Wednesday, February 25, 2015


This article in the NY Times focuses on the growth of a movement of innovative methods of farming design that has been coined “Permaculture.” Founded in the mid-1970’s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgreen, permaculture is a simple system for addressing the emerging planetary resource crisis by designing sustainable human settlements, restoring soil, planting year-round food landscapes, conserving water, redirecting the waste stream, and forming more companionable communities. The movement has been steadily spreading across the globe, infiltrating both rural farms as well as urban and suburban neighborhoods with activities such as worm trays, bee boxes, aquaponics ponds, chicken roosts, compost systems, rain barrels, solar panels, and earthships. Various sustainable techniques and methods of living coalesce into a holistic ecological package that is in harmony with natural forces that have been shaping the earth long before humans were introduced to the story of life. The golden rule of permaculture is: “care of the earth; care of people; and a return of surplus time, energy, and money, to the cause of bettering the earth and its people,” The article continues and shares stories of a handful of permaculturists or “permies” who have been successful with the practices and techniques.

The article made me really step back and take a look at the impact that our modern lifestyles are having on the planet. With growing population, climate change, and limited resources, permaculture sounds like one of the only logical steps that our culture can take toward a more sustainable future. Many people who are stuck in the destructive habits of modern culture are going to have a hard time accepting the changes that supporters of permaculture suggest we take. But for those who want change and for those who want to save time, money, and planetary resources, this movement is something to be followed. There are many corporations that rely on the unsustainable habits of industrial agriculture to survive, making permaculture a system that is not widely talked about or shared in the media. I think it is important that this movement of harmonious living is becoming more and more popular and that this is exactly what society needs in order to start fixing the damage that has been done.
--Kyle Espenshade

Rio Grande

The Rio Grande serves as a major watershed to Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas within the United States, areas that are facing large scale increases in development. Additionally, the river makes up the Texas/Mexico border, a region that has also seen an influx in population growth on both sides. As a result of this growth,  the International Boundary and Water Commission has stated that the “projected... municipal use [of the Rio Grande] will increase by one-hundred percent over the next fifty years and industrial use will increase by forty percent” in Texas and Mexico alone. Water use has already become a source of conflict, with Texas taking Colorado and New Mexico to the Supreme Court in 2014 over alleged violations of the Rio Grande Compact of 1938, so increased industrial waste within such a scarce resource will only further tensions between the parties.

While this issue may seem exclusively environmental or political, it is actually quite an economic issue at a fundamental level. The interstate conflict over the Rio Grande water allocation identifies the river as both a scare resource and a limiting factor for all growth within the region. Water from the river is vital, not only to the ecosystem, but also to municipalities, industrial growth, and the agriculture that is traditionally the largest industry of the watershed. All of these resources have strong need for water, and the demand for water during a drought or shortage would rise significantly, thereby increasing state’s willingness to pay for increased supplies. As a result, the likelihood of conflict over water resources becomes more likely, as shown with Texas' Supreme Court case.

The interstate element of the river also serves as a prime example of externalities. New Mexico and Colorado have a larger incentive to keep more water and allocate it towards uses within themselves. However, with this is the negative externality of less water reaching the more arid parts of southern Texas and Mexico, creating an upstream/downstream effect. Likewise, increased use of water overall as the region grows will have a negative externality on the watershed’s environment.
--Nic Chantiles

Phosphorus Regulations: Are They Worth It?

Maryland’s 62nd governor, Larry Hogan made a pledge while running, that he was going to fight the phosphorus management regulations. These regulations were to be set forth on February 2, 2015, but Governor Hogan stopped them hours after his inauguration on January 23, 2015. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants and it is found abundantly in chicken manure. This is what a lot of the farmers on the eastern shore of Maryland use to fertilize their fields. This phosphorus gets transported into the Chesapeake Bay through runoff. Once in the water, it causes an explosive growth of plants and algae. This affects the clarity of the water because of eutrophication, and once the high amounts of plants and algae die hypoxia is certain. If someone wants to add phosphorus to their field, they must go through a soil test to determine if their field is at a high risk of phosphorus loss; this test concludes with a fertility index value (FIV). The current regulation Phosphorus Site Index (PSI), allows farmers to compensate for a high FIV by applying buffer systems, but there are no regulators that monitored if the farmer is doing enough to reduce the FIV (Kobel, 2015). The proposed regulation, Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT), would make these tests harder and stricter on the amount of phosphorus-rich manure being spread on fields as fertilizer, while also prohibiting phosphorus on fields if the fields scored too high FIV.

Offshore Wind Energy

    The New York Times article talks about offshore wind farming and the current issues going on with the new market. The article begins by stating that in 2013 President Obama began auctioning off offshore leases along the Eastern Seaboard. However, projects in New England, New Jersey, and Delaware are struggling or have already died. Four parcels were auctioned off in Massachusetts but only two drew interest; further, the bids were substantially lower than previous auction prices. Two out of twelve companies allowed took place in the bidding. Offshore MW and RES American Development acquired parcels for roughly $1.50/acre or less. Last year developers installed 4,854 megawatts of capacity last year totally the capacity to 65,879 megawatts, enough to power 18 million homes. While evident that offshore wind farming may be a industry, Block Island Wind Farm plans to sink five turbines off the coast of Rhode Island.
    I personally think that offshore wind farming is a good idea and can be beneficial in providing an alternative source of energy to residents and even businesses. I do however believe that it is a market that most companies do not want to risk entering, and therefore these leases are not being bid on. It does seem that the Obama Administration has not made any further pushes for offshore wind farming like they had envisioned. The article mentioned Fishermen’s Energy and how they have been stymied by state regulators about rules for renewable energy credits that get issued as the electricity produced. These credits are apparently an important part of the income. I do agree with the article when it said that states need to essentially do more to create a market for this electricity.

--Frank Tabares

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Gas Leaks in Boston

In many places in the country there is a lot of talk of building pipelines, like the Keystone XL, and natural gas fracking. With both of these activities there is a lot of talk of leaks, whether it is an oil leak out of the Keystone XL pipe line that could cause a huge contamination to the water system in the area or if it a gas leak that happens to go straight in the ground water system from fracking and contaminate the water that way. Whichever problem we are talking about, there will always be people talking about it, but what about natural gas pipelines that have been leaking for a very long time?
This is something that an author in The Boston Globe was talking about in his article, “Leaks in Boston area gas pipes exceed estimates.” In this article David Able explains that there has been a lot of very small leaks in the pipes that have been bring natural gas to the Boston area for a very long time, and something needs to be done. It is estimated that every year they lose enough gas, because of leaks, to heat 200,000 homes a year or $90 million worth of gas annually. This is not only taking a hit in the economic stand point for the company but also for the environmental stand point. Methane, another name for natural gas, is 20 times worse than carbon dioxide when it comes to it being a contributor with the global warming issue in today’s society.
I believe they need to get this problem fixed as soon as possible and that is exactly what is going through their heads. They are currently replacing and fixing leaks that they are finding in the pipelines that lead to the city. I think these efforts are great but I believe that they need to try and make this the biggest top priority! In the article it states, “If Federal estimates are correct, that would mean the Boston area is contributing 9 percent of the nation’s methane from natural gas.” This is alarming to me seeing that the 24th largest city in the nation with only 645,966 people in the city is at fault for 9% of the nation’s methane release. If they don’t get their city cleaned up soon I think that there should be a conversation that involves a type of punishment if they don’t bring their percentage down.
--Keith Hollister


It's what's for dinner- in the US, anyway, as shown in this blog post from the Center for Global Development. Do we really eat more meat than the Brazilians, home of Fogo de Chao and churrasco? If so, who's eating all that? 220 pounds per year for every person person, including babies and old people? Seriously? Basically 2-3 quarter pounders per person, every day? And that means that for people who never eat meat, there are people who eat that person's 3 burgers every day as well, right? Man.

Sea fox in the henhouse

One article writeup talked about Obama's decision to protect Alaska from oil drilling, saying that the decision about whether to drill should be up to Alaska Natives. I found an analogous situation closer to home: a community out on the Chesapeake, home to fish and shellfish harvesters called "watermen," two of whom were recently caught poaching tons of rockfish. The two owe large fines and will serve jail time, to the consternation of the locals, who think the punishment is ridiculous. People who rely on a fishery don't like to be told how to use that fishery. It's tough to monitor public goods, as we will soon be discussing in class.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Chinese concrete

Cool infographic on Forbes today showing how in three years, China used as much concrete as the US used in the entire 20th century. (Actually, about 40% more than the US used in that time.) Reddit is going nuts on the topic. Remember too that cement accounts for about 5% of global CO2 emissions as well....

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Two Billion Years

If India were to improve the air quality around its cities, the result could be as many as two billion life years added to its population (i.e. 660 million people each gaining about three years of expected life). That's a high price to pay for smoke!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Want to help the environment? Eat less meat

I'm sure I've said it once before but it bears repeating that a main contributor to the (lack of) health of the environment is our outsize consumption of meat. A new article in the Washington Post reaffirms this, based on nutritionists' recommendations, but based on the claims of environmental scientists as well. It's not hard to understand: it takes more resources to produce meat than it takes to produce plants, and the production of plants also is associated with fewer externalities. The more meat we eat, the more resources we consume.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Logging in a forest preserve

Textbook example of economics in The Nature Conservancy's Woodbourne preserve in Pennsylvania. The preserve was created to protect trees from logging, and yet the staff made the decision to log part of it and sell the timber. The emerald ash borer, a beetle that devastates certain tree species, was on the march and extremely likely to destroy the trees anyway. In the face of this likely doom, the decision was made to sell the trees in order to protect the hemlock, which was under attack from another pest, the wooly adelgid. With the trees sold, the preserve was able to buy pesticides. Mike Eckley, conservation forester there, put it this way:  “Given the circumstances, this was a high-quality outcome. We maximized financial return on the situation, while reducing liability to people and enabling us to better fund hemlock conservation. We weren’t giving up on ash trees so much as doing what was best for Woodbourne.”

Economics is all about making tough decisions like this one!

Impacts of the carbon tax

Another nice paper posted online recently uses micro-level data from England to look at the impact of a carbon tax. The authors find that taxed firms use less energy, but don't change their employment levels, don't lose revenue (though no doubt the cost increases mean less profit), and don't exit the industry. In other words, plant owners may take a bit of a hit, but it's not enough of a hit to force them to cut back in production in any significant way.

GMOs and the environment

Different GMO's work different ways, but one type of GMO seems to be having a very positive effect on the environment. Unlike engineered crops such as Roundup Ready varieties, which encourage extra application of the herbicide glyphosate, the Bt variety has pesticides built into the crop and thereby reduces application of chemicals. A recent study found that use of the variety in India greatly reduced the environmental impact of agriculture there.

I'm still not sure where the knee-jerk anti-GMO sentiment comes from unless it's the same anti-science bent that makes people "not believe in" other scientifically established truths like climate change. Surely we need to be careful with any new technology, but mindlessly fearing it without knowing what it does can't be good!

Friday, February 6, 2015

Saving money and the environment

Yet another time when economists and environmentalists agree! Save energy and money at the same time with energy efficiency improvements. Don't overlook them; I think that our school's Sustainability Office is on top of opportunities like this but who knows if there might be more...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Where the Domesticated Things Are

All the world's cattle, pigs, and chickens, in map form! Demand is expected to increase by about 3/4 from 2010 to 2030. There are already about 700 million chickens on the Eastern Shore: will we squeeze 3/4 more on that land, or will we dedicate more land to that industry? Neither one is a great choice for the health of the Chesapeake. I guess it's better than in North Carolina where they raise pigs!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Opportunity to put a price on carbon

We've been talking in class about how much prices matter: when something is priced too low, people will consume too much of it, which leads to waste. In many countries, fuel is subsidized, often since it's seen as a way for governments to help the poor. Of course, the poor aren't the only ones who use fuel, and there are a lot better ways to help the poor than by subsidizing fuel use. Taking away a price support is politically tricky, though: it can make you look pretty greedy if you are getting rid of a policy that is supposed to help the poor! That's why some people are encouraging that subsidies be dropped now, while oil prices are down. If it happens now it won't be noticed so much.

The executive director of the International Energy Agency says, "There is no time for action like the present. It's an opportunity to put a price on carbon and slash fossil fuel subsidies." Environmentalists and economists should agree on this one!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Pricing externalities

In class we're about to get to the idea of incorporating environmental damage into supply and demand curves. One way to do this is to have taxes and fees represent the damage being done, and in a blog post today by the World Bank, the leader of PGE (a power company in California) recommends doing so in the form of a carbon tax. This idea was mentioned earlier in the blog by David Zilberman, and it's an idea that economists have been pushing for decades or more. Here's to hoping that with industry report it can become a reality sooner rather than later!