29 17:21

Lots of people go to Hawaii for sparkling beaches and misty waterfalls. Get ready for a lot fewer of them: According to a new report on climate change from the University of Hawaii, some of the islands’ beaches will erode by fifty feet or more and others will disappear completely by the middle of the 21st century.

There’ll also be fewer cooling trade winds and forest streams, and the weather will be hotter and drier. Rising sea levels, storm surges, ocean acidification, floods, droughts, and all kinds of awful stuff mean that the Hawaii Tourism Authority had better figure out some good alternatives for its future visitors.

From The Christian Science Monitor:

Increasingly, Hawaii will be faced with the choice of either armoring its shorelines to protect hotels and other buildings and risk losing even more sandy shorelines, or conducting a managed and potentially costly retreat from the coast to maintain healthy sand beaches.

Um, yikes. Here’s what that glossy Hawaiian brochure might look like a few decades from now:

1) Why lounge near the water when you can lounge in the water? Enjoy half-submerged lobbies, floating deck chairs, and a wet bar that’s actually wet. Plus: underwater swimming pool! So meta.

2) Whale watching is way boring (especially if they’re dead). How about front-row seats to a pod of bulldozers dumping load after load of sand in a desperate attempt to keep Waikiki Beach from eroding?

3) No! That isn’t a dry waterfall — it’s a brand-new rock climbing route.

4) Sure, monstrous hurricanes seem dangerous, but they’re also totally hardcore. Surf’s up, dude.

5) Uh, maybe go to Maine instead? (But don’t count on the lobster.)

In the meantime, seriously, Hawaii beachcombers, enjoy it while you got it — sounds like those famous white sands are going the way of the Louisiana coast.


Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy
Categories: Eco Buzz

David Roberts’ top 10 greatest hits

Fri, 2014-08-29 16:52

Grist climate and energy blogger David Roberts is about to return from a year-long sabbatical. So it’s the perfect time to revisit the top 10 posts from his 10 years of writing for Grist.

The medium chill. Roberts describes his efforts to step off the “aspirational treadmill” and accept some material constraints in exchange for a life with more free time, relationships, and experiences. This is the post that ultimately led him to take a year off.

Climate change is simple: We do something or we’re screwed. This is Roberts’ much-loved TEDx talk, with extra insights sprinkled on top.

• The left’s gone left but the right’s gone nuts: Asymmetrical polarization in action. Political polarization has risen sharply in recent years, Roberts writes, but Republicans have moved further to the right than Democrats have moved to the left.

Solar panels could destroy U.S. utilities, according to U.S. utilities. This popular post led to a series that’s a lot more exciting than it sounds: Utilities for dummies.

Climate analysts are from Mars, climate activists are from Venus … but they both live on Earth. Is Keystone XL a smart issue for campaigners to focus on? Roberts weighs in. And he later follows up with: The virtues of being unreasonable on Keystone and What should the climate movement do next?

Post-truth politics. Republicans have realized that their rhetoric doesn’t have to bear any connection to their policy agenda, Roberts says, and that makes it really hard to have sane conversations about issues, let alone craft good policy.

Discount rates: A boring thing you should know about (with otters!). A dry, complex topic is explained with help from wet, cute critters.

Everything you always wanted to know about EPA greenhouse gas regulations, but were afraid to ask. Another dry, complex topic, this time explained with dry, cute critters (bunnies!).

The brutal logic of climate change. Wherein Roberts lays it out like it is. And don’t miss the follow-ups: The brutal logic of climate change mitigation and ‘Brutal logic’ and climate communications.

Hope and fellowship. Is there any hope? Or are we just f*cked? Roberts is less cynical and more hopeful than you might think.

Did we miss your favorite? Call us out for any omissions in comments below.


Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Eco Buzz

Why Hawaii is doing chocolate right

Fri, 2014-08-29 15:59

Dylan Butterbaugh
Manoa Chocolate Hawaii
Kailua, Hawaii

There’s only one state in the country that can create home-grown, bean-to-bar chocolate, and that’s Hawaii. (Thanks, Eisenhower!) With Manoa Chocolate, Butterbaugh is encouraging the development of a cacao industry in Hawaii.

Why we chose these treats:

Butterbaugh sources as many cacao beans — i.e. the seeds used to make chocolate — as he can locally, and most of the farmers Butterbaugh buys from in Hawaii use organic practices. Currently there are not enough cacao producers on Hawaii to meet demand, so Butterbaugh sources supplemental beans from Fair Trade-certified producers overseas — for example, from one in Liberia that’s employing former child soldiers to rehabilitate cacao groves. In time, he sees a future where even more beans are grown locally. “We’re buying everything and farmers are planting more, but we have to wait a few years before [the new] trees are producing cacao,” he says.

Want to become an expert chocolatier? Just YouTube it!

Butterbaugh had no experience with chocolate-making before founding Manoa. “I kept learning by trial and error,” he says. “I watched a lot of YouTube videos. There’s a lot of other chocolate makers out there that have little videos posted of their processes, and machines that they designed.”

Click to check out the full map.
Filed under: Food, Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Girl, let me see that thong (over your mantelpiece)

Fri, 2014-08-29 12:08

A few ideas for things you can do with ugly, unwanted underwear:

  1. Burn them in a voodoo ceremony to banish the ghosts of your past sex life. For the record, this doesn’t work — no matter what kind of incantation you’re using. Trust.
  2. Sell them on Craigslist. WHAT!! Cash is cash!
  3. Turn them into a lovely decorative piece for your parents’ living room.

Sam Saxby, an enterprising, upcycling-minded woman in the U.K., is actively soliciting all of the 5-for-$15 thongs that you’ve accumulated over the course of your post-Bat Mitzvah (hopefully?) life. Let’s be real — no one is buying those at the Goodwill, and you’re frankly kind of rude if you’re donating them. Saxby points out that while some used undergarments are reconstituted into felt, many of them just end up in the landfill.

To cut down on landfill-bound waste, Saxby is stringing these thongs together to make 164 feet of bunting. OK! Because nothing says “welcome to my home” like used panties proudly hung over the mantelpiece. She’s asking for both underwear and a relatively small amount of funds to bankroll the project via Kickstarter.

My only qualm with the whole project is that Saxby refers to thongs as a “’90s fad.” At the risk of oversharing, I refuse to believe that the thong peaked with Sisqo’s infamous ode to it. Have you ever tried to put on a pair of these with some briefs? Please.


Filed under: Living
Categories: Eco Buzz

Booze is proof nature wants us to be happy

Fri, 2014-08-29 10:50

I’d always thought of booze as something that was trying to kill me in the most unnatural way possible. So reading Adam Rogers’ new book Proof: The Science of Booze was like meeting a bully from high school and finding out that he’s really a sweet, misunderstood guy. Rogers shows, again and again, that booze is actually a high form of cooperation between human technology and nature.

I asked the author to meet me at one of his favorite bars and explain how drinking connects us to the natural world. He told me to meet him at Handlebar, a place in Berkeley with a massive wooden bar, muted lighting, and tinkling music. (I’ve edited and condensed our talk.)

Q. I thought I’d just ask you to recommend a drink and tell me all the different ways it links us to the natural world. But you should know: I’ve become a lightweight since I had kids.

A. Maybe we should drink through the process of production. Here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll get a glass of wine — they don’t have grape juice to start with, which is a shame because it’s a good substrate. But wine, then pisco — which is distilled wine. Then brandy from a distillery called Osocalis in the mountains above Santa Cruz, run by a former scientist, very nice guy. And then an old fashioned, which is in some respects a model for the earliest kind of cocktail, because all it is booze, sugar, and bitters.

Q. Is this a historical progression as well?

A. There’s the progress of the way human beings learned to make this stuff. And also the process of one thing turning into another. This also became the organizational structure for the book. It walks you through this process and pivots on the moment a bartender puts something like that brandy in front of someone like you. That moment — to be super hyperbolic about it — is when 20 million years of evolution, 10,000 years of work on fermentation, 2,000 years of work on distillation, all come down to whatever is in that glass in front of you.

When you take a sip, all that history and science and interaction of species gets filtered through your ability to isolate all the other sensory inputs around you and smell and taste and feel what you are drinking. And then, the effect that it has on your body, which is a way we connect to the natural world.

These things in front of us aren’t all made from the same grape, but they are essentially the same thing. If you start with grape juice, that’s the sugar source. You ferment that, give it to yeast; they eat the sugar, excrete carbon dioxide and ethanol, and you end up with this — wine. And that metabolism is actually much more complicated, it produces a lot of other chemicals, too.

Q. Which is what makes wine so fabulous.

A. Exactly. And grapes are eminently suited to that process. There are a lot of molecules in grapes that yeasts are good at putting together. But it’s possible that we just think that because grapes happened to be around in the Fertile Crescent. As one researcher said to me, if we evolved on a Pacific island, it would be coconuts, and grapes would be an afterthought. But grapes are what you get, so you get to taste it. That’s really good.

Q. That does taste good. Wasn’t one of your points that yeast like to live on grape skins, so if you have grapes, you probably have wine?

A. Yeah. It’s hard not to have it ferment. Now, if it’s just ambient microbes in the air, it’s probably not going to taste that good. They’re not the ones that have been tuned over thousands of years to make wine. Same issue with some breads, same issue with sausage, any fermented product.

Fermentation is a natural process — if a grape falls in a forest and no human is there to drink it, it still turns into ethanol. Distillation is different. Distillation is a human technology. It takes smart monkeys with wrinkled frontal cortexes and opposable thumbs. I try to celebrate that in the book: We bring something new. We make stuff. We work with tools better than any other animal.

The story that I like says that distilling grows out of the very beginnings of science in ancient Alexandria. The beginnings of when humans were starting to say, we can think about our universe differently — we can say, I want to understand why something happens, and I can apply a method that will give me answers. That’s really kind of wonderfully hubristic — the idea that we can figure something out.

Q. It’s not just the realm of the gods.

A. Or, another way to think about it is, we can apprehend the realm of the gods. Sure the gods did it, but we can figure it out. Which is beautiful.

So you build a still. It takes 900 years before anyone thinks to put wine in a still, in China, or maybe Russia. But you end up with something like pisco. Pisco is distilled wine — it’s an unaged brandy, it originates from South America.

Q. Hiiiyach! Yow.

A. Yeah, that’s fiery, and there are going to be things behind this bar with a much higher alcohol content. The thing that’s interesting to me is if you take a sip of wine, then take a sip of pisco, you go, oh, OK, there are some similarities.

Q. OK, I have to do this again, because I didn’t get that. It might just be the overwhelming burn.

A. I think at least in the character of the sweetness.

Q. Yeah, I taste that. In the pisco the flavors are more like overtones almost.

A. Pisco is meant to be a pretty rough-hewn spirit. It’s a peasant fire water. And that’s a category of distillates that I love, but they are rough, man. Nobody ever meant them to be sipped, except in a cocktail like the pisco sour.

So you ferment it, then you distill it. Next, you age it.

Q. I see: you have nature doing its biology, then humans coming along and applying technology …

A. … and then an additive technology, that probably comes from just attempting to store it, for trade. You put it in a barrel, and the wood begins to contribute to the flavor. Long about the 1820s, the rules about how much time it needs to stay in a barrel begin to be codified, because there’s a lot of ways to fake that. When cowboys in the old West walked into a bar and ordered a whisky, that was as likely to be a white whisky as it was to have been aged. And the aging just came from the long trip in a barrel from Kentucky to the Nevada Territory.

Q. And white whisky is the equivalent of pisco?

A. Right, white whisky is distilled beer. Everything that comes out of a still is clear; none of the pigments make it over the top. And when you put that clear stuff in a barrel, ethanol, which is a very good solvent, extracts that color from the wood. So you go from a pisco to brandy like this Oscallis.

Ah, it’s really, really nice.

Q. Brandy is pisco with bits of wood in it?

A. At a molecular level, yeah. And in addition to the colors, it’s bringing in all kinds of molecules from the wood. Now, barrel making is its own type of technology. Changing the shape of wood is really hard. If you add heat and steam, wood will become thermoplastic — it will bend. And you have to be able to cut the wood with two different bevels, so that when you bend it and bring these staves together they fit into this barrel shape — it’s like unblooming a flower.

Q. Unblooming — I love that. And it’s watertight.

A. But only if you cut the wood the right way — if you quarter saw the wood. Otherwise, there are pores. You can imagine the experimentation that had to go into figuring out how to do all that. Typically it’s oak, though some Americans are experimenting with other kinds of wood. Hickory lends a kind of barbeque flavor, maple adds some sweetness.

Q. There’s a connection to another species there, the tree.

A. That’s right — and not just the tree, a connection to even more microbes. If you kiln-dry the wood you use to make a barrel, it actually changes the flavor. What wine makers have done for centuries is to use air-dried wood, wood that sits outside and weathers for up to three years. And when that happens, it’s being exposed to a whole suite of other microbes. Nobody has done a lot of good research on what those are. We know you get different flavors, but it’s just a connection to another undiscovered world.

Q. This, by the way, is amazing brandy.

A. He is so good at making brandy. And he’ll say that brandies don’t start coming into their own until they’ve been sitting in a barrel for 20 or 30 years. Because there’s an additional chemical process: Besides the extractives that come out of the barrel — the oak lactones that taste like coconut and lend mouth feel, plus a whole bunch of other chemicals that are still being identified — time contributes its own flavors. Oxygen gets added to the molecules; acids and alcohol molecules combine to form esters. There’s a slow, almost ineffable mixing of chemical processes. People talk about smooth drinking: smoothness is what you get from time.

That brings us to economics. Because, in order to decide to keep a barrel in a warehouse 20 years before selling it, you need credit, and you need real estate, and you need an upper class that can afford it. A whole other kind of civilization has to develop to accommodate a bottle of 18-year old whiskey.

Q. The kind we like to call “advanced” …

A. Hah, I don’t know if it’s advanced or even good, but it’s what we have. And all those steps in this process, I would still argue, are all connections to the natural world.

Sugar is a connection to this particular molecule that nature uses again and again because it’s both structural and contains a lot of energy — an amazing way the universe has organized itself. Yeast is a connection to domesticating the world around us, and how the world around us domesticates us. Distillation is us trying to effect change on that natural world — you have to be able to work with metal, you have to work with heat, you have to understand what steam is — you have to learn a lot about the natural world to make that work. For aging, you have to develop an economy, you have to develop trade, you have to realize that your field full of vines is worth more condensed down to brandy than it is as grapes.

I don’t know what happened to the old fashioned. Perhaps we drank that too? Was that before or after we began talking about and sampling the Chartreuse? Things get hazy here. For any more, you’ll have to read the book.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Booze is proof nature wants us to be happy

Fri, 2014-08-29 10:50

I’d always thought of booze as something that was trying to kill me in the most unnatural way possible. So reading Adam Rogers’ new book Proof: The Science of Booze was like meeting a bully from high school and finding out that he’s really a sweet, misunderstood guy. Rogers shows, again and again, that booze is actually a high form of cooperation between human technology and nature.

I asked the author to meet me at one of his favorite bars and explain how drinking connects us to the natural world. He told me to meet him at Handlebar, a place in Berkeley with a massive wooden bar, muted lighting, and tinkling music. (I’ve edited and condensed our talk.)

Q. I thought I’d just ask you to recommend a drink and tell me all the different ways it links us to the natural world. But you should know: I’ve become a lightweight since I had kids.

A. Maybe we should drink through the process of production. Here’s what we’re going to do: we’ll get a glass of wine — they don’t have grape juice to start with, which is a shame because it’s a good substrate. But wine, then pisco — which is distilled wine. Then brandy from a distillery called Osocalis in the mountains above Santa Cruz, run by a former scientist, very nice guy. And then an Old Fashioned, which is in some respects a model for the earliest kind of cocktail, because all it is booze, sugar, and bitters.

Q. Is this a historical progression as well?

A. There’s the progress of the way human beings learned to make this stuff. And also the process of one thing turning into another. This also became the organizational structure for the book. It walks you through this process and pivots on the moment a bartender puts something like that brandy in front of someone like you. That moment — to be super hyperbolic about it — is when 20 million years of evolution, 10 thousand years of work on fermentation, two thousand years of work on distillation, all come down to whatever is in that glass in front of you.

When you take a sip, all that history and science and interaction of species gets filtered through your ability to isolate all the other sensory inputs around you and smell and taste and feel what you are drinking. And then, the effect that it has on your body, which is a way we connect to the natural world.

These things in front of us aren’t all made from the same grape, but they are essentially the same thing. If you start with grape juice, that’s the sugar source. You ferment that, give it to yeast; they eat the sugar, excrete carbon dioxide and ethanol, and you end up with this — wine. And that metabolism is actually much more complicated, it produces a lot of other chemicals, too.

Q. Which is what makes wine so fabulous.

A. Exactly. And grapes are eminently suited to that process. There are a lot of molecules in grapes that yeasts are good at putting together. But it’s possible that we just think that because grapes happened to be around in the Fertile Crescent. As one researcher said to me, if we evolved on a Pacific island, it would be coconuts, and grapes would be an afterthought. But grapes are what you get, so you get to taste it. That’s really good.

Q. That does taste good. Wasn’t one of your points that yeast like to live on grape skins, so if you have grapes, you probably have wine?

A. Yeah. It’s hard not to have it ferment. Now, if it’s just ambient microbes in the air, it’s probably not going to taste that good. They’re not the ones that have been tuned over thousands of years to make wine. Same issue with some breads, same issue with sausage, any fermented product. 

Fermentation is a natural process — if a grape falls in a forest and no human is there to drink it, it still turns into ethanol. Distillation is different. Distillation is a human technology. It takes smart monkeys with wrinkled frontal cortexes and opposable thumbs. I try to celebrate that in the book: We bring something new. We make stuff. We work with tools better than any other animal.

The story that I like says that distilling grows out of the very beginnings of science in ancient Alexandria. The beginnings of when humans were starting to say, we can think about our universe differently — we can say, I want to understand why something happens, and I can apply a method that will give me answers. That’s really kind of wonderfully hubristic — the idea that we can figure something out.

Q. It’s not just the realm of the gods.

A. Or, another way to think about it is, we can apprehend the realm of the gods. Sure the gods did it, but we can figure it out. Which is beautiful.

So you build a still. It takes 900 years before anyone thinks to put wine in a still, in China, or maybe Russia. But you end up with something like pisco. Pisco is distilled wine — it’s an unaged brandy, it originates from South America.

Q. Hiiiyach! Yow.

A. Yeah, that’s fiery, and there are going to be things behind this bar with a much higher alcohol content. The thing that’s interesting to me is if you take a sip of wine, then take a sip of pisco, you go, oh, okay, there are some similarities.

Q. Okay, I have to do this again, because I didn’t get that. It might just be the overwhelming burn.

A. I think at least in the character of the sweetness.

Q. Yeah, I taste that. In the pisco the flavors are more like overtones almost.

A. Pisco is meant to be a pretty rough-hewn spirit. It’s a peasant fire water. And that’s a category of distillates that I love, but they are rough, man. Nobody ever meant them to be sipped, except in a cocktail like the pisco sour.

So you ferment it, then you distill it. Next, you age it.

Q. I see: you have nature doing its biology, then humans coming along and applying technology…

A. …and then an additive technology, that probably comes from just attempting to store it, for trade. You put it in a barrel, and the wood begins to contribute to the flavor. Long about the 1820s, the rules about how much time it needs to stay in a barrel begin to be codified, because there’s a lot of ways to fake that. When cowboys in the old West walked into a bar and ordered a whisky, that was as likely to be a white whisky as it was to have been aged. And the aging just came from the long trip in a barrel from Kentucky to the Nevada Territory.

Q. And white whisky is the equivalent of pisco?

A. Right, white whisky is distilled beer. Everything that comes out of a still is clear; none of the pigments make it over the top. And when you put that clear stuff in a barrel, ethanol, which is a very good solvent, extracts that color from the wood. So you go from a pisco to brandy like this Oscallis.

Ah, it’s really, really nice.

Q. Brandy is pisco with bits of wood in it?

A. At a molecular level, yeah. And in addition to the colors, it’s bringing in all kinds of molecules from the wood. Now, barrel making is its own type of technology. Changing the shape of wood is really hard. If you add heat and steam, wood will become thermoplastic — it will bend. And you have to be able to cut the wood with two different bevels, so that when you bend it and bring these staves together they fit into this barrel shape — it’s like unblooming a flower.

Q. Unblooming — I love that. And it’s watertight.

A. But only if you cut the wood the right way — if you quarter saw the wood. Otherwise, there are pores. You can imagine the experimentation that had to go into figuring out how to do all that. Typically it’s oak, though some Americans are experimenting with other kinds of wood. Hickory lends a kind of barbeque flavor, maple adds some sweetness.

Q. There’s a connection to another species there, the tree.

A. That’s right — and not just the tree, a connection to even more microbes. If you kiln-dry the wood you use to make a barrel, it actually changes the flavor. What wine makers have done for centuries is to use air-dried wood, wood that sits outside and weathers for up to three years. And when that happens, it’s being exposed to a whole suite of other microbes. Nobody has done a lot of good research on what those are. We know you get different flavors, but it’s just a connection to another undiscovered world.

Q. This, by the way, is amazing brandy.

A. He is so good at making brandy. And he’ll say that brandies don’t start coming into their own until they’ve been sitting in a barrel for 20 or 30 years. Because there’s an additional chemical process: Besides the extractives that come out of the barrel — the oak lactones that taste like coconut and lend mouth feel, plus a whole bunch of other chemicals that are still being identified — time contributes its own flavors. Oxygen gets added to the molecules; acids and alcohol molecules combine to form esters. There’s a slow, almost ineffable mixing of chemical processes. People talk about smooth drinking: smoothness is what you get from time.

That brings us to economics. Because, in order to decide to keep a barrel in a warehouse 20 years before selling it, you need credit, and you need real estate, and you need an upper class that can afford it. A whole other kind of civilization has to develop to accommodate a bottle of 18-year old whiskey.

Q. The kind we like to call “advanced”…

A. Hah, I don’t know if it’s advanced or even good, but it’s what we have. And all those steps in this process, I would still argue, are all connections to the natural world.

Sugar is a connection to this particular molecule that nature uses again and again because it’s both structural and contains a lot of energy — an amazing way the universe has organized itself. Yeast is a connection to domesticating the world around us, and how the world around us domesticates us. Distillation is us trying to effect change on that natural world — you have to be able to work with metal, you have to work with heat, you have to understand what steam is — you have to learn a lot about the natural world to make that work. For aging, you have to develop an economy, you have to develop trade, you have to realize that your field full of vines is worth more condensed down to brandy than it is as grapes.

I don’t know what happened to the Old Fashioned. Perhaps we drank that too? Was that before or after we began talking about and sampling the Chartreuse? Things get hazy here. For any more, you’ll have to read the book.


Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food
Categories: Eco Buzz

Architecture for the people, by the people

Fri, 2014-08-29 10:04

Kids today — they may not have much in the way of job opportunities, but, as all those resume-padding trips to build Guatemalan orphanages attest, they’ve got plenty of idealism. Still, as architect Steve Badanes points out, it’s all too easy to “walk past a guy living in a box on the way to the airport to save the planet.”

Enter community architecture, a process designed to connect architecture students with the people and communities around them — and bring good design to problems, people, and places that wouldn’t be able to afford the high-priced field without it.

Community architecture programs are a variation on the design/build model in which students develop designs in consultation with clients and then provide the hands-on labor to turn their own plans into reality. It’s a notable departure from old-school architectural programs where students spend their lives in studio classrooms drafting and building models, and are evaluated on aesthetics, rather than considerations like livability and sustainability.

Badanes teaches community architecture at the University of Washington, but programs exist across the country, from Texas to Kansas to Yale. The granddaddy of all design/build programs is the Rural Studio, at Alabama’s Auburn University, where two decades’ worth of undergraduates have built everything from homes to parks to community centers in impoverished Hale County.

Badanes used to take students to Mexico for projects, but quickly came to realize that staying in Seattle was a much more potent way to connect students with people who needed their help. Many of the interventions Badanes has led are fairly small-scale: Sheds and barns for urban farms, play areas in parks and schools, and the ever-popular bus shelter have all made multiple appearances.

They may not be providing housing for millions, but such projects have a significant impact on the host communities, most of which can’t afford quality design solutions.

In one of the Rural Studio’s better-known projects, for example, students built a one-room, non-denominational chapel with an undulating glass skin — made entirely of discarded car windshields. The ingenious design not only repurposes what would otherwise be landfill, but it also gives residents a dignified and beautiful spot to pray and to serve meals to children throughout the summer; the chapel is inside the community center, which also includes a mobile library and a mobile health center.

Design/build programs also take on questions of sustainability in architecture — and not only in the narrow, environmental sense. As Badanes describes, though his students utilize sustainable materials and technologies like rain catchment, the most crucial step toward truly sustainable work is in the project selection phase — which is to say, it’s important to design something that’s actually needed, rather than something that simply looks cool. Many projects might sound interesting or feasible on paper but lack a coherent plan for maintenance after completion — not a typical architectural consideration, but one that’s necessary for genuine sustainability.

Andrew Freear, director of the Rural Studio, echoes the point: He believes in remaking existing buildings “to reinforce those buildings’ importance to the collective memory of the community” — using fewer materials and less energy than new construction, certainly, but also strengthening the bonds between people and place, and revitalizing what’s already there, rather than starting from scratch.

Students, too, come away from their experience with a different notion of community and collaboration than most. Not only do they gain experience in working with classmates as a team, with much more than just a grade on the line, but they also interact with stakeholders ranging from low-income clients to city or county officials and the many local businesses supplying materials or other support to the project.

Prior to teaching, Badanes was a member of the Jersey Devil architecture group, a “band of gypsies living in trailers” who designed and built avant-garde works for paying clients, and in our interview he was quick to point out that in architectural practice outside of the academy, design/build work “is not necessarily associated with altruistic causes.”

Even the Rural Studio readily admits that most of its students don’t continue their altruistic trajectory: “The majority of our graduates follow a typical professional path simply because those jobs exist,” Freear told me.

One organization, San Francisco-based Public Architecture aims to change that. It asks conventional architecture firms to donate one percent of their design services to public-service projects. It’s based on a similar structure in law, wherein major legal firms give one percent of their time to pro bono work.

Public Architecture has engaged brand-name design practices alongside institutional stakeholders as powerful as the University of Texas in projects ranging from parks to housing to (once again) bus shelters. In San Francisco’s well-trodden Castro district, Public Architecture led the design of a pedestrian plaza which recaptured some of the streetscape for pedestrian use, a move that has proven enormously popular with both tourists and residents, and which the organization sees as part of a larger, nationwide effort to make cityscapes less car-centric and more focused on people.

John Peterson, founder of Public Architecture, speaks of his efforts as a “multi-generational game” to transform mainstream architectural practice. Previous generations thought of social responsibility as something that “muddied the clarity” of design; architecture was seen as a form of art, not public service, he says.

Questions of social responsibility in architecture have a long history of dialog and discussion, however — and if professors like Steve Badanes have anything to say about it, Millennial-generation architects just might be the ones to push these ideas out into the world. Students who go through design/build programs enter their careers not just hungry to make a difference, but empowered by their experience of already having done so.


Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities
Categories: Eco Buzz

Architecture for the people, by the people

Fri, 2014-08-29 10:04

Kids today — they may not have much in the way of job opportunities, but, as all those resume-padding trips to build Guatemalan orphanages attest, they’ve got plenty of idealism. Still, as architect Steve Badanes points out, it’s all too easy to “walk past a guy living in a box on the way to the airport to save the planet.”

Enter community architecture, a process designed to connect architecture students with the people and communities around them — and bring good design to problems, people, and places that wouldn’t be able to afford the high-priced field without it.

Community architecture programs are a variation on the design/build model in which students develop designs in consultation with clients and then provide the hands-on labor to turn their own plans into reality. It’s a notable departure from old-school architectural programs where students spend their lives in studio classrooms drafting and building models, and are evaluated on aesthetics, rather than considerations like livability and sustainability.

Badanes teaches community architecture at the University of Washington, but programs exist across the country, from Texas to Kansas to Yale. The granddaddy of all design/build programs is the Rural Studio, at Alabama’s Auburn University, where two decades’ worth of undergraduates have built everything from homes to parks to community centers in impoverished Hale County.

Badanes used to take students to Mexico for projects, but quickly came to realize that staying in Seattle was a much more potent way to connect students with people who needed their help. Many of the interventions Badanes has led are fairly small-scale: Sheds and barns for urban farms, play areas in parks and schools, and the ever-popular bus shelter have all made multiple appearances.

They may not be providing housing for millions, but such projects have a significant impact on the host communities, most of which can’t afford quality design solutions.

In one of the Rural Studio’s better-known projects, for example, students built a one-room, non-denominational chapel with an undulating glass skin — made entirely of discarded car windshields. The ingenious design not only repurposes what would otherwise be landfill, but it also gives residents a dignified and beautiful spot to pray and to serve meals to children throughout the summer; the chapel is inside the community center, which also includes a mobile library and a mobile health center.

Tim Hursley

Design/build programs also take on questions of sustainability in architecture — and not only in the narrow, environmental sense. As Badanes describes, though his students utilize sustainable materials and technologies like rain catchment, the most crucial step toward truly sustainable work is in the project selection phase — which is to say, it’s important to design something that’s actually needed, rather than something that simply looks cool. Many projects might sound interesting or feasible on paper but lack a coherent plan for maintenance after completion — not a typical architectural consideration, but one that’s necessary for genuine sustainability.

Andrew Freear, director of the Rural Studio, echoes the point: He believes in remaking existing buildings “to reinforce those buildings’ importance to the collective memory of the community” — using fewer materials and less energy than new construction, certainly, but also strengthening the bonds between people and place, and revitalizing what’s already there, rather than starting from scratch.

Students, too, come away from their experience with a different notion of community and collaboration than most. Not only do they gain experience in working with classmates as a team, with much more than just a grade on the line, but they also interact with stakeholders ranging from low-income clients to city or county officials and the many local businesses supplying materials or other support to the project.

Prior to teaching, Badanes was a member of the Jersey Devil architecture group, a “band of gypsies living in trailers” who designed and built avant-garde works for paying clients, and in our interview he was quick to point out that in architectural practice outside of the academy, design/build work “is not necessarily associated with altruistic causes.”

Even the Rural Studio readily admits that most of its students don’t continue their altruistic trajectory: “The majority of our graduates follow a typical professional path simply because those jobs exist,” Freear told me.

One organization, San Francisco-based Public Architecture aims to change that. It asks conventional architecture firms to donate one percent of their design services to public-service projects. It’s based on a similar structure in law, wherein major legal firms give one percent of their time to pro bono work.

Public Architecture has engaged brand-name design practices alongside institutional stakeholders as powerful as the University of Texas in projects ranging from parks to housing to (once again) bus shelters. In San Francisco’s well-trodden Castro district, Public Architecture led the design of a pedestrian plaza which recaptured some of the streetscape for pedestrian use, a move that has proven enormously popular with both tourists and residents, and which the organization sees as part of a larger, nationwide effort to make cityscapes less car-centric and more focused on people. Here’s a short video from StreetFilms on the project:

John Peterson, founder of Public Architecture, speaks of his efforts as a “multi-generational game” to transform mainstream architectural practice. Previous generations thought of social responsibility as something that “muddied the clarity” of design; architecture was seen as a form of art, not public service, he says.

Questions of social responsibility in architecture have a long history of dialog and discussion, however — and if professors like Steve Badanes have anything to say about it, Millennial-generation architects just might be the ones to push these ideas out into the world. Students who go through design/build programs enter their careers not just hungry to make a difference, but empowered by their experience of already having done so.


Filed under: Business & Technology, Cities
Categories: Eco Buzz