Category: Environmental Stewardship

Here’s OpenMarket:

Plain and simple economics — not the alleged machinations of Big Oil or Congress’s unwillingness to put a price on carbon – explains why America remains dependent on petroleum.

We are still not beyond petroleum. In fact, we’re quite a ways away.

Blog author: jballor
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Some may recall that before BP’s recent disaster (public relations and otherwise), there was a period of rebranding the company from ‘British Petroleum’ to ‘Beyond Petroleum.’

Beyond Petroleum

I’ve long argued that the opportunities afforded us by the use of fossil fuels are best spent seeking long-term sustainable and reliable sources of energy. These sources must include, and indeed in the nearer term be largely based upon, nuclear energy.

Two recent items underscore this: 1) the question of waste and what to do about it (HT); and 2) what waste actually is and is not. Says Hillsdale College econ prof Gary Wolfram, “95 percent of the used nuclear fuel could be recycled.”

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, June 3, 2010

I just finished writing a review of Robert H. Nelson’s book, The New Holy Wars: Economic Religion vs. Environmental Religion in Contemporary America (Penn State University Press, 2010) that will appear later this year in Calvin Theological Journal. It is a good book. It is a timely book. There are flaws, but overall there is much to learn from Nelson’s analysis.

I found a good summary passage that appears as a footnote on p. 171:

The terms ecology and economics have common linguistic origins, both derived from the Greek word oikos for home. Both offer grand theories of the world that reflect a vision of the actual relationship of human beings and nature. The largest “ecology” and the largest “economy” are in each case the whole world, including all its creatures, human and nonhuman. There are then many subecologies and subeconomies that ecological theory both seek to integrate within their respective overall systems of thought. It has proven difficult, however, to apply mathematical and other rigorous scientific methods to understand the workings of the largest economic and ecological systems, thus often encouraging in both cases those who do undertake such efforts to interject their own strongly held values and beliefs in implicit ways—that is, to turn economics and ecology into metaphors of religious thought.

That should give you an idea of what Nelson means when he describes economics and environmentalism as competing secular “religions.” I expect to post a series of reflections on the book in this venue in the coming weeks, as it is a significant work that merits more comment and attention than could be devoted to a short book review.

I have taken an unofficial and unplanned hiatus from PowerBlogging over the last few weeks as I worked toward finishing up a book manuscript that you’ll hear much more about in the coming days. But in the meantime, I did continue to take note of things that might be of interest to PowerBlog readers, and one of these things was a recent NBER working paper, “Discontinuous Behavioral Responses to Recycling Laws and Plastic Water Bottle Deposits.”

I noted it in part because I live in Michigan, the state that has the most generous bottle deposit law in the country, set at a dime per item. It’s also of interest because a pioneer of a similar law at the national stage was none other than Paul B. Henry, son of the renowned evangelical Carl F. H. Henry, and sometime Calvin College professor and politician at both the state and federal levels. The Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College is named for him.

Henry held Michigan’s 3rd district seat, and was succeeded by Vern Ehlers, who has announced that he’s retiring at the end of his current term. Like Ehlers, who holds a doctorate in nuclear physics from UC-Berkeley, Henry was a professor at Calvin College and held a doctorate from Duke University. His 1970 dissertation, “Types of Protestant Theology and the Natural Law Tradition,” is a prescient dissection of the causes of the ethical chaos of contemporary Protestantism.

In terms of the NBER paper, bottle bills like Michigan’s seem to have the intended effect. “More stringent recycling laws have a greater effect on recycling rates,” notes the study. “The efficacy of these interventions is greatest for those who would not already recycle and especially for those in lower income groups or who do not consider themselves to be environmentalists.”

Now the economic and environmental value of recycling of this kind is debated. Not all recyclables are created equal, for instance, and the law makes no distinction between types of glass. But apart from the question of the environmental value of the activity in itself, this does seem to be a case of a relatively successful government intervention. Perhaps it is even an intervention that is warranted to some degree given the question of environmental externalities that have yet to be fully quantified.

Even so, beyond the stated aim of the program, in Michigan at least the bottle deposit laws should be judged a social success in part because they have, intentionally or not, provided a kind of informal workfare program. There is money to be made by a person willing to go out and look for returnables. It seems the lesson from the NBER paper and the bottle deposit laws is that incentives matter. It remains to be seen whether in the thirty years that the Michigan law has been in effect, the added up front deposit costs have impacted consumption patterns. It seems doubtful that such costs influence purchases over the long term.

And it also an example of a case in which the law acts as a kind of final barrier, the last resort. If the culture of personal and social responsibility was in effect, where people didn’t litter or recycled without additional incentives, such a law would be superfluous. But in the absence of such a culture, the law steps in to fill the vacuum. The lesson there is, if you don’t like these kinds of laws, look at the deeper cultural causes that allowed them to come into being.

Here is an question: Where do a lot of socially liberal, anti-capitalists,left-leaning, organic, environmentalist, vegan, social democrat types who enthusiastically support government regulation and nationalized health care go to find a sense of community?

Answer: Free Markets
To be more precise: Farmer’s Markets.

Spring is in the air and so I headed off to the first official day of the farmer’s market in Grand Rapids on Saturday. As you can imagine farmer’s markets not only have an abundant supply of fresh vegetables and meats–but lots of liberal bumper stickers and flocks of “counter cultural” folk who tend to look the same, and love to talk about sustainability, free range chickens, grass finished beef, and the evils of capitalism.

Yes they love to go to farmer’s markets to buy local, drink fair trade coffee, and meet up with their friends and comrades. (To be sure there are a lot regular folks and farmers who also go to the farmer’s markets, less to make a political statement, and more to buy and sell wholesome foods at good prices).

But the irony-or rather tragedy–is that if the left had their way, then agriculture would be even more controlled by the government than it is now, and local growers and farmer’s markets would be regulated out of existence.

Already small local farms face a myriad of rules and regulations that make it difficult to compete with large agricultural corporations. Many people who love to promote the “buy local” movement, too often lack a coherent understanding about how markets and regulation work and while their bumper stickers praise small, local businesses and entrepreneurs, their voting patterns support the exact opposite.

Luckily there are some coherent voices who understand the relationship between local markets, wholesome food, and political and economic liberty. One of them is Joel Salatin, Mr. Salatin runs Polyface Farms in Central Virginia. He has a lot of interesting insights into farming, family businesses and freedom.

Unlike many in the organic movement, Salatin realizes that government and bureaucracy are part of the problem. In an illuminating article, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal in Acres Magazine he documents the struggles small farmers must face to get their food to market. You can also find the book here: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal

Salatin tells how the law requires farmers to have their cattle butchered at a USDA approved site and not on their own farms, however he writes:

When I return home to sell these delectable packages, the county zoning ordinance says that this is a manufactured product because it exited the farm and was re-imported as a value-added product, thereby throwing our farm into the Wal-Mart category, another prohibition in agricultural areas. Just so you understand this, remember that an on farm abattoir was illegal, so I took the animals to a legal abattoir, but now the selling of said products in an on-farm store is illegal.

People who praise “local-ism” need to realize that for local farmers and businesses to flourish–and for small organic farmers to be able to compete–we need free and competitive markets and not government intrusion that only benefits those companies big enough to send lobbyists to Washington or their state capitols.

I know I am a little late on this post, but…

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, but if we want to understand its origins, one of the best sources is Alexis de Tocqueville’s master work, Democracy in America and his chapter on Democracy and Pantheism. It’s short, but to the point. It’s also Tocqueville so read it carefully.

I found an online version at the University of Virginia’s website. You can read the chapter and the whole book here or get Harvey Mansfield’s translation or the edition translated by George Lawrence and edited by J.P. Mayer.

Tocqueville writes:

It cannot be denied that pantheism has made great progress in our age. The writings of a part of Europe bear visible marks of it:…This appears to me not to proceed only from an accidental, but from a permanent cause.

When the conditions of society are becoming more equal and each individual man becomes more like all the rest, more weak and insignificant, a habit grows up of ceasing to notice the citizens and considering only the people, of overlooking individuals to think only of their kind. At such times the human mind seeks to embrace a multitude of different objects at once, and it constantly strives to connect a variety of consequences with a single cause. The idea of unity so possesses man and is sought by him so generally that if he thinks he has found it, he readily yields himself to repose in that belief. Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator, he is still embarrassed by this primary division of things and seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.

If there is a philosophical system which teaches that all things material and immaterial, visible and invisible, which the world contains are to be considered only as the several parts of an immense Being, who alone remains eternal amidst the continual change and ceaseless transformation of all that constitutes him, we may readily infer that such a system, although it destroy the individuality of man, or rather because it destroys that individuality, will have secret charms for men living in democracies. All their habits of thought prepare them to conceive it and predispose them to adopt it. It naturally attracts and fixes their imagination; it fosters the pride while it soothes the indolence of their minds.

And then at the end the chapter–Tocqueville makes a passionate call against it. He writes

Among the different systems by whose aid philosophy endeavors to explain the universe I believe pantheism to be one of those most fitted to seduce the human mind in democratic times. Against it all who abide in their attachment to the true greatness of man should combine and struggle.

There is nothing more to add. Hope you had a happy earth day

PopSci follows up with the question I asked awhile back, “Why Not Just Dispose of Nuclear Waste in the Sun?”

The piece raises doubts about launch reliability: “It’s a bummer when a satellite ends up underwater, but it’s an entirely different story if that rocket is packing a few hundred pounds of uranium. And if the uranium caught fire, it could stay airborne and circulate for months, dusting the globe with radioactive ash. Still seem like a good idea?”

This is precisely why I raise the possibility of a modified space cannon to shoot the material that cannot be recycled into the sun.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

In this week’s Acton Commentary I examine some of the issues surrounding concern for our planet’s growing human population. In “The Science of Stewardship: Sin, Sustainability, and GM Foods,” I argue that increased food production, augmented by advances in genetic modification, has a key role to play in meeting the needs of future generations. And in this way companies like Monsanto have contributed greatly to our ability to address the need for increased yields.

They have done so in great measure by combining tech with technique, or as the Forbes piece puts it, “marrying conventional breeding with genetic engineering.” Just as important as getting seeds that have the right genetic “tech” is mastering all the variables and skills needed to make plants grow properly, from soil makeup, to cultivation techniques, to timing. On the question of timing, for instance, there’s always more research being done on the best time to plant different kinds of crops.

A recent Popular Science feature, for instance, labeled the “bean counter” one of “The 10 Worst Jobs In Science” for being “most tedious.” So that even “after 10,000 years of intensive agriculture, we still don’t understand key things, like the best moment to plant soybeans.” And that’s why graduate students like Andrew Robinson at Purdue will “spend the next few years hand-counting beans from about 750 plots.”

But the question of increased population isn’t as innocent as might first appear. On the one hand, it’s certainly true that concern about the increase of the world’s human population often masks latent or not-so-latent misanthropy.

And on the other hand, as many have pointed out, it’s not the number of people in itself that largely determines global environmental impact, but rather the lifestyle of those people, their consumption habits, as well as the underlying economic structures, that function as determinative factors.

But even so, increased yields might help alleviate some of the difficulties with realizing large-scale urban farming, for instance. And while “complete self-reliance” of cities on local food sources “is not currently sensible,” and perhaps really shouldn’t be pursued, the prospects of getting significant produce from smaller plots looms large as an economic possibility given advances in both biotech and technique. There is real hope here economically and environmentally for places like Detroit.

As I also note in the piece, there are certainly moral limits that provide us space within which to pursue scientific advances and progress, but beyond which we “run the risk of aggravating our offense against God.” And it is not only up to scientists themselves, no matter how concerned, to recognize and articulate those limits.

On this the Bible has much to say. I made an attempt about 5 years ago to come to grips with these limits within which responsible stewardship occurs in the form of “A Theological Framework for Evaluating Genetically Modified Food.” I followed up that framework, which articulates a view largely affirming the instrumental use of plants, with a series denying a similarly instrumental use of animals.

Channeling his inner Ralph Nader, John Stossel calls shenanigans on the GOP talking points touting the viability of nuclear power.

As I noted in the context of a recent commentary on Obama’s promise of a new generation of nuclear reactors, Ralph Nader has asked a prescient question: “If these nuclear power plants are so efficient, so safe, why can’t they be built with unguaranteed private risk capital?”

Stossel similarly says, “I like the idea of nuclear energy too, but if ‘America is on the cusp’ of a revival, then taxpayers shouldn’t have to offer billions in guarantees! In a free country, when something is a good idea, it happens. Private capital makes it happen, without government force.”

Stossel raises and dismisses the disposal issue, which I examine at some length here.

In the end, I agree with Nader and Stossel on this point. But as I’ve said I’m a bit more sanguine about the chances of nuclear to compete on a level playing field. The problem is determining how well it can do without guarantees or subsidies when so many other forms of energy are on the receiving end of government largesse. It’s not right to ask nuclear power to go unsubsidized when its competitors don’t have such limitations.

For a look at the playing field from 1999-2007, see this summary paper, “Federal Financial Interventions and Subsidies in Energy Markets 2007″ (PDF). Historically nuclear power has been handicapped relative to the incentives given to other forms, including fossil fuels. Add to that the extra regulatory burden, and you can see why there’s been so little movement in building new power plants in the last thirty years.

In today’s Acton Commentary, I examine the overtures President Obama has been making lately to usher in “a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.” I call for in part a “level playing field” for nuclear energy, which includes neither direct subsidy from the government nor bureaucratic obfuscation. The key to the latter point is to avoid the kind of breathless concern over the countries involved in the manufacture of the components for elements of the stations.

The playing field now is rather complex, of course, given the comprehensive system of tax breaks, incentives, and other subsidies that makeup today’s energy policy. In making this call I echo to some extent the complaint of Ralph Nader, although I’m much more sanguine about the ability of nuclear power to compete in a “free market” (HT: The Western Confucian).

Planet Gore’s Chris Horner calls Obama’s recent moves on nuclear energy contradictory and “flat-out dishonest.” Horner links to a couple of other important pieces that outline some of the economic distress potentially caused by clean energy legislation, as well as the official announcement of new guaranteed funds for nuclear power projects.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) points toward complicating factors beyond the availability of federal funds. I address the concern of regulatory “bottlenecks” in the commentary piece, but I pass by the concerns over nuclear waste disposal.

Apart from recycling possibilities, which is of course a special concern for fissile material, how might we be able to safely dispose of the waste from this “new generation” of nuclear power plants? I’m talking here about the 4% or so that can’t be productively repurposed.

For a long time I’ve thought that an extraterrestrial solution might be ideal, given the political problems surrounding terrestrial storage (as in the case of Yucca Mountain), although in practice finding the technology to safely accomplish some kind of outer space disposal is more difficult. Space elevators might work. Storing material on the moon afterward might be an option, although in lieu of a lunar solution perhaps a solar solution might work. Although volcanoes aren’t hot enough to break down radioactive material, the sun would be.

So maybe we could develop and apply the technology to shoot nuclear waste into space on a trajectory that would draw it into the sun, or failing that, into a path that would not run back into us on the way around or interfere with future intra-system travel. Why not use “a cannon for shooting things into space” to dispose of nuclear waste?

How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill

How the Space Cannon Works, John MacNeill

Any disposal site or method, especially one that included the transport of material into space, would need to be virtually immune from the kind of attack that destroys The Machine in the film Contact.

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