Thursday, December 09, 2010

December's Deadly Forest Fire in Israel Confirms Climate Change Predictions in 2000 Report

Smoke from Mt. Carmel fire, from Haifa, Israel

A raging forest fire early this month killed 42 people, destroyed hundreds of homes, and consumed much of the forest that carpeted Mt. Carmel, near Haifa, Israel. The deadly fire was a predictable--and clearly predicted--effect of human caused global warming and climate change, according to the author of an official climate change report that was submitted to the U.N. in the year 2000.

The 2000 report said that rising levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases would create overall hotter and drier conditions around the Mediterranean, with delayed winter rains and a shorter rainy season, but also cause more extreme climate events such as heat waves, heavy downpours and floods. Combined, the predicted changes would significantly increase the risk of severe fires, like the one of December, 2010, threatening the survival of many forests in the Mediterranean region.

More about the 2000 report and the current comments of its co-author, Guy Pe'er at Ben Gurion University, at this Suite101 page.

In my opinion, it's long past time for climate change deniers worldwide to shut up. But even for those of us who have been following the climate change research and "debate" for years, it's time to stop piously saying that we need to act now to protect our children and grandchildren. We need to act now to protect ourselves.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Aspirin a Day Keeps the Doctor Away

Baby Aspirin Reduces Cancer Risk
It's well documented that taking low doses of aspirin every day reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes. That's why millions of people worldwide are prescribed their daily baby aspirins.

A new analysis combining the results from eight long-term studies of the effects of low-dose aspirin now finds a significant reduction in deaths from a variety of cancers, most notably those of the digestive tract, but also cancer of the brain, lungs, prostate and pancreas.

Overall,taking low-dose aspirin for five years or more appeared to reduce the overall death rate from cancer by more than 20 percent.

You can read a summary of these findings on Suite101.

And, if you're interested, you can read the original paper in The Lancet.

Robert Adler

Friday, December 03, 2010

Pesticide Exposure, Cognitive Decline and Dementia Risk

When I worked as a neuropsychologist, I got to see first hand how even mild cognitive impairment could wreak havoc in a person's life. Of course Alzheimer's disease or other full-fledged dementias are even more destructive.

That's why a recently published study linking long-term pesticide exposure to cognitive impairment and, the researchers suspect, upping the risk of a person developing dementia, caught my attention.

You can read a summary of the research, which tracked over 600 French vineyard workers over time, on Suite101, by clicking here.

And, if you want, you can download the original article, in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, at this URL.

Robert Adler

Friday, November 26, 2010

A simple intervention can inoculate female college students against the stereotype that they can't do well in science

New research by a team at the University of Colarado, in Boulder, adds to the growing number of studies showing that surprisingly minimal interventions -- in this case having university students in an introductory physics class write two 15-minute essays about the values that are most important to them and why they are personally important -- can boost the grades and achievement levels of students whose performance would otherwise be stunted by the debilitating effects of negative stereotypes.

You can read about research on the surprisingly powerful effects of negative stereotypes in this New Scientist article.

And about some of the research on simple interventions to inoculate the targets of negative stereotypes against them, here.

And about the most recent research in my Suite101 posting, here.

Robert Adler

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Good News for Chocolate Lovers -- Now We Know How Chocolate Protects the Heart

Research just published in the Journal of Cardiovascular Phamacology reveals one of the key ways in which chocolate or cocoa protects the human cardiovascular system. It turns out that pure cocoa and dark chocolate contain substantial amounts of an enzyme that inhibits ACE, which in turn has the effect of lowering blood pressure. The lead author says that this adds to the growing body of data showing that a diet rich in naturally occurring protective substances can help "prevent cardiovascular diseases."

More details about the study at Suite 101:

Robert Adler

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal reveals GOP game plan for next two years


Your piece, "The GOP's 2012 Game Plan" in the WSJ on Mitch McConnell lifted my spirits.

It's always comforting to know we have you and a resident realist in Washington who put the Republican Party above the unnecessary liberal "needs" of the country. Without Mitch we would never have taken back so many seats in Congress. The Republican strategy of the past two years has been the best I've seen in my lifetime as a Republican--take a President who offers hope and bipartisanship and just say no to everything. Limit his accomplishments and register our opposition. The 'green behind the ears' Obama was caught completely off guard--he came into office thinking he could do something for the country! We showed him otherwise. Now, with good game-planning we'll keep him hopping another two years and then we'll put Sarah in office and be able to get those tax cuts back for us rich people. I don't know about you, but I HATE to give money to the government. How else could I have become the multi-millionaire I am?

I can't tell you how excited I am--and that goes for my family too. We flew to France yesterday to look at a new villa (it's 15th century, but new to us). I know we will be able to afford it now. And we stopped by the Caymans on the way home (I'm glad airport security checks for liquids but not for greenbacks--if you get me drift). Boy are we going to have fun, and we can count on Maria and Jose to take care of the place "on the Sound" while we're away.

I don't know what America would do without true Republicans like you to protect the interests of us on Wall Street. Two years ago we thought it was over. And thanks to you and leader Mitch, we're raking it in once more.

I am so sincerely indebted to you and Mitch, I am at a loss for words. Still, you can be sure that I'm not at a loss for other ways to show my appreciation. Now that the Supremes have granted my corporation its free speech rights, I'll be able to help the cause in hundreds of thousands of ways.

Yours truly,

P.S. Did you hear that rumor that Obama is going to be spending $200,000,000 of your money and my money on a junket to India. Hey, me and my buds went there just last year and it didn't cost half that much. We have to put some breaks on that bozo in the WH before he gets out of control--so good luck to you and our Resident Realist.

Lou Miller
for the institute

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Leading geologists warn, "Stop pulling carbon trigger."

The 200 year old Geological Society of London has issued a clear, eminently readable, fact-based statement summarizing what the geological record has to say about climate change. Their understated bottom line is that it would be "unwise" for humanity to continue pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans. Nature ran that experiment 55 million years ago, and the world that resulted would not be suitable for our current civilization. The president of the GSL was a bit more unspoken, writing, "Stop pulling the carbon trigger."

You can read more about this report by clicking here.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Valuing Natural Resources and Ecosystem Services for Sustainable Development

Economists moved a step closer to implementing the crucial concept of including the value of natural resources and ecosystem services onto the balance sheets of companies and countries. A new report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity: Mainstreaming the Economics of Nature (TEEB) details why this is so vital to sustainable development, and to the wealth and well being of the world's poor today and everyone in the future.

You can read more about these issues and the TEEB report at Suite101: How Much is the Earth Worth? Valuing Resources and Ecosystems

You might also like my January, 2010 post on some earlier research in this area.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Thursday, October 14, 2010

"Need, not Greed”

The national media announced yesterday that the nation’s top bankers treated themselves to a whopping $144,000,000,000—that’s 144 billion dollars--in pay and bonuses this year. That is quite a nice reward for a bunch of people who should be held responsible for the financial mess we’re in.

It seems to me that most people do not remember that it was these very same bankers who created and invested in the bundled, unsecured mortgages that just over two years ago pushed the financial and stock markets into freefall. Instead of directing their rage at the people who are responsible, millions of Americans are now taking out their anger at the Obama/Pelosi “axis of evil,” as if they were responsible for the 14,800,000 people who are still officially unemployed in the United States.

It’s not unusual for the public to resort to irrational anger during economic downturns. The question is why the ultra-right-wing Tea Party has been able to energize and direct this outrage. Where have the Democrats, the party of the people, been as lines at food banks and unemployment windows grow?

When Democrats were Democrats, FDR declared a “Bank Holiday” to brake the bank panic of 1933. My proposal for such a holiday is, admittedly, a little different than FDR’s. I propose that the ultra-rich on Wall Street take a holiday and forego their outrageous pay for one year. I propose a total holiday because these bankers argue that if they pay their top talent less, they will jump ship to another firm. So if all these investment geniuses earn the same – nothing -- for a year, none of them will be tempted to jump ship.

It is not that they—prudent, conservative, upstanding, and financially responsible individuals that they are—don’t have some money in the bank for this rainy day holiday. After all, this year’s $144 Billion was preceded by last year’s $139 billion.

What would this accomplish?

The US median income is a mere $43,317 in comparison. Simple division demonstrates that we could create 3.66 million more jobs, cutting the ranks of the unemployed by almost a quarter. If instead we picked the median wage for women we could cut unemployment by almost a third. On the other hand, if the unemployed accepted the minimum wage, $15,080 a year, we could get 64.5% of them back to work.

With all these people back to work, they would be buying goods and creating even more jobs. Pretty soon the federal government would not be paying out unemployment claims and could, responding to recent Republican demands, start balancing the budget. And states, receiving revenues once more from the sales and income taxes on the newly employed wouldn’t have to lay off teachers, nurses, police and firefighters.

Of course, we should not take this proposed “holiday” seriously for a moment. The high finance paper-shufflers and computer wizards on Wall Street would not, for a moment, agree to such an arrangement. Silly me. The Wall Street elite are where they are, doing what they are doing, and pulling in the money they are pulling in because they would never for a moment consider sacrificing for the good of the country or their fellow Americans.

However, engaging in a moment of fantasy does force one to look more closely at reality. Why are these very people who brought economic tragedy upon so many still reaping outlandish financial rewards? Why is all the outrage coming from the Far Right? Where are the political leaders who are willing to stand up to these parasitic financiers and serve the needs of the common, hard working (if jobs were available) individual?

The Founding Fathers were wrong: not all people are created equal. It is true that we still operate in a profit and loss economy—only the profit part is going year after year after year to the very rich and the loss is going to the growing proportion of people at the bottom who continue to lose their jobs, homes and hope for the future.

I’m certain that those who would get jobs under this proposal would not complain about working on a “holiday.”

Lou Miller, Ph.D.

for the institute

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Wake-up call for climate change doubters

Maybe climate change skeptics, most of whom seem to be of the conservative persuasion, would think twice if they knew that many of the biggest countries and industries in the world are taking climate change very seriously.

We're not just talking dotcoms like Google, which have invested heavily in sustainable enterprises, but great grey eminences including major insurance companies and banks. I guess being realistic about the risks from global warming and climate change, and being alert to the enormous growth potential in conservation, green energy and sustainable businesses makes sense when you're responsible for billions or trillions of dollars of investments.

One of those financial heavy hitters, Deutsche Bank,commissioned an independent study from a group of climate experts at Columbia University. The bank asked the experts to look at the scientific evidence for or against the major arguments raised by climate change skeptics in recent years. You've read or heard most of these arguments, for example in George Wills' influential columns in the Washington Post.

The Columbia Unversity team basically concluded that although it's true that Earth's climate is extremely complex and the scientific community's ability to predict exactly what will happen as we continue to pump greenhouse gases and aerosols into the atmosphere, cut down forests, etc., is necessarily imperfect, human-caused climate change is real and serious.

The implication is that any enterprise that wants to succeed in the real world needs to take climate change seriously.

You can read more about the Deutsche Bank study in a recent Suite101 article here.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Thinkin' about Climate Change Risks

I recently had the opportunity to interview George Backus, a nuclear engineer, systems researcher and economics expert who leads a team at Sandia National Laboratories, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose job it is to evaluate and detail the risks to the United States from climate change.

Bachus has a deep and unique understanding of complex systems, not just Earth's climate, but how climate changes could interact with our equally complex -- and probably much more fragile -- economic system.

I recently posted two stories about Backus and his team's work on Suite101: "Rethinking Climate Change Risks -- National Lab's Approach," and "National Lab Calculates State-by-State Climate Change Risks."

Climate change skeptics often argue that the uncertainties in even the most advanced climate models mean we should do nothing about climate change -- no investments, no new regulations, no new laws, no new treaties; just business as usual.

Bachus turns that argument upside down. The greater the uncertainty, he says, the greater the risk. If climate scientists could tell us that sea levels would rise by no more than six inches by 2050, every region could know if it was at risk and take appropriate steps. However, if the best models can do is tell us that a six-inch rise is slightly more likely than any other number, but that the actual change could be anything from one inch to three feet, planners have to take into account the unlikely, but potentially catastrophic impact of that three foot rise.

Like a scorpion, it's the tail end of the distribution of possible climate change outcomes -- the Katrinas and the ten-year droughts, plus their impacts on the economy, jobs and security -- that really stings.

For the details, please take a look at those two stories.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Global warming threatens the American West

This week two climate researchers warned of a particular threat to the western United States from global warming.

Writing in the 25 June, 2010 edition of the journal Science, Jonathan Overpeck, at the University of Arizona, and Bradley Udall, at the University of Colorado,say that the impacts of global climate change are already being felt throughout the West,as shown by soaring temperatures, the worst drought since systematic records were started, reduced spring snowpack, reduced river flow and reduced water storage in the region's reservoirs.

In addition, they point out that tree ring data show that America's West is prone to episodic mega-droughts that can last not for years but for decades.

Rather than waiting for more studies and more data to determine if the current drought conditions are natural, man-made, or a witch's brew of both, Overpeck and Udall say that planners and decision makers throughout the region need to identify and develop ways to adapt to significantly hotter and drier conditions.

A "no regrets" approach to planning requires that steps be taken soon to make the region and its burgeoning population sustainable within the likely range of climatic conditions during the next decades.

On a more positive note, the authors cite the region's vast potential for solar, wind and geothermal power production. Tapping these green resources, they say, may help the region pay for the inevitable costs of adapting to years or decades of drought.

For more details, click here to see my Suite101 story on this subject.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Monday, June 21, 2010

Chimps kill their neighbors—now we know why

Since Jane Goodall first described it in 1979, scientists have known that chimpanzee bands make organized raids into neighboring territories where they attack and kill chimpanzees from other groups. What they didn’t know was why.

Some researchers speculated that the goal of these raids was to seize territory; others thought that it might be a way of recruiting females from a victimized group into the raiders’ band. Some anthropologists argued that such attacks only took place in chimp communities that had been disturbed by human interventions such as providing food.

Researchers Sylvia Amsler, a biological anthropologist at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, David Watts, at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and John Mitani at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, say that they’ve proved that the goal of this form of chimpanzee aggression is to take over territory.

They describe their findings in the June 21, 2010 edition of Current Biology.

Amsler and her colleagues studied a large band of chimpanzees—the Ngogo group—in Uganda’s Kibale National Park for more than ten years. They observed dozens of organized raids, usually by large numbers of adult and adolescent males, although occasionally with females as well. The Ngogo band’s raids were focused on a region to the northeast of their home range.  In ten years of what the researchers refer to as “patrols,” the Ngogo chimps killed 21 individuals from that neighboring band.

That represents a very high mortality rate—some 5 to 17 times higher than has been measured among human hunter-gatherer societies, and 23 to 75 times higher than what’s been seen in other chimpanzee studies.
The researchers identify two factors that may account for this unusual rate of violence and killing. The Ngogo habitat is unusually rich, so the band has grown to some 150 individuals, about three times larger than the average chimpanzee band. That means that there are a lot more adult and adolescent males available to form large and successful raiding parties.

Amsler and her colleagues believe that their findings rule out the theory that chimps only kill each other as a result of human interference. They point out that neither the Ngogo band nor its neighbors have ever been provisioned by humans, and that the raiding they’ve observed is clearly adaptive. The Ngogo band has increased its territory by some 22 percent at the expense of its neighbors. As a result, more of its members are likely to survive and reproduce.

Although the chimpanzee raids are eerily similar to human intergroup aggression and violence, the researchers are reluctant to discuss any linkage.

They do speculate, however, that the high level of within-group cooperation that lets chimpanzees form these patrols and carry out lethal raids on their neighbors may tell us something about the evolution of high levels of cooperative behavior within human groups.

It would be ironic if the researchers are right, and that it was our primate ancestors cooperating among themselves in order to compete aggressively with outsiders that made us as cooperative as we are today.

Journal reference: John C. Mitani, David P. Watts and Sylvia J. Amsler, “Lethal intergroup aggression leads to territorial expansion in wild chimpanzees,” Current Biology Vol. 20 No. 12.

For a more in-depth read, click here to see my Suite101 story about this research.
Robert Adler
For the institute

Monday, June 14, 2010

Americas Settled Twice, New Study Finds

A new round has been fired in the long-running controversy about who first settled the Americas.

An international team of researchers compared the shape of more than 1100 skulls from South America, Asia and Australo-Melanesia dating from 11,500 years ago to the present. They found that they could account for the marked differences between the skulls of early and more recent Americans only if there were two founding waves of migration from Asia separated by several thousand years.

Luzia, facial reconstruction by Dr. Richard Neave of 10,500 year old skull from Lagoa Santa, Brazil, published with permission from LEEH-IB-USP

Their conclusions disagree with recent genetic studies, most of which conclude that just one wave of migration from eastern Asia can explain the genetic diversity of American indigenous groups.

Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at Eberhard-Karls University in Tübingen, Germany and one of the lead authors of the new study says that their results make the one-entry model improbable and refute the widely accepted argument that the differences between early and more recent indigenous Americans can be explained by genetic drift or other evolutionarily neutral processes.

“The two-migration model is the only one whose predictions matched the observed differences,” Harvarti says.

Morphing Skulls through Time and Space

Harvati, along with Mark Hubbe, at the Catholic University of the North, in Chile, Walter Neves, at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, used previously published measurements of 1178 skulls, including 69 from South America that were older than 7000 years—the largest sample ever studied--as the basis for their analysis.

Researchers have pointed out since the 1990s that the skulls of the earliest Americans, or Paleoamericans, differ markedly from those from more recent times and those of current indigenous groups, or Amerindians.

“Paleoamerican crania do not look particularly similar to recent Native American groups [but] similar to African and Australian populations,” says Harvati. “Whereas recent Americans resemble Asians more closely.”

Harvati and her colleagues found that for Amerindians to have descended directly from Paleoamericans would have demanded a very unlikely rate of change of skull shape “For the [one migration] scenario to have been true there would have had to have been some unique circumstances and strong selection pressure different from selection to climate,” says Harvati.

The one-entry model also predicts substantial correlations between how close two sets of skulls are geographically and how similar they are in shape. In contrast, if nearby populations descended from different founders, that correlation breaks down.

That’s just what the researchers found. Two founding waves reproduced the observed correlations significantly better than just one.

Controversial but Important

Ted Schurr, a molecular anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania, finds the study worth paying attention to. Although his own genetic studies have suggested that a single expansion from Northeast Asia can explain the genetic variation among Native Americans, he does not rule out the group’s conclusions. . “I am willing to accept that there were pulses of migration into the Americas from Northeast Asia at different times, such that a pattern which Hubbe et al. identify might emerge,” he says.

Dennis O’Rourke, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, Utah, agrees. “More recently, a number of genetic analyses have demonstrated that two, and perhaps more, migrations are more likely given the current understanding of genetic diversity in the Americas,” he says. “Contrasting the results from morphometric and molecular studies is one way to sharpen our perspective and refine hypothesis for future tests.”

It’s those further tests that Harvati and her colleagues hope to spur. “Currently there seems to be a gap in our understanding of the peopling of the Americas,” says Harvati. “I hope that our work will prompt others to revisit these questions with renewed interest and will help resolve that gap in our knowledge.”

Journal reference: Mark Hubbe, Walter A. Neves & Katerina Harvati, “Testing Evolutionary and Dispersion Scenarios for the Settlement of the New World,” PLoS ONE, 14 June 2010.

For a more detailed description of this research, click on my Suite101 article here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Eyjafjallajokull and climate change--Response to "The futility of man"

Knowing that I’m passionately concerned about climate change, a friend forwarded the following piece to me, something that apparently has been circulating on the internet. He added, “I don’t know if this is true, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.”

To respond to my friend, and because the piece contains many of the themes and distortions that seem to energize the anti-climate-change community, I wrote a detailed reply. You can read the commentary and my reply below:

The futility of man

Didn't we ALL know this but were just afraid to say something.....

All of you out there across the globe who have fought so hard to tackle the hideous enemy of our planet, namely carbon emissions, you know ....that bogus god you worship of "Climate Change" or "global warming" ....well, I feel it is necessary to inform you of some bad news. It really does pain me to have to bring you this disappointing information.

Are you sitting down?

Okay, here's the bombshell. The current volcanic eruption going on in Iceland, since its first spewing of volcanic ash this past week, has, to this point, NEGATED EVERY SINGLE EFFORT you have made in the past ten years to control CO2 emissions on our planet.

I know, I know.... (group hug)'s very disheartening to realize that all of the carbon emission savings you have accomplished while suffering the inconvenience and expense of: driving Prius hybrids, buying fabric grocery bags, sitting up till midnight to finish your kid's "The Green Revolution" science project, throwing out all of your non-green cleaning supplies, using only two squares of toilet paper, putting a brick in your toilet tank reservoir, selling your SUV and speedboat, going on vacation to a city park instead of Yosemite, nearly getting hit every day on your bicycle, replacing all of your $1 light bulbs with $10 light bulbs, participating in "earth day" ...well, all of those things you have done have all gone down the tubes in just the past four days.

The volcanic ash emitted into the Earth's atmosphere in the past four days has totally erased every single effort you have made to reduce the evil beast, carbon. And, those hundreds of thousands of jobs you helped move to Asia with expensive emissions demands on businesses... you know, the ones that are creating even more emissions than when they were creating jobs here, well I just know that seems worthwhile now.

I'm so sorry. And I do wish I had a silver lining to this volcanic ash cloud but the fact of the matter is that the brush fire season will start in about two months and those fires will negate your efforts to reduce carbon in our world for the next two years.

But hey, grab a Coke, give the world a hug and have a nice day!

So true, and this has been going on thousands of years. Long, long, long before, combustion engines, or cattle herds were around to expel carbon dioxide. There is nothing new about climate change on Earth. It's been going on since the flood and it will be going on for years to come.

Man is not in control.
Only in arrogance... does he think he is.


Response to "The futility of man"

Dear _____,

I don't know who initiated this email, but please send my reply back down the line of email recipients.

Whoever is the author has a point--a lot of CO2 was emitted by this volcano, according to the best scientific estimates about 150,000 metric tons per day. The author does not include this quantitative figure, although knowing the actual amount is important.

The volcano to compare Eyjafjallajokull with is Pinatubo which in 1991 pushed somewhere around 42 million metric tons of CO2 into the air. So scientists refer to Eyjafjallajokull as only a "cough" in comparison.

Averaged over time, volcanoes pump some 200,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year while human activities contribute almost 30 billion metric tons--according to the US Energy Information Agency--almost 700 times as much.

It’s important to note that the author of this post doesn't claim that Eyjafjallajokull dwarfed human emissions, only that it surpassed the very small amount we have been able to cut back those emissions.

The meager success so far of the climate community to cut worldwide greenhouse gas emissions is due in large part to lack of public support which is due in large part to unsubstantiated information such as is presented in this email. One almost has to laugh at such logic. It’s a tragic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A couple of other points need to be made.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajokul will have some warming and some cooling effects, both of which scientists are able to estimate. The estimated amount of CO2 reductions that came from flights being grounded due to the ash is 2.8 million metric tons, and it will take Eyjafjallajokull quite some time to make up for that.

Mt. Pinatubo actually lowered global temperatures by about one degree Celsius for most of two years because of the sulfur it placed up to 20 miles in the atmosphere (sulfer dioxide reflects sunlight and has been proposed as a geoengineering "solution" to global warming--not my choice for a number of reasons). But Eyjafjallajokull did not release as much sulfur as high as Pinatubo, so it will probably not contribute significantly to global cooling, just as it probably will not contribute much to global warming.

Charles Keating started very accurate measurements of CO2 in the atmosphere in 1959 and those measurements have continued to this day. They show a zig-zag pattern that reflects spring and summer decreases in CO2 while plants in the northern hemisphere are breathing it in, and increases in fall and winter when they are producing CO2, mostly through decay.

But Keating's chart shows an inexorable rise in emissions over the past half century. Comparing natural and human emissions, measured atmospheric CO2 did not increase due to Pinatubo in 1991 as much as decreased during times of economic recession--sort of like the aircraft being grounded, but more globally.

So compared with Pinatubo (they call the geoengineering idea of shooting sulfur into the upper atmosphere the "Pinatubo Option") Eyjafjallajokull was very small, and smaller still compared to human emissions.

So if you can get past phrases like “hideous enemy,” "bogus god" and "evil beast" which are designed to play to your emotions, and the “group hug” comment which is meant to categorize everyone concerned about climate change as, I suppose, soft-headed, overly emotional ex-hippies, stop for a while and investigate whether this hyperbole is based in fact, or whether its purpose is to make us all feel better while we—and more importantly the corporations that really profit from it--continue to engage in activities that emit significant amounts of CO2 into our atmosphere.

Because if science (by that I mean all the science academies in countries that have them, and all the meterological associations in the world) are right and we do have a serious problem on our hands, it may just be time to pay attention. It’s worth noting that Insurance companies, investors, and militaries on both sides of the Atlantic are taking climate change very seriously because their business is managing risk and they will take some of the biggest initial hits.

The future scientists forecast, if we do not lower emissions very quickly, will not be a pleasant one for our kids or their kids, or even for us--so let's check the facts.

One argument that this piece uses, and that appears over and over in similar pieces, is that climate change is nothing new. “It’s been going on since the flood and it will be going on for years to come.”

The implication, which is hardly ever spelled out, is that since there has been natural climate change—something that we know about in great detail because of the work of thousands of scientists—there can’t be human-caused climate change. Or, even if there is human-caused climate change, it can’t be important compared to natural changes.

That’s like saying that since lightning causes fires, people don’t. Try convincing youl fire department, police department, or insurance company of that one.

I’ve also noticed that a lot of the anti-climate-change pieces, like this one, say that it is arrogant to think that mere humans can have a significant impact on nature or Mother Earth. “Man is not in control. Only in arrogance . . . does he think he is,” this piece says.

The themes of humility before God and the ultimate futility of human understanding and action run very deep in most religions. The awesome power of God or nature is something that most people—even probably most scientists--would agree on. So tossing it into discussions about climate change can seem pretty convincing.

The trick is that the 6.8 billion people alive today, multiplied by all the mining, agriculture, industry, heating, cooling, transportation, etc. that keep us alive and support our lifestyles obviously are having huge impacts on the Earth, impacts that are easily seen and measured in terms of land use, water use, deforestation, depletion of fisheries, loss of biodiversity, and climate change.

We’re not at all humble about our lifestyles and what it takes to support them. So it seems very self-serving to suddenly be humble about taking responsibility for their impacts on the Earth. It reminds me not at all of humble, God-fearing adults but of spoiled children who feel free to make any kind of mess knowing that Mommy or Daddy will clean up after them.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing about the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull to suggest that we're not making a mess or that God is going to clean it up for us.

If you want more facts regarding climate change, please do not hesitate to let me know. There are lots of excellent books and articles on the subject, and I’ll be happy to refer you to them.

Lou Miller

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Denial runs deep

How often it is that the angry man rages denial of what his inner self is telling him.
--Frank Herbert

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
--Mark Twain

Whether or not Twain or Herbert ever read Freud, both writers would have seen and understood the inability or unwillingness to face reality or admit obvious truths that so characterizes the angry tone of our current debates.

More than just an “inconvenient truth” as Al Gore describes it, human-driven climate change challenges some of the most basic Western assumptions about progress and purpose. Not only does it threaten the dominance of deeply rooted and interrelated economic and political interests but the psychic structures and societal self-images which sustain them as well.

What will we become if our carbon-based economy in its multiple manifestations has to be phased out? What will be left of our identity if the glories of expansion, conquest and mastery have to give way to humble sustainability?

The confluence between powerful vested interests and psychologically driven denial and anger powers the regressive counter-reformation being mounted by climate skeptics, ideologues and their paid media flacks aimed at undermining and discrediting both the science of climate change and its scientific proponents.

Politicians like Sarah Palin and Jim Inhofe are adept at both fomenting and cashing in on this reservoir of frustration and anger, and so are savvy advertisers.

A telling twist to the anti-limits crusade is captured in a recent TV ad for the Mazda3. At the conclusion of the ad, a self-confident, slightly rebellious male voice vows, “I will not sacrifice fun at the altar of practicality.” The Canadian version runs, “Between fun and practicality there are victors and victims.”

The ad captures perfectly the anger aimed at public figures like Al Gore or Bill McKibben when they warn that because of climate change, environmental degradation, peak oil, or other limiting factors, we need to cut back now on our lavish, high consumption lifestyles.

Emotionally, which one do you want to be—fun-loving rebel or drab do-gooder, victor or victim?

Not surprisingly the dominant reaction seems to be to let someone else throttle back. It’s zoom-zoom-zoom for me. Fun as usual. Business as usual. CO2 as usual. Oil guzzling as usual. Environmental catastrophes as usual. And defiant anger at anyone who says otherwise.

What lies under the denial, beyond the anger? Just the quiet voice of that inner self. Hopefully, it will be heard.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Emergent misbehavior

How would you like a beer? How about a beer company along with it?

On Thursday, the 6th of May, for a few minutes, you could have bought a delicious Sam Adams plus a substantial interest in its maker, the Boston Beer Company, all for the price of a pint. Boston Beer stock, along with dozens of others on the major U.S. stock exchanges, plummeted to zero, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average nosedived 700 points in a matter of minutes.

To the great relief of most traders and to anyone whose financial well being is linked even indirectly to the stock market—and that’s pretty much all of us--the market rebounded almost as quickly. Still, the wild ride left even seasoned traders in shock.

It’s hard to overstate how much value was at risk during this ten-minute event. As just one example, Exelon, a utility worth about $30 billion at 2:49 p.m. was worth nothing three minutes later. It’s estimated that one trillion dollars of value evaporated during the “flash crash.” That’s three times what the U.S. spends on public education per year, $300 billion more the U.S. government bailout of the banking system in 2008, and about equal to the current European package to rescue Greece.

The grab-your-airsick-bag crash and rebound was an anomaly, but that’s not the same as saying that it was an error, in the sense that it was caused by some specific mistake or malfunction.

Economist and market analyst John Hussman points out that U.S. stock markets have hit similar “air pockets”-- in 1955, 1987 and 1999. Like the Thursday event, those episodes resulted in roughly ten percent losses. The big difference is that they played out over weeks rather than minutes.

Since the Thursday debacle there’s been no shortage of fingerpointing.

Early speculation centered on a so-called “fat-fingered trade” as the trigger for the selloff. Instead of offering to sell a few million shares of Procter and Gamble, rumor had it that a trader mistakenly put up a few billion shares. Lacking buyers, the stock tumbled, starting a panic that took the rest of the market down with it.

The theory got a lot of attention, but like the infamous weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there’s no evidence for it.

The most recent theory is that as the market started to drop, a particular hedge fund placed a $7.5 million bet that it would continue to fall. Other hedge funds immediately followed its lead, pushing the market over a cliff. Do lemmings come to mind?

One suspect that most market gurus agree on is high frequency trading. Multiple firms now trade using high speed computers linked directly to the stock exchanges. These constantly analyse massive amounts of data and exploit fleeting opportunities by buying and sell huge quantities of stocks and futures in milliseconds. Experts estimate that these automated agents now make from sixty to seventy percent of all trades.

The existence of these computerized agents goes a long way towards explaining what happened, and the absence of an identifiable trigger.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about complex systems since chaos theory pioneer Edward Lorenz popularized the idea of the “butterfly effect” in the 1960s, it’s that they are capable of amplifying the tiniest perturbation to virtually any scale. It takes just one last snowflake to unleash an avalanche.

The stock market is a classic example of a highly dynamic system driven by multiple independent but interacting agents. One state it’s capable of occupying—what system theorsists refer to as an attractor-- is when the tug of war between buyers and sellers arrives efficiently at a stock’s current value. That’s the state that economists tell us represents the stock market’s raison d’etre.

It would be great if that were the only way the system functions. Unfortunately, history shows that the stock market can also wander into at least two other states or attractors. It’s prone to huge bubbles, in which contagious enthusiasm drives the prices of most stocks well above their “true” value, and, as we’ve just seen, “air pockets”, in which contagious panic does the opposite.

That was bad enough when human traders were the ones calling the shots. Presumably they had some sense that a company valued at $30 billion one minute couldn’t really be worth zero a few minutes later. Their interaction led to dramatic booms and busts, but at least these had believable tops and bottoms and unfolded on a human time scale.

Over the years the markets have instituted various fixes to try to keep the market from stumbling into its most unattrractive attractors. After the global “Black Friday” market crash of 1987, The New York Stock Exchange, for example, put in place “circuit breakers”—trading curbs that snapped into place when the market fell too quickly that were supposed to slow panic selling and so prevent a full-scale crash.

Some market analysts are blaming the circuit breakers themselves for the Thursday meltdown. They think that when the NYSE circuit breakers clicked in, the effect was to shunt the flood of sell orders to other markets that were even less able to find buyers for them .

(Just as a star needs to maintain a continuous flux of nuclear fusion to keep from collapsing under the force of gravity, stock markets need to maintain a continuous matching of sellers and buyers. If there are no buyers, stock prices start to fall. We now know that computerized trading can drive a sagging stock to zero in minutes, and can threaten to implode the entire market).

The circuit-breaker problem has gained traction. Six major exchanges have now agreed to strengthen and coordinate their circuit breakers. New rules are currently being negotiated and should be in place within a few weeks.

Those fixes may be good ideas, but they almost certainly are nothing but temporary patches. The system remains as complex, dynamic, and unpredictable as ever. It’s still shuttling hundreds of billions of dollars form buyers to sellers at inhuman speeds every day, impelled not just by humans vacillating between greed and fear, but increasingly by computerized agents impelled by abstruse algorithms. There’s no “beta testing” for these patches, which leaves all of us as guinea pigs in a very high-risk experiment.

Regulators and investors would like to believe that the proposed fixes will result in an efficient, reasonably stable market. I think it’s more accurate to view the market as something like a manic-depressive chef on speed—brilliant at what it does but capable of cooking up a disaster at any time.

Thursday's collapse and rebound, and the current fix-it-on-the-fly patches, ought to make normal investors think hard about their nesteggs. Harry Truman's aphorism about politics seems even more appropriate for investors. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

Robert Adler
For the institute

Monday, May 03, 2010

Let's BOINC!    

How would you like to do something that really feels good? Something that costs you nothing and actually contributes to important scientific projects? 

If that sounds like fun to you, then I suggest you click on over to the BOINC Project at BOINC stands for the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing. It's an easy-to-use interface that links your computer, along with thousands of others, with one or more research projects of your choice that require enormous computing capacity but can't afford to buy time on a supercomputer.

By dividing computations into lots of small pieces and distributing those pieces to hundreds of thousands of small computers to work on when they would otherwise be idling, BOINC creates an amazingly powerful virtual supercomputer, of which your desktop, laptop or even your PlayStation can be a part. You can do this individually, or, just to add to the fun, join an existing team or create a new one.

As I write this, BOINC has 573173 computers humming away, with a combined capacity of 5.552 petaflops. (A petaflop is a million billion--10 to the 15th--floating point operations per second.) That makes the BOINC network three times faster than the world's current fastest stand-alone supercomputer, the Cray XT5 Jaguar. Not bad for a bunch of volunteers!

In a few minutes you can download BOINC to your computer and chose from among 36 projects that tap into the BOINC network. These cover a remarkable range of scientific challenges, including helping CERN's Large Hadron Collider determine stable orbits for the particles it's accelerating and smashing together (LHC@home), detecting gravitational waves from neutron stars (Einstein@home), studying the evolution of our home galaxy (Milkyway@home) or of the entire universe (Cosmology@home), figuring out how best to stop the spread of malaria (, protein structure and function (Rosetta@home), comparing climate models (, and dozens of others.

I've picked two so far--Einstein@home, looking for gravitational waves, and SETI@home, looking for technologically-created signals from outside our solar system. A few minutes after I stop working at my laptop, one of these programs automatically starts up. If I wander by after a bit I'll find one of their colorful displays on the screen, along with an indication of how much calculational support I've contributed to that product so far.

Einstein@home screensaver

The next two on my list are and either Milkyway@home or Cosmology@home.

BOINC-ing turns out to be ridiculously easy, fun, and it lets me contribute effortlessly to important scientific research. What more can I say except let's BOINC!

Robert Adler
for the institute

Thursday, April 08, 2010

New addition to the human family tree

Two-million-year-old “mother and child” fossils found in South Africa

Fossilized bones representing a new species of likely human ancestors were described today in the journal Science.

The remarkably well preserved fossils were of an adult female and a pre-adolescent male who shared a unique checkerboard mixture of apelike and human features. They were discovered in August, 2008 in a remote site in South Africa by a team led by Lee Berger at the University of Witwatersrand.

Remarkably, the fossils were first spotted by Berger’s son Matthew. “It was a child, found by a child,” says Berger. The Government of South Africa and the University of Witwatersrand are sponsoring a contest among South African children to name the child.

Berger, the study’s lead author, stopped short of saying that the pair were in fact a mother and her child, but said that his team will be using a variety of techniques to try to answer that question. “They were almost certainly part of the same troop,” he says. “So there’s a very high probability that they are related to each other.”

Geologist Paul Dirks, part of the group that studied the fossils and the setting in which they were found, thinks that the two died together, probably in a major flood or mudslide that washed their bodies down into the depths of a cave, where their remains were safe from scavengers and rapidly turned into fossils.

Berger and his colleagues spent the past year and a half studying the fossils of these two individuals, along with the bones of hundreds of animals found near them, and the geological layers above and below them.

This allowed them to pin down the time when these creatures lived extremely accurately. “Our ability to date these sites in southern and eastern Africa has become more and more precise,” says Berger. They almost certainly lived 1.95 million years ago, give or take a few thousand years.

These are not the oldest probable human ancestors. For example, two members of the species Australopithecus afarensis left a trail of surprisingly human-like footprints in a bed of volcanic ash in Laetoli, Kenya 3.6 million years ago, and the tool-using Homo habilis lived some 2.5 million years ago.

However, the new species, which Berger and his colleagues have named Australopithecus sediba, presents a surprising mix of ancient and more modern traits, as if a snapshot had caught the species in the awkward process of morphing from ancient apelike predecessors to more recognizably human ancestors.

Australopithecus sediba is undoubtedly a highly transitional species, with a mosaic of characteristics shared with later hominids but with other features typical of the australopithecines,” says Berger.  Hominids include humans and their direct ancestors or very close relatives, while the australopithecines were earlier small-brained but bipedal species, one of which is thought to have evolved into the first bigger brained, walking and tool using human species.

Berger believes that Australopithecus sediba is either a direct ancestor of one of the earliest members of our genus, Homo, or a very closely related side branch.

The new species studied by Berger and his colleagues had long legs and human-like hips, so they could walk easily. At the same time, they had very long arms and short, but very strong hands and fingers that meant that they were still at home in the trees. “They were very competent walking bipeds,” says Berger, “but with these backup, parachute arms that allowed them to climb trees.”

Even their skulls show a peculiar mixture of features. Their brains were small, around 420 cubic centimeters—less than one third of the volume of modern human brains. However, their faces had many human-like features, including a well-developed nose, well defined cheeks and a sloping but somewhat bulging forehead.

“They would look dramatically different [than other ancient human ancestors]” says Berger. “They would have long, apelike arms but with short, powerful, human-like hands. They would have human shaped hips and long legs, and a modern-like face, but with a very small head.”

A. sediba  skull
photo by Brett Eloff, courtesy Lee Berger, Univ. of Witwatersrand

Berger is also intrigued by the fact that the adult female was nearly as tall as the predicted full height of the male. This similarity in size between males and females might be associated with human-like families and groups, in contrast to the extreme male-female size differences found in primates such as gorillas with a single dominant male guarding and dominating a harem of females.

Sediba has taken a leap toward a social structure where you don’t have a dominant alpha male and you are lowering competition between males, who live together with females and their offspring in a social group,” Berger says.

He compares this new species with its odd mix of ancient and modern features to the Rosetta Stone that first let scholars make sense of Egyptian hieroglyphics. “These are a remarkable sample of fossils,” says Berger. “They’re going to answer a great many questions about human evolution during the period from 2 million to 1.7 million years ago, a period that is very poorly represented in the fossil record.”

Even if long-legged but small-brained Australopithecus sediba didn’t quite make it into the genus Homo, I for one am happy to welcome them to our ancestral family tree.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Saturday, March 06, 2010

        The Climate: It is a-changin’

In searching for the right metaphor to explain the crazed nature of politics at present in America, perhaps "climate change" comes the closest.  For at least the past two decades, we have been undergoing an accelerating process of 'heating' the atmosphere, driven in this case by powerful, underlying social, cultural, technological and economic changes which have unsettled the 'climate' mechanisms that usually moderate and modulate political expression and behavior.  

The consequences are even more rapid, unpredictable flows of energy producing unseasonable storms, unusual shifts in the deep currents of political organization, further melting of established structures--in general, increased overall instability and therefore mistrust in and reactions against systems, leaders, 'elites' and accepted understandings in general.  

This helps explain the wild swings in popular opinion ranging from the high of unrealistic 'hope' in 2008 which led to Obama's election, to the current low of disillusion and despair, scarcely a year later, when unreal expectations have been unfulfilled.   

The responses on the right, anti-evolution, anti-climate change, anti-science--and anti-historical, as the founders are now being portrayed as believers in a 'Christian' nation--all fall under the heading of "denial." Denying the realities of an increasingly globalized, wired, mediated, environmentally-challenged world in which the accepted truths: American dominance, economic growth, expectations for the future, economic and military 'security', cultural values, faith in traditional leaders are all crumbling.  

Thus the grasping for simple answers, the popularity of people like Palin, Beck, and others.  Are they really different from the Huey Longs, Dr. Townsends, Charles Lindberghs, Father Coughlins of the 30's, or the Free Silver and Single Taxers of the 1890's?  The question for us, however, --and increasingly for the planet as a whole---is whether the political system can adjust and stabilize again, as it did through Progressive and New Deal reforms, or whether, like the climate, we've passed the 450 point, after which there is no return from growing unpredictability and instability.

Les Adler for The Institute

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Climate change, meet Camelot

“It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The climate must be perfect all the year.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
In Camelot.”

--Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederic Loewe

The Legislature of the State of South Dakota distinguished itself by passing an anti-climate change resolution--House Concurrent Resolution No. 1009--late last month,

No, the legislature did not follow King Arthur’s lead by attempting to stabilize the state’s climate by decree. Instead, it called for “the balanced teaching of global warming” in South Dakota’s public schools, borrowing the language and tactics of the ongoing campaign to force the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in America’s schools.

On a 36 to 20 vote, South Dakota’s House of Representatives urged the state’s schools to teach that global warming is a theory rather than a proven fact. Teachers are to impress on students that the significance and “interrelativity” of the “variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological [sic], thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics” that determine global weather patterns are “largely speculative”, and that the scientific investigation of global warming has been “complicated and prejudiced” by “political and philosophical viewpoints.”

The resolution concludes with a seemingly innocent statement urging that “all instruction on the theory of global warming be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances.” The phrase I’ve italicized is a coded way of warning teachers not to present climate change in a way that might anger students or parents who believe that climate change is a hoax hatched by the U.N. to frighten ordinary citizens, justify draconian laws and enrich greedy scientists. It’s similar to language advocated by the right-wing group Students for Academic Freedom in its “Academic Bill of Rights”, which has been used to attack and even sue college professors whose teaching goes against the beliefs of conservative students.

It’s all too easy to trivialize the South Dakota House Resolution and poke holes in the facts and reasoning advanced to support it. The resolution’s use of “astrological” instead of “astronomical”, the flawed list of anti-climate-change evidence it presents — that the earth has been cooling for the last eight years, that there is no evidence of warming in the troposphere, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but “the gas of life”— and the argument that the existence of naturally driven climate change in the past rules out human-caused climate change today, makes for a document that’s hard to take seriously.

Even South Dakota’s senate seems to agree. They stripped out the most embarrassing verbiage before passing their own version of the resolution on 24 February.

Unfortunately, the resolution has to be taken seriously. It stands as the latest—but by no means the last--skirmish in a long and continuing battle for the minds as well as the hearts of America’s children. As reported by New Scientist, the Texas school board-- whose annual purchase of some 48 million textbooks allows it to determine what most of the nation’s children study—voted last March to require textbooks to question the existence of global warming, and, in an astonishing kowtow to “young-earth creationists”, deleted the 14-billion-year age of the universe from the science curriculum.

It’s not just climate change, evolution, or the age of the earth which are in the crosshairs in this battle, but science as a whole. The religious-conservative movement that helps elect creationist school board members across the country, State legislators like Resolution 1009’s author, Don Kopp, the 110 members of the United States Congress who win perfect ratings from ultraconservative groups, or Senator James Inhofe who now wants to file criminal charges against U.S. and British climate scientists, has a far more ambitious agenda—nothing less than to replace the pluralistic “secular humanism” that most people think has defined the United States since its inception with religious fundamentalism.

The movement dates at least to the 1980s, when the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition with the stated goal of advancing a Christian agenda nationwide through grassroots activism. This still growing movement has made it clear that it is determined to redefine America in the light of the “truth” that the nation was founded not on the basis of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but on fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They see the Bible as true and the wall of separation of church and state as a dangerous myth. Be it evolution, global climate change, or embryonic stem cell research, when science gets in the way, it will be attacked.

As reported in the New York Times, attacking climate change along with evolution may be a way to get around court rulings that so far have found that singling out evolution for so-called balanced presentation in textbooks and classes is clearly religiously motivated and violates the separation of church and state. By also targeting global warming, the age of the universe, or the origin of life, anti-evolutionists can claim that they are merely advocating academic freedom and fair play.

And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the same politicians who seek the votes of true believers are often funded by corporations that are strongly motivated to keep pumping --and spilling-- crude, mining coal, or pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

At least in the United States, this is not a challenge to which scientists and those who recognize that science can only thrive in an environment that values facts and reason over Bible-based belief and God-given truth can remain indifferent or uninvolved. A war has been declared, and scientists and their supporters can no more wish it away than South Dakota’s legislators can resolve away global climate change.

Robert Adler
for the institute

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The real wealth of nations: Can economists see green beyond the greenback?

Ever since Homo habilis first shaped stones into tools and left the flakes where they fell, we have extracted value from the natural world and relied on it to deal with our waste.

It’s not news that nature has been the primary source of our wealth and the major sink for our waste. What is remarkable is that from the Pleistocene to today, we’ve never actually accounted for the value of the resources we exploit or the services nature provides.

We can hardly fault H. habilis bands for failing to apply econometrics to their budget of stone tools and edible plants and animals. However, at a point when the well being of most of the world’s inhabitants can crash along with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, when every nation’s status. stature and prospects are measured by the rate of change in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and when individuals and nations are arguing fiercely about how much we can sustainably extract from or dump into the environment, maybe it’s time we start to evaluate—and hence properly value--what nature provides.

That’s certainly the opinion of Partha Dasgupta, a professor of economics at Cambridge University and the University of Manchester. In a recent paper in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B (doi: 10.1098/rstb.2009.0231), he argues that neither the GDP nor indices like the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), which measures human factors such as health, education and standard of living, even begin to measure whether or not a nation or region is truly getting richer or poorer, or developing in a way that can be sustained.

“None of the development indicators currently in use is able to reveal whether development has been, or is expected to be sustainable,” he writes. One result is that nature is both underpriced and overexploited. Dasgupta has been trying for years to get his colleagues to start to measure what he calls the comprehensive wealth of nations, including the heretofore uncounted value of aquifers, fisheries, forests, estuaries, the atmosphere, and ecosystems, and fold those measurements into mainstream economic models, planning, and decision making.

Economics has been phenomenally successful in shaping the way decision makers at all levels think about and evaluate progress, Dasgupta says. In particular, GDP has become the canonical measure of development and the wealth of nations, and guides the economic choices and policies of every country.

The problem with GDP, says Dasgupta, is that it’s both inadequate and misleading.

It’s inadequate in that, although it is used to measure of the wealth of nations, it leaves out a vital part of that wealth--natural capital. It’s misleading because nations relying on GDP to measure progress can easily find themselves looking richer on paper, while in fact they are becoming poorer by degrading their natural resources. While conservationists have been warning of this for years, Dasgupta is one of the first economists to have the data to prove it.

In his recent article, Dasgupta traces the development of five countries, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and China from 1970 through 2000. All five show seemingly healthy growth as measured by GDP, per capita GDP, and even HDI (Human Development Index, a composite measure of GDP per person, life expectancy, and education).

The catch is that when Dasgupta includes even a partial evaluation of the wealth lost through depleted natural resources and degraded ecosystem services, the balance sheets of four of those five countries shift into the red. Even as their GDPs and HDIs told these nations that they were getting richer, they were actually getting poorer; their development was unsustainable.

Research in this area has been surprisingly sparse, but consistent in showing that even valuing a small subset of their natural resources reveals that many nations are buying GDP growth at the expense of real wealth. “If I had all the numbers,” Dasgupta says, “it would be even worse.”

Although Dasgupta says that some of his colleagues continue to view nature as if it were an infinite source of resources and an equally infinite sink for waste products, most now accept that, in principal, it’s important to value natural capital. And most economists, he says, now grasp something he proved mathematically a decade ago, that it’s possible to develop a measure of comprehensive wealth that would incorporate nature and reflect human well being better than the GDP or the HDI.

This represents progress, but it seems painfully slow as forests continue to be razed, fisheries depleted, and carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere at a record pace.

The good news, says Dasgupta, is that the World Bank and UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme, are just now starting a project that will produce a world wealth report every two years. Initially this report will include just a few of the better-measured aspects of natural capital such as fisheries, but it will add other natural resources and ecosystem services over time. “This is the first systematic attempt to value natural capital for the whole world,” says Dasgupta, “It has never been done before.”

If all goes well, in a few years we may be able to punch a few keys and retrieve some realistic measures of the value of our natural resources and ecosystems. More importantly, decision makers will have actual data to show if their nation is developing sustainably or needs to change course.

If Dasgupta and his colleagues are right, it’s a vital step that comes not a moment too soon.

 Homo habilis
Credit: Lilyundfreya

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                                                                      Homo economicus

REA for the institute