Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

GMO crops don’t even increase yield


image credit: Stuart Williams via flickr (cc)

image credit: Stuart Williams via flickr (cc)

Here’s a program note from ABC indicating that yield of GMO crops is no greater than conventional crops.  Unfortunately there is no formal citation of the source article, nor is it available on line as far as I can tell, and ABC tends to remove their program notes after a few weeks.  However, the article, from the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, was written by Professor Jack Heinemann of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, which might be enough information to locate it. Heinemann’s web page links to an article which may even be the one in question.

Fighting nature with sheep

photo by AuntOwee via flickr (cc)

The problem, according to Science Daily, is that marginal pastureland in the Swiss Alps, after 8 centuries, is being abandoned and given back to nature.  So what does nature do? She grows green alder, which by increasing evaporated water causes a decrease in runoff feeding streams. These streams feed hydroelectric generators, and thus the reduced flow, in one valley alone, will cost something like 500,000 to 1,000,000 Swiss francs annually.  The alder also “contaminates the water with nitrates,”  tho the article doesn’t explain how this is a problem.

The remedy? Researchers demonstrated that Engadine sheep will peel the bark off the alder, killing them and [presumably] restoring grassland.  But “the added financial value of sustainable land use is not sufficient to keep the arable land open.”

Which raises the interesting question: Which poor country has a sheep-raising tradition and potential emigrants who might like to move to Switzerland?

Dangers of China’s cities– and ours

photo credit: Beth Burdick via Flickr (cc)

China Daily’s article “Hidden Danger Hazards of Big City Living” is really an infrastructure and construction story.  Sinkholes open up and swallow people, sections of glass-walled buildings drop down and kill people, big cities flood.  Of course, pretty much the same things happen in Chicago:  The loop floods (tho the streets are spared); neighborhoods flood regularlywindows fall from buildings killing pedestrians; sinkholes swallow cars (tho not pedestrians, probably because we have so few pedestrians). Sure, it’s not an everyday occurrence, but China’s urban population is about 250 times Chicago’s, so it’s not surprising that more accidents happen.

The article quotes officials saying that coordination among infrastructure construction and maintenance actors is poor, as is the quality of construction and building inspection. Probably true, and surely in Chicago the inspectors are trustworthy and respected, and infrastructure work is usually well-coordinated.

What really does seem to be a difference is how long infrastructure is expected to last. The China Daily article says 1200 out of 5100 total km of Beijing sewers (possibly referring only to storm sewers) is “at least 30 years old, with some of it dating back six decades. This is typical for most cities, experts say.” One infers that Chinese sewers are expected to last only 30 years.  In Chicago by contrast, 1/4 of the water pipes is said to be over 100 years old,  apparently the age at which replacement is likely to be justified. Sewers are perhaps even older.  And I think this age profile is typical of mature American cities.



Why isn’t this the geoists’ slogan?

source: Chicago Pedestrian Safety Campaign

It’s all about the rent.  Once you understand what it is and how it works, you’ll look for it and see it everywhere.  You’ll know the fundamental cause of unemployment, low wages, economic stagnation, and poverty.  The cause that makes possible most of the other corruption and theft that plague our nation.

The slogan came from a local campaign to reduce pedestrian deaths, certainly a worthy cause and one that got some funding and creative minds.  But we should have thought of it first.

Did you hear the one about the two economists….

…who spoke for over an hour about cities, development, migration, and density, and asserted that America would be more productive if our cities were denser, and did not mention economic rent nor land value?

They did it here, on econ-talk, and you can download the podcast or just read a pretty good text summary (I do not recall them using the word “land” either, but it appears several times in the text summary so I must have missed it). The book itself seems to be available only on Amazon Kindle, which as I understand it means I cannot buy it, but only license a copy to read. But from the interview I gather that author Ryan Avent has determined that American cities (and some suburbs too) are not as densely developed as they “should” be, and that this is due to local governments’ reluctance to allow development at optimal densities.

Now certainly there’s no question that local governments, usually reacting to neighborhood concerns, often refuse to allow development at densities which are physically workable. I recall one suburb where a proposal would have had single-family houses on lots of 9000 square feet.  Community reaction was that the kind of people who would live on such small lots would not be desirable neighbors, even tho in many other cities such a lot would be considered oversize.  These concerns are often stated as “property value” arguments, and perhaps they really are.  That’s an expected consequence of an economic system where ordinary people cannot expect to accumulate much money by working and saving, and must hope to profit from rising prices of the real estate they occupy.

And it’s not unknown for the politicians whose approval is needed for major developments to take advantage of the opportunity for personal gain, legal or otherwise but surely wrong.

So how is it to be decided what the optimal density is? In  Science of Political Economy, Henry George observes that, for each kind of production, there is an optimal density at which to work.  That density depends on what is being produced, the technology applied, the number of workers available, their skills, the quantity to be produced, etc., so it will change over time.  Avent may be correct that we would be better off if higher densities were permitted in some already-dense desirable places, but he certainly didn’t offer much evidence in this podcast.

But let us assume that higher density would be a good thing (and I am certain that in some places it would be), how is it to be achieved? Avent seems to assume that a reduction in land use regulation would be the proper method, because the market is efficient and so density would rise to the appropriate level.

But communities are more complicated than that, and you can’t, or at least shouldn’t, ignore externalities.  The first builder to put a high-rise in a desirable townhouse neighborhood may profit nicely.  However, not only does the character of the community start to change, but different infrastructure is needed.  Can the streets handle the traffic, or can acceptable public transport be provided? Will the sewer and water system handle the load? What are the other effects on the larger community, and how can they be dealt with? There are loads of reasons why it makes sense for the community, acting thru its local government, to have a major say in its development.

But to really irritate those who understand political economy, Avent says:

[I]f you had a sort of density charge–I hate to tax density in that way but in terms of being realistic about the distribution of cost–you could channel some of that into investing in local amenities: could be parks, could be transit, something to try to convince local stake-holders that density is going to be in their interest. So normally we think of taxes as discouraging an activity–which it would. It would make it more expensive for developers to make urban areas more dense.

Yes, some way for the community to share in the benefits of increased density. Can you say “land value tax?” It doesn’t tax development, it taxes development potential.  It pressures landowners to build at appropriate densities, but doesn’t punish them for doing so. Supported by competent and realistic zoning, it guides density to the places where is works.

Somebody told me once that the Economist, for which Avent is a correspondent, is a pretty good source of economic news except that it refuses to acknowledge the possibility, let alone the benefits, of a land value tax. I still haven’t seen anything that contradicts this assertion.

Producing electricity from waste heat

The general concept of using waste heat from one process as an energy source for another is quite old, but this report says that some University of Minnesota researchers have figured out a practical way to generate electricity from it. It involves a new alloy which changes magnetic properties when it’s exposed to heat. Of course I have no idea whether it’s practical, or even whether some patent troll will step in to exact a fee for its use.  It will be interesting to check back in a year or two and see what has become of it.

And let’s remember, it was publicly funded (fortunately completed before the State of Minnesota suspended operations)

Funding for early research on the alloy came from a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research (involving other universities including the California Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, University of Washington and University of Maryland), and research grants from the U.S. Air Force and the National Science Foundation. The research is also tentatively funded by a small seed grant from the University of Minnesota’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

(No, I don’t know what “tentatively funded” means regarding completed work.)

This is your technology.  Don’t let the big guys take it away from you.Famous photo, unless it has been relocated

BP and Louisiana politicians

New frontiers in corruption from BP and the Louisiana insiders who profited from oil-spill cleanup money. Extensively documented by Pro-Publica.  Some interesting stuff comes from this organization, and perhaps I am just paranoid about their Board.

Podcasts: appropriate agriculture, inappropriate singularity, Argentina

Podcasts can be a way to learn while doing something else.  I’ve encountered some interesting ones in recent weeks.

Grow rice in Vermont? Why not? (more…)

Patriotism of people who didn’t hang up

The headline on the Rasmussen report is 41% Now Say “Buying American” Is Top Factor When Purchasing a Car. If this means that a very large proportion of auto buyers prefer to buy US-built even if it might not be the best deal,  it would indicate that many people are patriotic and willing to sacrifice for their country. That would be significant for any reformer, showing that many people are seriously committed to national welfare, and we need only find a way to connect with them.

But when we look at the details of how the survey was done, we find that:

  • It uses robocall technology, and covers only those who do not automatically hang up when receiving a robocall.  (Pollsters say they make adjustments for age, race, gender, political party, which might help overcome this limitation.)
  • It’s not limited to people likely to buy new cars in the near future, nor to people with any interest in or ability to buy any car
  • Many of the calls were made on Veterans’ Day, when some people might be in a particularly patriotic mood
  • Only 29% of the total respondents think that “buy American” means “buy a car manufactured in the United States.”

Imho the most patriotic thing Americans can do regarding new car purchases is to forego them, buy a bicycle and/or transit pass, and avoid going into debt. (Only 27% of new car buyers pay cash.)  The benefits in terms of reduced petroleum dependence outweigh anything from purchasing domestic brands.

Unfortunately, many employers choose locations which are accessible only by automobile, so not everyone has this option. If fewer of us chose to have cars, this problem might be less common.

Carbon tax vs. cap & trade

If global warming is in fact a problem, and if it can be controlled by reducing carbon emissions, then Georgists point out that “cap & trade” is a lousy way to accomplish this.  Yoram Bauman says  that a cap becomes effectively a floor, and that British Columbia actually has a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

Even if there’s no need to reduce carbon emissions, I don’t see how a carbon tax could be worse than taxes on retail sales and earned income.