banner photo:

"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Monday, January 29, 2007

Myths about urban sprawl

The Washington Post has a great article in its January 28 issue challenging the conventional wisdom about urban sprawl and its effects on the environment.The full article is available here. The premise: "the anti-suburbs culture has fostered many myths about sprawl and driving, a few of which deserve to be reconsidered". Here's a summary of the main points:

Myth #1: Americans are addicted to driving

The conventional wisdom is that North Americans (especially residents of the U.S.) are addicted to their cars, and that other more enlightened societies like France have a culture that encourages alternatives to private cars. The truth is that in the United States, automobiles account for about 88 percent of travel. The European figure is about 78 percent, and increasing. The key factor in determining whether citizens use private cars is not culture but wealth - Americans are wealthier than Europeans and can afford to drive their own cars. As the prosperity of other countries increases, so does their use of cars - China is a good example. Europeans can feel virtuous about their presumed lower reliance on cars, but as they get wealthier, they drive more just like the Americans.

Myth #2: Public transit reduces traffic congestion

According to the Washington Post, "even though spending on public transportation has ballooned to more than seven times its 1960s levels, the percentage of people who use it to get to work fell 63 percent from 1960 to 2000 and now stands at just under 5 percent nationwide. Transit is also decreasing in Europe, down to 16 percent in 2000." The key factor again is wealth - public transit is a poor choice for relatively affluent citizens who live in the suburbs: it is often inconvenient and time consuming, and is not really an option for commuters who both work and live in the suburbs or drive from one suburban community to another. Even in high-population -density New York City, which green activists advocate as a model over sprawling communities like Los Angeles, only one in four commuters relies on public transit.

Myth #3: If we stop driving, we will improve air quality

The conventional wisdom is that the quality of the air in our cities is bad and getting worse every year, and that car traffic is the major culprit. In fact, the air quality in major cities has been getting better, not worse, for a long time. As the Post reports: "More stringent regulations and better technology have allowed us to achieve what was previously unthinkable: driving more and getting cleaner. Since 1970, driving -- total vehicle miles traveled -- has increased 155 percent, and yet the EPA reports a dramatic decrease in every major pollutant it measures. Although driving is increasing by 1 to 3 percent each year, average vehicle emissions are dropping about 10 percent annually. Pollution will wane even more as motorists continue to replace older, dirtier cars with newer, cleaner models."

Myth #4: Urban sprawl is consuming vast quantities of rural and wilderness land

In the supposedly heavily developed U.S., only 5.4% of the land is developed (ie has more than 30 people per square mile). More land in North America is forested now than at the turn of the 20th century. Yes, cities are getting bigger, but housing developments are using land more efficiently than ever before, and North America is not anywhere near running out of land for development.

Myth # 5: The only way to stop global warming is to stop driving cars

Even if America (and Canada) met the emissions-reduction targets in the Kyoto Accord, the effect would be small. Tom M.L. Wigley, chief scientist at the U.S. Center for Atmospheric Research, has done research that concludes that even if every nation met its Kyoto targets, the Earth would be only .07 degrees centigrade cooler by 2050. According to the Post: "Two ways of dealing with global warming emerge. A more stringent version of Kyoto could be crafted to chase the unprecedented goal of trying to cool the atmosphere of the entire planet. Yet if such efforts resulted in lower economic growth, low-income populations in the United States and developing countries would be less able to protect themselves from the ill effects of extreme heat or other kinds of severe weather. Alternatively, the focus could be on preventing the negative effects -- the disease and death -- that global warming might bring. Each year malaria kills 1 million to 3 million people, and one-third of the world's population is infected with water- or soil-borne parasitic diseases. It may well be that dealing with global warming by building resilience against its possible effects is more productive -- and more realistic -- than trying to solve the problem by driving our automobiles less."

(h/t: Instapundit )

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Global cooling in 2012?

The Financial Post has been running a series of articles on "global warming skeptics" called The Deniers. The Jan. 26 issue features a profile of Habibullo Abdussamatov, head of the Russian Academies of Sciences' Pulkovo Observatory and of the International Space Station's Astrometry project. His claim - the earth will enter a period of global cooling starting in 2012 to 2015, which will "inevitably lead to a deep freeze around 2055-60" lasting some 50 years.

Dr. Abdussamatov is an expert on solar radiation, and is one of the leading critics of the hypothesis that man-made carbon dioxide emissions are the cause of the observed increase in the Earth's temperature. He postulates that an increase in the amount of solar energy resulting from cyclical variations in the Sun's radiation of energy are responsible for global warming on Earth and a parallel warming trend on Mars that is causing an increase in that planet's temperature and a shrinking of its polar ice caps:
"Mars has global warming, but without a greenhouse and without the participation of Martians...These parallel global warmings -- observed simultaneously on Mars and on Earth -- can only be a straightline consequence of the effect of the one same factor: a long-time change in solar irradiance. The sun's increased irradiance over the last century, not C02 emissions, is responsible for the global warming we're seeing, says the celebrated scientist, and this solar irradiance also explains the great volume of C02 emissions.It is no secret that increased solar irradiance warms Earth's oceans, which then triggers the emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So the common view that man's industrial activity is a deciding factor in global warming has emerged from a misinterpretation of cause and effect relations."

Dr. Abdussamatov's predictions?
Earth has hit its temperature ceiling. Solar irradiance has begun to fall, ushering in a protracted cooling period beginning in 2012 to 2015. The depth of the decline in solar irradiance reaching Earth will occur around 2040, and "will inevitably lead to a deep freeze around 2055-60" lasting some 50 years, after which temperatures will go up again...."There is no need for the Kyoto Protocol now. It does not have to come into force until at least 100 years from now," Dr. Abdussamatov concluded. "A global freeze will come about regardless of whether or not industrialized countries put a cap on their greenhouse-gas emissions".

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

"Allah be praised" says the National Post

I enjoy the promotional blurbs using quotations from critics that are used to promote movies and TV programs. They are sometimes taken out of context and imply a rave review when in fact it may have been scathing or tepid at best. So, I was curious to see the original context when I saw a commercial on CBC TV for its sit-com "Little Mosque on the Prairie", which trumpeted the line "Allah be praised! - National Post".

The review by Rob McKenzie, which appeared on Jan. 9, did indeed have the headline "Allah be praised", and McKenzie generally gave the pilot episode a good review. However, I'd be careful about using quotations from the article if I worked for the CBC. McKenzie starts by recalling his thoughts at the beginning of the show; "I really hope this doesn't suck." It goes on: "The good news is the new show doesn't suck, thereby sparing us no end of 'Little Mosque Bombs' headlines." And this: "If Little Mosque has one weakness, it's that several of the non-Muslim characters have the depth of cardboard." And this: "Bottom line: On a scale of one to 48 virgins, I'd peg Little Mosque's pilot at 29 1/2 virgins. Though really, who does that 'half a virgin' think she's fooling?"

Later in the week (Jan. 11), Post columnist Barbara Kay wrote a somewhat more critical review, titled "The joke's on us". Some exerpts:

I caught the opening episode of CBC's Little Mosque on the Prairie Tuesday night. It wasn't quite as bad as I'd anticipated. That is to say, it's awful, but at least my worst fears were not realized: Thanks be to Allah, there are no Jews in this sitcom....

In this surreal sequence - sorry, not comic for me, but then I would have found Hogan's Heroes kind of a downer if it aired in 1946 - the witty and confident Amaar displays insouciant contempt for the implied Islamaphobia of the dumber-than-dumb cops....

The rest of the cast is stuck in the pre-ironic 1950s model sitcom, like Father Knows Best, My Three Sons, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver, where characters are cardboard cutouts, the reigning mood is earnestness, where nobody is really bad (although many are somewhat simple), everyone's intentions are good and whatever minor conflict serves to propel the plot forward is resolved with a kind word. Wait a minute. I think I've just described every comic series that has ever been produced by the CBC. Ah, all is illuminated. In 1957, Little Mosque on the Prairie would have been a crackerjack series. In 2007, it is a reminder that the CBC is a cultural fossil.

Not exactly ringing endorsements from the National Post. I would love to see a CBC commercial that used the lines "The good news is it doesn't suck - Rob McKenzie, National Post", or "It wasn't quite as bad as I'd anticipated. That is to say, it was awful... - Barbara Kay, National Post".

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The polygamy red herring

David Warren, standing on guard against Canada’s moral decline, has declared in the Ottawa Citizen that the recent Ontario Appeals Court decision recognizing three legal parents for a child of a lesbian couple is “a straight line to polygamy”, and that “polygamy follows multiple parentage as night follows day”. This is a familiar argument from social conservatives and has been used frequently to oppose legalization of gay marriage. As Warren writes, “it likewise followed from same-sex "marriage" - for if the institution cannot be restricted to one man and one woman, how otherwise can it be restricted?” Not to worry - there are plenty of reasons to support gay marriage (and allow “multiple parentage”) and still criminalize polygamy.

Even rabid libertarians acknowledge that not all individual rights are worthy of protection. John Stuart Mill, in his great essay “On Liberty”, laid the framework that has guided most western common law rights traditions: he wrote that individuals are entitled to life, liberty and property rights only so far as the exercise of those rights does not harm the rights of others. You may have the right to keep plutonium in your garden shed, but if it makes your neighbours sick or you are planning to build a weapon of mass destruction with it, then the state is justified in restricting this right to property.

It is difficult, in my mind, to argue that gay marriage infringes on the rights of anyone else. If a homosexual couple gets married, I can’t see how this significantly harms heterosexual couples or society at large. Similarly, if the state recognizes that a child has three legal parents, I don’t find the argument that this harms children very convincing. I think it makes sense from a libertarian perspective for the state to recognize that there is no valid reason for people not to exercise their liberty in this regard.

However, a very strong case can be made that polygamy does create harm. First of all, let us recognize that in societies that practice polygamy, it almost always means that one man has multiple wives, and not the other way around. In a population that statistically has a 50-50 split between males and females, and where males take multiple wives, the logical result is that many young men are prevented from taking wives of their own. The result in these communities is that surplus young men are frequently ostracized or banished from their communities against their will. This phenomenon is well documented in polygamist communities in the U.S. and Canada. This alone would justify the state’s intervention in limiting a man’s right to take multiple wives.

Furthermore, polygamist communities have a disturbingly high rate of incest, child abuse and wife battering. In Utah, where approximately 2% of the population are practicing polygamists in spite of a legal ban on plural marriage, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2001 that polygamist communities had extraordinarily high levels of these crimes, as well as widespread reliance on welfare, unusual levels of child poverty, wide-ranging tax fraud, limited education, and over-taxed public services. It is difficult to prosecute polygamy in Utah because the victims in these cases rarely press charges and it is almost impossible to compel witnesses to testify. However, there is no doubt in most people’s minds (including most Mormons) that polygamy should be illegal - the harm it produces far outweighs the rights to liberty of its practitioners. The state is fully justified in prohibiting it.

Opponents of gay marriage (and now “multiple parents”) argue that once the precedent for “non-traditional” family arrangements has been set, there is now no argument for continuing to insist that other non-traditional practices like polygamy remain illegal. Nonsense. The state has imposed limits on heterosexual marriage for centuries; the courts have upheld traditional taboos against marrying your mother, or your sister, or your dog. It is a legal requirement for heterosexuals to limit the number of their spouses to one. Homosexual marriage has the same legal limits - the centuries-old common law traditions have not been overturned, they have been extended, to include gay couples.

Gay marriage is now legal because its opponents could not muster up enough support for the argument that it caused harm to society. Fair enough. However, it would be difficult to make the same argument for polygamy, and the courts can and will recognize this. In my opinion, the moral floodgates have not been opened - everyone take a pill and relax.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Myths about buying local food

(last post in a series)

The December 9 2006 issue of The Economist has a great article on "food politics" which should be required reading for anyone who is likely to be drawn into an argument with left-wing green activists about our food supply. The article, titled "Voting with your trolley - can you really change the world just by buying certain foods?", debunks three of the most common myths about food that anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists use to try to change the buying habits of western consumers: "organic" food, "fair trade" producers, and "buying locally". For those of you who don't read The Economist, I'm going to devote a few posts to summarizing their arguments. The full article is available here. Today's topic: buying local food products.

It seems obvious that, if given a choice, consumers should buy food from local producers rather than food that has been shipped great distances from supplier to purchaser. While it may make sense to do so to financially support farmers and businesses in your local community, surprisingly evidence suggests that it is not necessarily better for the environment.

Green activists advise consumers to minimize the "food miles" associated with the food they consume - in other words, to reduce the distances that food products are shipped from producer to retailer. They argue that by doing so, greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants are reduced. DEFRA, the British environment and farming ministry, argues that this idea is overly simplistic; not all "food miles" are equal. For example, a mile travelled by a transport truck or a freight train loaded with food is not comparable to a mile travelled by a bag of salad in the back of an SUV. DEFRA suggests that it would be more useful to take into account the tonnage of food being transported - something activists rarely do.

In addition, it is not always true that buying local products is better for the environment simply by virtue of being local; it may in many cases be better to choose imports. For example, it takes less energy to import produce from places like Mexico than to grow it locally year-round in greenhouses. A study carried out by Lincoln University in New Zealand found that producing lamb, apples and onions in New Zealand and shipping them to Britain used less energy than producing identical products in Britain itself, since farming and processing in New Zealand is less energy intensive.

Furthermore, in the case of Britain, more than half of the "vehicle miles" associated with transporting food are travelled by private vehicles driving to and from stores, not from producer to retailer. And, the big supermarket-based retailers, who run efficient central depots and state-of-the-art distribution networks using large trucks, are more energy efficient than consumers driving around to numerous local food suppliers in large numbers of private vehicles.

The Economist concludes that green activists often use the food supply issue as a tool in a broader protectionist, anti-capitalist and anti-globalization agenda, but that the science often doesn't back up their claims. Consumers need to check the facts before supporting this agenda without question.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Myths about "Fair Trade" food products

post #2 in a series

The December 9 2006 issue of The Economist has a great article on "food politics" which should be required reading for anyone who is likely to be drawn into an argument with left-wing green activists about our food supply. The article, titled "Voting with your trolley - can you really change the world just by buying certain foods?", debunks three of the most common myths about food that anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists use to try to change the buying habits of western consumers: "organic" food, "fair trade" producers, and "buying locally". For those of you who don't read The Economist, I'm going to devote a few posts to summarizing their arguments. Today's topic: "Fair Trade" food products.

The theory behind the "Fair Trade" movement is that western consumers will pay more for food products if the producer (usually a farmer in the Third World) receives part of the subsidy. This strategy is designed to address the so-called flaws in the free market system which allegedly force farmers to produce products at an unfairly and artificially low price, and by extension forcing them to live in poverty. Fair Trade coffee, for example, is bought from growers at US$1.26/lb - which amounts to $0.05 above the regular market price. The extra money is passed on to producers to spend on production improvements and development.

The problem with Fair Trade programs, argues author Tim Harford, is that they further distort the market to the long-term disadvantage of producers. To take coffee as an example: the reason that coffee growers make so little for their crop is that there is a world-wide overproduction of coffee. The over-supply gluts the market and depresses prices. In a truly free market, the low price would discourage new coffee growers from entering the market, and encourage existing growers to get out of coffee and diversify into alternate crops. The supply then shrinks and the price available to the remaining growers increases. Paying a Fair Trade premium (in effect a subsidy) or guaranteeing a minimum price has the reverse effect - it encourages new growers to enter the market and drives down the price of non-Fair Trade coffee even further, making those growers even poorer.

In addition, Fair Trade products in the west are recognized by consumers because they are certified by organizations like FLO International, an umbrella group for Fair Trade producers. Certification is highly political, and in the case of coffee, is only available to cooperatives and small producers who are assumed to be more likely to treat their workers fairly and pass on the premium. Large coffee plantations and large family-run corporations are never certified, even though the vast majority of poor agricultural labourers work for them - as a result, most workers can never benefit from improvements financed by the Fair Trade system.

Consumers of Fair Trade products frequently have to choose between their consciences and their palates: since producers are guaranteed a minimum price for their crop regardless of quality, there is little incentive to improve the product. The quality of Fair Trade products varies widely from producer to producer.

The Economist argues that the most significant objection to the Fair Trade system is that it is a ridiculously inefficient way to target development funds at poor producers. Retailers jack up the price of Fair Trade products and consumers assume that all of the increased price is going to poor farmers. Harford estimates that in fact only 10% of the increase makes it back to the producer. Again, some retailers seem to be using the Fair Trade certification to target gullible consumers who will pay more for inferior products out of a sense of guilt or obligation.

Next installment: "Buying Local Products"

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Myths about organic food

The December 9 2006 issue of The Economist has a great article on "food politics" which should be required reading for anyone who is likely to be drawn into an argument with left-wing green activists about our food supply. The article, titled "Voting with your trolley - can you really change the world just by buying certain foods?", debunks three of the most common myths about food that anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists use to try to change the buying habits of western consumers: "organic" food, "Fair trade" producers, and "buying locally". Be prepared for this debate to go into overdrive now that Stephane Dion is the Liberal leader. For those of you who don't read The Economist, I'm going to devote a few posts to summarizing their arguments. Today's topic: organic food.

Most consumers assume that "organic food" means food grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Most people also assume that organic food is healthier to eat and more environmentally friendly, but that may not be the case. Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug makes the case that, since the so-called "Green Revolution" of the 1960s which saw the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, the world-wide production of grains has tripled with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation. Since farming, organic or otherwise, by definition disturbs the environment, one could argue that synthetic fertilizers are more environmentally sensitive since they increase food production without an increase in farmland, thereby protecting existing natural habitats. Organic farming techniques such as crop rotation and composting produce lower yields and require more land under cultivation to produce the same amount of food, so the argument goes that if Brazilian farmers used more synthetic fertilizers, they would have to clear less of the Amazonian rain forest.

As far as the argument goes that organic farming techniques are more energy-efficient, Anthony Trewavas of the University of Edinburgh counters that organic farming actually requires more energy per tonne of food, since yields are lower and weeds are controlled by mechanical plowing. Furthermore, only one-fifth of the energy used in food production is used on the farm - the rest is involved in processing and transporting it to consumers.

As for the claim that organic food is healthier, there is no clear scientific evidence that conventional food is harmful to consumers or is less healthy from a nutritional standpoint, and there isn't even a commonly accepted definition of what the term "organic food" actually means. Some claim that the label is used simply to target gullible consumers who are willing to pay more for the same product.

Next post: "Fair trade" produce