20 Dec 2014

The 2015 Water Smarts Calendar is FUNDED... but wait!

There are $2,000 in pledges so far. That's awesome, as it means the project is funded and the calendar will be produced and distributed.

BUT it's not over!

First -- please DO pledge if you want to get a calendar (or more). There's nothing wrong with going "over target" as I'm happy to get as many supporters as possible. The average pledge is $44, but $20 gets you a calendar. There are still 11 days to join in...

Second -- more people and more pledges means more calendars in more places, which will improve out overall water smarts. What's wrong with that?

Third -- I'm having second thoughts on printing 500 copies and sending them around -- mostly because I only have a few days to do all the work when I'm in California in mid-Jan. Maybe it's better to put out a PDF of the calendar, to "help" the world?

Feel free to opinionate here, or email me.

Flashback: 15-31 Dec 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

The start of something new (a little philosophy)

... and that's it for last year and this year.

In the meantime, you can:
Enjoy your holiday and see you on 2 Jan 2015!

David

19 Dec 2014

Friday party!


Too serious? How about party bloopers?

Speed blogging

  1. A reformatted version of my answers on water scarcity... with me looking like a Klondike underwear model :)

  2. A nice summary/overview of Living with Water Scarcity (free download, perfect holiday read :)

  3. Yay! Modi's government extends Gujarat's successful program of metering water pumps (no more free electricity) to the rest of India. Now maybe California can move ahead on metering water extractions? Related: Australian's tell Californian policy makers that "you can't manage it if you can't measure it"

  4. Scaling up policy experiments to fit the rest of the water sector -- some suggestions. Related: a review of experiments on resource allocation [pdf] and ideas of how to turn them into policy

  5. Fascinating article on how climate assisted the Mongol Empire (15 years of good rain allowed men and horses to live and overpopulate the area) and broke Europe (70 years of poor weather and upheaval). Plan accordingly
H/Ts to MGC, RM

18 Dec 2014

Problem, what problem?

Seen at the Antwerp zoo:



I'm in Dubai now (updates to follow), but it's sad to see even the Europeans not quite up-to-date on the status of women.

17 Dec 2014

Kickstarter update with mockup of the calendar!

We're over 80 percent towards the funding target of $2,000.

In this video, I show a mock up of the calendar and how each month's activity will go.



I also describe the $3,000 stretch target, to print more copies (500 instead of 100) at a lower price ($20 instead of $10). ALL backers will get double their calendars -- a great gift! -- if we hit the stretch goal!

Find out more here.

16 Dec 2014

Two thoughts on Kickstarter

My campaign for the 2015 Water Smarts Calendar is going well, with about 70 80 percent pledged so far. I'm hoping that we hit the target -- and the stretch goals (to lower the cost per calendar) before 31 December.

I am using Kickstarter for a few reasons. First, I like its "all or nothing" system of building support, since nobody pays until enough people pledge. Second, I like the way it allows people to pledge different amounts according to their interest and situation. Those two aspects bring up two related issues.

First, what about the 60 percent of projects that fall short of their funding target? Perhaps there are lessons to learn from failure? Tim Hartford points out [gated] that we may be biased if we only pay attention to success (e.g., $55,000 raised to make potato salad). Kickended gives you instant access to thousands of failures.

Second, I am keenly aware of the difference between $5 and $100 pledges. It seems easier -- and may be easier -- to raise $100 from one person than $5 from 20 people. I'd prefer a broad base of support, but limited time makes it hard for me to lobby more people. I now understand more about why politicians go for big donors -- and why politicians who do so should not claim to represent "the people." I'm not worried about "undue influence" for the water calendar (given it's a single product rather than a set of policy choices), but I would really love to send hundreds of these calendars out to a growing base of people who want to know more, rather than to a few who are already committed to knowing and acting...

Bottom Line: Feel free to pledge :)... It's $5 for the PDF calendar or $20 for the paper calendar (delivered to US, $5 more for EU)

15 Dec 2014

Monday funnies

This seems about right...



Speed blogging

  1. Fleck, riffing on my Water Smarts calendar, offers some useful perspective on the 20% who care and the 80% who don't care about water issues (until forced)

  2. Australia will probably suffer $1 trillion in additional damage from climate change by 2100, especially in places vulnerable to floods and wildfires. Related: NOAA has a "toolkit" to help Americans prepare for climate-related disasters

  3. An excellent overview [pdf] of the OECD's activities and reports on improving water management

  4. This review of ecosystem services payments in Latin America brings up troubling questions on payments and results (it's complicated). Semi-related: A discussion of the factors affecting markets for water rights in Chile

  5. Yale researchers track wastewater treatment as an input to improving drinking water quality in the next round of "Development Goals." (Recall my critique of the water MDG, which redefined the target from "access to clean water" to "access to an improved water source" (water or not)

13 Dec 2014

Flashback: 8-14 Dec 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

12 Dec 2014

Friday party!

This video really captures the feel of India


Where to study economics as an undergraduate?

GM emailed me from Peru, with a few questions:
First, what do you think are the best places to study economics? I don´t know in which field I will specialize but I know this: I want to focus in developing economies. Which path do you recommend I take? I will be relying on financial aid to get through college. I didn't even consider applying to the USA until a few months before finishing high school and I have a rather bleak application (Good scores, Good GPA, but no extracurriculars at all). I will apply anyway, but if I don't get in I'll strengthen my file and apply next year. I am still going through the list of universities ranked per aid for international students but I already have four unis to which I will apply: UChicago, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and Princeton.

Second, do you know any research colleges that are not widely known and maybe not that good in general but have a focus in development economics or sustainable development? What colleges keep popping up in papers you read?
To this, I replied:
  1. Teaching at research universities is not always good for undergraduates. It may make more sense to get a good education at a liberal arts school (don't specialize too soon!) or LatAm school, especially when considering the high cost/difficulty with scholarships

  2. For development economics, it's important to know languages, history, politics and geography. "Context" matters much more than in game theory, for example.

  3. Don't rush. You need 4-5 years for a BSc/BA, then a few years of experience THEN more time IF you want to get a masters. Try to enjoy the process, but don't make too many goals. Yes, you may have a big impact by 25 years old, but there are many things to learn, people to meet AND barriers to change. etc.
Care to offer your opinion, experience or advice?


11 Dec 2014

The government-business nexus

Governance is complex (from Bakker 2014)
I criticize discussions of the "energy-water nexus" as too superficial in their focus on that particular junction when other factors (e.g., population, carbon, environment, policies) play a far larger role in either. I cannot say the same about the "government-business" -- or state-market -- nexus.* Governments can make or break markets. Markets can have a big influence on (usually corrupt) governments.

It's in this context that I answered this email from G:
The Irish government recently introduced austerity measures that included water metering. I think this trend will affect other countries. My question to investment managers is, therefore "Do you think that the austerity measures (e.g., increasing taxes, implementing water meters, etc. will change you business model?"
To G's question, I answered:
This is an important question to ask, as government policies can really "move the market," as we saw with feed-in tariffs on renewables and cap & trade policies. That factor, btw, also explains why businesses lobby for particular "reforms," as some are more profitable than others...
These ideas will not surprise anyone worried about state or regulatory capture, nor those familiar with the "grabbing hand" of government. Indeed, those phrases describe exactly the same phenomena: the over-reach of market or state, respectively, into each other's legitimate action space.

I took those perspectives into account when organizing both of my books into Parts I (economic water) and II (social or political water) as a means of addressing both sides of the issues. For those of you who have read my book (everyone, no doubt, since it's free to download :), I recommend taking some time with this excellent review, "The Business of Water" [pdf], in which Karen Bakker (no friend of "neoliberals"**) carries out a measured and thorough investigation of this, more interesting, nexus. Bakker may more glass half-empty than half-full, as far as the benefit of business participation in the water sector, but she is far more objective and balanced in her analysis. Read it.

* I wrote a paper -- "When worlds collide: business meets bureaucracy in the water sector" -- on these matters. I need to dust it off and get it published.

** She defines neoliberalism as "the doctrine that the market can, and indeed should, act as a guide and medium for all human action," a definition that probably 95% of economists would disavow, so it's often a strawman.

10 Dec 2014

Looking for some training in water regulation?

I'll be giving a few talks (on tariffs, right and wrong) at this Feb 2015 course, to be held in Budapest.

The Energy Regulators Regional Association (ERRA) is branching into water regulation with a training in Feb 2015. To date, about 800 regulators participated in various ERRA training programs, which are open to non-member organizations. The Introduction to Water Utility Regulation builds on the experience and evaluation results of 50 past courses.

Objective of the Course: The course features 5 days dedicated to the core responsibilities and activities of water utility regulatory authorities with regard to the oversight of the regulated utilities, principles and practices of tariff setting, performance benchmarking, and new developments in the regulation of the sector.

Level of the course: Introductory. The course will provide basic, but comprehensive training to the personnel of water regulatory authorities and water utilities. Participants will gain knowledge on key economic concepts guiding the operation of the sector, the challenges faced by sector participants including the wider problems of water management, and the role of the regulator and regulatory models including best practices. A core theme of the course is tariff setting and approval by the regulator: theoretical lessons will be supplemented by case study examples and a tariff setting exercise. Sufficient time will also be dedicated to the role of performance benchmarking in regulation.

For more information, please visit: http://www.erranet.org/Training/Water_Utility_Regulation/2015

Speed blogging

  1. Garrick and Hall have a nice review paper: "Water Security and Society: Risks, Metrics, and Pathways" [pdf]. Related: The water risk monetizer (no idea how it compares to WDI's Aqueduct)

  2. The US Conference of Mayors complains that EPA regulations "unfairly burden" poor households [pdf] and ask for "more flexibility" in implementing those regulations. I don't blame the EPA, but cities that charge for improvements through fixed charges instead of (1) property taxes and/or (2) "scarcity [of clean water] surcharges" -- both of which would fall on the rich more than the poor. On the latter's progressive structure, read this post

  3. Free webinar on 15 Dec: "Land and Water Governance In Urban Regions"

  4. Senator Dianne Feinstein continues to represent the 1 percent -- rich farmers -- over the 99 percent of Californians who benefit from functioning ecosystems

  5. Los Angeles has (by necessity) started to save its runoff and "used" water for reuse. Bravo!
H/Ts to DC, DL, RM and TM

9 Dec 2014

Kickstarter update and additional details

After an initial surge to $900 towards the target of $2,000, pledges towards my calendar project (seen on the right sidebar) have slowed down.

I am getting lots of "let us market your kickstarter to your facebook friends" spam, which seems to indicate a common problem on Kickstarter projects -- finding people who will back the project once they hear about it.

So, can you recommend any "communities" that I can contact (email me)? Can you contact any on your own? This blog post will help explain the calendar's purpose.

Let me emphasize -- once again -- that the project will NOT go forward if there is insufficient interest (pledges). That would pretty much blow my mind -- given the need for water education and the $millions spent on it now -- when the remaining funding gap represents merely 55 calendars.

Is it possible, in a world of 7 billion people, that not even 55 want to spend more time learning about water? If so, then it surely explains the reason why we have so much confusion on water issues: people trust "professionals" to manage systems about which they know very little.

How are people going to know if their representatives are doing a good job if they don't even know how water is embedded in their lives?

Although I realize that most people have no time to be "water experts," I am sure that more water knowledge (like, say, coffee knowledge) will result in better water outcomes. That's what my calendar is aimed at.

Here, for example. are the themes -- and questions -- for a few months:

January: You do not have a tap in your house, but you can walk 5 min to get clean water. How much would you pay to get 10 liters (2.5 gallons) delivered to your home each day? How much for 10 more liters? How much for another 50 liters? Lesson: Value of water.

March: Get a copy of your water bill (ask your landlord if you do not pay for water). Find the quantity of water you've used in the last period and how much it cost. Put those numbers into the form online to find out (and compare) your water consumption and payments to others. Lesson: Water price and consumption

November: Where does the water come from near your house? Find your "watershed" on a map. Now find the largest river in the watershed. How much water does it hold? Where does the water come from and go to? How much is diverted before it reaches its end? Lesson: Environmental services

So, if you think people should know the answers to these questions (do you?), then please help me get this project funded! :)

Addendum: In response to this email ("How daft is it, to market a calendar for "environmental awareness" to people when "experts" are failing in their jobs? Seems that people *talk about* water education all the time, but (1) they are spending other people's money and (2) consumers are just not interested..."), Tyler Cowen replied: "It is a tough issue to motivate people, problems are fairly abstract and long-term until they truly hit home, which maybe has happened only in Yemen so far..."

8 Dec 2014

Monday funnies

I didn't see how genius this was until I looked for the rabbit in the duck


Anything but water

  1. California's carbon program is expanding to include gasoline. Prices will rise by 10 cents/gallon (not the end of the world), and people will think a little harder about how much gasoline they use. Don't forget that British Colombia has had a functioning carbon tax for years! Related: prices falling for different reasons, i.e., some investors are selling oil/gas shares because their value will plunge if we're going to leave carbon in the ground. Others are selling because Saudi is over-supplying the market to squash fracking. (They will not succeed in the long run, but they ARE destabilizing Venezuela, Iran, Russia et al. in the short run)

  2. Very helpful tips on giving (research) presentations. Semi-related: Academics caught reviewing their own "peer reviewed" papers, the open access (money-to-publish) journal that accepted a paper consisting entirely of "Get me off your fcuking mailing list," and how academic "controls" obscure the racism they're looking for.

  3. The skeptics guide to institutions will help you understand the use and limits of this word in academic research

  4. Indonesia's new president is cracking down on deforestation and reducing fuel subsidies. I LIKE this guy!

  5. The midlife crisis is driven by unmet expectations and ended by the realization that it's not all that bad

6 Dec 2014

Flashback: 1-7 Dec 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

5 Dec 2014

Friday party!

These 8 minutes make up a little bit for the overall failure of the $150 billion International Space Station. Time for some mega-dubstep!

Are we still humans? Some thoughts on "progress"

Loyal reader MG Chandrakanth* and I had an interesting email chat on our changing relations with each other, in India and the US over the past 60 years.**

It begins with this email from him:
I compare my family between now (2014) and then (1955, when I was born). My parents were both primary school teachers with humble earnings and took care of 3 children, I am the youngest, my sister and my eldest brother. Family commitment was the key, every one looking after every one else. Joint family served as insurance with zero premium. Amidst poverty we were very rich, spend substantial time in listening, learning classical dance and music, yoga, family rituals (we call puja), visiting temples and relatives, attending weddings, performing all religious functions at home, inviting people for these gatherings etc. I have never seen children away from parents in their young or old age. Old age homes were nil. We enjoyed playing with our relatives, parents, siblings, we quarreled yet, family harmony was there. Sharing poverty was fun. We could visit any body's family any time with /without invitation, no problem.

Now, in 2014, I am substantially rich but I have virtually lost everything. I am now Professor with great UGC (unv grants commission) salaries, Having lost both parents, Both daughters highly literate. I now have health insurance, in lieu of joint family, financially secure, a TV, internet, mobile, gadgets to measure blood pressure. I also have the associated obese body, substantial mental worries to be endured, not cured. I see advertisements in TV on old age homes, children living in independent family set up, joint families have vanished and are vanishing even in villages. Family affection to be found not with ease. Sharing prosperity has become a challenge. No one has time to listen, especially if we visit friends, relatives in the evening, the TV serials occupy their time and space. Now we need to call and go.

What I did not see in 1955, but see in 2014 is sometimes astonishing !
  1. Unmarried couples living together
  2. Married people who chose not to have children
  3. Divorces
  4. Gays and lesbians
  5. Valentines day celebrated
  6. Children admitting parents to old age homes, denying they are sons/daughters.
  7. Little or no commitment to family
Sometimes I wonder from where these 7 ideas came from? Certainly they are not from the third world.
To this, I replied:
Your words are meaningful as an expression of "times change." The curious thing is how younger Indians are so quick to embrace "foreign" ideas.

One issue -- that you mention several times -- is how people swap non-financial choices/activities for financial ones (e.g., take care of parents vs old people home; telling stories vs television). I agree with you that these are perhaps false economies

Oh, and I am SURE that gays/lesbians have existed in India for ages.*** They were just secretive about it. Is there some way in which their "openess" is causing trouble, or is it just "new"?
He replied:
Regarding gays and lesbians as well as neutral gender, in India there is a strong taboo. In addition taboos existed for living together, divorces, and all other relations other than respecting the institution of marriage. Disrespecting the institution of marriage is resulting in chaos in society here. I had never seen the spree of old age homes earlier, murders for gain of old people knowing that their sons/daughters are abroad with virtual no security for the old people at home. These changes are increasing social tensions.

In developed countries, for example, we see no filth or garbage outside the homes, since every thing on the road, public places are neat and tidy since people act like citizens with responsibility. However the same people inside their home often do not keep their families neat and tidy, since we see divorces, living together and all non-traditional or non conventional relationships not respecting the institution of marriage and showing commitment to family. This may be more applicable perhaps to the US and to a lesser extent in Europe.

When I came to the US for 3 years (1987-1990) from a conventional traditional village background, the exposure was certainly flabbergasting! I will narrate an experience which happened at UC Berkeley. There is a small wooden bridge close to Giannini hall that I was crossing in a drizzling rain, and I slipped from the bike and fell down on the bridge. So many students and faculty walked on the bridge, but none -- not even a single student or faculty -- came to me and lifted me. I was bleeding, but I picked my self up and went to class. I entered after class had begun, and no one objected. After some time, I could not continue due to pain and left class in the middle, but no one bothered.

What is happening in the US? Are we humans? I feel a human is a person who is not just for himself or herself but also looks around and offers a helping hand wherever necessary. I think ultimately man /woman is becoming selfish... If a man is efficient, he is worried about himself and today, similar to Charuvaka of Hindu philosophy. He needs to move on to equity (myself + yourself today) and on to sustainability (myself + yourself, today and tomorrow).
To this I replied:
Private spaces in India are very clean, but public spaces are not (tragedy of commons). Public spaces in wealthier, functional countries (e.g., Netherlands, not Saudi) are cleaner b/c they have overcome the problem (tax and pay cleaners), but their private spaces may be messier due to two working parents, etc.

On caring, I'd say that Americans have been distancing themselves from "family" for a long time, gradually. The difference is dramatic if you come directly from India...

Humans have been self interested for a very long time, but now many have the financial, technical and social ability to "be independent" of others. This is a two-edged sword, as freedom gives us the benefit of independence at the same time as it gives us the cost of social distance. I think that people underestimate the value of interdependence to our psychological well-being as well as its importance in bringing people to share in the effort and rewards from protecting collective goods such as urban public spaces, the environment and even political rule.
Your thoughts?

* Professor and University Head of Agricultural Economics, University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore, India

** This well-written essay also discusses these topics, e.g.,
There is a finite chance that in our single-minded obsession with ideological and religious differences we shall turn the world into a dark, cold and uninhabited place. Controlling the likely sources of conflict will involve an extraordinary degree of mutual understanding... Scholarship itself is ultimately a cooperative venture and is crucially dependent on trust. We should proclaim that fact. The involvement with others occurs in every aspect of our lives. We should denounce the view that this is merely a constraint on individual ambition. Cooperation should be seen for what it is, an essential and pleasurable part of being human.
*** India is also vast in its cultural variety

4 Dec 2014

Is the city for people or cars?

Cornelia sent me this brilliant illustration of the "pedestrian reality" in many cities:


How safe do you feel, in such an environment?

Speed blogging

  1. Here's a 12 minute video of me on water challenges (water wars not among them :)

  2. A nice discussion on water rights in China

  3. Academics conclude keep the debate going: "Public shareholding (vs privatization) and centre-right (vs left) local governments negatively affect water utility performance"

  4. "This review finds that constructed wetlands are effective in CSO treatment and relatively less expensive to build than comparable grey infrastructure. Constructed wetlands not only remove pollutants, but also mitigate the event-associated flow regime." Related: An integrated approach "towards systemic change in urban sanitation"

  5. Bullard and Eckstein give a nice summary of actions to promote sustainable water management. Related: The costs and benefits of restoring watersheds as a means of protecting the quality and quantity of urban water sources. Pricing urban water for conservation, the "conventional wisdom" of which is nicely balanced in the comments

H/T to RG, RM and GS

3 Dec 2014

Rent seeking really just means legalized theft

JW Writes:

"For the past eight weeks I taught a “Life-Long Learners” class on economic topics. The class name was, “Rent Seeking and other Economic Concepts”. The motivation for teaching the class occurred when I was in another class. One of the class members mentioned Joseph Stiglitz’ book, The Price of Inequality. He asked if anyone in the class knew what Stilitz meant by “rent seeking”. No one else in the class of about 40 knew. So the person who read the book; had enjoyed it; and thought the book was important; even though he did not understand a key concept presented. I set out to change that.

The working title I used in developing ideas for the class was, “Economic Principles you Won’t Learn on the Evening News”. (I don’t have high regard for the way mainstream media covers economic topics.) During the class we covered a variety of topics, both fundamental, and more complex, subtle, or counter intuitive. I also introduced the ideas of several historical economists. During introductions I learned class members could name only Paul Krugman and Thomas Piketty as economists, and that several class members thought that Thomas Friedman and David Brooks were economists.

I based the curriculum on topics that I think are interesting. The first class topic was rent seeking. Wikipedia does a good job defining the term. Rent seeking is the spending of resources on social or political lobbying to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating any new wealth. The concept was developed by Gordon Tullock in 1967 in a paper titled, “The Welfare Costs of Monopolies, Tariffs, and Theft”. (Note: Tullock died November 3, 2014.) Anne Krueger coined the term, “rent seeking” in her 1974 article “The Political Economy of the Rent-Seeking Society”.

"Rent" is a bit of an archaic term and dates back to Adam Smith who divided incomes into profit, wages, and rent. Rent is generally associated with income from land, but rent can be collected on any property controlled by an individual or organization.

Many economists, including Stiglitz and Piketty, believe that rent seeking increases economic inequality and decreases economic efficiency, and I agree with them. What's strange is that so many people think that these problems can be exposed and addressed by mainstream media and government, respectively, when it's clear that these channels are controlled by the rich and powerful. Their faith in those tools turns out to be misplaced as well as self-destructive, since they are often used to influence policies, laws, and regulations that favor the rich. This is a excellent (but sad) example of the law of unintended consequences at work.

Rent seeking has been practiced for thousands of years, and rent seeking behavior can be observed more easily when one looks from a particular angle. As an example, consider The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, also known as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act. Copyrights are granted to encourage authors to produce original material by granting them a limited time monopoly on their intellectual property. Under this act, the works of Walt Disney (the man) written after 1923 were granted an extended term of protection (until 2019 for works created in 1923). Walt Disney died in 1966 so I have struggled to understand how the retroactive extension of the copyright protections incentivized him further or benefitted society. Another explanation -- that the Act was designed to protect Disney's profits -- seems to make more sense.

Bottom Line: Just because someone makes a claim or assertion does not make it true, and does not obligate society to grant unearned compensation.

2 Dec 2014

Answers to five big questions on water

I was asked to opine on the state of water, in advance of the 2015 World Water Forum. Here's a preview for you...

The issue of water scarcity in arid regions has called for innovative solutions. What have been some of the most successful projects to date?

Many historical solutions to water scarcity (qanats in Iran, for example) delivered an excellent economic and environmental value. Cheap energy has made modern man far more wasteful with water -- drilling fossil water from great depths, desalinating shallow seas, and lavishing water everywhere (pools, aircon, golf courses). The most successful modern communities treat water as a precious resource by limiting their diversions from the environment and charging users the full cost of water. Israel's experience with water demonstrates both sides: excess use by various subsidized groups and extreme conservation by those lacking access to water or paying dearly for it.

The idea has been advocated of exporting water from abundant to poor areas via pipelines and large canals. Are such plans economically feasible?

This idea is "feasible" in that governments often advocate them, but infeasible from a cost-benefit perspective when one considers the environmental cost to the exporting (not-really-surplus) region, the fact that water users on the receiving end rarely pay the full cost of building and running canals, and the fact that "more supply" does nothing -- in the face of growing demand -- to reduce the risk of shortages. Indeed, water importing regions are far more vulnerable to losing their water, by action of man or nature. As an example, consider Cambodia and Vietnam's vulnerability to dams built on the Mekong in China and Laos. It's better to rely on local water.

Can appropriate pricing schemes effectively help to avoid water being wasted and reduce pollution?

There's no downside to this statement as we'd like to think that people would never waste or pollute. Prices tend to remind people that water is costly (the campaign for prices in Ireland says "that running tap is draining your money"). Pollution can be managed with prices, regulations or insurance incentives -- according to circumstances. I'd definitely support taxes on discharge quality, for example, as a means of reducing industrial pollution. China could see big results (and revenues) with such a program, which only requires sensors and (non-corrupt) field inspectors.

Countries such as Singapore are recycling wastewater to reduce imports and become self-sufficient. How do you rate such conservation methods?

These methods are sound in places like Singapore, where the cost (and risk) of relying on outside water flows is high, but wastewater recycling makes more and more sense in places where discharge quality needs to be high and existing sources are strained. It's not uncommon, actually, for wastewater discharges to be cleaner than the rivers they join -- the same providing "natural" water to drinking water treatment plants.

Most people are not aware of acute water crises or understand the implications. Are education and a change in lifestyle key to curbing consumption?

Yes and no. Yes, a change in consciousness would have a major impact, but how do you change that? I recommend (higher) prices as an accessory to conservation messages, as they give a nice clear reminder of the value of saving water. Higher prices are also critical to ensuring that the utility selling water doesn't get into financial trouble when people "do the right thing" and buy less water. Utilities have high fixed costs, and they need revenue if they are going to spend on protecting service reliability.

1 Dec 2014

Please help with my kickstarter campaign!

I've launched a kickstarter campaign for the 2015 Water Smarts Calendar, which will help people learn about 12 different dimensions of water over the 12 months of the year (based on the chapters in Living with Water Scarcity)

If you've read the book -- or not -- then this may be the "push" you need to take more time to look into your local water flows.

Want to know more? Here's the launch video:



So, check it out -- and get friends, family, colleagues and employees involved!

Monday funnies

The Danes have a good sense of humor, but I'd prefer them to talk more about migration than sex as a solution -- sex is nice, but population has got us into a lot of trouble, in terms of sustainability.



H/T to KK

A big idea from a small country -- or blackmail?

Valeria R writes:*

What is the Yasuní-ITT Trust-Fund?
This is a story about the oil that lies underneath the Yasuní-Biosphere Reserve (one of the most biodiverse place on earth), which is located in the Ecuadorian Amazon. In 2007, the president of Ecuador announced an “historical initiative” in the UN General Assembly. He proposed the establishment of a trust-fund that would fund a UNDP-managed reserve. In exchange for around 3 billion US dollars (about 50% of the expected income from revenues if drilling for oil was allowed), Ecuador promised to not extract oil from under the Yasuní. That initiative ended sadly in 2013 when insufficient funds -- even with significant domestic contributions -- failed to materialize.

Developing countries face a tradeoff between the environment and economic development. This post explains the opportunity cost of forgetting that fact.**

Goals, costs and benefits
The trust-fund would combat climate change, help Ecuador move away from oil-dependence by diversifying its economy and inspire other developing, oil-rich countries. More specifically, the fund money would go to a) the management of, and scientific research in the Yasuní, b) national reforestation program and c) investment in renewable sources of energy. Let’s briefly make a cost-benefit analysis for Ecuador and the world.

Ecuador’s benefits from not-extracting would come from the development of the Yasuní’s eco-tourism industry (studies show in the very long-run it would exceed oil revenues), investing in renewable energy to power the country, and protecting non-contacted Amazonian tribes living in voluntary isolation that may lose their ancestral lands and human rights.

The benefit to the world would have been avoided emissions of 407 million Metric Tons of CO2 (as much as Brazil and France’s emissions combined in one year), allowing the Yasuní’s primary forests to capture CO2, and protection of unique biodiversity capable of advancing science and medicine.

The failure of the Yasuní-ITT initiative means the loss of these benefits and thus the arrival of their costs.  The state has turned its rhetoric to ‘fighting poverty with oil money’, but Ecuador has much more to lose. The Yasuní are now threatened by oil pollution, illegal poaching, and death of isolated-tribes through spread of diseases or clashes.

The decision to drill has resulted in fierce opposition from civil society (the Yasunidos demanded a referendum to revoke the decision in vain), increased the chance of a 'resource curse' and Dutch disease, and legal and physical conflicts with indigenous-rights groups.

Bad timing and publicity
The big question -- considering how 3 billion US dollars is pocket money for big economies -- is why the initiative failed? The impression of blackmail was not helpful. Ecuador should have emphasized the economic and global value of keeping the oil underground. Looking abroad, we can also see that the 2007 arrival of the global financial crisis did not help.

Bottom Line: Resource-rich countries with human and economic development needs cannot always make decisions compatible with international goals.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

**Most information was extracted from official documents including “Programa para la conservación y manejo sostenible del Patrimonio Natural y Cultural de la Reserva de la Biosfera Yasuní” by María Cristina Vallejo, FLACSO SEDE Ecuador.

Space debris, an environmental problem

Mathijs H writes:*

On 4 October 1957, Sputnik 1 entered the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) to circle earth. Since then national space agencies have placed 6,000 satellites in the LEO, which has turned into a commons in which one agency's debris threatens other agencies' satellites. This space debris problem is well-known, and different mitigation, coordination and remediation initiatives are underway.

The urgency of the problem is obvious in Johnson et al.'s study, where the "best case scenario" (a 200-year halt to launches) leads to a stabilization of debris until 2055, but an increase afterwards. The cause -- cascading effects -- results when one collusion generates more objects, and in doing so increases the risk of new collisions. That exponential growth rate means that total debris will rise above the rate of decay (due to atmospheric drag).

It is clear that action is necessary, and the biggest space agencies seem to feel responsible in doing so. Examples of these actions are the Clean Space Initiative of ESA, NASA's orbital debris program, and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). These actions, unfortunately, are not going to fix the problem. The first steps (mitigation and monitoring) need to be augmented with remediation, but it seems undecided who is going to do it. This existing coordination problem will not get easier when private companies increase space activities and the cost of this common pool resource problem.

Bottom Line: The space debris problem is urgent. Initiatives are taken, but not enough. Involvement of private companies will make action more complex to coordinate, and therefore the problem more difficult to solve.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

29 Nov 2014

Flashback: 24-30 Nov 2013

A year later and still worth reading...

28 Nov 2014

Friday party!

This is what's possible with legalization:



Brazil's one-sided deforestation policies

Rob H writes:*

The deforestation of the Amazon is a great threat to biodiversity, local peoples' livelihoods and the planet's carbon balance. While from 2005 to 2013 the efforts to reduce the rate of deforestation have been successful (pdf), the problem is still far from being solved. The recent slowing of deforestation is largely due to increased efforts from the Brazilian government to monitor and regulate the production of beef and land use. State and municipal forest conservation policies have been implemented since 2004. Satellite monitoring has been improved. Local authorities revoke farming licenses when illegal deforestation is detected. Furthermore the beef industry has been forced to reduce waste in production and transport.

These policies have greatly reduced the rate of deforestation, but they do not mean the problem is solved. Overlapping regional borders, unclear regulations and lots of paperwork have raised compliance costs to ranchers who may move to less regulated lands or crops. Brazil is encouraging investment in agriculture by offering $41 billion of cheap production credits to farmers (palm oil planting is growing rapidly), thereby exposing the weakness of a system aimed mainly at beef production.

Bottom Line: Brazil should regulate other deforestation drivers if it is going to avoid a costly game of cat and mouse in which some farmers bear high costs while land degradation continues.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

Nigeria’s Oil Reforms

Bart H writes:*

It is ironic that Nigeria – the tenth largest country in oil reserves – imports most of its fuel. This fact may perhaps explain why Nigeria's oil industry -- rather than reducing socio-economic tensions -- has contributed to false hopes and listless GDP growth. Much of Nigeria’s current woes are the result of corruption, governmental incompetence and underinvestment in industry. Rather than Nigeria showing mere symptoms of the Dutch disease, it seems to have died entirely. It is time for Nigeria to be brought back to life.

The Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) promises to improve Nigeria’s situation. First presented in 2012, it was based on a list of recommendations by the Oil and Gas Sector Reform Implementation Committee. The PIB recommended a new regulatory and institutional framework that would guarantee greater transparency and accountability in the sector. The PIB would also ensure a greater fiscal take by the government, acknowledge the potential of gas investments, and overhaul the tax regime.

Opposition from International Oil Companies (IOCs) and the National Assembly has stopped the bill from approval, thereby converting an opportunity to stimulate investment into a barrier against it. IOCs do not want to invest amidst uncertainty over the PIB, Nigeria’s fiscal take, and changing definitions of "profit." Inaction from Nigeria’s legislature is even more striking. Perhaps corruption explains their preference for an opaque system plague by fraud, but they should see the need for action to protect Nigeria from collapse.

Bottom Line: It is sink or swim for Nigeria’s petrol industry. The improving investment climate for extraction industries in neighboring countries threatens Nigeria’s domination, and the current legislative paralysis is not helping. The PIB must be approved.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

Anything but water

  1. People may disagree on the definition of "green job" (I think it's silly), but that's no excuse for politicians to bury a study on green jobs for partisan gain. Speaking of politicians, Coyote says President Obama should not ignore laws "to do the right thing"

  2. Oil-rich gulf rulers are stripping citizenship from advocates of democracy and openness

  3. Does describing an ecosystem as "degraded" mean scientists are biased? Related: Peter Thiel (Paypal, Facebook) has interesting (anti-academic) opinions on education and innovation

  4. "Development People" fail because they keep trying to do The One Big Thing

  5. "Today nearly one in six Americans lives within three miles of a major hazardous waste site... That these contaminated places are no longer the focus of national attention is in part due to a rarely cited phenomenon: governmental competence"

27 Nov 2014

How to get the (plastic) soup out of the ocean?

Koen L writes:*

More and more plastic is ending up in the oceans and seas, causing environmental degradation, economic losses and lower oxygen supply. Ocean pollution receives more and more public attention through i.e. the plastic soup foundation. The problem of ocean-pollution is that the oceans are not owned by one individual or state. States manage their parts with little concern for the ocean as a whole, which causes problems over the the distribution of costs and benefits.

The table below displays a simplified 2-player game of this problem. Cleaning up the ocean costs money and if only one country cleans, the non-cleaning countries experience positive externalities from this (as their water is cleaned too). As countries cannot be sure of the other’s cooperation, countries have an incentive not to clean. This results in a compete-compete outcome, in which none of the countries actually takes measures to clean up the plastic.

Recently, a possible solution for the problem has been proposed by Boyan Slat, a 19-year old student. His solution is the only technically and financially viable method proposed thus far. By attaching a system of long floating arms to the seabed, the oceans can clean themselves. The arms would collect the plastic and hold it, to be taken out at a later moment. At the moment, a team of international experts is building and testing large-scale operational pilots. This solution, however, collects only half of the plastic, doesn’t solve the influx of plastic and needs the plastic to be collected and disposed of elsewhere.

The question is therefore how the different entities co-owning the ocean will be incentivized to cooperate and each contribute to financing the arms, collecting the plastic and preventing the influx or more plastic. The problem is of immense scale as about 44% of the world population lives in coastal areas and 148 out of the 196 countries in the world border one or more seas or oceans. This scale impedes collective action, as the payoff of free riding is high given uncertainty over other countries' actions. Furthermore, the complexity of the issue is high, as the impacts of plastic pollution are very difficult to estimate. This results in a tendency of countries to be passive towards this issue.

The money necessary for Slat’s plan could be raised by, for example taxing polluting companies, but individual pollution and the effect of taxes on economic output might lead to resistance. A possible measure to reduce further pollution may be to (implement and) enforce territorial property rights and either sue or bargain with those polluting a country’s territorial waters. This, however, will be a long-term solution (if a solution at all) and is not likely to reduce pollution if individuals and companies do not face additional incentives to minimize plastic pollution. These additional incentives might be created through public campaigns raising awareness, taxation or fining and trying to incorporate pollution costs in the prices. They will, however, produce side-effects and negative outcomes the public might not be willing to face to clean our oceans

Bottom Line: A plausible means of cleaning plastic from the oceans exists, but the complexity of assigning responsibility among countries, companies and citizens makes it difficult to put this solution into practice.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

The Time is Not (Yet) Ripe for GM-Products

Katharina B writes:*

The European Commission proclaims that a diversified agricultural industry is key to ensuring Europe’s competitiveness on the world agricultural market. As such, it has supported the coexistence of GM (genetically modified) and non-GM crops since 2003.

The problem is that GM and conventional farming are incompatible agricultural methods that interfere with each other in inefficient ways. The need for buffer lands (to reduce the risk of GM pollen affecting conventional crops), for example, reduces the amount of productive land.

Having strictly separated GM and non-GM zones would be more feasible as the use of buffer zones could be minimized and a maximum of agricultural land used. The European Commission is against this policy as it would create economic zones that could be labeled as organic and conventional or as GM. This would make a geographic area representative of its produce and non-GM agricultural zones might have a market advantage as GM-free products are largely favored by consumers in the EU. The average support for GM foods in the European population is about 27%.

That GM crop areas will have a market disadvantage to GM free zones should, however, not be a concern of the EU and hinder the implementation of clearly segregated agricultural zones.

GM-produce faces low demand in the population and the mere existence of GM-pollen as a negative externality is due to lacking market demand for GM produce. If consumers in the market were in favor of GM crops, no one would mind the presence of GM content in produce and cross-pollination would not harm conventional growers. Competition in the market ensures that products with lacking demand will suffer a reduction in supply. Forcibly introducing coexistence between GM and non-GM products ignores fundamental market processes and leads to losses in agricultural land and conflicts that reduce market output.

Bottom Line: The time is not yet ripe for GM agriculture because people do not want GM crops and GM crops contaminate conventional crops. GM crops should be segregated and conventional agriculture emphasized.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

26 Nov 2014

Hurricane Economics: Housing

Robert D writes:*

First in 2005, and once again in 2012, the U.S. Was devastated by both hurricane Katrina and Sandy. Of course these disasters impacted society in countless ways, the housing market (or in some cases the lack there of) provides an interesting perspective on these impacts. With both hurricanes, thousands of residents were displaced due to the severe damaging of houses. This led to an overall decrease in housing prices in areas impacted by the storms. At the same time, these displaced resident were now in search of new (and affordable) housing. Traditionally, the replacement housing and or compensation for damage is provided by the federal government. But as you might recall, there was (and still is) some serious doubt about the government's capability in providing these 'goods'. If the government is inadequate in providing support for hurricane victims then what are the alternatives, and does this mean that there is a potential market for hurricane relief?

In New Orleans alone, over 214,700 houses were damaged and approximately 400,000 residents were displaced. This created an overwhelming demand for emergency relief shelters. This demand could not be met through federal means, therefore new systems should be implemented to account for the (possible) demand. One possible system is the Exo unit, which is a small, affordable, emergency housing unit for up to four people. These units are designed as “upside down coffee cups” and therefore they are easily transported. Even if this solves the short term housing issue, there are still long term consequences like whether the change in housing prices correspond with the impact of the storm. More specifically, the price of houses may drop too much or too little due to the federal supply of houses immediately after the hurricane.

But even if we implement a new relief system before it is too late (i.e. another catastrophic hurricane occurs), there must be an initial investment towards the system. At this point, it becomes a matter of risk. How large of a risk are the investors of the new relief system willing to take? This question depends on the expected level of destruction for a hurricane as well as what is considered 'enough' in terms of emergency housing relief. If there becomes a lack of investment, it is difficult to see a solution that does not involve the intervention of the government.

Bottom Line: In post-hurricane areas, the federal supply of housing units disrupt the housing market so much that prices may not reflect the damage caused by the storm. This calls for a change in hurricane relief policies in regards to housing.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

The corn(y) side of beef production

Alexia T writes:*

The vast majority of US cattle today spend most of their lives away from pasture, confined in overcrowded and revolting feedlots, and force-fed a diet of grains, especially corn.

For centuries cows have been used to convert grass into meat and milk, however, in the past few decades the trend of mass production, at low costs, to maximise profits has turned the beef industry into a profit seeking machine rather than a sustainable source of feed. This ever-expanding industry comes with a great cost to society and its environment.

Corn-fed cows grow and fatten up much faster than grass-fed cows have ever done. 75 years ago it took cows about 4 to 5 years to reach their ideal slaughter weight, whilst today, with the high influx of corn, and other supplements such as antibiotics and growth hormones, it takes approximately less than 15 months for a cow to reach this weight.

Corn consumption in cattle causes several important problems. The production of corn, which by the way is heavily subsidised by the US government, demands vast doses of pesticide as well as continual applications of nitrogen fertilisers, which in turn use great quantities of natural gas and oil. In 2010, US corn production consumed more than 9 million tons of fertiliser and led to roughly 42 million tons of CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.

A corn diet raises the acidity levels in the animal’s stomach, creating several health conditions such as E. Coli contamination, which not only affects animals, but humans as well (remember the mad cow disease…). Further, the corn diet has changed the levels of Omega 3 and Omega 6 in beef, which has paved the way for higher rates of cancer, weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease amongst meat eaters. The corn diet along with the other supplements that cattle are stuffed with has also led to the weakening of the humane immune systems, making many forms of modern medicine ineffective.

It may be true that the corn-fed beef industry is more efficient, but it may be neither sustainable nor efficient in the long run. The true cost of “cheaper meat” is becoming more and more evident, and the beef production industry is having a worrisome impact on climate change. Not only is it slowly destroying the environment around us, but individuals regularly consuming corn-fed cattle are also receiving direct health impacts.

Bottom Line: Corn-fed cattle production and consumption contribute negatively to climate change and severe health impacts. Changing our patterns of production and consumption would assist in reducing these negative outcomes.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

As a migrant...

A friend of mine wrote this on FB:
So being a poor immigrant means more than not owning a home, not having nice clothes and not speaking the language. It also means not having a home-community with strong ties to relatives, neighbors, friends, church members etc. These factors could affect one's ability to see, establish and appreciate such vital connections. I have seen and felt this "numbness" in myself and others in a way that reminds me of the first day I stepped into a new school in a new country with a different language. It makes me SO appreciate my first U.S. teacher Mrs. M. who started teaching me English, my first Mexican friend EV who also spoke (albeit a weird version of) Spanish, my first high school friends..., my neighbors..., my adopted family..., and SO many others! THANK YOU!!! We are ONE human race, ONE community, ONE family. We all have SO much LOVE to give and yet have no idea how much even the tiniest gesture of KINDNESS can mean to those that need it!
Bottom Line: Even 30 years later, these feelings are worth appreciating.

25 Nov 2014

Amsterdam chilled out

This video has a nice feel...



Related: Eighteen things to love about Amsterdam

The Cost of Deception

Ezra S writes:*

When one needs to make a certain decision, a basic cost-benefit analysis is often used to weigh options -- especially when it comes to economic or political decision-making processes. Although such processes may seem straightforward, there are sometimes less easily measured, but important aspects to consider.

Take, for example, the 2004 sale of publicly owned hospitals to a private company that took place in Hamburg. The incumbent city government assessed the money they would gain from the sale to outweigh the cost of not being able to control part of the public health care system of its citizens. In a country like Germany where health care is considered a public good, making significant changes with long-term impact within the system always comes hand in hand with a public and political battle. A referendum assessing public opinion found a clear majority (76,8%) against the sale. That result seemed to settle matters until the court ruled that public referenda results were not binding. That ruling allowed the government decided return to its original plan and sell the hospitals to the private company Asklepios.

That selling against the public’s will is problematic with regard to basic beliefs associated with democratic rule is rather obvious, but that shall not be the focus of this post. It shall rather be stressed that the government did not take changing circumstances to its original cost-benefit analysis into account, which were caused by the referendum. The citizens of Hamburg believed that a majority vote against the sale of the hospitals would mean that the city would not sell, period. When the government decided to sell anyways, many citizens felt directly deceived. Psychological research (pdf) has shown that deception causes significant cognitive-emotional and behavioural responses. In this case the trust not only in the government at the time but also in the whole democratic process was diminished. That meant that the ultimate cost for selling the hospitals increased significantly after the referendum, a development that the government did not fully take into consideration.

Bottom Line: Quantifying emotional costs and taking them into account when making a decision, may it be political, economic or of any other nature, might be difficult but is essential. Especially when a party involved is left with a feeling of deception, which triggers distress and negative responses, the resulting increase in costs should not be ignored.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

Quinoa boom threatens people and their environment

Theresa L writes:*

Quinoa has been an essential food for Andean people over centuries but, until recently, was unnoticed in most of the Western world. I got to know quinoa when living in Ecuador four years ago. Back home in Europe, the crop could only be found in fair trade shops or specific organic supermarkets. Today it is promoted as a "Superfood", becoming ever more trendy due to being the grain crop with the highest nutritional value per 100 calories. No matter in which supermarket I have recently been, quinoa was always prominently featured.

As consumers in Europe, the United States and Australia enjoy the valuable addition that quinoa is for their diets, its world market price has tripled since 2006. It is now strongly discussed whether this price increase has more negative or positive effects on traditional producers and consumers in Peru and Bolivia. According to a study of the FAO (pdf) local quinoa consumption didn't break down. Instead, higher prices enabled farmers to afford products like fruit and vegetables that they weren't able to consume before the quinoa boom. However, non-farmers, especially the urban poor, only face higher prices. Critics thus point towards the fact that many locals can't afford quinoa anymore and are forced to substitute it with cheaper but less nutritional products like rice or noodles.

Additionally, the increased demand of quinoa leads to serious environmental problems. According to the FAO, more than 50 percent of interviewed quinoa farmers in Bolivia noticed a decrease in soil quality during the past three years. This is due to the land now being farmed year-round and being treated with pesticides. Additionally, farmers focussing on higher quinoa production are allowing their lama populations to shrink. Thus, the important services of grazing and fertilizing traditional farms and preventing erosion with their large, padded feet is missing. The Southern Altiplano area where quinoa is grown is a very fragile ecosystem as it has an average altitude of 3,600 meters where not many organisms are able to survive. Therefore, changes like an increase in quinoa along with a decrease of lamas that might seem little can bring this ecosystem out of balance, threatening its future fertility.

Facing these problems, quinoa lovers might question whether they should still consume the product. That decision may be easier in the future, as cultivation expands in the United States, Canada, China, Denmark, India and Australia. In the meantime, consider organic and fair trade quinoa if you want to support Peruvian and Bolivian farmers and their environment.

Bottom Line: A boom of an agricultural commodity might be beneficial for the GDP of a country and for particular groups involved in production, but is at the same time problematic for the environment and national consumers. Higher incomes due to an increase in the market value might thus not make up for the total negative effects.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

Speed blogging

  1. Back to the future: some California winegrowers see the virtue (risk reduction) in "dry" farming without irrigation. Related: climate change may bring back local food production as diversification replaces mono-sourced, monocropped farms. Also related: a nice overview on "water markets" (loosely defined) in California and an excellent analysis (pdf) of how to address calls for "more storage" into California's water system

  2. The Dutch government engages citizens on climate change and flood risk, via apps!

  3. LA has moved to Owens Lake 3.0 (furrowed dry beds) in an attempt to restore exports

  4. Late and misunderstood budgets interfere with good water management

  5. An update on unbundling customer service from water provision in England/Wales

  6. The Daily Show criticizes Detroit's efforts to collect money from the poor -- just as I did
H/Ts to DL and RM

    24 Nov 2014

    Monday funnies

    I could watch this all day...

    Transvestite fish and male infertility

    Kristian K writes:*

    Superstition and misleading information regarding the Pill is abundant both from the obvious Catholic adversaries and extremist websites, but also in women’s magazines and protective parental blogs. “The Pill is a sensitive issue for many reasons” (My Girlfriend, 2014), and strong accusations against it including the risk of blood clogs, feminization of fish and male infertility only exacerbates this. To some extent such accusations do not come out of nowhere, but there is no clear evidence that the pill is the sole responsible factor. At best it is a contributor amongst many. However, this does not necessarily mean that the pill does not cause any environmental problems, only that we need to remain realistic regarding what we know and what we don’t.

    The artificial hormone and EDC 17-alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2) is a main component in female hormonal contraception. EE2 has been linked to for instance the feminization of fish, and has been found in damaging concentrations in freshwater American streams. Still, it remains unclear how large a responsibility can be ascribed to EE2 compared to other endocrine disruptors. A 2009 study found that feminization of fish could best be statistically explained by the presence of estrogen together with anti-androgens (used in for instance the treatment of cancers) or by anti-androgens alone.

    Still, regardless of how large concentrations are in a given area, it has to be admitted that artificial estrogen, like other EDCs, can have severe adverse effects to animals and young humans. Therefore, a general solution should be found to limit the presence of EDCs, found in a variety of products, in waterways and the air. Another idea is to improve general water sanitation. This is difficult in places that do not have water sanitation already but it might be a possibility in places such as Europe or The US. In order to fund such a sanitation program, it might be possible to estimate the concentrations of the different EDCs in the water sources, and ascribe a fitting sanitation tax to the products, either at a consumer or producer level. We could also consider alternative contraceptives, for both males, females (and all in between).

    Bottom Line: EDCs are a problem for the environment and we need a solution. Since birth control pills do contain EDCs, they should be considered as part of the discussion of how to mitigate adverse effects. As a man it seems almost hypocritical to ask women to use an alternative, since the idea of a temporary vasectomy or using the potential ‘male’ pill, does not sound particularly tempting to me. Still, surely there is a solution to this problem, but whether it should be found in alternative contraception methods or in better sanitation, begs the question. What do you think?

    * Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

    The invisible problem of light

    Līza L writes:*

    After the 1994 earthquake knocked out power in Los Angeles, local emergency centers received calls from anxious residents who reported a strange “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky that they had never seen before. They were reporting the Milky Way – the galaxy that contains our Solar System. As someone who grew up in the suburbs of Rīga, the capital of Latvia, I find it comic that people had never seen the Milky Way before. What is less comic is that this is the reality for millions of urban people around the world.

    Source: www.stellarium.org
    The stars in very urbanized and industrial cities have become (almost) non-existent. It’s not that stars are suddenly dying out; they are simply hidden from view because of urban sky glow. Due to urbanization at least half the kids in any given population are growing up in urban areas where most of the light pollution is happening, and they might not know what a sky full of stars looks like. They are not presented with the stark contrast of a countryside sky and a city sky if they barely leave cities, so they don’t realize there is a problem. And it’s not just kids but adults too – while light pollution is now talked about more, many adults don’t realize that all the artificial light in cities is creating problems not only for their health, but for ecosystems disturbed by artificial light. Most wildlife follows diurnal patterns of dark and light so their interactions might alter and overall physiological harm can be done to plants and animals alike.

    Light pollution is, in a sense, similar to the problems presented as a consequence of fisheries depletion because people don’t necessarily see the strong impacts in their immediate environment. People who assume there isn’t a problem are mistaken. Similarly to ocean fisheries, people feel like they are far away from the light pollution problem. This false perception creates an imaginary distance between individuals and "unattainable" solutions. But of all the pollution we face, light pollution is probably most easily remedied because most of the solutions are quite simple, such as changing the type of light used or improving light fixtures so that light isn’t leaked. So even if raising awareness of light pollution and its harmful consequences to the general public is too difficult, it shouldn’t be too difficult to change policies and reduce light pollution.

    Bottom Line: Light pollution is an ‘invisible’ problem which can be easily remedied. Even if we cannot make the problem ‘visible’ to the general public, simple policies can substantially reduce that pollution -- and bring back the stars.

    * Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.

    Some thoughts on my Reddit AMA

    My "ask me anything about water" was roughly 4x more popular (based on votes) than the first one I did in July. (It was also more popular than Naomi Klein's, but she was only answering questions for an hour :)

    I spent about 8 hours in total, writing 450 replies to over 1,000 questions and comments.

    The most popular question was "What's your opinion of the bottled water industry?" to which I replied: "It's like the soft drink industry. Both need to worry about groundwater supplies and litter. Both promise quality and advertise well ahead of what they deliver."

    My most popular answer was in response to this question:
    Hello. I live in Manila, where the tap water is not as clean as in other countries, so we don't drink it. Do you know what it would take to make it drinking water, just in general? Also, any interesting water facts about the Philippines? We have loads of slums and corruption here, coupled with massive flooding and the biologically dead Pasig River flowing through town. As far as improving water quality is concerned, what would you say is the best way?
    I wrote:
    Yep. Tough problems. Leaking pipes are the start, as they lose water and allow contaminants to get clean water (from the treatment plant) dirty. Neighborhoods should look at small scale treatment-for-sale facilities (see photo with bottles here).

    Corrupt people don't care about slums, so they need to take care of themselves. For drinking, you can use filters and chlorine, but it's MUCH better to have drinkable tap water for cooking, showering, etc.

    Get your neighbors together. After you get 100, look into larger filters. After 1,000, you can build a larger system. They are affordable, even in slums, when shared among many...
    It was interesting to see this response -- and several others -- covered in a nice summary by a Filipino blog.

    Here are a few of my favorite questions and answers (in no particular order):
    • Them: "Water economist... Alright, in developing countries in Africa and Asia there are many people who earn a living by selling water. How can you build water infrastructure in developing countries without ruining their lives?"
      Me: "Well, people can switch jobs (like nightsoil collectors). Look at the benefit to water USERS, in terms of cheaper, cleaner water."
    • Them: "How does one get into studying the economy of water?"
      Me:
      1. Read my book.
      2. If still interested, then find a water issue that interests you.
      3. Study that (or work in the area).
      4. ???
      5. AMA!
    • Them: "Where is the "Manhattan Project" to passively desalinate ocean water? [snip] It just seems that if population rates - regardless of location - allow for a doubling of humans within 30 years, the water has to come from somewhere. Business people and globalist control freaks love to make everything SCARCE in order to regulate it, control it, charge more for it, etc. There is a lot of talk about ABUNDANCE in this gee-whiz age of Google this and Apple that. It just seems that a program to passively separate salts and minerals from ocean water for use in human activities is a necessity"
      Me:
      It's called "rain" :) Seriously, lots of people support supply side solutions. Those are no problem, as long as users pay for them.
    • Them: "Why is it so difficult to desalinate water?"
      Front page! Woo hoo!

      Me: "Salt and water like each other."
    • Them: "I live in Melbourne, Australia and in the first decade of the new millennium, we went through a drought that rendered our water storage levels dangerously low. As a bit of a knee-jerk reaction, our government hastily spent BILLIONS of dollars building a desalination plant, because I guess they saw the possibility of our water reserves running dry. Shortly after construction of the plant had gone past the point of no return, we had record breaking rainfalls which basically filled our water storages, and continue to have very good rainfalls year on year. We are still paying money for our desalination plant via a water levy (tax), and will continue to pay it until we have completely paid off, which will be in about a decade or so, and the plant is yet to deliver us with a single drop of water. My question is do you think that building the plant was a good idea back then, and do you think it is a good idea to have it for the future of Melbourne? Do you think in the foreseeable future we will ever turn it on?"
      Me:
      "Good question. The plant is an insurance policy. You don't always need insurance... until you do."
    • Them: "What does California need to do to solve (both in the short-term and long-term) the drought/water shortages it is currently facing?"
      Me: "(1) Raise the price of water so people don't have lawns in the desert (2) Protect groundwater and use aquifers (3) Allow water markets, so ag can reposition/shrink (4) STOP subsidizing sprawl (via cheap water)"
    • Them: "Based on your knowledge of major trends, what will be the biggest changes we'll see over the next 20 years?"
      Me:
      "Food chain disruption. Groundwater exhaustion. Dead ecosystems. These will be black and white WTF [were we thinking?] situations in many places."
    • Them: "How quickly will there be major impacts from ground water exhaustion in US south west?"
      Me:
      "The impacts will be felt after 3-5 more years of drought for ag; cities can get along for 25+ years."
    • Them: "What is more likely to occur in severe cases all around the world in a few years: extreme drought or extreme rainfall/floods?"
      Me: "Both."
    • Them: "You mentioned competition on quality. Where does that apply - developing countries, developed countries or plain everywhere? I wouldn't know how to judge whether tap water or battled water were higher quality. These numbers (German pdf) released by the utilities company mean nothing to me and they aren't even available for bottled water."
      Me: "Yep. Everywhere. Consumer's Union could nail that one."
    Bottom Line: People are very curious to know the risks, causes and potential solutions to water quality and quantity problems. Many put too much weight on technical hope (desalination) or moral outrage (bottled water is evil). Few understand the roles of government failure, monopolistic ineptitude and community engagement. I am working to move the discussion in that direction, and the fact that people downloaded 2,000 copies of my book during the AMA gives me hope.