Sunday, June 2, 2013

Happy World Oceans Day . . . sort of

World Oceans Day is June 8. It’s a relatively new holiday—the United Nations General Assembly decided in 2008 (United Nations Resolution 63/111, paragraph 171) that every June 8, starting with June 8, 2009, would bear the United Nation’s designation of World Oceans Day.

The purpose in designating World Oceans Day was to call attention to the many problems facing the ocean and to raise global awareness of the many challenges facing both marine ecosystems and the humans that depend upon them. In 2013, the theme for World Oceans Day is “Oceans & People.” The day even has its own 43-second video, care of “One World, One Ocean,” which you can view at http://worldoceansday.org.

The interesting thing about the video, however, is that it shows healthy, beautiful oceans teeming with life. The oceans themselves, however, are more often than not in much worse shape than that.

If you read the New York Times Magazine last week (May 26, 2013), you might have noticed that the cover story was about monk seal murders in Hawai'i. Hawaiian monk seals are among the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Most of their breeding grounds are in the Papahanamokuakea Marine National Monument, a limited-access marine reserve covering the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (Notably, the murders occurred in the Main Hawaiian Islands, the islands all of us visit on vacation.) And yet, somebody (or several somebodies) wants the monk seals dead.

From one perspective, the monk seal story is sad and disturbing. From another, however, it is a microcosmic example of a macrocosmic phenomenon: Humans are killing the oceans, largely because we don't think we can.

And law isn't doing a whole lot to stop that process, by the way.

The oceans occupy 139.4 million square miles of the Earth's surface, or about 71% of that visible surface. Of course, they also have significant depth--up to almost 36,000 feet at the Mariana Trench.

And we're changing them. If that doesn't scare you, it should.

We're changing the ocean's biodiversity. Even as the Census of Marine Life revealed in 2010 at least 20,000 new marine species after a decade of world-wide research, scientists are predicting that most fish species will be commercially extinct by 2050. In addition, large individuals of marine species are already down to about 10% of what is "natural."

We're changing the ocean's chemistry. As the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase, the world's oceans are taking up a lot of the excess--about 40% of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide. Their capacity to do so may be decreasing, but even if it isn't, the oceans can't absorb that much carbon dioixide without impact. Through a complex chemical reaction, the absorbed carbon dioxide becomes, essentially, carbonic acid, a phenomenon that has already measurably reduced the ocean's pH. This "ocean acidification" is already interfering with mariculture in the states of Washington and Maine; it may be altering ocean acoustics; and it could interfere with the ocean's ability to produce oxygen for all of us.

We're changing the ocean's currents. As average atmospheric temperatures increase, they both change wind patterns and increase sea surface temperatures. Both of these alterations, in turn, change ocean currents, and the results have been as diverse as new "dead zones" (hypoxic zones) off several coasts and an ocean "hot spot" off the coast of Tasmania, Australia.

We're changing the ocean's temperatures and cycles. The most obvious example is the Arctic Ocean, which set records for the amount of sea ice melt in 2012 and may be entirely ice-free in the summers as soon as 2016. The Arctic nations (Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway, and the Unites States) are already anticipating increased human use of the Arctic Ocean, including fishing, offshore drilling, and commercial marine traffic. The implications for the mixing of marine species traditionally considered purely "Pacific" or purely "Atlantic" are potentially mind-boggling.

Against this background, the Obama Administration released the National Ocean Policy Implementation Plan in April 2013, available at http://www.whitehouse.gov//sites/default/files/national_ocean_policy_implementation_plan.pdf. There's a lot in the National Ocean Policy, and there's a lot in the Implementation Plan. However, one thing notably dropped out between the Draft Implementation Plan and the final Implementation Plan: required marine spatial planning. Marine spatial planning is a demonstrated best practice for reconciling, coordinating, and rationalizing the multiple uses that humans make of the marine environment--including the needs of the marine ecosystems themselves. In the United States, marine spatial planning, implemented well, could also help to rationalize the radical fragmentation of authority that undermines comprehensive ocean governance.

This isn't a government taking the need for increased marine resilience seriously. As I've argued in multiple other fora, we need to transform our ocean law and policy.

Happy World Oceans Day!

-- Robin Kundis Craig

June 2, 2013 in Biodiversity, Climate Change, Economics, Food and Drink, Governance/Management, Law, North America, Science, Sustainability, US, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

China Environmental Experiences: Table of Contents

Over the last year and a half, I contributed a series of essays about my environmental experiences while living in China as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Ocean University of China.  A few readers who had missed installments suggested that I create a single post with a roadmap of links to all nine essays.  That seemed like a good idea, so with apologies to regular readers for the redundancy, here it is (truly the last of the series):

New Series: Environmental Adventures in ChinaIMG_300 ER teaching at HaiDa A (111611) “This first post provides some context for my series of through-the-looking-glass observations about what it’s like to plunge into China’s modern industrial revolution as an American environmental law professor....”

China Environmental Experiences #2: Rocky Mountain Arsenal.  “But as this blog speaks directly to environmental law professors, the first story is one that clutched at my heart while teaching Natural Resources Law in my first semester here….”

China Environmental Experiences #3: Breathing Air with Heft.  “…It’s easy to cite the mind-boggling statistics of how bad the air quality can get here. It’s hard to describe the actual experience of it. Harder still to endure it.…” Beijing CBD view on July 23 2011 Smog over 400 PMI (Smog) Beijing CBD view on July 26 2011 Smog over 60 PMI (Clear)

China Environmental Experiences #4: Wifi Without Potable Water.  “This month, I peek beneath one of the more surprising, seemingly contradictory stones in China’s path toward increasing prosperity and world power….” 

China Environmental Experiences # 5: Milk, Pesticides, and Product Safety.  “Friends joked that given how much of what we use in the United States is actually made in China, we probably didn’t have to bring anything—whatever we needed would be here! But after our arrival, we were surprised to discover how mistaken these assumptions were.…” 

CEE #6: Environmental Philosophy and Human Relationships with NatureLaoshan Mountain 036“In these final musings from the field, I reflect on a topic that is admittedly delicate but equally important, and which has been simmering behind many of the substantive environmental issues that I’ve addressed to now: environmental philosophy…."

CEE #7: Environmental Philosophy - Conservation, Stewardship, and Scarcity.  “[Previously], I opened a discussion about how diverging Chinese and American environmental perspectives may be informed by different baselines in our cultural relationships with the natural world. But other differences in underlying environmental philosophy are also important to understand—and as always, some reflect our two nations’ different stages of economic development….”

CEE #8: Environmental Protection as an Act of Cultural Change.   China Sept 2011 400“This essay concludes with parting thoughts about the philosophical roots of some of these differences, the Cultural Revolution and the processes of cultural change, and the significance of all this for environmental protection in China….”

CEE #9: Post Script: Returning from China to the U.S.   “This essay is about the experience of coming back to the United States from China, or perhaps more generally, returning to the developed world from that which is still developing. It mixes deep gratitude for the blessings of the American bounty with queasy culpability over the implications of that bounty for international and intergenerational equity….”

--Erin Ryan

Shanghai Jade Buddha Temple, World Financial Center, Bund 070

April 20, 2013 in Air Quality, Asia, Biodiversity, Climate Change, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Environmental Assessment, Food and Drink, Forests/Timber, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Legislation, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel, Water Quality, Water Resources, Weblogs | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 27, 2012

China Environmental Experiences #2: Rocky Mountain Arsenal

As I explained in a previous post, this year I am blogging about my environmental experiences in China, where I am spending the year as a Fulbright Scholar at Ocean University in Qingdao. In this series, I’ll describe what it’s like to live in a rapidly developing society without effective environmental regulation of air, water, and product safety—but also those environmental realms in which the Chinese surpass American efforts, including public transportation, overall consumption levels, and the national commitment to encouraging cultural change toward a “recycling economy” (while Americans argue about teaching climate science in schools). (For the full background on this series, see my introductory post.)

But as this blog speaks directly to environmental law professors, the first story is one that clutched at my heart while teaching Natural Resources Law in my first semester here. Teaching environmental law and policy here is, as you would imagine, endlessly enlightening. Environmental decision-making in the U.S. proceeds from very different underlying assumptions than those most prevalent in China. So it was fascinating to begin class the way I usually do, probing the conflicting assumptions about the goals of natural resources management that make the enterprise so challenging in any context.ELPB 2 RMA - RMA 2009 (Oborseth)

As many of you probably do as well, I especially like to raise these issues through the Rocky Mountain Arsenal discussion problem posed by environmental historian Bill Cronon (in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature) and nicely excerpted in the Rasband, Salzman, and Squillace NRL textbook. (Attached photo by Oborseth, with Creative Commons license.) This compound outside of Denver was left so toxic after decades of manufacturing mustard gas, napalm, and other chemical weapons that it was completely sealed off from human contact for years after its closure in 1992—a respite from human intervention during which it evolved into the nation’s “most ironic” wildlife refuge. Wildlife driven out of the developing Colorado front-country was finally able to establish undisturbed habitat in the arsenal, notwithstanding its toxic soils and contaminated waters. If the frogs had five legs, at least those frogs had wetlands to live in.

After sharing the story with my Chinese students, we debated the questions posed by Cronon and the textbook authors—how would you best manage these lands in accordance with nature? Would you initiate the massive disruption required to decontaminate the very earth underfoot, even though it would likely displace (and kill) a lot of wildlife? Or should you leave the five-legged frogs alone to live out their happy if shunted lives, peacefully unaware of the toxic soup in which they live? This began a lively conversation with the class that continued pleasantly and provocatively for months.

But over those same months, several of these students also became involved in my family’s experience of navigating the environmental challenges of our new life in China.

A few were there on the day that we arrived in Qingdao, helping us move into our new apartment. There were huge flakes of paint peeling from every wall, window, and doorway, collecting in piles on the floor no matter how often swept, beckoning my three-year-old like so many giant, lightly-sweetened corn-flakes. My very first question to the student in charge, an environmental law major with impeccable English, was whether I should worry about lead in the paint. “Why?” he asked. But even translating the problem into Chinese (and noting the established problem of lead paint in some Chinese toys) didn’t quite convey my concern. He assured me that children all over China grow up without incident in identical apartments with the same kind of paint, whatever it was. (Between this and the fact that the bathroom drain piped dirty water directly into the kitchen tap, we did not last there long.)

Several students traveled with me on congested area highways on days when I was overcome with the fumesELPB 2 RMA - Fushan on Good Air Day of auto-emissions to which they were so accustomed that they didn’t even notice. Many times, on days thick with foul-smelling cloudy air, they assured me that Qingdao is a coastal city, and that this was just fog. Having lived in coastal cities most of my life, I am quite familiar with the difference between fog and smog. Fog is wet, I would say, and it doesn’t sting your eyes or your throat. “You feel this in your eyes?” they would ask, incredulously. I would later discuss EPA’s new Mercury Rule with a group over lunch, touching on its significance for coal-fired power plants. None had ever heard of the relationship between coal-fired plants and mercury, even though we could see three belching furiously into the air just from where we were sitting. Chinese coal doesn’t have any mercury, one assured me.ELPB 2 RMA - Fushan on Bad Air Day

Others were on hand when our (second) apartment became infested with insects that ravaged us at night until my son looked like a smallpox patient for all his sores. The bites were so intense that bitten fingers would swell and go numb for hours at a time, preventing us from sleeping at all. After two weeks, we were so obviously exhausted and haggard that even my students were anxiously trying to help resolve the problem. And the solution was so obvious to them: just douse the apartment with successive rounds of pesticides as hard and thoroughly as possible until whatever was preying on us was gone. They contacted the building manager to explore options for beginning the process immediately, and secured a promise to do so. The solution was so simple that they were astonished by our polite but strident refusal to allow it.

Although we were desperate to be rid of the pests, we were even more concerned about the potential poisons used to eradicate them. Indeed, one of the hazards of being an environmental law professor is knowing a little too much about the hazards environmental laws are designed to prevent—such as the neurological consequences of organophosphate exposure. We had already puzzled everyone by declining to use the standard pesticide aerators that most Chinese use to kill mosquitoes, opting for minor suffering over the unknown consequences of an inhaled pesticide that we couldn’t research in English. We knew about some very dangerous Chinese chalk pesticides that are especially harmful to children, but we couldn’t evaluate the safety of those being offered to us now. After my son experienced some unusual neurological symptoms as an infant, we had avoided even American pesticides regulated for consumer safety, and this just didn’t seem like the time to shed precautions. But how to explain this to our kind hosts, for whom pesticides are a regular, widespread, and unquestioned part of life?

I finally just had to acknowledge that our behavior probably seemed completely unreasonable to most Chinese people, who would easily opt to fumigate and forget. I said a little bit about my son’s special medical history and explained that we were probably even more cautious than the average Americans. But I also noted the concerns raised by public health advocates around the world about the negative consequences of introduced chemicals in the environment, especially on young children. I explained the care that many American parents increasingly take in limiting the early exposure of their children to potentially dangerous substances in pesticides, cleaning products, and even plastic baby bottles.

In the end, with a little creativity and help from our friends, we were able to find some non-toxic solutions to our pest problem. But a few days later, one of my favorite students came up to me before class to say that he had continued to ponder the pesticide situation—and the eye-stinging air, and the peeling paint. This was the same student who had assured me not to worry about lead paint in the first apartment, and one of the many who regularly assured me that the cloudy air was coastal fog. “I cannot stop thinking this,” he said. And then in hushed but earnest tones: “China is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, isn’t it?”

My jaw slowly dropped as I tried and failed to form words. He looked at me steadily, with an intense but quiet pain behind his eyes. I hated the comparison between China and a toxic dump. I especially hated it from this brilliant student, so proud of his country’s accomplishments and protective of the many ways that it differs from mine. But he persisted: “Not perfect comparison, I know, but really, the same basic situation, right? Environment is fouled, and we are like those frogs. We don’t even know it, do we? That we live in a toxic world?”

Still speechless, I nodded gently, to acknowledge the part of the comparison that tragically held some truth. Then I mumbled something semi-coherent about the same problem happening worldwide, and I politely turned away to ready my notes for class (but mostly so that he would not see me brush away the wetness from the corners of my eyes).

The pain behind his broke my heart. He was right, of course (and to some extent, his observation holds true for all of us). But in that moment, the last thing I wanted was for my teaching to make him feel ashamed of his country, or betrayed by his government, or panicked about the future—or, really, anything other than just a little more educated than he had been the day before.

But he is that much more educated, and this I did come to do. I am here to teach American environmental law, and in so doing, I find myself surprisingly torn. In sharing with my students some of the ways that I see the world, I necessarily force them to see theirs a bit differently, and it is not always for the best. To be sure, our educational exchange works in both directions, and that student reminded me that all of us are living in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in varying degrees. But the Chinese students with whom I spend the most time no longer believe that the cloudy air is fog, and I am sad for them that they will now worry for their children in a way that their neighbors won’t. They will worry about mercury poisoning and lung cancer, and worse—they will feel powerless to change it, at least for now. Without genuine levers of participation in governance, there really is some bliss to be had in ignorance.

Their lost environmental innocence is cause for grief, especially when it brings pain without obvious remedy. As midwife for this loss, I share in that grief. But I also cherish the hope that it will one day be a reason for celebration, when—thanks to their generation’s rising consciousness—the air no longer stings. If nothing else, I hope that my students will have that much more fire in their bellies, as their bellies are increasingly well-fed, to protect the next generation more effectively. And on that front, knowing even this small sample of Chinese young people fills me with confidence.ELPB 2 RMA - NRL Class

--Erin Ryan

February 27, 2012 in Air Quality, Asia, Biodiversity, Food and Drink, International, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Travel | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 20, 2012

New Series: Environmental Adventures in China

I’m delighted to be joining the Environmental Law Prof Blog as a contributing editor. This year, I’ll be blogging about my environmental experiences in China, where I’m spending 2011-12 as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at Zhongguo Haiyang Daxue (Ocean University of China). I am teaching a full schedule of American law courses while researching Chinese environmental governance, joined by my husband, 4-year old son, and 73-year-old mother. In our small two-bedroom apartment, we live like a typical Chinese family, with three generations and an only child.

ELPB 1 QingDaYiLuTo be sure, the living is not always easy—but perhaps our most important lesson of all will be to learn what it means to downsize from American consumption levels and live a little more like the rest of the world. (And this is a sobering lesson indeed.)

In light of our rich reservoir of experience here, my blogging will be less academic and more experiential—less about the fact that Beijing will finally begin monitoring air pollution at the 2.5 micron level, and more about how life changes when you are immersed in those particulates day after day. (For more academic reporting, see the excellent Chinese blog, China Environmental Law.) To summarize the overall sentiment of the series, anyone complaining about excessive environmental regulation in the U.S. really ought to spend a year living in China.

Better still, they should bring their young children or aging parents.

This first post provides some context for my series of through-the-looking-glass observations about what it’s like to plunge into China’s modern industrial revolution as an American environmental law professor. No amount of legal research could have prepared me for the differences in environmental perspective that I would encounter here (and even my undergraduate degree in Chinese language and culture falls short). So I hope that sharing these stories will help illuminate some of the cultural gaps we will inevitably encounter as Chinese and American partners work together to solve our global environmental challenges.

China Sept 2011 385I thought I'd start by explaining a little bit about where many of these stories come from. We are fortunate to be living in the beautiful city of Qingdao, Shandong Province, which is on the coast of northeastern China across the Yellow Sea from South Korea. Qingdao is home to about seven million people—a small (!) city by Chinese standards. It is a wonderful place of disarmingly friendly people, complete with weather-worn mountains overlooking a peaceful sea. Home to several of China’s biggest brands and among the ten busiest commercial shipping ports in the world, Qingdao has won several awards for green development. And yes, it is where the famous Chinese beer comes from (“Tsingtao” is just a different Romanization for “Qingdao”!)

Ocean University is one of China's key comprehensive universities under the direct supervision of the Ministry of Education. It has about 30,000 students and faculty and ranks among the top 10% of universities nationwide. The law school has an especially dynamic environmental program, offering master's and doctoral degrees and hosting seven research institutes addressing marine law, coastal zone management, sustainable development, and other important topics. (Of note, the Law School is currently inviting applications from both students and faculty for some very intriguing programs of exchange--about which I've posted separately here.)

ELPB 1 UsThe Dean and faculty have been extremely welcoming, and the students are delightful. Teaching them is especially gratifying because they are so hungry for the kind of engaged and participatory teaching that we regularly use in American law schools. Most of them have never before been asked what they themselves think, or to work all the way through a doctrinal problem, or to question their instructors. It is truly a privilege to be part of this cross-cultural exchange, and I will always be grateful to both the China Fulbright Program and my hosts here at Ocean University for the opportunity.

Nevertheless, the challenges of living here—specifically, the environmental challenges—can be harrowing. In the next few months, I’ll blog about the experiences of living without clean air, potable water, or faith that products in the marketplace won’t make us sick. I'll write about the many ways that established environmental problems foster newer ones, like the consequences of poor public water quality on the ever-increasing stream of waste products to cope with it. I'll write about our palpable homesickness for the kind of government oversight we take for granted to protect us in circumstances ranging from pharmaceutical to pedestrian safety. (For all the chest-thumping in some American circles about the perils of socialism, China is a Tea Partier's dream in many respects—as far away from the Nanny State as most would ever wish to venture.)

Yet I’ll also write about the environmental realms in which the Chinese put Americans to shame—for example, the amazing public transportation system in cities like ours, which can be navigated cheaply and conveniently by bus at all hours (and has a subway system in the making). Or the full-scale embrace of alternative sources of energy, with a solar water heater on every roof. Or the national government’s commitment to price carbon on at least some level--a part of the new Five Year Plan beginning experimentation in seven cities. Or the general willingness among most Chinese to make personal sacrifices for the greater good.ELPB Intro sea

But since this is a blog and not a novel, I'll save my first tale for the next post--a story about how Colorado's Rocky Mountain Arsenal led to surprising insights among my Natural Resources Law students about their own experiences in China. Stay tuned!

--Erin Ryan

February 20, 2012 in Air Quality, Asia, Climate Change, Energy, Food and Drink, Governance/Management, International, Land Use, Law, Sustainability, Toxic and Hazardous Substances, Water Quality, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Problem of the Prehistoric Refrigerator (and it's Neanderthal environmental law professor owner)

The other night I made my hourly (it seems) trip out to the garage Refrigerator 2 to get some scholarly clarity....ah-hem....Pepsi Max or some other equally caffeinated drink (why are my teeth so sensitive, by the way?). See, in my benevolence and high-minded environmental consciousness (please note sarcasm) I decided to keep the previous homeowner's prehistoric refrigerator, seen to the right (literally, Neanderthals kept frozen dinosaur meat in this thing).  It not only makes a great home for my summer stipend....er...caffeinated go-juice....but it also preserves the functionality of a still-working appliance and keeps it from unnecessarily entering the waste stream (why do we always feel we need "new" stuff anyway?).  Forget the fact that I don't need two refrigerators, the amount of extra electricity it consumes....look, just leave me alone.  Anyway, nothing brings the high and mighty environmentally unassailable down like reaching into the refrigerator for a Pepsi Max, only to discover that YOU - and YOU alone - are responsible for the Montreal Protocol. YOU kept the international community tied up with trying to fix the ozone layer during much of the 80's, rather than focusing on more important things like the harm caused to children by slap bracelets, or the amount of carbon fiber sequestered by Hammer pants, or [insert next cliche 80's joke here]. Alas, when I looked into the refrigerator, this is what I saw:

Refrigerator 1

My heart sunk.  No longer were CFC's a ghost of my youth or something "over there" in the less environmentally conscious developing world (sarcasm, again), but they were right there in my own d@!%, Bluebookin' garage. I was single-handedly harming public health and the environment by destroying the upper atmosphere. I felt like a villain in a Superman movie, and just knew he was going to swoop down, fly around the earth 100 times-a-minute to take us to a future where this evil dump truck of an appliance had finally blown a fuse. Or perhaps an upgraded "Refrigerterminator" would come BACK in time and eliminate the GE-1000 to save us all from a future ozone apocalypse.

In all seriousness - to the extent that this post can be serious - it did raise in my mind the issue of lag time on policies aimed at improving the environment. It is easy to wax poetic to students about how "we need to transition fast to energy star appliances....more fuel efficient vehicles..." and on and on.  Even when the prices are competitive with less environmentally friendly products, this simply isn't always so easy. It's also not clear that when pitted against the problems of consumption it is always so desirable. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we need to buy less stuff and use what we have longer so that we can lower our consumption rates, which would require 5 earths to sustain if the U.S. per capita rate of consumption went worldwide.  Yet buying a bunch of new stuff and discarding perfectly useable stuff is exactly what I promote when it comes to innovative new products that are better for the environment. 

The highlight of my law school career was having my 1994 Ford Ranger pick-up truck (I am from Alabama, after all) stolen right off the street.  Of the 250 (seriously) cars stolen in Durham that month (no joke), I am certain this had to be the theft that generated the greatest ridicule for this thief by his professional colleagues.  Why would anyone besides a broke law student want a 1994 Ford Ranger? Well, first it was paid for, and a second it still worked.  When the thief finally had a moment of lucidity, a month later (who waits a MONTH before deciding a 1994 Ford Ranger is not the vehicle for them!?.....ahhh, besides me that is?), he graciously deposited my vehicle behind a crack house. I paid my $500 to the wrecker company to get it back (it's Blue Book value [Kelley Blue Book, that is] was $900 - thank goodness I didn't file an insurance claim), and guess what....I still drive it today. I'll be Bluebooked if I'm getting rid of it till it croaks, nevermind it's gas mileage is about 20 mpg's these days. As for the fossil of a refrigerator sitting in my garage, I'm still on the fence. Do I send it to the trash heap, for my kids to figure out what to do with it, or keep it and have them simply apply stronger SPF? Tough call.

- Blake Hudson

July 20, 2011 in Air Quality, Food and Drink, International, Physical Science, Sustainability | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Environmental Freakonomics: Bottling Water Not So Bad After All?

Bottled Water As I got deeper and deeper into my Natural Resources Law and Policy material on water, I lamented to a friend that "we just don't have enough water." My friend, an economist, said "no, we just don't have enough properly priced water."  My concern was driven by a Scientific American article about the Ogallala Aquifer, which supports the breadbasket of the world and stretches all the way from South Dakota to Texas.  In West Texas alone, the number of irrigation wells grew from 1,166 in 1937 to more than Ogallala  
66,000 in 1971.  The overdraft of the aquifer in 1975 was equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado River, but today the aquifer is being depleted at an annual volume equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers.  In some places agriculture is withdrawing four to six feet a year, and nature is putting back half an inch.  Natural aquifer recharge would would take 6,000 years if it were to be fully drained.

In a fascinating guest post on freakonomics.com, Charles Fishman describes some of the drivers of water overconsumption within the context of a very interesting case study. Fishman highlights a move by the National Basketball Association's Cleveland Cavaliers to remove all of the 18 water fountains in Quicken Loans Arena (the "Q"). As an alternative to the water fountains - which, of course, provided free water - the organization directed people to free cups of water available in the concession stands, or patrons could purchase a $4 bottle of Aquafina. Of course, to receive either of those options, people had to be willing to stand in line - which can be a lengthy proposition at a sporting event.  Three months passed, and over 1 million spectators attended events in the Q with not one complaint.  About halfway through the NBA season, however, a newspaper reported the removal of the water fountains.  The fans were furious, even though the Q had sold out 29 home games prior to fans' awareness of the removal. The Q scrambled to put the water fountains back in.

This story demonstrates, first, the entitlement people feel toward things that they obviously do not need - which is a disturbing commentary on the societal drivers of overconsumption and environmental degradation as a general matter. But second, the story raises some very interesting facts about water and why we should consider paying more for it. Fishman notes that if you buy a 17 ounce bottle of water for $0.99, you could take it home and continuously refill it every day with tap water for 6 years before you spent $0.99 on that amount of tap water! Even cheap bottled water is 2,000 times more expensive than tap water at home.  This demonstrates an amazing disparity between what we are willing to pay for water when we are at sporting events, on road trips, going to the beach, etc., and what we are not willing to pay, and indeed feel entitled to, in our homes - the place where most water overconsumption occurs. Fishman notes that "[R]esidents act as if increasing the water bill from $23 a month to $30 a month will force them to choose between their heart medicine and their water," even though the average household water bill in the U.S. is less than half the average cable TV or cell phone bill.

Though there are obviously big problems with bottled water - not to mention the toxic chemical and waste disposal issues posed by the plastic used to manufacture them - when considering overconsumption of water it may be useful not to rely too heavily on conventional wisdom ("convenient wisdom") regarding the parcelization of water resources. As Fishman notes, "'Free' is the wrong price for water. In fact, the lack of a price for routine water service is the most important thing that’s wrong with water — resources that are free are wasted; there’s no incentive to learn to use them smartly; there’s no money to maintain and modernize the existing water system; there’s no incentive to reach back and protect the source of something that’s free."

- Blake Hudson

June 27, 2011 in Economics, Food and Drink, Sustainability, Water Resources | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

How this virus developed and why it may be a killer

The Mexican swine flu virus is a swine influenza A/H1N1 virus hybridized (mixed) with human and bird viruses.  We have some immunity to human flu and to some strains of swine influenza A/H1N1;  We don't have immunity to bird flu, which is why that virus is so virulent - with a kill ratio of almost 50% -- and why so much pandemic planning and preparedness focused on bird flu.

New Scientist reports:

This type of virus emerged in the US in 1998 and has since become endemic on hog farms across North America. Equipped with a suite of pig, bird and human genes, it was also evolving rapidly.  Flu infects many animals, including waterfowl, pigs and humans. Birds and people rarely catch flu viruses adapted to another host, but they can pass flu to pigs, which also have their own strains.If a pig catches two kinds of flu at once it can act as a mixing vessel, and hybrids can emerge with genes from both viruses. This is what happened in the US in 1998. Until then, American pigs had regular winter flu, much like people, caused by a mutated virus from the great human pandemic of 1918, which killed pigs as well as at least 50 million people worldwide. This virus was a member of the H1N1 family - with H and N being the virus's surface proteins haemagglutinin and neuraminidase.  Over decades, H1N1 evolved in pigs into a mild, purely swine flu, and became genetically fairly stable. In 1976, there was an outbreak of swine H1N1 in people at a military camp [Fort Dix] in New Jersey, with one death. The virus did not spread efficiently, though, and soon fizzled out.

But in 1998, says Richard Webby of St Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, swine H1N1 hybridised with human and bird viruses, resulting in "triple reassortants" that surfaced in Minnesota, Iowa and Texas. The viruses initially had human surface proteins and swine internal proteins, with the exception of three genes that make RNA polymerase, the crucial enzyme the virus uses to replicate in its host. Two were from bird flu and one from human flu. Researchers believe that the bird polymerase allows the virus to replicate faster than those with the human or swine versions, making it more virulent.

By 1999, these viruses comprised the dominant flu strain in North American pigs and, unlike the swine virus they replaced, they were actively evolving. There are many versions with different pig or human surface proteins, including one, like the Mexican flu spreading now, with H1 and N1 from the original swine virus. All these viruses still contained the same "cassette" of internal genes, including the avian and human polymerase genes, reports Amy Vincent of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Ames, Iowa (Advances in Virus Research, vol 72, p 127). "They are why the swine versions of this virus easily outcompete those that don't have them," says Webby.

But the viruses have been actively switching surface proteins to evade the pigs' immunity. There are now so many kinds of pig flu that it is no longer seasonal. One in five US pig producers actually makes their own vaccines, says Vincent, as the vaccine industry cannot keep up with the changes. This rapid evolution posed the "potential for pandemic influenza emergence in North America", Vincent said last year. Webby, too, warned in 2004 that pigs in the US are "an increasingly important reservoir of viruses with human pandemic potential". One in five US pig workers has been found to have antibodies to swine flu, showing they have been infected, but most people have no immunity to these viruses.

The virus's rapid evolution created the potential for a pandemic to emerge in North America.  Our immune response to flu, which makes the difference between mild and potentially lethal disease, is mainly to the H surface protein. The Mexican virus carries the swine version, so the antibodies we carry to human H1N1 viruses will not recognise it. That's why the CDC warned last year that swine H1N1 would "represent a pandemic threat" if it started circulating in humans. The avian polymerase genes are especially worrying, as similar genes are what make H5N1 bird flu lethal in mammals and what made the 1918 human pandemic virus so lethal in people. "We can't yet tell what impact they will have on pathogenicity in humans," says Webby. It appears the threat has now resulted in the Mexican flu. "The triple reassortant in pigs seems to be the precursor," Robert Webster, also at St Jude's, told New Scientist.

While researchers focused on livestock problems could see the threat developing, it is not one that medical researchers focused on human flu viruses seemed to have been aware of. "It was confusing when we looked up the gene sequences in the database," says Wendy Barclay of Imperial College London, who has been studying swine flu from the recent US cases. "The polymerase gene sequences are bird and human, yet they were reported in viruses from pigs."

So where did the Mexican virus originate? The Veratect Corporation based in Kirkland, Washington, monitors world press and government reports to provide early disease warnings for clients, including the CDC. Their first inkling of the disease was a 2 April report of a surge in respiratory disease in a town called La Gloria, east of Mexico City, which resulted in the deaths of three young children. Only on 16 April - after Easter week, when millions of Mexicans travel to visit relatives - reports surfaced elsewhere in the country.

Local reports in La Gloria blamed pig farms in nearby Perote owned by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of US hog giant Smithfield Foods. The farms produce nearly a million pigs a year. Smithfield Foods, in a statement, insists there are "no clinical signs or symptoms" of swine flu in its pigs or workers in Mexico. That is unsurprising, as the company says it "routinely administers influenza virus vaccination to swine herds and conducts monthly tests for the presence of swine influenza." The company would not tell New Scientist any more about recent tests. USDA researchers say that while vaccination keeps pigs from getting sick, it does not block infection or shedding of the virus.

All the evidence suggests that swine flu was a disaster waiting to happen. But it got little research attention, perhaps because it caused mild infections in people which didn't spread. Now one swine flu virus has stopped being so well-behaved.

This leads us to the policy question: why should humans keep pigs?  Like other meat, pigs consume an extraordinary amount of resources to provide nutrition.  Maybe the ancient Israelites had an insight that we have lacked -- there may be more wisdom in the Torah and its laws than we knew.  Perhaps it is time, or past time, for our eating habits to evolve lest an even more virulent strain of swine flu develop.  Assuming that this pandemic passes without too many deaths, we may need to rethink whether it is good to keep large quantities of pigs.  For now, the virulent bird flu does not seem easily communicable.  Let's keep it that way. 

April 29, 2009 in Agriculture, Asia, Australia, Biodiversity, Current Affairs, Economics, EU, Food and Drink, Governance/Management, International, North America, Religion, Sustainability, US | Permalink | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Elizabeth Royte's new blog -- more on bottled water than you'd ever want to know

Go visit Elizabeth Royte's new blog: Water. waste. and whatever   She's got more information on bottled water than anyone else in the world -- remember, she's the author of Bottlemania.

April 11, 2009 in Books, Current Affairs, Economics, Energy, Food and Drink, Sustainability, US, Water Quality, Water Resources, Weblogs | Permalink | TrackBack (0)