Thursday, April 30, 2009

EPA and Climate Change Regulations

Lisa Jackson, the new Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has ruled that greenhouse gases are a threat to human health. This ruling implies that the Clean Air Act already applies to climate change, even if Congress were to take no further action. In this interview, Administrator Jackson discusses the differences between laws and regulations.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

U.S.-Mexico Economic Relationship

It has been a century since President Porfirio Díaz lamented, "Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!" Indeed, nowhere in the world do two countries share such strong connections and disparate economies.

The connections are physical, economic, cultural, and even familial. At the same time, differences in income, opportunity, and in the concentration of wealth are great. Across one of the world's longest and most important land borders, misconceptions abound in both directions.

I have had the opportunity to travel in several parts of Mexico and to live from 1990 to 1997 in the border zone (Tucson, Arizona and Pharr, Texas). Recent stories, especially from some areas of the border, have left me sad and worried. On the occasion of President Obama's visit with President Felipe Calderon, Kai Ryssdal's interviews Council of Foreign Relations expert Shannon O'Neil. Describing the many dimensions of the binational relationship, she helps to keep the current turmoil -- important though it is -- in perspective.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

White House Garden too clean?

This should be of special interest to my students and neighbors who are reading Silent Spring this spring. Michelle Obama has returned to the tradition of a garden at the White House, partly in response to a national campaign for healthy, local food.

Leaders of the pesticide industry shudders (their word) at the thought of the First Lady eschewing "crop protection products" (their phrase).

CREDO Action has issued an alert; if these guys cared much about what I think, they would not be pesticide executives, but I signed CREDO's petition anyway.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Sound of Silence

Ironically, this is a radio segment about silence. The closest I usually get to silence is early morning in my house, and then I inevitably turn on National Public Radio. If I am up first on a weekend morning, I enjoy listening to Living on Earth, which addresses important environmental matters in a thoughtful way. It has really broadened my understanding of what environmental matters are -- in this case a good story about the quest to find and preserve places with only natural noises.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Ecologists cutting trees?

TILT: The reason for the seasons!

This story, about environmentalists seeking a permit to cut down trees, includes quite a few lessons in environmental geography.

Thanks to my friend Tom for pointing out the most obvious of these: this story results from the inability of an architect and two ecologists to account properly for winter sun angle. At 42 degrees north, the noon sun on the winter solstice does not go higher than 24.5 degrees above the horizon. (90-(42N+23.5S) = 24.5) Even in the summer, the sun does rise higher than 71.5 degrees, (90-(42N-23.5S) = 71.5) though it may seem to be directly overhead. Nobody should be involved in solar power without being able to map out this sort of thing.

Even without trees in the way, the solar panels are not going to be very productve in the winter, given that the winter sun provides far less energy than summer sun (otherwise, winter would be just as warm as summer). First of all, the energy is diffuse -- hold a flashlight perpendicular to a wall and then at a low angle to see this effect. The panels would need to be close to vertical to compensate fully for this factor. Secondly, although the earth is slightly closer to the sun in our winter months, the sunlight must pass through a thicker slice of the atmosphere, so less energy reaches the ground.

The story is a reminder that the "best" environmental choice may not always be obvious. An obscure folk duo known as the Pheromones once sang this about a common question at the grocery store:

Paper bag or plastic?
Going to make me spastic!
Either way we lose the trees,
Or the ozone by degrees!

They were not quite right about the ozone, but the point is well taken -- environmental purity, or simply figuring out how to do the most good or the least damage is difficult at times.

In this case, as with the grocery dilemma, more than two choices (to cut or not to cut) are available. The grocery customer can, of course, bring a canvas bag or simply carry small purchases by hand. Similarly, itwould be useful to look at the necessity of having such a large house, the total carbon impact of energy use plus landscaping, and the possibilities of using other sources of renewable energy in the low-sun season, such as electricity purchased from more productive sources elsewhere.

Finally, the story also points out an interesting conundrum about environmental decisions and spatial scale. To her credit, the homeowner in this case recused herself, as she would otherwise be ruling on her own application. This simply highlights the fact, however, that in Massachusetts the first line of enforcement of many provisions of the Federal Clean Water Act is a locally-appointed board -- very locally! I have actually completed the certification program for Conservation Commissioners in Massachusetts, and I still do not understand this: friends and neighbors get to decide if proposed actions (or completed actions) are in compliance with the Federal law. Of course some safeguards are in place and most of the people who do this work are trying to be honest, but it does politicize decisions that would be better left to professionals who are independent of the stakeholders.

More on the Taunton River

From the Boston Globe, here is an article with a bit more information about the Wild & Scenic designation for the Taunton River.

Omnivore's Dilemma

Last week, I had the privilege of meeting -- and even sharing a meal with -- Michael Pollan. For most of human history, all food was local and organic, and the biggest worry about food was simply getting enough of it. Now food is abundant but problematic. Nobody does a better job of the problems of modern food than Pollan, whose books point to valuable remedies.

For example, he advises us not to eat anything our great-grandmothers would not recognize as food. I try to imagine telling my own great-grandmother that such advice would ever need to be given. She died in 1987 at the age of 102, having eaten local, organic food all of her life (though she did try a hot dog in her last decade).

Pollan also told us that before becoming a famous author, he had difficulty getting editors interested in his writings about agriculture. When he started telling them that the articles were about food, they became much more interested. The connection between the two had not been obvious to them, which is a sad and telling symptom of our current disconnection from our food.

Read about Pollan's visit at Eating Right, Living Well. My modest geography of food page has many other links about this important subject.

Saving Fuel

Buying a new hybrid is not the only way to save fuel -- it might not even be the best way. Writng for, Joe Wiesenfelder describes several ways to start using less fuel without spending any extra money. As the Car Talk guys are fond of saying, "We've got a whole planet to save here!" It can start by rolling up your windows. Read the full article for some other ideas that are surprisingly simple.

Writing for, Mac Demere provides Top 10 Ways to Waste Gas. My favorite line from this article, because I've seen it so much:

"You can make a Corolla get the same gas mileage as an 18-wheeler by sitting in the car with the air-conditioner running while waiting in an elementary-school pickup line."

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Cuba may finally be open

Cuba is the only country that the U.S. government prevents its citizens from visiting. In fact, in the name of protecting freedom, the U.S. government can lock up citizens (and even some visitors) for simply going to this island.

It is a policy that clearly has not worked, and has given Castro a pretext for many of his abuses, such as the execution of three men who tried to hijack the Regla ferry in 2003, a couple of months after I had ridden it.

Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has supported the embargo, which makes no sense at all to most people who are younger than the Cold War. They did so to appease a small but vocal group in Florida who believed in the fantasy of reclaiming their long-lost wealth after a counter-revolution. Even most younger members of that community do not believe in the embargo any more.

I had the privilege (should have been a right) to visit Cuba in 2003 under an academic license that the Bush Administration took away in 2004. I would hate to live under its political restrictions, but as a U.S. citizen, I have the right to travel to a lot of places that have far more abusive governments.

From my perpsective the current president and vice president see this issue a bit differently from each other. I am very curious and a bit worried about how this will unfold, but I'm glad that some in Congress are pushing for change now.

Taunton River designated as wild and scenic

President Obama has just named the Taunton River -- which runs from Bridgewater to the Atlantic -- the nation's newest Wild & Scenic River. This designation recognizes the tremendous progress made in restoring this historic and beautiful river. It also results from many years of study and advocacy by local activists and professionals, including several of my friends and associates with connections to Bridgewater State College and the Natural Resources Trust of Bridgewater, which I once served as a director.

The Wild & Scenic designation sometimes causes alarm, because people assume it carries draconian restrictions on land use. In reality, the river's new status would only impose limitations on major, federally-funded projects such as new dams, which are highly unlikely. The designation does, however, make proposals for environmental protection projects automatically more competitive.

Congratulations to everyone who worked so hard on this -- the next chapter in this river's history promises to be even brighter.

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