17 September 2014

Anything but water

  1. A really good backgrounder on the origins of ISIS (goes back to 570AD) and the influence of poorly-chosen borders. (Obama should send the bill to France and Britain)

  2. Don't waste your money on vitamins. They do nothing for your health (exception: folic acid for expecting mothers)

  3. A really fascinating website to explore people's priorities (healthcare, reliable energy, honest government, etc.) around the world

  4. Were we happier in the Stone Age? Perhaps, yes, when you consider the perverse impacts of consumerism

  5. An inquiry into social isolation and unhappiness: "Commute time should be offset by higher pay or lower living costs, or a better standard of living. It is this last category that people apparently have trouble measuring. They tend to overvalue the material fruits of their commute—money, house, prestige—and to undervalue what they’re giving up: sleep, exercise, fun."

16 September 2014

The practical ways in which laws are undermined

A water bureaucrat (WB) explained to me how laws that sound good in theory may be worthless in reality.

Water users in his state can pump groundwater with permission, without permission (exempt), or in excess of their permission (illegal).

Problems result from exempt or illegal pumping, so WBs (who want to represent/protect the public) should either monitor everyone (assuming adequate resources) or go after the largest abusers (prioritizing given a lack of resources).

WB told me that neither of these strategies are pursued. Politicians have withheld funding to monitor all uses, and they have directed WBs to monitor permitted uses. Given that most permits (say 90 percent) go to small users, these instructions mean that WBs spend 90 percent of their time on users who may account for 10-20 percent of total use (and very little abuse). WBs do not pay extra attention to large users, and they entirely ignore exempt users. The upshot is that the WBs are busy but useless.*

Bottom Line: Vague regulations and mis-prioritized enforcement can lower bureaucratic impact to zero, even with hard working, qualified staff. Pay attention to outcomes, and pay more attention to politicians who talk about sustainability but then hinder its pursuit.
* We would predict this result if we knew politicians condone over-use of groundwater. We can assume they do condone such over-use, given the predictable and known impact of their instructions.

15 September 2014

Just sayin'

"The people of the state of California are more or less destroying themselves to give cheap almonds to the world." -- me, in The Guardian

Monday funnies

Snow has hit the US and Canada at the earliest point in over 100 years, which obviously* proves that the earth is cooling instead of warming. This good news should encourage the fossil fuel community to step up production so we can use more energy. 

If the greenhouse effect is true, then we will save ourselves from icing over; if it's not true, then we can enjoy all the cheap energy. Win-win!

Just another summer day in Calgary, Alberta


* Well, not actually, since climate change is about greater volatility (e.g., snow in Sep) more than higher temperatures.

Cooked -- the review

I'm a big fan of Michael Pollan's writing. I read and enjoyed The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma.* I read his most recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation about six months ago.

This book makes you want to cook and experiment with food chemistry in your own kitchen. I did a few recipes with a crock pot (mac cheese was meh; brisket tasted metallic), a lot of oven roasting ("paella," mac cheese and roasted veggies were all yummy), and got much deeper into the pickles section (new favorite: green peppercorns).

Cooked also makes you think about the process of cooking and the social dimension of food. (I just bought an apartment with an open kitchen that will make it easy to talk while cooking for guests.)

These ideas are worth repeating:
  1. People who see preparing food as wasted time fail to connect with the natural world and appreciate the amazing cooperation necessary to bring food from a distant farmer to your plate
  2. Cooking may not show up in GDP, but it's definitely a source of happiness for the chef and guests
  3. "Barbecue has the highest bullshit-per-calorie ratio of any cooking method, either because barbecue is so straightforward or because it's done by men" [p 68]
  4. The "slow" dimension of southern cooking probably dates from an era (=slavery) where cooking used time that was worth nothing
  5. By cooking and eating garlic and onions, we convert their chemical defenses into ours
  6. Fire cooking is as wasteful (of heat and ingredients) as pot cooking is conservative. The English had plenty of wood and meat to waste; the French needed to economize in their cooking, hence their mastery of sauces and other ways of improving dodgy food
  7. "Time is the missing ingredient in our recipes -- and our lives." I sometimes feel I lack time to cook but never regret spending time when I do
  8. The move to processed foods was not pulled by demand from busy housewives but pushed by supply from food corporations that wanted higher profits**
  9. "Most of the increase in obesity in the US can be explained by food preparation outside the home" [p 191]
  10. There's strong evidence linking "western diseases of affluence" (cancer, heart disease, stroke, etc.) to refined grains and sugars (I agree)
  11. Most commercial "whole wheat flour" has had the germ and bran taken out and added back (perhaps in a different ratio), which may explain why the flour I milled at home was so much better than store-bought flour
  12. The explosion of research into the microbiome appears to justify the value of fermented foods that most cultures have integrated into their traditional diets
  13. Fermented foods are an "acquired taste" because they define our cultural loyalties
  14. The quest for "clean" foods and "antibiotic" environments may be undermining our health
  15. Cheeses do not just remind us of sex, death and animals; they connect us to life when we eat them
  16. It's not implausible to see fermenting grains into alcohol as a rationale for moving from a healthy hunter-gatherer lifestyle to farming, i.e., people sacrificed weight and height to get drunk
  17. Different cultures treat alcohol and drunkenness in different ways, which makes alcohol use acceptable while allowing alcohol to "open up new possibilities" in different ways
  18. Make your own beer or bread if you want to appreciate good bread or beer
  19. Yes, it's cheaper to buy bread, but baking allows you to be a producer, rather than just an empty consumer. Steaming hot bread reminds us of the joy of friendship and gifts of nature
  20. Pollan tends to criticize the over-industrialization of life that can -- like Adam Smith's pin factory or Chaplin's Modern Times -- erode our humanity. I agree with him on this, and I agree that alienation from production can depress people. I am lucky to have a VERY creative job (teaching, writing, making up ideas), but I think that everyone can do a little more producing, no matter their day job
  21. "Cooking is one of the more beautiful forms that human generosity takes... the very best cooking is a form of intimacy" [p 415]
Bottom Line: Food isn't fuel. Food is life and civilization. It is the string connecting us with others' minds and bodies. I give this book FIVE STARS for its fun and interesting exploration of food, cooking, eating and life. Read it, then cook something for someone.

* Botany describes how apples, tulips, marijuana and potatoes "use" us to extend their genetic footprint. Dilemma explains how Americans without a tradition of eating certain foods have a hard time choosing how to eat well.

** I'm routinely disgusted to see the variance between a food package's label and its ingredients. For a simple example, look at any carton of "banana-mango juice" (or similar) where you see that apple or grape juice -- or NO juices -- are the primary ingredients

13 September 2014

Flashback: 8-14 Sep 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

12 September 2014

Friday party!

This drone's-eye view of Burning Man captures some of the scene, but not the people (sample):



H/Ts to KC and CC

"Israel's clear cut discrimination is our responsibility"

Yoav Kislev sent me his 2008 report on water in the Palestinian territories [pdf] in which he discusses the intertwined relations between Israeli and Palestinian engineers, farmers, administrators and citizens. The report confirms some known facts (settlers get more water than Palestinians) while adding some useful details (Palestinian water use has tripled; it's hard to collect money to pay for the system).

In my opinion, Yoav misses one point when he asserts that Merkot (Israel's water company) is filling a role the Palestinians could not easily replace. I'd argue that the Palestinians -- should they take over from Merkot -- would do a better job (collecting revenue, fixing leaks, etc.) because they would be responsible for results. The current situation in which Palestinians "depend" on Merkot allows incompetents to blame Israel -- just as Cuban leaders blame the US embargo for the people's poverty.

Bottom Line: "The technical difficulties Mekorot poses and the restrictions we impose on the committee were intentionally made in order to limit the supply to the residents of the territories... In the areas the State of Israel controls a growing number of Jewish residents live who receive a free water supply, to households, gardens, public parks, swimming pools as well as agriculture -- as well as Palestinians, to which the supply is limited and irregular. That is clear-cut discrimination and it is our responsibility."

11 September 2014

Does fixing a mistake make it worse?

EC writes from Florida:
One of the big questions staring me in the face is... as we reach the limits of sustainable use without “significant harm” to the environment and reuse more and more wastewater, what happens to the systems that have adapted to the volume of discharge provided by our waste stream outfalls?

We have looked at many issues to determine if there is extra available water in our basins, but the amount of “freeboard” available for additional human use may be equivalent to the volume projected to go into reuse -- purple pipe systems here -- in the future.

Reuse is fantastic for farmers recapturing and reusing fertilizer runoff, cities looking for less regulated water sources for esthetic irrigation, and water quality improvements in general. It is terrible for salinity intrusion up rivers with lower discharge volumes, groundwater recharge areas fighting salinity intrusion, hydroperiods in flat wetlands, migratory species looking for a critical water depth, and other water volume dependent issues.

Have you looked at that?

Also variability in the demand for water reuse is a big issue. Spray fields used to help discharge extra water exceeding reuse storage volume, almost always occurs on rainy days or after the soils are saturated. That is when lawns don’t need to be watered and spray fields are least effective at handling the runoff. It seems to be when reuse water managers run the spray field pumps 24-7. What is your experience with the expense of reuse water storage?
As all of you know, I am not a scientist, and therefore unqualified to comment on the size of the impacts from these changes in use, but I wrote this back:
I agree with your general points, that (1) "efficiency" may leave nothing for nature (eg, the Jordan River) and (2) human centric changes may tip systems into collapse.

But those dangers are often ignored by humans. My "end of abundance" thesis is that we've exceeded limits that we've been able to ignore for ages.

What are our choices, now that we're seeing the impacts of our behavior? We can either step back and rethink our habits or drive ahead and off the cliff.

It seems you've described the manifestations of failure to reform. The question is whether policy "leaders" will act on those bad outcomes
Can any scientists comment on the these issues? Can any policy wonks give examples of where science feedback is driving policy reform?

(The EU's Water Framework Directive is an attempt to improve environmental water quality and quantity, but it's top-down and resisted by many national governments.)

10 September 2014

It's my well and I can pump if I want to?

In my Reddit AMA, hobbers wrote:
So I was imagining how you would price water when someone has their own well. Sure, it's the same aquifer or whatever. But people will still moan and complain - "it's my land, I can do whatever I want, what gives the government the right, etc". All of which still makes sense, except for the common resource problem. But couldn't you influence their behavior by offering a water market? In a similar way to solar? People can pipe water back into the system at market prices. That sets a cost for them watering their lawn, while not forcing the government to inspect their well or otherwise. When water is abundant, market prices are low, people can water whatever they want. When water is scarce, market prices are high, and people have incentive to not water their lawn, instead piping the water back into the system where use can be prioritized.
I responded with:
I agree with these general outlines. The key for the well example is the degree of "shared" in the aquifer. Assuming it's worth the metering cost, it would be pretty easy to charge a "public goods extraction fee" based on extraction volumes and wellhead depth in a region (averaged over a year). Above average extractors would pay if the level dropped, since they are depleting the common pool resource. "Unconnected" people could do what they way (pay or not) with "their" water, which they have the ability and incentive to protect. (Aquifer science is VERY complex in the field.)

Speed blogging

  1. "Water Security in the Middle East" and "The Water Crisis in Iran" [pdfs] focus on the institutional and managerial failures that turn difficult physical conditions into the conditions of collapse. Related: Where Will The World's Water Conflicts Erupt?

  2. Interesting podcasts (here and here) on the roll out of smart meters (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) in San Francisco

  3. California pays too much attention to policing "correct" water use and not enough on pricing for scarcity and "How to Slake California's Thirst" (quotes me)

  4. This paper quantifies the importance of utilizing BOTH technology (efficient appliances) and techniques (awareness, habits) for conserving water

  5. The "Vulnerability Sourcebook" will help you assess a country’s vulnerability to climate change; the "Strengthening Aquatic Resource Governance" project relies on collective action to prevent conflicts around aquatic resources (like water and fish)