Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cotton and Crop Prices Jumping

Limited supplies of corn, soybean and wheat have sent their prices very high in the past year. Primarily, this is due to the fact that corn is not only used for human dietary consumption, but also for biofuel. Wheat last year in Russia was ruined because of drought, and drought is also threatening China’s wheat crop. China is the world’s largest producer. Usually farmers have responded to the prices by using more land to grow those food crops. However, this year many in the southern states are growing cotton. Cotton prices have increased due to the demand for clothes- for the world’s population and cotton has had some bad harvest seasons which limit supply. Now there is an “acreage war between rival commodities used to feed and clothe the world’s population.”

Farmers are making the switch to cotton, because of course they are compensated better for growing cotton. The fear is that many farmers will follow this trend, and many more people will go hungry- as those in the poor countries can barely afford food right now. It is predicted that there will a 19% increase in acreage for cotton. The price of cotton reached $2.20 per pound which is up $ 1.43 per pound from last year. Farmers are counting on the price staying around $1.00 per pound- as the price is expected to fall. The regular cotton growing states are North Carolina, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. However, there is a particular region in Texas that is not a usual cotton grower- the Panhandle region. Cotton is usually not grown there because of the area’s conditions – it is not friendly to growing a crop like cotton, because cotton requires a long growing season. Farmers there usually tapped the Ogallala Aquifer for watering the corn crops. However, cotton is an attractive crop because there may be water restrictions because the aquifer has been depleted. The local gin- Moore County Gin is preparing to clean 90,000 acres worth of cotton this year- as they have gotten notice from about 40 farmers that are growing cotton for the first time this year. The Moore County Gin is building an expansion to handle the extra load.

First the staple crop of corn is used as biofuel, drought and natural disaster ruined wheat and so the people of the world- particularly the poor- have been denied food. Now, cotton is king of the market and the demand is for clothing? Although clothing is a necessity, it would seem that food would be the primary need. One needs food and water to survive, however, clothes are not a life and death necessity as there are large portions of the world that wear very little clothing due to the climate of the region. It appears to me that the increase in cotton demand is driven by the quickly developing/ developed countries. Industrialization tends to lift people out of poverty therefore it’s an increase in demand for goods such as clothes, gadgets and devices- particularly China and India comes to mind. It seems like a vanity issue. Given the uncertainty of the market do you think that it is worth farmers to forsake the staple crops of corn, soybeans, and wheat to answer the call of the clothing industry? Although I understand that farmers have to make a living too . . . Should there be regulations on how many acres used for a single crop? On the other hand locally there may be some benefits, such as a need for more farm hands to grow and pick the cotton, and gin workers to clean the cotton. However, what happens when cotton is no longer the cash crop? It is a tradeoff for short term success/ profits where as people will always have a demand for edible crops. If there is a food crisis, should the government ban exports on staple crops?

--Nia Govan

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fewer pesticides, less fertilizers, and anti-organic

A movie made for our class by Russell, Pamela, and Ryan discussed the damages of Genetically Engineered crops as they affect alfalfa in particular, but recently the USDA announced that objections notwithstanding, GE alfalfa is being given free rein. GE Advocates crowed that organic farmers must protect their own crops: "The burden is on them." According to the movie, alfalfa propagates via the wind; protecting crops from the wind will indeed be one heck of a burden for organic farmers!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What's the expected value of nuclear power?

When there are only a few possible outcomes, economists calculate "expected value" by multiplying the probability of each outcome by the chance of it happening and adding them up. With nuclear power, that calculation has changed a bit, since the estimated probability of a catastrophe has increased. However, it has only changed a tiny bit: out of all the hours that nuclear power plants have been running, an extremely small share of them have involved problems. Yes, the difficulty associated with such a problem has increased, so the "expected value" has dropped a bit, but the calculation hasn't changed a whole lot.

On the other hand, popular opinion has changed rather drastically. People are understandably more nervous about nuclear plants in general and nuclear waste in particular, since the holding ponds for spent fuel are one of the most dangerous parts of the current problem in Fukushima. The specter raised recently of being unable to use tap water, while always a part of life for Mexicans, is a scary one for us in the US. The Obama administration had supported an increase in nuclear power, but that drive has been just as ill-fated as their advocacy of increased drilling in the Gulf. Going forward, what exactly will the nation's energy strategy be? These days that's even a tougher question than usual.

Monday, March 14, 2011

End period 1

Here endeth the set of material upon which Reading Exam I rests. Don't forget also the parking articles.

Light Bulb Laws

This article is about the 2007 bill that was passed and signed which heightens efficiency standards for incandescent light bulbs. More specifically, “it sets standards for the amount of light emitted per watt of power used. Current 100 watt bulbs must become 25 percent more efficient.” Many people see this as government encroachment on telling us what kind of light we can use in our homes and also do not want to pay for the more expensive, flickering, hazardous fluorescent bulbs. These regulations have already started to affect the economy. General Electric had to shut its last US incandescent producing plant down last fall because most of the fluorescent bulbs are made in Asia. Although, many light bulb producing companies are working on alternatives to fit the new standards such as LED and halogen incandescent bulbs.
I think that the new regulations are a good idea in theory. Reducing energy use as well as electric bills is something that I’m sure is a top priority for many people. However, until there is a better alternative to the current light bulbs, I think people will still complain. Also many people have started to stock up on the old light bulbs so that they will still have them once they are removed from the shelves. This seems to defeat the purpose of the regulations because they will still be using the same amount of energy as we were before. However, there is no way of regulating that without the government going into every home to inspect their light bulbs, and there would definitely be an uproar about that. I think the regulations also need to include some sort of way to keep light bulb production “local.” A good portion of the sustainable effort is getting products from places as local as possible in order to cut down on transportation and packing costs. If we are importing all of our lightbulbs from Asia, we are negatively affecting our economy defeating the whole “Green Movement” to begin with.
--Kristen Wilkinson

More Rebound Effect

The New York Times journalist, John Tierney, is well known for his controversial writings through his career, like his 1996 article in which he wrote that recycling is a waste of American’s free time. He thrives on engaging readers in his articles, often through outrageous statements, but in a generation that has defined itself on working towards more efficient and eco-friendly life styles it is refreshing to know there are people who do not simply jump on the bandwagon. His recent article in The New York Times science section is not a far departure from his usual writings. Tierney spends this article questioning the efficiency of our modern “efficient technologies”. He starts out with the story of the “efficient” front loading machine washer that is quickly replacing old fashioned top loading washers because of its efficient use of water and energy. However, Tierney points out, the same features that make these washers environmentally friendly also makes them inefficient. They use less energy by using less warm water, but according to Tierney, this simply leaves the clothes as dirty coming out of the washer as when they were put in. This problem can be found throughout the energy efficient/ environmentally friendly/ green technologies on the market. He terms it as the energy rebound effect which is also known as the Jevons Paradox. “Some of the biggest rebound effects occur when new economic activity results from energy-efficient technologies that reduce the cost of making products like steel or generating electricity. In some cases, the overall result can be what’s called “backfire”: more energy use than would have occurred without the improved efficiency” (Tierney). So what is the solution to counteracting the Jevons Paradox? Tierney proposes that there should be more visible taxes on the public. The increase of taxes acts as a disincentive to engaging in excess economic activities. He closes the article by saying, “No matter what laws are enacted, people are going to find ways to use energy more efficiently — that’s the story of civilization. But don’t count on them using less energy, no matter how dirty their clothes get” (Tierney)
The case that Tierney presents is something that I have been in support of for a long time. “Eco-friendly” has become a pop culture phenomenon with fans who follow blindly. It is almost every few month the we see a new, more efficient vehicle, television, toaster or what have you, and I will confess, I am impressed with the levels of technology that have emerged in the past few years. However, there has not been a significant advancement in eco friendly behavior in America. One that truly promotes reduced overall consumption of goods. One prime example is the obsessions that people have developed with Apple products. Though they sell “green” technology, they also release new technology every few months. For those who like to be up to snuff with the new gadgets, they dump their old computers and gizmos and rush to the stores. However, I realize the sheer difficulty in accomplishing such a goal. Taxes are never a favorable addition to anyone’s pockets, and like Tierney said, politicians run away from any talk of increased taxes and take the easy eco friendly route to environment conservation. Like most things worth pursuing, there is no simple route, and it will take determination and commitment to balance the scales of eco technology’s impact on the environment.
--Charles Zulu

Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Rebound

According to John Tierney, the latest and greatest energy efficient technological wonders we all enjoy may actually do more harm to the environment than good. One example of this theory is proven when examining the driving habits of hybrid vehicle owners. The hybrid gets considerably better gas mileage than say a regular auto but the added efficiency often results in more miles driven. Since the hybrid technically saves the driver money at the pump, the driver has the tendency to drive more than those driving traditional vehicles, thus resulting in a greater impact on the environment. Tierney goes on to explain that the energy efficient label on most products today has been overused and in many cases proven false from an economic standpoint. For example, many today now spend money on new green labeled products that in fact do save the consumer money but with the money saved the consumer often spends it on additional harmful products. When added together these products have a grater effect on the environment than the less efficient counterpart. The term used to describe such a situation is the rebound effect. Tierney further outlines how the effect can “backfire” resulting in a substantial negative impact on the environment. The example he uses is an increase in the efficiency of a steel plant in China. Since it now costs less to make steel the plant is going to produce more at a faster rate than if it were using older technology resulting in a green technology backfire.

Although many theorists discount the negative impacts green products have on the environment, the fact is when the products save consumers money the consumer will buy more goods, which negatively impacts the environment. In my opinion this means we still have a long way to go in the realm of green technology. We must engineer our products to be as efficient as possible while reducing our collective impact on the environment. There must also be a point where the consumer takes a step back and examines their individual negative contributions. Until that occurs I believe we are going to continue down the same path we are currently on. Therefore, we must find a balance between product efficiency and accountability when we reach this point we can truly begin to see a greener future.
--Ryan Bailey

No more fin soup?

The main food on San Francisco Chinatown’s menus is seafood. A few ingredients the restaurants use are dried shrimp, eggs, scallops, and fried fish stomachs. Shark’s fin is thought of as the prime rib of the Chinese culture. The shark’s fin is used as broth and is a symbol of virility, wealth, and power to the Chinese culture. A bill is in the works to ban the possession of shark fins and serving shark fin soup to customers. As we have learned government intervention [often! -JM] does not allow for the most efficient solution to be found. The problem number of sharks being killed would be decreased, but the costs to the restaurants would not allow MC=MB [unless there are externalities]. This would infuriate the Chinese population of California and could be thought of as racial exclusion act. The bill seeks to limit shark finning, a bloody practice of the global trade in which the fins are typically hacked off a live shark, leaving it to die slowly as it sinks to the bottom of the sea. This practice extracts sharks species at an alarming rate from the ocean. The fisherman’s perspective is, "If I don’t kill this shark someone else will." What would you do? This mindset has caused shark populations to go down, but has also caused fish species, shellfish, and crustaceans populations to decrease gradually overtime. There is a growing demand internationally for shark’s fin soup. It is estimated that 73 million sharks are being killed a year for soup. The problem with economics is it hard to estimate the monetary value of losing the highest member of the food chain in the ocean. The commercial fishermen’s associations, aquariums, chefs, scientists and numerous environmental groups are also stepping up to address the issue. The efficient solution to this problem is to find an agreement that puts the full costs of producing shark fin entrees on producers. There ought to be a way to find a balance between the environment and preserving culture and heritage.
--Justin Guy

Monday, March 7, 2011

Natural gas: not so fast

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is a method used by many drilling companies to extract natural gas from mineral deposits. In short, drilling companies pump millions of gallons of water mixed with other chemicals and sand into the ground to break apart shale and release natural gas to be harvested. However, fracking has been known to pollute groundwater in the area. Pennsylvania is located above a large shale formation and has been experiencing a boom in natural gas mining. As a result, many Pennsylvania residents have experienced polluted wells that are no longer usable. Some people can even set their tap water on fire from the methane that is coming through. This is an obvious health hazard, yet the natural gas industry still claims that fracking is safe and that these incidents are unrelated to drilling.
On the other hand, the boom is creating thousands of jobs and providing a boost to the economy in Pennsylvania. This means millions of dollars in revenue, but at what cost? The new Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, is in favor of drilling and opposed to taxing the extraction of natural gas. Corbett received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from the natural gas industry and appointed the owner of a drilling company to be co-chair of his transition team, and he is able to appoint a new head of the Department of Environmental Protection. Essentially, politicians are in position to support drilling and they are likely to do so. Corbett is already planning to repeal the executive order which prevented new drillers from fracking in state forests. Fracking has also been exempt from the Clean Water Act since 2005, and is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Although the EPA is in the process of performing a study to determine if pollution from fracking can get into water supplies. Are the revenue and jobs from drilling, which goes untaxed and unregulated, really worth the damage it does to the environment and the people who live nearby?
In my opinion, public health should come first, especially when it is difficult for the affected public to speak out about their concerns. The economic benefits of drilling and influence from big companies could make it very difficult for people to prevent fracking in areas in which they live. Also, the number of people not affected is greater than those who are affected, making this problem out of sight and out of mind for many. If natural gas drilling companies are going to continue as they are now, those companies should either develop safer techniques for drilling or provide just compensation for affected residents. Just compensation may include providing municipal water to these residents, paid for by the drilling companies, or even buying the property and homes at a reasonable rate from residents. Either way, fracking should not be allowed to continue as it currently does, polluting ground water.
--Andrew Blair

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hipster farmers

Looks like my Michael Pollan reference wasn't too far afield: this article refers to Pollan as inspiring a generation of small scale farmers. They sound like neo-hippies, like my friend Austin out in Oakland but with access to land.

And who knows? Things may work out for them: if the Slow Food movement actually increases demand for sustainably raised food, then these folks may just be on to something. Certainly the last decade or two have seen the explosion in popularity of the farmer's market: could this be the next wave?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Europe's grid

Due to the significant increase in the production of renewable energy in the European Union in recent years, electricity grids in these regions are no longer able to handle the energy being generated by renewable sources like wind and solar power. The increase in renewable energy production has been spurred on by high government subsidies. In addition, a great deal of emphasis has been placed on reducing carbon output in order to minimize the effects of climate change, contributing to the increase in production of renewable energy.
In order for the electricity grids to become capable of handling the extra energy being produced, there would need to be up to $138 billion spent on improvements in the next decade. This money would go towards strengthening, upgrading and smartening these units. The grids would also need to become much larger in order to handle the increased amount of renewable energy that is being produced. In addition, there would also be significant costs involved in expanding the current offshore energy networks and ensuring that this energy can be transported to onshore locations where it is most needed. Therefore, a major debate is underway regarding who exactly should be responsible for financing the expansion and improvement of the European Union’s grids. Although the government subsidized the production of renewable energy, it is not necessarily the case that the bill for electricity grids will also be picked up. Instead, the market forces involved in international energy trading may be left in charge of financing the grids.
In addition, there are many ideas being circulated regarding how the renewable energy that is being produced should be transported among the different nations within the European Union. The transport measures are all a part of the larger idea of creating a European “supergrid”, which would be capable of transporting power from the “wind-rich north and sun-soaked south to the center”, where the highest demand for energy exists. This ideal “supergrid”, however, has many problems associated with it, both technical and financial. The problems associated with renewable energy in the European Union have led some to speculate that it may be more economically efficient to rely upon imported gasoline as the main source of energy in the EU instead of expanding the use of renewable sources of power.
Although there are clearly many financial concerns involved in attempting to increase the size and capacity of the European Union’s electricity grids, I think that constructing and upgrading these grids is probably the best move for the EU in terms of creating sustainable energy. The projects will undoubtedly be expensive. There is no way around that. With government intervention and funding, however, it will be more than possible to finance the projects. The government is clearly somewhat responsible for pushing the idea of renewable energy production in the form of wind and solar power. It would therefore be irresponsible to leave all of the grid development to market forces without any funding being provided by the government. There is no reason why wind and solar energy must be lost due to a lack of grid availability. The increased capabilities of upgraded and expanded electricity grids will quickly pay for themselves. In addition, they will also allow the European Union to rely on more sustainable energy forms.
--Caitlin White

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Let's all become farmers

An NYT blog linked to this site today, talking about the need for 100,000 farmers to join the field. If we're to be promoting organics, that number is going to go up: way up. We'll also have a need for a large number of new acres of farmland to be brought under cultivation. For all the evils that Michael Pollan and Alice Waters call our attention to food-wise relating to our current dependence on corn and the mass production of meat, we've enjoyed the benefits of cheap food for a long time. I wonder if the farm bill debate next year will move us away from that....

Is government regulation the best?

Many of the students in our resources class say that government regulation is better than either liability rules or private negotiation for dealing with large scale environmental issues, whether involving one large polluter or many small polluters. While I agree to an extent, here's a news flash: government regulation may or may not get the job done. I worked for a year or so for the Environmental League of Massachusetts examining implementation of that state's Toxics Use Reduction Act, and at least half of the work called for in that law had simply not happened. At the Federal level, "stuff" happens, too: here's an example from today's NYT that shows the EPA being overwhelmed by politics. How often do you think Congress acts based on the recommendations of experts, and when they do, how much of the time do you think Congressional acts get the job done? Sometimes they come through for us, but it's not easy to develop and implement effective policy!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Are Hybrids Worth it?

When buying a new vehicle and you’re looking to save some money, you could be better off buying the hybrid version of your vehicle. The comparison assumes you would own the vehicle for 5 years and commute about 12,000 miles a year. Comparing the Toyota Prius (44 MPG $22,950) and the Toyota Corolla LE (32 MPG $17,950), you would end up saving cash buying the Toyota Prius over the 5 year period. Gasoline would only have to average 80 cents a gallon and the Prius would still be cheaper. However, buying a hybrid won’t always save you money in the long run. If you shell out an extra $6,200 for the Lexus RX vs. its non-hybrid version the LX-350, gasoline would have to average $10.80 per gallon to break even. The hybrid version Lexus RX gets 26 MPG and the non-hybrid version gets 21MPG. The Ford Escape hybrid and the Toyota Camry hybrid break about even with their non-hybrid counterparts at more realistic gas prices of $3.60 per gallon and lower. Though money isn’t the only factor when you’re considering buying a hybrid, that “green” feeling you get for buying a more fuel efficient car has a certain price tag on it.
It’s always a good idea to compare prices of cars when shopping for a new car. If you want to save money in the long run I would definitely look into buying a hybrid. Just need to be careful because you could end up losing money in the long run if you don’t keep the car for very long or you over pay for a “greener” car. I can relate to this somewhat when I bought my new 2008 Nissan Sentra which averages 30 MPG between my trips to Towson and back. I could have bought the Nissan Versa for about $6,000-$7,000 cheaper though it only gets around 22 MPG and the car has lower safety ratings. It’s always going to be a trade off one way or the other. I plan on keeping my Sentra for 10 years so hopefully it will end up paying for itself because I like to be frugal with my hard earned money.
--David Hinson

Let's throw money at farmers

Column today in the NYT wants the government to "change subsidies" to encourage growing of fruits and vegetables, but I'm really not sure how the guy wants that to work. When I visited some vegetable farming operations in California, the farmers took pride in not receiving any subsidies, and they were going strong. In this age of budget cuts, if the powers that be manage to leave agricultural subsidies cold and dead on the ground, that would be great. No underpriced corn; no underpriced meat; no poor cotton growers in Africa or elsewhere priced out of the market by underpriced cotton, subsidized by the American taxpayer. Research (such as the USDA's ERS) and food safety systems should continue to be supported, perhaps by checkoffs (taxes on producers and perhaps processors) but billions can be cut from the budget in this area with impunity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sorry Mr. House

Economists explicitly compare the "value of a statistical life" against other values (while policymakers do it all the time implicitly) and in a recent NYT letter an author decries the horrors of, "people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above."

While the human toll is certainly real, so, I would suggest, is the human benefit. It's not true that the people are of less value than any one thing in particular, and no one wants to see the people living in Appalachia killed off. However, if they sat on a resource worth millions of dollars that would help people get cheaper power for decades, would it be wrong to ask them to move? That's actually the situation they are in, and while the direct cost to a few makes for better copy than the incremental benefit to a large number of people, it's not as easy to put their claims above those of industry. Perhaps memorializing their loss in an outlet such as the NYT is the most fitting response.

What do you think? Am I an unfeeling, heartless villain?

Texaco fined in Illinois

The article states that the office of Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has reached an agreement with the owners of a former Texaco Inc. owned refinery for allegedly releasing oil and other hazardous materials into the surrounding environment near the location of the refinery before closing in 1995. Madigan was accompanied by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Illinois Environment Protection Agency in reaching the terms of the settlement. One aspect of the settlement is that Texaco is required to pay $1.7 million for the ecosystem restoration projects that will take place on and near the former refinery. Also, they must provide funding for the IDNR and the IEPA which will aid in the ecological restoration activities, groundwater management, and help pay the associated expenses. The third order of the settlement requires Texaco to transfer approximately 2300 acres (~3.5 mi²) of land south of the former refinery to the IDNR which is located in the Embarras River watershed. All funds accepted by these organizations go toward the restoration of the land which is expected to provide a great habitat for wetland animals.
As firms push to lower the costs of production, some tend to do so by cutting corners. I think the former owners of this refinery were doing just that when they decided to illegally release these harmful substances into their own environment. I think the problem is that some people either aren’t aware of the effects of pollution, or they just don’t care. I believe that they were rightfully penalized because as we interact with the environment, we need to be carefully preserving it while we benefit from its vast resources. The only part of the settlement that I would change is the amount of money that they were penalized. I feel as if $1.7 million isn’t enough because that money is being split into department expenses as well as the restoration projects so it looks like a lot at first until they reallocate the funds.
--Alex Roche