Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tackling Obesity One Step at a Time

Obesity has steadily become a significant problem in modern society, especially in the United States. Note that it is clear obesity is a growing problem even without resorting to statistics which is good because the BMI stat which typically drives obesity identification is flawed in its inability to differentiate between fat weight and muscle weight. While there are a number of reasons postulated for this rampant increase in over-weight individuals, the most disconcerting issue is despite the existence of viable solutions obesity rates continue to climb. It is rational to conclude that there are two chief elements behind this continued expansion of obesity.

The first element involves the psychological reality that most people shy away from the physical exertion required to stay fit. Sadly for these individuals biochemistry has not advanced to the point where weight can be selectively and effectively controlled by simply taking some drug. Even common surgical options like lap bands and gastro-bypass surgeries have not stemmed the problems and have caused there own set of problems. The only proven methodology to avoid becoming obese is proper diet and exercise; however, these elements especially the latter demand effort and time. Note that while there is mounting evidence to suggest the involvement of stomach bacteria in calorie absorption and its role in increasing weight, this research is still in its infancy and has not yielded any therapeutic strategy, thus it is useless to scapegoat obesity with stomach bacteria.

The second element involves proper direction. Unfortunately capitalism has provided an unnecessary obstacle in preventing obesity in that the social environment has been flooded with strategies for dieting and weight control that run the gamut from eating almost nothing but carbohydrates to eating almost no carbohydrates. Most of these various strategies have only a small level of biochemical backing and instead are pushed in effort to make money for the individuals sponsoring or backing the particular diet methodology. The lack of clarity in most of these plans leads to ‘higher than should-be’ failure rates which foster greater frustration in those that fail reducing the probability that they invest their time, money and psyche in future attempts at weight loss.

Another problem related to this second element is availability. More often than is realized even if an individual would prefer to eat healthy food, that food is either supply unavailable or economically unavailable. One of the most noted issues is that of ‘food deserts’, regions (rural or urban) which lack a variety of food selection largely because of a lack of supermarkets or farmer’s markets. While there have been some noteworthy start-up efforts to address this issue, the problem of food deserts seems too large for small entrepreneur-driven individuals to solve without government assistance. If individuals want to get serious about dealing with food deserts and even domestic hunger then state governments need to conduct audits in their states to identify where these deserts are and how to divert food items from more plentiful regions.

Returning to the first element one would inherently think that pride should be a driving element in warding off obesity, but there is evidence to suggest that a number of individuals who are obese or even just over-weight do not view their weight as a problem.1 In those periods when they are concerned the concern tends to manifest as disgust rather than an affront to pride; this disgust can lead to rash short-term crash dieting instead of long-term change in behavior, which commonly results in long-term failure. However, if weight is not viewed as a problem any form of self-motivation to address weight becomes less likely including issues surrounding overall health and physical well-being, thus such a reality demands a secondary strategy. For most a form of familial intervention is also not a likely option based on this same psychological premise. With these two effective options no longer available a new incentive must be provide to drive motivation to live a healthier life.

The best form of incentive is typically some form of monetary award. Unfortunately indirect or future awards, largely those that can be calculated from healthy behavior, do not motivate effectively. The uncertainty of the future forces probabilistic arguments instead of direct yes/no arguments. For example one can make the rational argument that eating a certain assortment of food may reduce the probability of acquiring cancer by x%, but most people want a more definitive response, ‘if food x is eaten then I will or will not get cancer’.

Another problem is the incompatibility with probability figures in a deterministic reality. Getting cancer is a deterministic yes/no issue, so one seems to save the same amount regardless of what their personal cancer percentage turns out to be. Basically one does not receive more money for a lower cancer percentage, just a greater probability of receiving any money (through savings by not having to treat the cancer); this concept is rather confusing and further makes it difficult to see the benefit from a financial perspective. Finally the fact that this savings occurs over the course of a lifetime and not in an immediate lump-sum further reduces its usefulness as an incentive. Note that when does a lottery winner ever take the lifetime annuity option over the lump-sum option? With these incompatibilities with typical human psychology it is not difficult to understand why people still have difficulties undertaking healthy actions even when the resources to facilitate them are available.

With the ineffectiveness of arguing ‘you should do this because it will reduce your probability of getting cancer, macrodegeneration, osteoporosis, etc.’ a more direct incentive is required. Typically most argue that the most effective incentive is cash. Not only is the distribution of cash immediate, but it is also flexible. However, that flexibility is also a problem. Most people would like to assume that individuals would use capital in an effective manner that most helps their existence, but if such a contention were true a vast majority of the people that are in debt would not be in debt. The inability to predict what an individual will do with a monetary award creates inherent complexity with such an incentive program, especially when individuals have a wide variety of resources available from which to select. For example it is easier to predict what a person in Somalia will do with 30 dollars than a person in the United States. Therefore, distributing cash in any type of incentive program with the single target goal of improving societal physical health through weight loss seems inefficient.

With the elimination of cash as a possible option, the award mechanism for incentive will most likely take the form of a ‘gift’ card. However, to ensure a restricted flexibility, the ‘gift’ card would only be useable at certain retailers. In fact if one were willing the best possibility would be to establish a retailer designed specifically for interaction with these ‘gift’ cards. By establishing a specific retailer, the government can control the role of supply and production. For example if so desired the supply of merchandize could only include items that are manufactured in the U.S. by U.S. companies. The interaction medium for this retailer(s) must include both an online and an off-line component because not everyone who would take advantage of the program would have online access. The off-line component can be something as simple as mail order involving the U.S. Post Office.

Now that the general incentive agent has been established, the next element is how the individual would acquire this incentive. The overall goal of this program is to stem and hopefully in time reverse the growing rate of obesity in the U.S. The hope is that eventually the program would pay for itself by reducing the amount of money spent in healthcare by increasing overall societal health. The spending reduction should be seen in both Medicare payouts and private insurance payouts as well as through increased tax revenues by increasing production through reduction of sick days and other health related circumstances that lead to missed or unproductive work days. There are two chief elements that influence overall health which can be affected at a reasonable certainty and level of effort, food consumption and exercise. Due to the reward element of this program as well as lingering consistency questions involving the availability of food supplies, using exercise as the defining element seems to make more sense.

One may argue that exercise in a vacuum is not an appropriate strategy to drive good overall health. On its face this opposition is understandable, but there is value in exercise regardless of food consumption on two levels. First, the obvious benefit is that any amount of exercise can neutralize some of the ill effects from improper eating. Second, the less obvious benefit is biological memory. While still in its infancy there are theories which suggest that individuals who frequently exercise have a higher level of something (maybe fat-burning enzyme activity), even beyond simple muscle mass correlations, which control weight gain. On a related side note it is possible that this theory and the role of stomach bacteria may be associated with each other in that greater exercise increases efficiency of energy use, which decreases the demand to absorb calories which selects for stomach bacteria that absorb fewer calories. Thus the more exercise an individual performs the better his/her body is able to control weight even while resting. Finally the application of exercise is important because something needs to be done to address the overall weight problem.

If exercise will be the evaluation medium what method will be used for the evaluation? In the past such a program would commonly demand a participating individual to travel to a specific location, a special gym for example, where activity could be tracked by volunteers. However, computers have eliminated this change of venue demand where more simple aspects of exercise such as distance traveled, rpms, heart rate, etc. can be measured, tracked and saved where ever the device is being used. Not having to travel should significantly increase the probability of both participation in the program and continuation with the program. The requirement of this vital stat information demands the use of some form of machine. The machine in question needs to be simple while also involving a methodology that allows for ample heart rate increase. In effort to limit stress on the body it seems that an elliptical machine would be superior to a treadmill.

The elliptical machine used in this program would be specially designed with a microchip that documents the use of the device and would be used to determine rewards. The rules governing the payout need to be transparent and clearly stated. Three salient factors would demand a clear fixed unambiguous incentive price, an age limit and personal identification. The following is one possible example describing the use of the device:

Acquisition of the device is dependent on receiving a physical from a participating physician. The reason for this element is that it would be unfair to set a standard baseline on the device without taking into consideration the current physical health of the participant. For example to hold someone that is 350 pounds to the same exercise demand as a 185 pound individual is counter productive. The standard of measurement will use a rpm floor and because of the potential volume of participants there needs to be a ceiling on how much exercise will be counted towards the overall program over a given time period. The ceiling is required to control the total cost of the program as well as protect individuals from overzealous exercising which would be detrimental to overall health in attempt to acquire more monetary rewards. The machine should visually and audibly inform the user when this limit is reached and should reset at 12:00 am each day. One possibility for the limit would be 45 minutes at or above the rpm floor in a 24 hr period. One point of discussion would be whether the individual would have to maintain the appropriate speed at or above the price floor for the entire 60 seconds or if just the average rpm over that 60 second period would have to be at or above the rpm floor to be given credit for 1 minutes of exercise under the incentive program.

The rpm floor is designed to ensure appropriate benefit from the exercise so the monetary incentives awarded are driving the accomplishment of the overall goal. Basically one should have to actually physically push his/her body for the time spent exercising to count towards incentive, no ‘dogging it’; otherwise the entire point of the incentive program is meaningless because once again it only resorts to an individual’s pride as the driving factor and as stated that strategy is clearly not working. Establishing the correct rpm floor is one of the principle reasons a physical is required before an individual can acquire this device. Pursuant to this rpm floor the device will have a kill-switch after some amount of time (10-12 months) where an individual will have to have another physical in order to recalibrate the floor. As inefficient as it would be to expect a 350 pound individual to meet the rpm requirements assigned to a 185 pound individual, the same goes for an individual that was once 350 pound continuing to meet that rpm requirement even though he/she now only weighs 290 pounds.

The incentive price should be tied directly to the total minutes exercised at or above the specific assigned rpm floor. Initial blind thought sets an incentive price of 2 cents per minute. This rate would establish a reward of 90 cents a day and $328.50 a year. Some may argue on its face that such an incentive is too small to facilitate meaningful exercise. The counterargument is that the overall level of work required to acquire these funds is so insignificant that the seemingly small value can be viewed as appropriate. For example because the device is at the participant’s home there is an improved probability of multi-tasking in that one could be exercising and watching television, reading a book, listening to music or even having a conversation. The primary reason for establishing a meager value is concern regarding the sheer volume potential of the program. Suppose 200 million elect to participate in this program and hit 50% of their total potential as a group, such a scenario would result in 32.85 billion dollars in incentives per year.

Finally each individual should have a specific ID code that recognizes that individual, especially if only one elliptical device is distributed per household. One could argue that there could be unscrupulous behavior regarding this ID code where a healthier individual could exercise at an easier rpm floor. While true, a ‘safety measure’ could be established where if an individual did not noticeably improve while in the program after two physicals that individual would be blacklisted from the program permanently.

Overall while the idea presented above still have some more specific details to flesh-out, it is obvious that something needs to be done about the growing weight problem in the U.S. and individual pride clearly is not enough of a driving factor.

--
1. Powell, T, et, Al. “Body Size Misperception: A Novel Determinant in the Obesity Epidemic.” Arch Intern Med. 2010; 170(18): 1695-1697.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Brief Introduction to Low-Level Ozone

Somewhat hidden among the concern regarding greenhouse gases and global warming is the steady increase in tropospheric ozone concentration. The increase in this low-level ozone (recall that the traditional ozone layer is located much higher in the atmosphere at the stratosphere) comes indirectly from most of the pollutants that are driving global warming. Typically sunlight reacts with hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides forming ozone and other products. Since increased concentrations of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are being released into the atmosphere ozone concentrations are increasing as well. The funny thing about this change in ozone concentration is the disparity in the reaction it receives. Most, even those that are aware of global warming, do not realize and/or care that low-level ozone is increasing and the potential danger it poses; however, some that are aware of it tend to completely and utterly overreact believing that the increasing ozone is in some way worse than global warming as a whole.

One important reason that ozone poses such a threat, beyond the obvious ‘it is toxic to various life forms’, is that the lifecycle of low tropospheric ozone tends to peak during the growing season due to the requirement of sunlight to drive the formation of new ozone from various pollutants. Although ozone concentrations peak during the growing season the overall concentration relative to the last year is still typically higher. The best way to understand how ozone concentrations are increasing is to visualize an oscillatory curve with a positive slope, a monthly x-axis, a peak for a given cycle during the growing season (May-September) and a trough during the Winter months (December-March) similar to the below figure. Note that the below figure is only designed to illustrate the pattern of ozone increase not to demonstrate any specific concentration change.

While it is true that increasing levels of tropospheric ozone damages various crops the scope of this damage is important to consider. For example a recent report out by NASA concluded that almost 2 billion dollars worth of damage to this year’s soybean crop could be attributed to tropospheric ozone.1 Following certain crops like soybean and tobacco is relevant because these crops, for currently undetermined reasons, have a greater level of sensitivity to ozone than other crops like corn and sorghum.

On its face 2 billion dollars may seem like a lot of money, and it is, but when one takes into consideration that the total value of the U.S. soybean crop over the last few years has been over 27 billion dollars,2 the severity of the situation loses momentum. In addition even though ozone pollution has increased over the last decade, soybean crops have also increased both in yield and monetary value. These realities demonstrate the importance of properly accessing the overall damage. Simply put to worry about ozone pollution over global warming is inappropriate.

With that said to assume that the damage potential of ozone pollution will remain static or only increase insignificantly over time is also inappropriate. Fortunately for all parties the simplest way to derail any potential significant problem with ozone pollution is the same strategy to prevent further environmental damage through global warming, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately with the current political climate in the United States the probability that these reductions proceed at a timely pace is highly improbable. Some have suggested that including the dangers of ozone and its wide toxic breadth in the discussion of the threat provided by excess carbon emissions would facilitate greater urgency, but such a contention seems far-fetched.

The problem is that including ozone in the problems catalyzed by carbon emissions is similar to suggesting to an individual that they are going to be decapitated, set on fire, injected with cyanide and pierced through the heart instead of just decapitated, injected with cyanide and pierced through the heart, either way the person is going to die; adding one additional method is meaningless. Thus, with limited ability for action through reducing the source of the problem once again society must look towards technology to provide a means to stem the tide until more permanent action can be taken.

Under natural processes most ozone is eliminated in one of two ways. First, the ozone reacts with nitric oxides or hydrocarbons like aldehydes in the atmosphere. Normally the interacting agent is a nitric oxide creating a hydroxyl free radical that typically leads to the formation of peroxyacyl nitrates. Second, the ozone drops out of the air and is grounded to typically be absorbed by nearby fauna or soil. At lower concentrations this absorption is rather meaningless because the absorbing structure has sufficient recovery time; however, at higher concentrations absorption occurs at a higher turnover reducing the ability of the absorbing structure to recover. A general review regarding the general chemistry of tropospheric ozone can be found here.

Developing a device that would collect and store ozone from the atmosphere for later ground-based neutralization has a theoretically high level of application difficulty. Therefore, the best strategy may be to neutralize the ozone in the air itself. While such a statement may also seem to be quite difficult, there may be a simple work-a-round by tapping into a previously detrimental element. The Montreal Protocol was one of the most successful international treaties ever heavily limiting the utilization of and eventual release of Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the upper atmosphere to prevent further ozone layer degradation. The reason CFCs were so destructive to the ozone layer is that they chemically react as a free radical catalysis, which allows a single CFC molecule to dissociate thousands of ozone molecules, eventually forming one O- free radical and one molecule of oxygen. What if a device could be designed to utilize CFCs in a controlled fashion to facilitate the dissociation of low atmosphere ozone?

To begin the development of such a device a few important points need to be considered. First, it would be best if this device operated at worst with a trace emission power supply and at best produced no emissions in its operation. The reason for this objective is rather obvious because if the device produces air pollutants through the combustion of fossil fuels there is a high probability that it will end up producing more ozone than removing. Second, a further understanding of how CFCs react with ozone must be discussed to ensure an efficient and effective ozone interaction design is created.

When CFCs react with ozone the entire chemical reaction proceeds in 3 steps. The first reaction involves stripping the CFC molecule of one chloride ion after the CFC molecule is struck by UV radiation. The second reaction occurs between the newly freed chloride ion and ozone forming chlorine oxide and oxygen. The third reaction reforms the chloride ion through the reaction of the chlorine oxide molecule and free radical oxygen recreating another chloride ion and oxygen. The general treatment of the chloride ion as a destructive catalyst of ozone is one of the reasons why CFCs were so destructive to the stratospheric ozone layer.

Looking at the reaction scheme the important element to CFCs driven ozone destruction is the chloride ion. Therefore, actually utilizing CFCs is not necessary, instead only chloride ions are required. Due to the catalytic nature of these chloride ions relative to ozone molecules it is important to avoid directly releasing them into the atmosphere where they could migrate to higher altitudes and cause damage to stratospheric ozone. So the idea is to keep the chloride ions in an isolated environment away from the general atmosphere, but available to react with low atmospheric ozone. One means to accomplish this goal is to construct a blimp, which can move through the low atmosphere and carry a chloride ion storage methodology.

A number of storage possibilities exist for the chloride ions. For example one method would involve creating a ‘wind tunnel’ where air could pass through a portion of the blimp in only one direction. In this ‘wind tunnel’ one could place a number of gas-permeable membranes doped with chloride ions which theoretically could react with ozone in the air stream as it passes through the ‘wind tunnel’ converting the ozone to oxygen. Testing would have to be done to see if the formation of the chlorine oxide intermediate would dislodge it from the membrane, but if the doping was appropriate this concern should be minute.

Although more exotic methods could involve a spinning drum method using liquid chloride which would flow down with gravity, the problem with this particular methodology is that if the device was damaged liquid chloride would prove to be more detrimental if it make contact with anything. Overall, regardless of the design, technological ideas to address increasing low atmospheric ozone concentrations need to be theorized and small-scale tests need to be put into the field. At a future time this concept will be investigated further on this blog.

--
1. http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.rss.html?pid=28288

2. http://www.soystats.com/2009/page_11.htm

Friday, December 3, 2010

Taking a Step Back in Education Reform

The education reform movement has existed for decades and yet when using the trend in national test scores for 8th and 12th graders vs. their international peers as an evaluation tool the movement has been a failure. Ignoring the irony of using these particular test scores to evaluate the education reform movement, the movement seems unaffected by this reality and continues to plow ahead blaming any ‘failure’ on bad teachers and inflexible unions that they claim are destroying any reasonable chance to educate the nation’s children. Sadly the very methodology of the education reform movement is more to blame for their failure than any teacher’s union, yet a sense of groupthink and cognitive dissidence has allowed that flawed methodology to continue unabated. So before any real widespread education reform can occur, the flaws must be removed from the rationalities used by education reformers.

The chief flaw facilitating the existence of all of the remaining flaws is that ‘problems’ in schools are typically judged on a relative level over an absolute level. What does this mean? Starting off with a question: why do most people believe the education system is broken? That belief typically springs from the simple comparison that international students perform better on a series of tests than U.S. students. If the current education system were exactly the same with the only difference being that U.S. students performed better than students from all other countries would there be any significant outcry regarding a ‘Crisis in Education’… it would be highly doubtful. Unfortunately this competitive comparison attitude also impacts the reform movement.

Most members of the reform movement do not look at specific education elements as problems because they are ineffective on an absolute level, but instead because they are not similar to what a foreign country may do. Basically x is a problem not because it has been determined that it detracts from the educational experience, but because country x does not do it and country x scores higher on international tests than the U.S. One may question the problem behind a strategy that involves copying elements from successful education environments to replace elements in less successful education environments. What is bad about replacing supposedly ineffective educational strategies with test supported more efficient strategies?

There are some significant concerns with this mindset. The most important element is that students are not static interchangeable parts, different methodologies work differently at educating different students. Ironically this chameleon element is frequently cited as a trait for quality teachers, yet while the teachers are supposed to be chameleons most reformers seem to believe that the education structure in which they work should be static and one-size fits all. A second problem also relates to the question of similarity. One cannot simply plug in a solution without determining how that change will affect other elements of the education environment.

Therefore, effective school reform must come from examination of whether or not an element works or even if it is necessary for a particular school. Thus, more incentive needs to be placed at the local level to identify these problems in an accurate and objective manner. Some might argue that such an ideal was embedded in ‘Race to the Top’, but the evaluation method applied to judge ‘Race to the Top’ applications seems to demonstrate that no in-depth ‘problem’-‘solution’ linkage was required. Without first having significant analysis of problems, generating effective solutions is difficult and instead one is left with generic broad solution suggestions that look great on paper, but their ability to actually solve the problem is unknown because they are not formulated to address a given problem in a specific situation. The educational reform movement is so intent on finding national solutions to the perceived education crisis that they will more than likely continue to make limited progress.

Scapegoating of teachers has eliminated the most important voice from the conversation. To assume that a vast majority of teachers are not committed or interested in ensuring a meaningful and effective education for U.S. children and teens is illogical and just plain wrong. Thus, where are mass public surveys to the nation’s teachers asking what they feel are the biggest obstacles to facilitating the instruction of a high quality education? This disconnect between those with front line experience and those that sit in the ‘general’s tent’ far behind the lines is an important reason why most of the proposed solutions are in conflict with what could actually work.

For example when asked ‘What is the one thing you could change in your school’ how many teachers would honestly answer ‘Well, our school is so hopeless we need to nuke it and start over by making it a charter school.’? It would be surprising to find any teacher who would give such an answer and yet such action is one of the primary responses of education reformers. Some critics would argue that of course teachers are not going to make such a suggestion because their number one priority is to protect their job; however, such cynicism does not make sense. Such cynicism stems from the general lack of respect individuals give the teaching profession. One wonders how teaching went from being a highly respected aspect of U.S. society to garnering almost no respect at all? Any one that believes a majority of teachers want to teach in an environment that is not striving to maximize its potential is simply a fool. Such a lack of respect and empathy for what teachers have to do is another aspect to why a number of educational reforms fail.

Overall one of the most important aspects of education reform has not been addressed, what those directly responsible for the education of U.S. children and teens, teachers and education administrators, believe to be the problems. Due to the lack of involvement of the principle actors in education in the future evolution of the education system one is not surprised by the gridlock that exists between the so-called reformers and the unions. To facilitate true education reform the next action must involve taking a step back and understanding that there is a standard deviation on those ‘mediocre’ U.S. test scores which generates an average for student performance. Not all schools perform as poorly as those scores indicate while not all schools perform as well. After this realization the path to real education reform can then begin with the following steps:

1. Each state should compose a survey for all of its teachers asking for input regarding education reforms; some sample questions should address (but not be limited to) the following issues:

- What do you believe is the best thing that your school does to support education?
- What do you believe is the biggest obstacle to improving the educational environment in your school?
- What do you believe is the most important thing that will change and/or influence the educational environment in the next 5 years?
- How is the general student attitude when it comes to learning and why does that attitude exist?

2. The federal government should require (pursuant to receiving any federal funding) each state to do a complete and objective audit of their educational budget to identify any points of overhead waste or general inefficiency in the distribution of funds. Note that this audit is not to make any judgments regarding whether program x should be viewed as wasteful or not, but instead simply account for all of the funds, track how they are distributed and determine whether or not those funds could be distributed more effectively.

3. Each school district should hold a conference to discuss the results of the surveys and develop a plan of action, including a prospective new financial budget for addressing the obstacles pointed out in the surveys; each district then bundles a monetary request to solve these obstacles into two categories: ‘need’ and ‘want’ which will be presented to the state;

While the above points cannot guarantee solutions to the problems with education there is a higher probability to develop solutions with the above method than the current strategy being executed now. Removing the ‘national’ element from the solution set should allow for greater flexibility and precision in applying solutions at the local level appropriate to the environment. Granted while the focus of solutions on a local level is important, it would be unwise to completely eliminate the federal government from the process. The development of national education standards should be the prerogative of the federal government. However, although the federal government should decide what U.S. students need to know, it should not dictate the methodology used by schools to teach that requisite knowledge.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What to do about Coral Reefs

Although coral reefs have had periodic moments of distress and bleaching in the past, these events were frequently isolated to a given weather anomaly, most often El Nino. Unfortunately these events have become increasingly more common in the recent decade forming a troubling, yet predictable trend that can no longer be ignored. The importance of coral and the reefs they form cannot be understated; the mass death of coral will not simply increase the probability of oceanic bio-diversity loss, but rather guarantee its loss; a loss that will be a death knell for the oceans themselves.

It is important to understand the elements of the problem before suggesting a course of action. In large part coral is comprised of a colony of genetically identical polyps. After a significant amount of growth these polyps extend vertical calices that sometimes form a new basal plate; the formation of enough basal plates give rise to coral reefs. While coral can procreate either through asexual reproduction or sexual reproduction, sexual reproduction is typically favored. The release of gametes characterized by sexual reproduction fosters faster new colony construction whereas asexual reproduction typically strengths colony foundation and maintenance through coral head expansion.

Coral has the capacity to catch small animals like fish and plankton, but most coral have evolved to form a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae algae. This symbiotic relationship is why most coral are found in very shallow water (no less than 60 meters, but normally 2-10 meters) so that sunlight can be utilized by the zooxanthellae in order to undergo photosynthesis providing food for the algae and coral. Also while the calcium carbonate skeletons usually give coral a chalk white color on their own, their resident algae host a wide variety of colors which give coral its noteworthy color arrangement. Note that coral can also demonstrate a non-white color scheme on its own based on its protein synthesis pattern. Not all corals share a relationship with algae, but most of these non-algae coral specimens also do not commonly associate with reef formation and are typically found at much greater oceanic depths.

There are many different ways that coral can die, but the two reasons that seem to be the most associated with the recent bleaching trend are higher ocean temperatures and an increase in ocean acidity. Higher temperatures produce excess thermal stress on the coral which cause them to eject their algae in effort to reduce overall stress. While the algae has helpful attributes it also lives within the coral creating additional stress, thus when faced with a change in environmental conditions that increases stress further, the coral acts to lower stress to increase survival percentage and the easiest way to do that is to remove the algae. If the environmental change is only temporary then once environmental conditions return to ‘normal’ levels the coral typically reacquires the algae. Higher ocean acidity results in the inability of the coral to form and maintain their calcium carbonate exoskeletons lead to skeleton deformation and collapse. Coral responses to a reduced ability to form calcium carbonate structures is still unclear beyond the fact that such a situation eventually leads to premature coral death.

Unfortunately there appears that little can be done about increasing ocean acidity beyond dramatic reductions in human derived carbon emissions. One of the bigger problems with ocean acidity is that it is fairly uniformly distributed relative to ocean temperature (ocean temperature is important because the temperature of a liquid directly determines the solubility of a gas like CO2). Although an idea for a technological stop-gap for ocean acidity has been proposed on this blog here, addressing localized temperature flux may be a more effective strategy in the near-term if the goal is to increase coral lifespan within detrimental environmental conditions.

Local environmental cooling may be possible because of the natural uneven distribution in water temperatures relative to depth. Most of the threatened coral species are near the surface of the water exposed to higher temperatures than those creatures that live at a greater depth. Based on that principle if a device could be developed which could ferry water from a lower depth and deposit it closer to coral reefs cooling the region near the coral could be possible. Note that because the colder deep water would not be able to effectively mix with the warmer surface water the overall system could be thought of as similar to a fountain. Water is pumped up from a specific depth and then that water is released near the surface in close proximity to the coral reef where conduction briefly lowers the surface water temperature before the water descends once again.

One possible design for such a device could be to develop a buoy which would float on the surface of the water almost directly above the coral bed. Within the base structure of the buoy would be a pump and associated tubing that descends about 800 ft. below the surface. The reason 800 ft is selected is to focus on water collection beyond the thermocline ensuring a significant temperature differential between the collected water and the water surrounding the coral. Water would be pumped up to the buoy where it would be released back into the water near the surface. The release methodology should probably favor sparse droplets instead of a stream to avoid unnecessary damage to the coral due to excess water pressure/force. Power could be provided to the pump and any other electrical elements through a solar power panel and lithium-ion battery storage.

The biggest problem with this strategy is that a huge volume of water will need to be displaced to generate any significant cooling. At first glace the difference in total volume of displacement seems insurmountable, but the continued incessant movement of water over the course of months and on into years could generate a meaningful change. Remember that the purpose of this device is not to regionally eliminate the temperature increases threatening the coral, but slow the increase to buy time for humans to reduce carbon emissions and positively reverse the ocean from a sink to a source temporarily (over a few decades) returning ocean CO2 load to recent generational normalcy (CO2 concentration in the 1700s). A useful attribute of this system is that it is testable, especially in conjunction in the Argo float systems, can be isolated to a single environment without damaging other non-related environments and does not require any special systems.

While determining an exact price for a single system is difficult, estimation of cost seems to be reasonable. The overall pressure change between the surface of the water and the final location of the pipe at 800 ft. should be about 352.8 psi, which is not so excessive that a special material will be required. However, it may be necessary to include some form of filter on the receiving end of the tube to prevent certain lifeforms from clogging the tube and/or killing those lifeforms. As previously mentioned, the release end of the tube would probably have some form of spray attachment to break the water stream up into droplets. The solar cell/photovoltaic system only has to power a single pump plus any other necessary electronics to draw up the water, so it would probably be smaller than the ‘for home use’ systems that are currently available. Finally the battery is probably the most expensive addition to the standard buoy, but one could state that with the coming popularization of electrical vehicles, battery prices should drop slightly reducing the overall cost of lithium-ion batteries for other devices such as this one.

In closing whether or not the above system is effective at reducing local water temperatures to theoretically increase coral survival time is not the main issue. Although it would be excellent if it did, the overall point is the realization that human effort to curtail carbon emissions is not progressing faster enough to have any real level of confidence that a vast majority of coral will survive the coming decades. To save the coral it is becoming more probable that humans will have to deploy a non-emission reduction strategy. While it is not guaranteed, such a strategy will probably involve some form of technological intervention, so it is important to begin with both the research and the testing as soon as possible.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Question of Credentials

Last week Michael Bloomberg nominated Cathleen Black, a well-noted publishing executive, to be the city’s new school chancellor after Joel Klein left the post. The nomination has raised the issue of credibility in that Mrs. Black has no direct educational-related credentials to demonstrate that she would be a competent chancellor, let alone a high quality chancellor. Some argue that Mrs. Black’s lack of educational experience invalidate her ability to be an effective chancellor. An adjunct to this argument is that even if she could develop into a quality chancellor in time, the appropriate amount of time to foster this development is not available amid the current financial crisis facing the education sector as well as the complexity surrounding the educational reform movement.

The other side argues that Mrs. Black’s success in the publishing industry should demonstrate that she has the necessary raw skills to succeed as chancellor after ironing out some of the rough edges. These individuals believe that the chief element required to be chancellor has nothing to do with teaching experience, but instead the ability to manage and delegate. Individuals that hold this view also add that current teacher training and accreditation have been suggested to be an ineffective methodology for the current education requirements and climate. However, unfortunately for Mrs. Black supporters but not surprisingly, the changes that are suggested from these evaluations, which focus on more in-class training and experience over educational theory to develop more relevant skill sets are also not possessed by Mrs. Black, thus even mentioning these new required skills is completely irrelevant. Sadly such a strategy is commonplace in what society wants to refer to as ‘debating’.

Discrediting the legitimacy of educational experience is a desperate strategy because Mrs. Black supporters do not seem able to provide elements in her character or experience, which will translate to a high probability of success for her potential career as the chancellor. Instead they attempt to devalue the credentials of possible adversaries thus reducing the debate to ‘well she is just as good as that person because their educational credentials are not valid.’ Unfortunately this strategy is flawed because teaching methodology is not the only useful characteristic that can be derived from teaching and educational administration experience. There is something to be said about understanding the nuances that go into teaching and how effective management and emotional linking can facilitate more streamlined changes within schools. Basically without hands-on experience it is difficult to empathize with the difficulties, joys, frustrations, etc. experienced by a teacher, thus impacting the ability to drive necessary changes. Look at it this way, if the ‘right’ way to do something was always effectively implemented simply through a logical perspective and argument a vast number of the problems facing society today would not exist.

Other Mrs. Black supporters cite the fact that Mr. Klein needed to acquire the necessary ‘experience’ waiver to take the position in 2002 and his efforts dramatically changed public education in New York for the better, right? While the purpose of this post is not to rationally evaluate the tenure of Mr. Klein as chancellor, the overall conclusion of how effective his tenure was seems to highly diverge based on whether one speaks to a Klein supporter vs. a Klein detractor. Normally such a divergence is to be expected, the fact of the matter is that most of the points raised on both sides have some kernel of truth, but the overall impression left on a neutral arbitrator is the testing inflation scandal which reported artificially increased test scores making New York public schools ‘appear’ at a higher quality level than they actually were.

With all of that said the biggest problem is that people continue to speculate on what strategies Mrs. Black would undertake to improve the educational environment in New York instead of simply asking her. Clearly Mrs. Black has to have some level of interest in becoming the chancellor or she would have simply turned down the offer for the position. If she is interested then it makes logical sense that Mrs. Black would have some well thought-out proposals regarding what changes she would like to see in the educational sector, what benefits those changes would bring relative to their detriments and what methodology she would implement to bring about a reasonably smooth transition from the current system to her envisioned system. This being the rational order of events why not ask Mrs. Black what these ideas are before issuing the waiver? If the ideas are of merit then she will have afforded herself the opportunity to attempt their implementation to see if they are as effective as thought and if they are not of merit then she should not be given the opportunity, for the implementation of bad ideas simply wastes time and resources.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Musing of NGOs

The development of the first non-government organizations (NGOs) revolved around circumventing potential obstacles to giving aid which were brought on by political/philosophical consequences or bringing attention to ‘orphan’ causes. A recent book, “The Crisis Caravan” argues that the current concept of charity and foreign aid, most notably to other countries, largely from NGOs has warped the original altruistic intentions of the aid. Unfortunately in an effort to expand the effectiveness of these programs a number of NGOs have overestimated their own importance assuming that their involvement in giving aid or attention to oppression/discrimination in a given country will always be more beneficial than detrimental. Based on this continuing policy shift, the author argues that some NGOs inflate the importance of their causes as well as the overall effectiveness of their actions in addressing these problems. Support for this accusation comes in the form of a number of examples where aid organizations did in fact seem to exacerbate the problem instead of alleviate it. While the author does appear to cite certain situations where aid fails and the culture that seems to put aid on the ‘wrong’ track, going forward no straightforward solutions are offered to how to fix this supposed problem with NGOs.

One of the chief elements behind the problem of NGO behavior is sheer size. Not surprisingly most NGOs believe that expansion is an important element to furthering their mission. The larger the organization, the more influence it will have and the more money it can acquire for future aid distribution and publicity. However, bigger is not always better in that there is a ceiling for a NGO’s donation (working capital)/overhead ratio. While it is difficult to predict when this ratio will be attained, it is possible to identify when this ratio has been passed. Thus with regards to size it is important that an organization be honest with itself and continue to access how its donation/overhead ratio changes with size. Basically an NGO cannot begin to view itself as bigger than the problem it is addressing. If it needs to cut back and become ‘leaner and meaner’ as the saying goes so be it. The belief that just because something is being done means more than nothing being done is inappropriate. If the current action is causing more problems than taking no action, action should be ceased. For example if someone asks what 2 + 2 is it is better to say ‘I don’t know’ than ‘five’.

There is reason to argue that size has also created a ‘requirement to act’ attitude, which further creates problems that are much more difficult to solve than simply looking at a donation/overhead ratio. In order to justify their overall size, and to a greater extent their overall existences, a larger NGO may need to intervene at every realistic possible instance to demonstrate the effectiveness of the institution in order to facilitate further donations and the maintenance of size and prestige. For example if a particular NGO claims to take a stand against x and yet when x is happening in Country A this NGO does not act, then the NGO could easily lose credibility and with that loss in credibility comes a negative impact against its ability to request donations and recruit volunteers.

Furthermore this attitude may catalyze conflict and atrocities because despite their size NGOs rarely have any power to influence supply line distribution. A vast majority of the time those who are doing the oppressing also have access control to those who are oppressed, thus the ability to interact and rectify any wrongdoing to those who are oppressed is largely at the discretion of the oppressors. Lacking the ability to apply any serious political pressure or their own personal army, NGO do not have the ability to change this element, thus they frequently must associate with the oppressors as ‘middlemen’ of sorts.

Now if these oppressors were trustworthy then acting as the middleman would not be a problem, but of course individuals who oppress others in the name of expanding their own power can hardly be thought of as trustworthy. Thus it is very difficult for NGOs to distribute a majority of their aid to the original targets without excess waste. The oppressors realize that they control almost all, if not all, distribution nodes so all NGOs will have to deal with them if they want to continue to justify their existence. Sadly some oppressors really take advantage of this reality by creating an environment of greater oppression than would exist if certain NGOs did not exist, a point frequently made in “The Crisis Caravan”. Due to the belief that NGOs will come to the aid of a population afflicted with some form of oppression, the oppressors create a scenario of oppression solely to attract NGO money and shave off a significant portion of it for themselves. Without these NGOs it can be argued that the oppressors would not commit as many resources to expanding the very act of oppression because it would be not cost-effective.

So what is a method to correct this vicious cycle of NGOs potentially funding oppression? At first glace the situation seems bleak. The aforementioned restrictions limit the ability of NGOs to change the control of the various access points in a given country. Also while a NGO can control its overall size, the inherent problem of ‘requirement to act’ still exists. For example suppose a NGO states publicly that while they would like to provide assistance to Group A in Country A, they cannot because of a lack of certainty that the money/supplies will actually be effectively distributed; unfortunately while such an action may be viewed by a conscientious observer as responsible the probability that it results in an increase in donations from the general public is minute.

While the public may appreciate the fact that their money is not being wasted, they would also not see any positive results, thus it stands to reason that they would not be inclined to donate. Basically donors seem to take the attitude that they would rather donate 100 dollars and have 50 dollars go to those supported by the NGO and 50 dollars wasted on unnecessary overhead like excessive CEO salary over donating 100 dollars and have that 100 dollars just sit in an account and do nothing. The problem with this philosophy is that money almost never just sits in an account and does nothing. It is important to realize that if a NGO is behaving as a logical entity and is waiting for a better opportunity to distribute money or resources, any money donated is still making a difference drawing interest from a particular certificate of deposit or other no-risk investment or at least it should be.

Of course there is always the issues of overestimating public awareness. The ‘requirement to act’ attitude may not be as powerful as proposed in this piece solely based on a lack of dedicated interest by the public. For if the public continues to donate and takes no real interest in the overall actions of the NGO, then any real pressure to use that money effectively no longer exists.

Addressing the issue of CEO salary being commented as waste, one of the bigger issues with NGO size is that they now operate more like multi-national businesses, which include highly inflated salaries for their CEOs. Some would argue that because most NGOs believe they need to be as big as possible to maximize the probability that they actually accomplish something, they need to take more of a business mentality which includes attracting high quality talent for their leadership positions. Basically the belief is that these CEOs are now responsible for running multi-million dollars programs that are tackling difficult and widespread global problems, thus they should be compensated accordingly.

There appear to be two flaws in this logic. First, the nature of NGO is supposed to be altruistic. To turn around and make the statement that large salaries are required to attract high quality management level talent without first appealing to their moral character while at the same time continuing to ask for donations from other individuals to fund the NGO comes of as hypocritical. Such hypocrisy may not be that surprising seeing that a majority of NGOs receive a significant amount of funding from governments as well though. The ‘top talent’ should be attracted to a NGO based on its overall mission not because it can pay that individual a lot of money (yeah such a statement is incredibly na├»ve but it has to be said).

Second, CEOs, both in NGOs and other multi-nationals, receive compensation regardless of whether or not they are successful at accomplishing the overall mission statement for the NGO. They get paid for their effort not their results. Such a system makes sense only when the dollar values are reasonable. For most CEOs the dollar values are rarely reasonable. Overall all CEOs should function on a strict incentive program with a reasonable, but small base salary. For example instead of being paid 500,000 dollars a year for running NGO x the CEO should receive 100,000 dollars a year with specific, transparent and measurable accelerators which could augment salary. If such a system is rejected then one can begin to entertain the disturbing thought that such a NGO is not actually interested in solving the problem it testifies to in its mission statement, but would rather the problem persist to continue to attract money to line their own pockets.

Unfortunately unless a NGO can develop a deep meaningful relationship with a given country, those NGOs possessing goals which revolve around ending some form of oppression or disease will more than likely continue to have problems with efficiency due to lack of control regarding access points as long as they continue to function alone. Interestingly enough one possible strategy for these NGOs may actually be to involve their governments in their action. Depending on where the NGO is based it may be able to extract a more direct contact medium between the NGO and those being oppressed. However, the creation of this new contact medium is likely to cost some government resources, thus to expect the government to undertake such a task for each NGO seems on its face unreasonable unless the government is some how compensated.

One possible idea would be the government of the country in which the NGO was founded can ‘certify’ the NGO. Certification would imply two elements, first the NGO would have to present a detailed ‘plan of action’ describing the strategy used to distribute funds to those it purports to support and have the ‘plan of action’ approved. Second, a certified NGO would no longer receive special tax exemption status, but instead would be taxed by the particular home country some pre-determined rate. By abiding by these two principles the NGO could petition the government for assistance in easing the distribution of funds to an oppressed party.

Now one immediate criticism of this proposal may be that by becoming ‘certified’ a NGO loses its independence and instead can be viewed as an arm of the government, which may eliminate some of its ability to act as a neutral arbitrator between the oppressors and the oppressed. While a valid criticism on its face, initially the point of creating the ‘plan of action’ is not necessarily to carryout some form of government-backed plan, but instead to allow the government to understand the intentions of the NGO so to not end up wasting its time and/or resources in attempting to open a previously unattainable distribution channel. Basically as long as the government views the plan as plausible (note that it does not have to have a high probability of success, just a reasonable probability of success), the plan should be approved. It would have to acknowledged that the plans approved by the government are not government plans, but NGO plans that are promising enough to encourage the government to act in limited capacity on the NGO’s behalf.

Two remaining points about this issue are that anyone who finds fault with the removal of the tax exemption status should understand that the nature of the proposal is to save NGOs from taking wasteful actions and the tax revenue acquired from the NGOs is intended to cover any potential expenses required by the government to create the direct NGO-oppressed distribution channel. Also donations to a given NGO would remain tax deductible to eliminate any negative immediate impact on future donations. Finally a NGO does not have to become certified if it would like to maintain its tax exemption status. If a NGO elects not to be certified then it would be unable to petition the government for assistance in opening distribution channels.

Despite the potential involvement of government or even reducing size/overhead costs, the most important thing a NGO must remember is to ask the question: ‘what is the cause(s) of what drives our mission statement and how can we best create a solution?’ Such a question is easy for those NGOs and charities that function around disease treatment, but may be more difficult for those that target one particular portion of the globe. For example there are a number of groups that attempt to put political pressure on the U.S. government to intervene in the Darfur region of Sudan. However, rarely do these groups publicly ask the above question regarding the origins of the cause of the violence.

In Darfur there are two primary elements that drive the violence; first and foremost is the lack of resources, especially water, in the region and second is general religious strife between Islam and those not of Islamic faith. Without asking these questions the ability to understand the realities of the situation become less probable which fosters inefficient or even incorrect solutions. How is the U.S. putting ‘pressure’ on the mostly Islamic Northern Sudanese to ‘knock off’ the violence against their Western neighbors really going to end the violence? Without knowing the cause, the prospect for wasting vast amounts of resources become even more probable. Addressing the diminishing resource issue would be the first and most important step to solving the Darfur crisis.

Unfortunately despite all of the strategies that a NGO can employ, sometimes human psychology just wins out. For some the need to demonstrate superiority through the suppression of another is too powerful of a motivator that any funds directed towards that oppressed will simply continue to fund the oppressors. In such a situation NGOs must adjust strategies, such as instead of attempting to provide food and/or other survival resources, the NGO could arrange for the transfer of some number of the oppressed as refugees to another country.

Overall, even without books like “Crisis Caravan”, from an outsider looking in, there are a number of NGOs seem to raise a lot of money, but that money does not seem to generate viable and meaningful results, especially for those that operate across many boarders. This statement is not an indictment against all NGOs, but certainly NGOs can take a number of steps to improve efficiency in both the total overhead utilized to acquire donations and that used to execute their mission statements. Exploring other execution strategies such as temporary alliances with various governments should be constantly studied to ensure optimal NGO efficiency.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Five Important Things the Government Needs To and Can Do in the Near Future To Help the Environment

The first thing the government should have done with respect to the environment was put a price on carbon through a carbon tax, cap and trade system or some other genuine meaningful methodology, but unfortunately that seems unlikely in the current political environment. However, the following five things are positive steps that can be taken to improve the environment and/or better prepare for scenarios that will more than likely develop in the future. None of these elements should draw legitimate opposition due to political affiliation.

1. Farm subsidies have always been a controversial issue, especially those subsidies which award farmers for leaving their fields barren of crops or ‘encourage’ growth of a certain staple crop due to market economics. Millions of dollars are given to owners of thousands of acres, which are inherently unproductive because unregulated growth could easily drive down prices for certain crops making it more difficult for agrobusinesses and independent farmers to turn a profit. It would be very difficult to eliminate the subsidies because of the powerful agricultural lobby in Congress, but the operational condition of the subsidy could still be changed. For example instead of growing nothing or some forced specific crop, the owners of land receiving these subsidies should be compelled to grow switchgrass in order to continue receiving the subsidy.

After growing to maturity, the switchgrass can then be harvested and burned in a slow pyrolytic process to create bio-char. This bio-char can then be recycled back into the original field to aid future switchgrass growth. Once the given field has attained bio-char saturation, additional bio-char can be transported to other fields and the process can continue. Not only will the application of bio-char in fields increase the overall yields and potentially increase soil quality, but it will also take a bite out of the total amount of carbon dioxide that human release into the atmosphere, the major element that drives global warming. This cultivation of switchgrass does not require the use artificial fertilizers (natural is fine) or pesticides nor does it interfere with the original purpose of the subsidy which is to stabilize a certain market price range for a given crop.

2. One of the lesser talked about, but more important elements of the American Energy and Security Act (ACES) passed by the House of Representatives in 2009 was the new proposed building regulations with regards to energy use. At least 40% of U.S. energy use involves buildings and while not all of the energy use is waste, a significant amount is wasted where most of this waste is derived directly through how buildings are constructed. The steadily increasing efficiency scale for energy use proposed in the ACES is well-designed and should go a long way to increasing overall national energy efficiency as well as reducing carbon emissions. In fact without a new national building code, any real movement on the energy efficiency front is severely handicapped because it is not in the financial interest of electricity companies to rein in electricity use regardless of how many smart meter pilot programs they advertise. Defining a long-term set of building codes will also benefit the construction industry because it will demonstrate a clear price signal which will allow for intelligent and confident investment and planning for the future of the home building and planning sector of the construction industry.

However, there are two issues that need to be addressed regarding new building codes. First, an objective and transparent measure of efficiency needs to be made with a standard model of operation. Basically the measurement of efficiency improvement requires a universal application of how people would interact with and in the building to confirm the legitimacy of the design. If the interaction differs then one building may receive an unfair advantage over another when meeting these efficiency standards unless compensated. Second, the government needs to have some authority to regulate cost of any items that are deemed ‘high-value’ in the design and construction of new more efficient buildings in effort to avoid any price gouging from suppliers taking advantage of the new requirements. Finally there may be some resistance to the development of these new codes, but such resistance is fruitless unless it cites meaningful rationalities and/or flaws in the code. To address these issues all state agencies should have the ability to create a report regarding any potential flaws in the current proposed code and a reasonable counterproposal containing appropriate solutions.

3. As previously mentioned in this post, it is time for the government to pick winners and losers in the electricity sector of the energy industry because with continually decreasing resource availability with regards to construction materials deriving success from piecemeal solutions will become more and more difficult. Remember while normally selecting winners/losers is not the government’s role, the free market has been corrupted and is unable to effectively select the most viable choice(s).

4. Although it is debatable when the era of cheap oil will end, the fact that it will end soon is not. Therefore, it is important for the government to develop or at least aid in the development of new operational infrastructure and transportation for the agricultural sector. Clearly hybrid and 100% electrical passenger vehicles have been developed, but little work has been done on heavy machinery for agricultural use. While there are a small number of options, clearly more planning and work need to be done. With profit margins for independent farmers already quite thin, a steady increase in gasoline price due to increases in oil prices and a possible increase in fertilizer price due to rising natural gas demand will more than likely remove food from the marketplace. Agrobusinesses, which devoutly care about profits, will raise their prices in lockstep with any long-term increase in operational costs due to increasing oil prices, effectively removing food from the marketplace for poorer Americans. With that in mind it is up to the government to drive the development of heavy machines that can perform agricultural tasks which are not impacted by future rising oil prices.

5. Work to develop a national water conservation strategy. For far too long water conservation has been viewed as a luxury instead of a necessity. With drought conditions perpetually affecting the Southwest and the Southeast portions of the United States and the increasingly warming climate soon to exacerbate conditions it is about time a cohesive and thorough national water conservation strategy is developed to effectively deal with future shortages. While some individuals break out in hives whenever the government proposes anything, administration of intelligent and reasonable water conservation for 300+ million people is something only a centralized government has the ability to effectively manage. The ongoing droughts have unfortunately demonstrated that states have been unable to rein in water usage and private enterprise is not appropriate or equipped to do so in an ethical and reasonable way. Therefore, it is important for the government to begin action on not only an appropriate conservation strategy, but also future water generation technology, deployment of greater waste treatment technology and water storage facilities to ensure an adequate and fluid (no pun intended) water supply.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Re-energizing the Environmental Movement

On October 10, 2010 the environment movement, largely driven by the group 350.org, held a global coordinated effort comprised of over 7,000 independent gatherings in an attempt to demonstrate global solidarity behind aggressive and effective action to stem global carbon emissions. Such a large organized global gathering, consisting of individuals actually carrying out positive environmental actions, must have garnered significant and thorough media attention, especially in the main target countries of U.S. and China right? No, environmental gatherings rarely make any dent in the news cycle for either country; in fact for the U.S. the date 10/10/10 was noted more for the increased amount of weddings than anything else. So how has it come to this, how is it that the most important issue in human history, sustaining the strength of a living environment for a single-plant species, receives only substandard media coverage and enthusiasm from the masses?

One of the main problems is that environmentalists have no legitimate attack strategy against those that either deny the legitimacy of human driven global warming or oppose action to combat it due to selfish economic reasons. The general response to these individuals typically involves citing more and more scientific evidence supporting the validity of human driven global warming and its consequences. They have continually expressed the same warning for decades, yet there is little substance for such effort. In essence they have walked a mile to seemingly move a mere inch. Others plead for boycotts against the more powerful adversaries, but such an outcry is futile because the organization and will power to execute such a strategy is limited in the environmental movement. Their opponents have money, organization and a singular message/purpose. What does the environmental movement have… certainly not what amounts to the title of a Meatloaf song. So it is about time for environmentalists to wake up and effectively begin to counter these advantages.

First, forgot the idea of any type of boycott because such a strategy will simply waste time and resources. There are too many individuals in U.S. that depend on oil, coal and natural gas, especially on a socio-economical gradient. One of the problems with some in the environmental movement is that they seem to have a perception that millions of people have tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of disposable income sitting in the bank and just don’t have the motivation to embrace the environmental movement and a boycott. Approximately 17% of the country is below the poverty line with bi-weekly stories about the vanishing middle class and yet some expect these people to go buy a 15,000 – 30,000 dollar solar panel system or a 30,000 – 40,000 dollar electric vehicle with the explanation that it is good for them because of a rate of return at 5-10 years, what nonsense.

Also look at some of the more successful boycotts in recent history, the ‘Mitsubishi: Don't Buy It’ campaign, the movement against De Beers and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops vs. Donna Karan, why did all of those boycotts work? Three reasons: 1. a viable alternative was already available in the market; if you didn’t like Mitsubishi’s environmental policy in Mexico buy a vehicle from Ford; if you didn’t like De Beers screwing over the Kalahari Bushmen, then buy from Zales; if you didn’t like Donna Karan using sweatshops and screwing over its employees, then buy from another clothing designer as there are thousands of options; 2. the purchase/use of these products was not daily, weekly or even monthly. Basically the need of these products were not such that switching suppliers or not buying them at all significantly disrupted livelihood in any real way and less frequent purchasing meant that each purchase mattered more to the company; 3. the changes being demanded by the boycotters were rather small from an industry perspective and could be made by the respective companies without putting them out of business.

All three of these success parameters fail when considering a boycott against a company like ExxonMobil. Looking at the failure of the third point first, the point of the boycott is the very destruction of the company as it presently exists. Some may argue that the main focus would be to ‘encourage’ ExxonMobil to convert completely from an oil company to a bio-fuel company, but even this ideal basically destroys what exists as ExxonMobil today. This motivation then filters into the first point as in the De Beers case the goal was not to eliminate the entire diamond mining industry, but to rectify the circumstances surrounding a single mine. The alternatives that were available could be accessed to put pressure on De Beers; however, in the case of an ExxonMobil boycott, clearly purchasing fuel from BP does not support the overall goal of an ExxonMobil boycott and bio-fuel alternatives are not nearly in enough supply to put even a microscopic dent in ExxonMobil’s bottom line. Finally it is much easier for people to boycott consumer goods that do not heavily impact their lives, but can be viewed more as luxury items. Oil, largely in the form of gasoline, is a consumer good that is used far too frequently to induce enough people to make the dramatic switch from gas to another form of transportation medium. Thus any further discussion of a ‘major’ boycott against any oil and/or coal companies is just a waste of breath.

Second, sadly enough it appears that a single focus on the environment and its overall importance is an argument that has yet to spark the masses to action. In addition it does not appear that such an argument has an amplifying effectiveness where if people are just told about the future dangers to the environment and human species enough a light will eventually turn on and these individuals will magically now fight for the environment. Should one really expect someone that has denied global warming with the science at a 95% confidence level to change his/her opinion when a new set of studies upgrades the confidence level to 97%? That is like a person declining to play the lottery with numbers that have a 95% chance of winning instead waiting until given a set of numbers that have a 97% chance of winning, not a realistic psychological scenario.

The line in the sand has already been drawn regarding the role of human involvement in global warming and few people are dancing along that line changing their minds based on the latest news report or scientific paper. For most people ‘present egocentricity’ typically have them caring more about who Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian might be dating over the prospect of Manhattan being underwater 30 years from now. Unfortunately this mindset also eliminates effective arguing for emission reduction from an ethical standpoint of saving a place like the Maldive Islands. It would take a local catastrophic event, not huge stable for thousands of years ice sheets breaking away from Greenland, to spur enough people to action using a ‘save the environment’ strategy and such an event does not seem in the cards until it is far too late. Therefore, despite their clear legitimacy, environmental dangers cannot be the main linchpin argument for action against global warming, at least not for the general public.

Expanding on the above point, although most of the issues regarding criticism of climate scientists were addressed here, one important point remains. Recently an extremely bias and problematic documentary entitled “Waiting for Superman” was released which purported to address the problems in the U.S. education system. Not surprisingly the film basically takes the position that all of the problems in the education system are a result of bad teachers and the evil teacher’s union and the simple solution to these problems lies within the widespread expansion of charter schools and their quality teachers. Sadly the film does not produce anything that has not already been heard thousands of times before from individuals or groups that are pro-charter school anti-public school/teacher, thus making it a meaningless propaganda tool that does nothing to actually solve the problems in the education system.

A number of individuals within the environmental movement also appear to be falling into this trap of ‘Waiting for Superman’. They believe that if enough climate scientists speak out directly to the public about the dangers of global warming that such action will turn the tide. Unfortunately there is no reason to suspect such an outcome. While any help from climate scientists would be appreciated, one must remember that some have certain internal pressures which may not allow them to behave with the requisite level of freedom and outspokenness these environmentalist expect. In fact the saddest thing about this entire hope is that in the eyes of the general public, regardless of it being wrong, climate scientists are commonly viewed with a level of enthusiasm not akin to Superman, but instead Supergrover.

Third, the appropriate argument needs to develop a personal tone focusing on how environmental policy tangibly helps specific individuals. At one time relating ‘green jobs’ to environmental policy may have been a good idea, but the messaging was carried out so poorly that, similar to the ‘doomsday’ environmental damage 30 years from now scenarios, most of the public seems to tune out such a message. For example suppose you have Stanley a blue-collar construction worker. Now the statement that investing billions of dollars in a new ‘green’ infrastructure over the next 10-20 years will produce millions of new jobs may not mean anything to him, unless Stanley digs deep and really studies the new suggested policy, but Stanley has things to do that he views as more important. However, what if it was clearly specified that of those 3 million new jobs, suppose 1.5 million are construction jobs with an average 3 year commitment, now that is a detail that should make supporting a ‘green’ infrastructure much more important to Stanley. The reason ‘green’ jobs has generally failed as a message is that the argument has been far too general, excluding the ‘what’s in it for me’ aspect. Remember, specificity solves problems generality perpetuates them.

Fourth, the environmental movement is not tapping into one of the most powerful elements in all of human history, nationalism. Joe Klein, a writer for Time Magazine, recently finished a tour of the country and he reports that for every person that carried about terrorism (which can be viewed symbolically as concern for survival), approximately 20 people cared about China and its growing influence in the world relative to the waning influence of the United States. That concern seems like an opening to tap into some good old-fashioned nationalism. Environmentalists have focused on attempting to convince people that investment in ‘green’ infrastructure is important in effort to keep jobs like PV and wind turbine manufacturing in the United States opposed to those jobs being done in South Korea or China. Again while this argument seems solid, a different focus can be applied from a nationalistic perspective. When trying to create a nationalistic fervor it is important to remember history. Recall the national climate when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. Sure there was some fear, but for the most part Sputnik was an insult to U.S. pride. Basically a ‘No way we’re going to let the Soviet Union beat the U.S.’ mindset took over. Why hasn’t the environmental movement transmogrified this concern over China into boisterous competitive adrenaline?

What would be the best way to ‘take it to’ China? Clearly by slowing their economic growth and how is that done … investment in a trace emission energy infrastructure. How would the argument go: not only will creating a new infrastructure increase our economic output, but it would also increase our credibility on the international stage to facilitate an international carbon emission treaty which would force China to abandon its policy of constructing 1 coal plant per 10 days in order to feed the growing energy demands for its economic expansion. Therefore, if China wanted to continue their economic growth, which by all accounts they do, they would have to replace this loss with trace emission energy sources, which by design (due to the tremendous energy demands for manufacturing) they could not supply nearly enough in isolation. Instead they would have to import vast quantities of materials to continue the seamless construction of this new energy infrastructure to continue their current economic growth. Take one guess who should be the country supplying the bulk of this demand? Such a scenario would take a significant bite out of the trade deficit as well as allowing the U.S. to apply real economic pressure on China if any ethical issue arose. Basically this is the scenario that everyone who wants the U.S. to reaffirm its place as a global power should be striving for regardless of whether or not they believe global warming is driven by human activities.

Now the ‘green’ economy will not materialize by the invisible hand of the market at a fast enough speed to foster the ability to either reaffirm U.S. greatness or significantly reduce the probability of detrimental environmental damage. The most effective means of developing the resources to beat China will come from establishing a national price on carbon. The only way to establish a price on carbon is to elect officials that will vote on legislation creating such a carbon price with no offset loopholes. Voting for these individuals is accomplished through the above economic competition strategy, if the U.S. is to restore/retain its greatness then it needs to establish a trace emission energy infrastructure based economy and to do that voters need to elect congressmen and women that will pass legislation to put a price on carbon. So if that appears to be the most effective argument for creating a ‘green’ economy why is the domain name: “BeatChina.org” or “ReaffirmUSgreatness.org” still available?

Another bonus is that the “Reaffirm U.S. Greatness” campaign also neutralizes the sphere of influence created by those that argue against the legitimacy of human driven global warming because the focus of the issue is no longer ‘develop/deploy cleaner energy to save the planet’, but instead ‘develop/deploy cleaner energy to beat China’. Therefore, all nonsense like ‘climategate’ and potential Congressional investigations into global warming become moot. Using such a direct campaign slogan can create an attempted sidestep of the ability of global warming opponents to attack the environmental movement because doing so can be turned back in their faces that these individuals are against American prosperity and want China to take over the world. In fact one of the most useful elements of the “Reaffirm U.S. Greatness” campaign is it limits the scientific issue of global warming on an individual level. For example the following is a theoretical conversation between an individual that does not believe in human driven global warming (Person A) and an individual that does (Person B):

Person A: “Global warming is a complete hoax. The world is so big that there is no way humans could influence it in any meaningful way.”

Person B: “Do you think that government should put a price on carbon?”

Person A: “Uhhh, what, oh ummmmm…(Yes/No)”

Person B: (if yes) – “That’s a good point because by putting a price on carbon we can develop and expand new industries, so we can compete with and beat China. We need to make sure that we vote for candidates that will vote for legislation that puts a price on carbon so America can stay great and number one in the world.”

Person B: (if no) – “Why do you hate America? You really want China to win? I don’t see any other way the U.S. beats China other than by putting a price on carbon.

By changing the topic, Person B can direct the conversation to a more meaningful conclusion versus making a purely scientific retort to Person A’s initial claim which is normally countered by Person A saying something to the effect of: “oh yeah, well you can’t prove that!”. No longer having to deal with time-wasting ‘global warming is not real’ nonsense environmentalist will have more time to spread the word about the “Reaffirm U.S. Greatness” campaign, participate in detailed analysis about how the development of trace emission energy infrastructure in the U.S. should proceed or work to expand mitigation and/or remediation strategies. Note that if asked directly with genuine scientific curiosity why global warming is a threat then one can cite all of the scientific evidence about how humans continuing to release carbon into the atmosphere is unbalancing the carbon cycle, aggravating the Greenhouse Effect and leading to climate destabilization. However, overall the principle battle cry needs to be ‘help the U.S. transition to a trace emission energy economy so we can maintain U.S. greatness and beat China’.

Some have argued, most notably the Center for American Progress (CAP), that the U.S. should cooperate with China to hasten the development of new technologies like CCS in order to combat climate change. Unfortunately while in most situations cooperation should be preferred to competition the current situation is not one of them. As discussed above, people are concerned about China overtaking the U.S. in global and economic influence and stripping it of its place in the global community, cooperation with the ‘enemy’ as the see it will not allay that concern. Also China continues, and for all intensive purposes will continue, to hold the belief that the U.S. and other developed countries should have to provide the majority of the anticipated capital to convert China’s economy to a more ‘trace emission’ nature as a consequence of putting most of the carbon in the atmosphere despite currently being the highest emitter. For all of the publicity that China has received for the money they are investing in ‘green’ energy, most of that investment is insignificant relative what they continue to invest in fossil fuel energy and the overall energy demand that China will require in the future relative to its desired level of economic growth.

This is not to say that the U.S. and China should not cooperate on any cleaner energy methodology, especially when it comes to research and development as to allow a fantastic technological achievement to remain theoretical due to inadequate information exchange would be foolish; however, cooperation does not seem to have the ability to light the necessary fire under the American populous that competition with the Chinese would. Regarding potential conflicts with the Memorandum of Understanding, China’s behavior at Copenhagen demonstrates that cooperation may not be as forthcoming as anticipated; in addition a vast majority of the recommendations made by the Memorandum are slanted towards research and development anyways which is the one place cooperation should occur. Finally, the motivation behind such a nationalistic strategy should be upright and passionate competition with China and not fall into the paranoia, fear and hate which plagued the competitive relationship between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Of course there are no guarantees that a “Reaffirm U.S. Greatness” campaign will work, but it seems like an important tool for the environmental movement that has been left in the toolbox.

While it is sad and troubling that the most promising piece of legislation, which would have established a carbon price, stalled in Congress some believe that the failure of this bill is less relevant than others because of a belief that the proposed 4% reduction of 1990 emission levels by 2020 was an insufficient goal. Most who harbor that belief also believe that there needs to be an emission reduction of 20-50% by 2020. To those that tout reduction goals of 20-50% by 2020, would you please explain your plan to attain that goal? It is easy to say ‘this is what we need to do’, but where is the methodology to do it? Current technological deployment does not lend itself to accomplishing this ideal without a significant blow to the economy, which would defeat the entire purpose of the action.

Ideally to reach any 20-50% goal almost all to all energy from coal would have to be transferred to another trace emission source (allowing natural gas to pick-up all the slack would not reduce emissions enough (only 12-18% depending on the total efficiency of natural gas plants)). With the total amount of electricity being supplied by coal at just less than 2 billion MW-hr (according to the EIA 2008 data), where is the replacement energy going to come from? Assume about 40% of the loss from coal is picked-up by natural gas and there is a 10% reduction in auto emissions (which makes up about 27% of total U.S. CO2eq emissions for a total reduction of 2.7%), so to meet a goal of 20% reduction by 2020 where is the remaining approx. 1 billion MW-hr going to come from? Some may argue that energy efficiency will carry the day and while such a result would be highly encouraging a number of energy efficiency strategies have existed for a while beyond the snazzy smart meters and most have yet to be implemented on a wide scale. In fact without new national energy consumption standards for buildings any real gains from energy efficiency in a piecemeal way are unlikely to be significant, but just for the sake of argument where is the remaining 900 million MW-hr going to come from?

Also remember that to reach the natural gas goal approximately 800 million MW-hr of new natural gas electricity will need to be generated which will involve huge levels of hydraulic fracking (how much is unclear) which will more than likely contaminate some number of underground aquifers. Also because there is uncertainty regarding how much of the transportation reduction will come from increased fuel economy vs. electrical vehicles there will be additional electricity demands for those electric vehicles. One could venture that these demands will exist because as this post demonstrates most meaningful transportation emission reduction will come from deployment of electrical vehicles.

Off the cuff it seems inherently unrealistic to assume that a significant amount of this 950 million - 1 billion MW-hr need is going to materialize from concentrated or PV solar power being constructed in the Mojave Desert or anywhere else seeing how little is currently in the construction pipeline and how dependent solar power is on government subsidies to bend the cost curve. Recalling, as the anti-nuclear crowd does so well, that power plant construction no matter what the medium almost always finishes over budget and behind schedule, how much more solar will even be in the pipeline before 2020 let alone actually built and operational?

The U.S. has exhausted almost all of its growth potential for hydroelectric and offshore tidal power has no realistic potential to do anything significant for at least 15-20 years. Wind power, while expanding rapidly in the last 5 years, is running into problems as the best locations have already been built upon, limiting its remaining potential for total power generation, effective capacity and cost effectiveness to fill in for a baseload power source like coal. Maybe new offshore locations help, but more than likely not nearly enough. Also the second coming of nuclear power in the U.S. seems to have hit a significant snag with the abandonment of a high-profile reactor in Maryland sponsored in part by Constellation Energy. Finally geothermal plant construction in the last decade does not inspire confidence that any significant gains will be had from geothermal energy. So again where is all of this extra necessary energy going to come from by 2020? Sadly these are only a small number of the real obstacles to achieving a 20-50% decrease in 1990 level emissions by 2020. Realistically there is almost no way, short of a miracle, like fusion magically becoming viable, that such a goal can be achieved without significant economical damage. Therefore to continue to talk about things that ‘need’ to happen in such a context does not appear to be useful.

Once accepting the fact that these short-term high emission reduction scenarios are fantasy, the environmental community then needs to accept the reality that some form of geo-engineering will be required to increase the probability of less detrimental environmental damage until proper mitigation methods can be scaled-up. The simple fact is that the world has two options: 1. carry out effective and widespread remediation and mitigation strategies; 2. face an environment radically different than the one humans have dealt with for a vast majority of their existence, one that is much less hospitable to our comfortable existence; of course when proposing the acceptance of geo-engineering, this does not include the impractical and illogical ideas like space mirrors or tubes to ferry CO2 from the atmosphere to space. However, there is the very real possibility that sulfur stratospheric geo-engineering will occur over a small time window maybe something like 3 – 5 years in effort to reduce global temperatures to ensure adequate growing seasons while mitigation efforts scale-up.

There are other strategies that have generally been more or less have been mischaracterized as ‘geo-engineering’ that focus more on remediation or rebalancing the atmosphere vs. the typical ‘geo-engineering’ strategy of counterbalancing. The most popular methods of remediation are widespread application of Bio-char in agriculture, air capture both at a point source and from ambient air and albedo restoration which commonly involves painting rooftops white and other surface visual lightening. While these methods are extremely important in limiting the overall environmental damage from climate change, a number of individuals in the environmental movement more than likely oversell the total effect of these methods; for example assuming that every house in the U.S. will have a white roof or that Bio-char will be in every agricultural plot everywhere in the world. The problem is not the general unrealistic nature of such a belief, although it would take a Herculean effort, but the fact that there is no plan to achieve such a feat which makes it unrealistic. No planning, just talking and waiting for the government to do it.

One final note regarding geo-engineering is the question of where are the eccentric ideas to tackle various remediation and mitigation problems. This blog has proposed some of these ideas here and here. While skeptics will say these ideas are not plausible (definitely possible), the same can be said for almost all of the technological advances in our history. Someone thought of a ‘wacky’ idea and told another person, who told another person, who told another and eventually the idea was analyzed, tested and the problems were identified and fleshed out and while most ended up failing, a number succeeded. Who cares about how wacky an idea may sound because it could stimulate the evolution of something that could be extremely helpful in warding off future environmental damage. The key is to put each idea through objective, transparent and rigorous analysis to ensure the highest benefit to cost ratio. This issue of invention cannot be stressed enough because it is highly probable that the saving grace game-changer has yet to be developed and such interactive creativity must be encouraged.

As alluded to above if the environmental movement truly wishes to advance their movement and help reduce the probability of detrimental climate change, they also need to go deeper in their recommendations and analysis. Climate scientists have done a remarkable job, especially amid all of the radical and vicious opposition, doing the best they can to describe the intricate details of what type of and to what degree environmental changes will impact the Earth as more carbon is released into the atmosphere. However, that is where the details end as potential responses and strategies to dealing with these outcomes have become generalized and repetitive. Such lack of detail in general public discourse is unacceptable if humans are to have any chance at maintaining a comfortable living environment.

One of the reasons it is important that the environmental movement begins to develop much more cohesive and detailed plans is the ability to pitch those plans to private companies and venture capitalists to create a more efficient and effective transition into a ‘green’ economy. For example if the Mojave Desert is going to be the saving grace for the solar power movement those that believe this need to create a detailed report of exactly every little detail regarding the construction of every solar plant in the Mojave, potential transmission losses, efficiency scales, electricity gaps that need to be covered by other mediums, water use and transport, etc.

Unfortunately instead of carrying out such a strategy a number of environmentalists simply make general statements like ‘All we have to do is build a bunch of concentrated solar power in 0.0x% of the Mojave Desert and that will provide all of our electricity needs forever.’ Such statements are incredibly useless. The environmental community is huge, where are these detailed through reports of analysis? Some of the discussions of the reduction of transportation emissions and possible strategies for remediation that have appeared on this blog try to be open and clear reports with regards to planning future strategy made available for public consumption. One should be saddened after the reading the above statement, not because the reports on this blog are of substandard quality, they are not, but because there is not significantly more information easily available or at least so it appears who knows how many other similar blogs have conducted similar studies and yet remain unknown.

Some may argue that the various reports put out by CAP and other similar think tanks do some of the work suggested, but when actually reading these reports one encounters more generalities and optimistic assumptions then one would like. Generality is fine when an issue is in its infancy, but clearly the danger global warming poses to our environment and the longevity of our species is not in its infancy. What one would like to see is instead of a statement like ‘developing a green economy will create millions of jobs’ is a detailed statement like ‘over the first five years of developing a green economy with investments of 10 billion per year most of the job growth will come from the manufacturing and construction sectors where we estimate the creation of 10 construction jobs lasting an average of 14 months and 5 manufacturing jobs lasting an average of 30 months for every 1 MW of solar power developed…’

Now that latter statement has a lot more significance to all involved over the former statement. Clearly the ideal should be to produce accurate, objective, detailed and transparent information, thus when producing reports of this nature all of the assumptions need to be laid out at the beginning. Transparent declaration of assumptions is critically important for accuracy and validity because as any scientist or engineer knows even a variance of one assumption in only a small way can dramatically change the identity of the best possible solution.

There are only two reasons to not be forthcoming with assumptions: 1. laziness, which would beg the question why create the report at all unless for cheap publicity for your organization; 2. fear, which would imply that the authors of the report realize that their conclusions are generalized and would probably not hold up under scrutiny, thus the assumptions remain hidden so the authors keep a level of deniability. Neither of those two rationalities is appropriate to justify withholding vital information like assumptions, which can be used to further support the superiority of an analysis or lead to the discovery of a critical flaw that makes it unsuitable for application.

Brave New Climate is one group that, despite a possible bias towards nuclear power, actually attempts to better understand which energy medium(s) should be utilized for a future non-fossil fuel infrastructure at a scientific and economic level. However, their analysis only goes so far to address what medium(s) should be pursued; it is a good start, but more needs to be done. It must be stated that not all environmental organizations have the overall mission objective, manpower or member expertise to create reports to the level of detail that is needed, but for those that do not they must at least command a better understanding of the demands behind creating a trace emission infrastructure than ‘all we have to do is build a bunch of solar plants in the Mojave and the Sahara, so let’s do that’. For those that have the ability to create these reports, overall there should be no reason to hide assumptions made or withhold details when conducting an analysis of the economics, necessary deployment time frame or whatever else regarding a new trace energy infrastructure; recall specificity solves problems and generality perpetuates them.

Another possible reason environmentalist are not making as much headway with the public as they should, beyond improper messaging, is that their primary information sources (websites) appear to be stuck in Phase I. For some reason for major environmental organizations like 350.org, Environmental Defense Fund, National Resource Defense Counsel, etc. the primary focus seem to be recruiting more members or soliciting monetary support. Initially continuous recruitment of new members should be viewed as intelligent and important, especially in an overall movement where numbers genuinely matter, but while the previous statement is true, it is only true when those numbers are given something to do, which is rarer for these movements. Unless you are in the inner circle, most of the activities that are available to members of these organizations are lacking in importance diminishing the importance of being a member. The biggest problem is a lack of motivational direction.

Suppose John cares about helping the environment, so he joins Environment Organization x (EOX). Inspired by joining EOX John prints out handmade flyers and walks door to door in his neighborhood passing out the flyers and having polite conversations with the people he meets about the danger facing the environment due to human activities and what to do about it. Next John researches for any price rebates available for installing solar panels on his home and makes a purchase appropriate to his situation. Finally John decides to plant a little switchgrass bio-char garden. Wow, go John! Sadly people like John are rare, most of the time unless there is some tangible reward or quid pro quo most people will not go the extra mile to research solar panels, create their own pro-environment flyers or create bio-char gardens. However, if the resources and/or information are provided in an easy to understand and easily accessible format then most people will take advantage of it and apply their time to advance the movement. This is Phase II of a movement, providing the depth of information necessary to allow members to maximize their potential.

More on Phase II in a little while, but there is another important problem within the environmental movement and that is a seeming lack of coordination and joint action. Now this assessment may not be accurate, but to an individual not at a leadership position in any of these major environmental groups, these groups seem a lot like all of the intelligence agencies in Washington. Once in a while they share information and try to coordinate a joint event, but the vast majority of their activities are performed independently. This strategy is the same nonsense that plagues charities. For example there are hundreds to thousands of charities in the United States alone designed to support cancer; how in the world is it more useful to have hundreds of charities over two or three strong cancer collective charities that can increase efficiency, decrease overhead and have a more effective collection, treatment and information network? Short answer, it’s not. So why doesn’t the public see more coordination between environmental movements?

Returning to Phase II execution, one of the principle requirements for these sites should be to act in part as a clearinghouse of information. So with this issue in mind what information can be generated looking at the home page for 350.org a day after the big 10/10/10 event?




Well browsing through the above section headers ‘about’, ‘10/10/10’, ‘media’, ‘campaigns’, ‘sign up’ and ‘donate’ the following intent can be identified. The 350.org site seems to focus on two elements: 1. providing scientific information at a layman’s level to demonstrate the dangers of climate change and what needs to be done to reduce the probability of detrimental damage on a very general level; 2. information regarding how to promote 350.org in your area and before the actual 10/10/10 work party event occurred how to promote and/or organize that event as well; at first glance focusing on this information may be appropriate, but how useful is it really?

For example suppose Susan visits 350.org because she heard about it from a friend and want to know what she can do to help? Susan already understands the general science behind global warming and climate change, so all of that information is rendered moot. Unfortunately beyond wearing a t-shirt or some other material object, the promotional material outside of 10/10/10 is rather scant. There appears to be no direct information for Susan if she wants to somehow make a lifestyle change regarding her carbon footprint. Susan is also out-of-luck if she wants to learn about the most recent news about wind power deployment.

Now it can be argued that hosting this information is not the responsibility of 350.org, which is a valid point, but certainly it has links to sources for this information, right? Well when visiting the most obvious location for these links, the friends & allies section, the following picture illustrates the first page.



Unfortunately this organizational method leaves much to be desired. Instead of being designed for easy and effective transition from 350.org to another site with the desired information, its design more symbolizes a kind of arrogance, almost a visual representation of ‘look at how many allies we have, that means we are important.’ While such a contention may seem harsh it cannot be argued that such a listing does little to aid the movement as a whole. However, Susan is diligent and eventually finds some information to answer her first inquiry about things she can do as an individual tucked away at the organizational wiki, not an easy find.

It stands to reason that a better strategy would use subject headers to direct traffic for those individuals that want to know about other environmental organizations, sites that have strategies for carbon footprint reduction, sites for general up-to-date environmental information, sites which discuss in more detail about a particular environmental topic, organizations which are developing new trace emission energy infrastructure solutions, etc. None of that information appears to be effectively presented on this page or any other page in 350.org. There are scattered links throughout the site, but most pertain to scientific inquiry about global warming.

Clearly due to the multi-national cooperation origins of 350.org, it would be inappropriate for it to sponsor any form of action for putting a price on carbon using competition with China as a motivational tool. On its face 350.org needs to organize local, national and global movements and do so more innovatively and frequently than one or two big demonstrations per year. For example there are some general fact-sheets available on 350.org, but it appears that no one has ever advocated a ‘Print out a fact-sheet and post it somewhere in your local community’ day. Where are the unique t-shirt designs that do not simply advertise 350.org? What is going to garner more attention (picture size aside), someone walking around with this on the front:



Or this on the front:



Whether it is viewed as droll, thought provoking or just silly the latter slogan certainly attracts more attention. In fact why hasn’t 350.org sponsored a contest to design some new t-shirts which would attract attention? The winners would be placed on the website and split any sales between the designer and 350.org. In general when looking at the 350.org site one sees so much untapped potential, which could fight against the somewhat ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality that tends to permeate within the environmental movement.

As for the other stuff that Susan wants information on the evolution of a site like 350.org should follow the course of becoming a logistical information powerhouse. Basically if someone wants to know the most cost-effective way to lower his/her at-home carbon footprint for $500, click this link; if someone wants a step-by-step guide to completely eliminate his/her at-home carbon footprint where cost is not an object, click this link; if someone wants to join a debate about whether or not pursuing PV solar energy is worthwhile, click this link; if someone wants to read the latest report on the viability of IFR nuclear power, click this link, etc.

For example what if the above point was somewhat mistaken in that there is plenty of detailed and thorough information, outside of government reports, regarding objective energy medium analysis, deployment scheduling, specific job growth statistics pertaining to capitalization of specific emission reduction strategies, etc, but it could not be located by this blogger? If so, then is it not the job of at least one of the major environmental websites to catalog these reports so that interested parties do not have to go through UN, EIA, IEA, GAO, CBO and EPA database searches and general search engine queries (which is rather futile for anyone wishing to find accurate and up-to-date detailed information) to extract this information? If such a catalog exists then it is important for major sites to make it known to new environmentalists. It is difficult to expect effective solutions to environmental problems when useful information remains scattered and by extension legitimate debate is fractured.

In addition while it is true that one can search the Internet for information regarding home-based solar panel installation or electrical car purchasing, it is a hassle for individuals, especially those who are not diehards, to sort through all of the information a general web search can provide to get the teeth of what information is actually helpful. Therefore, to improve their effectiveness as tools to help the environment these websites need to have either the necessary information organized in a useful and easy to understand and compare manner or at least easily found links to websites with the information in that format.

Regarding these websites the most interesting thing may be the contrast in style for some environmentalists act like they are waging war against those that oppose human driven global warming, but the principle websites that represent the environment movements are not organized for logistics and information exchange, critical components in any operation. No one single organization should be expected to do it all, but they should as a group and if one person knows about one of these organizations they should be able to easily locate information about all of the other major environmental organizations.

In the end the primary objective of the environmental movement should be to create a Congress that will place a price on carbon in order to foster the new era of a trace emission energy infrastructure in the U.S. Individual action is nice and should be continually encouraged, but overall has a rather minimalist effect on absolute emission reduction both within the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately most in the movement do not appear to realize that it is highly unlikely that the ‘price on carbon’ objective will be achieved by continuing to express concern about the future dangers of unrelenting emission release at a scientific level. For whatever reason lack of moral authority, lack of believability, lack of immediate occurrence or something else the public is not willing to make the necessary leap to voting to facilitate a change in course on a single issue vote mindset based on that scientific argument.

Therefore, the environmental movement must change its line of thought when encouraging the general populous to focus on establishing a national price for carbon. Some environmentalists like to talk about how the U.S. needs a WWII type mobilization, yet fail to realize that the government didn’t come up with Rosie the Riveter and the mindset of liberty and justice for all did not drive the U.S. to enter the war, but instead nationalism against the Germans and Japanese was a chief motivating factor to get the public onboard. There needs to be more ‘legwork’ for the general populous both locally and online to provide better access to information that should increase the probability that they engage in environmentally positive behaviors like increasing energy efficiency at home, reducing transportation emissions and water conservation. Finally the environmental movement needs to better evaluate future energy development and deployment strategies using far more detail to smooth the transition between current fossil fuel energy infrastructure to a trace emission energy infrastructure while also working to reduce overall environmental damage. Just because the construction workers have not shown up for work yet does not mean that the foreman and lead civil engineer can lounge around without a competed blueprint.