Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day

It's hard (at least for me) to think about Earth Day without at least thinking about some of the issues we have created for our little blue planet.

So I offer, this presentation which summarizes the proposal published in Science back in 2006 by Pacala and Socolow based on their studies at Princeton University. While I do not agree with every recommendation suggested (I am strongly opposed to corn and soy-based ethanol) I do think it does a decent job of quantifying attainable solutions to curbing carbon emissions in the immediate future.

For those naysayers (Hi, Dad!) who do not think the retooling of a green America is feasible, I offer this point. At the start of the US involvement of World War II, the following wartime production goals were issued on January 6, 1942:
  • 45,000 tanks
  • 60,000 planes – (229,000 produced by 1945)
  • 20,000 anti-aircraft guns
  • 6 million tons of merchant shipping
  • Production of Automobiles was banned for 3 Years
It took only five months to restructure the economy.
Recycling, particularly of metals, on a large scale was enforced.
Victory gardens and rationing encouraged less waste and locally grown produce.

If we could do that based on the technology of the 1940s, surely we are even more capable of greater innovations today.

At this point in the post I was going to address the concerns of those who feel that the climate crisis is exaggerated, unreasonable or otherwise imaginary...(Hi, again, Dad!) but I don't think that focusing on the gloom and doom is the best way to move forward, so instead, I offer some resources for those who are interested in resizing their carbon footprint.

The Lazy Environmentalist is a great resource for finding cheap ways to make easy, environmentally friendly choices.

Carbon Footprint Calculator:

Home Energy Saver: The Home Energy Saver was the first Internet-based tool for calculating energy use in residential buildings. I used this site recently to complete a home energy audit of my parents' house.

Department of Energy:
Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – Do It Yourself Audit
Information for Apartments

Energy Savers: Tips for saving energy at home:

Energy Guide: Smart Energy Choices A tool to help analyze your energy consumption.

Energy Information Administration:
EIA is the Nation’s premier source of unbiased energy data, analysis and forecasting. EIA provides this information to promote sound policy making, efficient energy markets, and public understanding about energy and its interaction with the economy and the environment. By law, EIA’s products are prepared independently of Administration policy considerations. EIA neither formulates nor advocates any policy conclusions. This isan excellent resource to look at national energy data and economic or event-driven issues that may impact theenergy market.

Happy Earth Day, Everyone!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Hotspot: Pakistan

There has been a lot of focus lately on how the US needs to proceed on Pakistan. It is clearly one of the most important places in the world, so the attention is well-warranted. The Obama administration has essentially continued the Bush administration's military policy in Pakistan, which largely consists of bombing the northwest region of the country with drone aircrafts, something that may be happening in a wink wink nudge nudge coordinated manner with the Pakistani government. There have been hints that the administration will also increase non-military aid to the country, something Biden talked about quite a bit during the campaign. But, as of now, the main policy is air strikes. That raises the question: is this making things better or worse?

On the one hand, the drone attacks may be effective in combating militancy in the country. Some have argued this type of response puts the US in a position of power in Pakistan, something it may need to be in given the Pakistani government's record on going after militants. This approach makes one big assumption, though: that the drones are actually hitting militants and not civilians. A recent report notes the exact opposite has happened, that from the 60 predator drone strikes, 14 militants and 687 civilians have been killed. In a country where the US is perceived as a bigger threat than extremists, these numbers, if they're even remotely close to the real numbers, suggest the policy may be seriously flawed. This strengthens the counter-argument that the strikes have actually increased militancy in Pakistan. They have destabilized the state, and only helped heighten regional issues as well. Maybe the U.S. is overestimating the threat in Pakistan and reacting in far too zealous manner, making things worse?

My take is, Pakistan has a lot of problems, but most of them are not related to militant groups directly. The country is falling apart, but few are helping, or even talking about helping, Pakistan deal with its economic and energy problems, not to mention the political issues (leadership of the three main parties are very problematic - they make U.S. politicians seem times).

The populace doesn't seem to really support the ideological views of the militant groups we seem to be so preoccupied with. In that sense, we may have an opportunity to isolate the real militants from those who have joined for political or economic reasons - I suspect the hard-core belt of militants is a pretty small share of the already small share of the population. Of course, to accomplish this, the U.S. would have to change some of its policies. Targeting militants is fine...but you need Pakistanis to support you. In that sense, what we really need to do is build an alliance with the Pakistani people, who we have largely neglected for most of state's history. This means walking a more cautious line on the air strikes (maybe abandoning them for a while), increasing non-military aid and offering technical assistance on energy and water (Pakistan faces severe shortages on both), provide some security guarantees due to the U.S. nuclear deal with India, and perhaps most importantly, make a serious effort to get a fair resolution on Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan will need to make compromises, but the U.S. will have to take a leadership role in the process. An agreement on Kashmir between Delhi and Islamabad would make it exponentially easier for both countries to target more important issues.

Now, that's not to say militancy isn't a problem. It is, in fact, a threat to the country. These groups are gaining power and are implementing some pretty draconian measures in their communities. The Swat deal was a pretty good indication of the growing danger. The question, then, becomes, is this an ideologically-based, or economically/politically-based problem? The rhetoric is all about ideology, but I think the real motives are economic/political. If we work on rectifying/improving those, I think we cleave most of the support these groups have away from them, and we turn the vast majority of the population on whoever is left in these groups. This is why I am pretty adamant about the importance of acting sooner rather than later. However, given the high stakes, we need to implement the best actions. Yes, these groups need to be targeted, but if our actions to do so create more militants, the policy isn't working. Thus far, I think that is definitely the case.

If Pakistanis views America as a real ally and not a threat (a reversal from the current view), we could see real stability in the region. This might only require some subtle changes from our current policy, but it will not be easy and will certainly take some time. However, it could pay huge dividends in the future.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Cash Rules Every-military-thing Around Me

The stimulus bill passed in February, much to the chagrin of many Republicans, and some Democrats, who think the final price tag is an obscene amount of money for the US to spend. Libertarians such as Ron Paul argue that spending is actually the worst way to deal with the economic crisis, that letting banks fail, etc., would be rough, but we'd get out of this recession in a relatively short period of time. I am not quite sure about that, but I definitely think the final bill is an insane amount of money. I think we're all just hoping that it gets spent effectively to stimulate our ailing economy, and doesn't further line the pockets of powerful bankers, etc., who've made out like bandits the past few months even though they thoroughly failed.

More importantly, though, all this talk got me thinking...what about the amount we spend on the military? We kick and scream over a few billion here and there for public programs, and have cartoonists draw racist and ultra-violent cartoons in response to hundreds of billions in spending programs, but almost no politician even blinks when it comes to the military...well, except for ensuring the troops have ample body protection and benefits. Everything else the government funds has to justify itself...which begs the question, is our military spending effective? Considering how much money we spend on defense (or offense - remember, DoD was previously called the Dept. of War, and the name was changed more for PR than functional reasons), you'd hope the crowd in Washington paid attention to this question.

To understand the numbers, for FY 09, we're talking about around $515 billion. Throwing in the costs of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear weapons research, etc., we get up to about $1 trillion for all US defense-related spending. There is also the black budget military spending, kept secret from the public, which is supposed to be $32 billion. So, yeah...this is a hell of a lot of money - we spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on the military. We have over 700 bases around the world as well. So...does this spending help any?

Or is it making us less safe? The more we increase our own military might for "security", the more others feel insecure - the massive gap in military capability between the US and the rest of the world makes it harder for others to believe we are credible in espousing that we won't use our military power to impose our will on others. Our foreign policy certainly hasn't helped lessen this problem any, as we have asserted ourselves in numerous parts of the world frequently for our pure self-interest. Now, the truth is, every country largely looks out for its own self-interests, and there is nothing fundamentally unusual about the US in that regard. However, what is unusual is the massive gap in military capability between America and everyone else. The combination of the two is problematic for that very reason - our historical aggressiveness (which, again, may not be all that unusual compared to other great powers) + our unprecedentedly huge military capability advantage (which is unusual) = major fear of America abroad.

In many parts of the world, anti-American sentiment is pretty clearly linked to this overseas military presence. Think about US bases and troops in South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Our allies are also increasingly worried about this massive gap. Europe is pushing for increased military spending - this might just be talk, but it is something. The gap isn't sitting well with Russia, either. I don't mean to raise this as an all-or-nothing question, but more of a magnitude question. Does it really benefit us, security-wise, to spend this much money on our military? Would we be more secure if we spent quite a bit less? We would still maintain a massive advantage on any other nation in terms of military capability, while easing back the level of threat perception our current military power evokes. Would it cost military jobs? Sure it would. But that is also money that could be redirected into our economy to help create jobs that don't depend on the risk of conflict. And again, we'd still maintain a massive military advantage over anyone, even if we cut our defense budget in half.

Also, are we even getting a good bang for our buck? Or are these massive contracts going to politically-connected businessmen who then do a mediocre job when contracted? Chalmers Johnson's book, The Sorrows of Empire, covers some of this ground. He highlights a number of cases where huge amounts of money were given by the US government to their friends through military contracts whereby these friends didn't do a particularly good job. Also, Johnson notes how ridiculously opulent some of the bases are.

So, our continued ultra-militarization continues to raise little alarm in DC from either party, despite the fact that it might actually make us less safe, and, as taxpayers, we might also be getting swindled at times. Yet, mention the idea of raising federal spending for programs where the market simply fails, and people will go absolutely insane. This conversation is becoming absurd. This country badly needs health care reform. We've got baby boomers getting ready to retire. There is a critical need for infrastructure building projects, expansion of public programs during an economic downturn like we have right now, etc. In response to these major needs, we hear many crying about the irresponsibility of government spending this will require. Yeah, it's going to cost some money. But we could cover those costs by cutting the massive defense budget. We could cut off contracts to politically-connected defense companies who have done crappy work for their money. We could stop building some of these bases as kingdoms. All these moves would save us a lot of money and make us just as secure, if not more. It's too bad talking about such a move is political suicide. That doesn't bode well for us moving forward.

Getting to the Roots of Somali Piracy

Over the weekend I reluctantly listened to the news as they discussed Somali Pirates and the container ship Maersk Alabama. Yesterday's decision by the US Navy seals to kill three Pirates further saddened me. While I've heard people quickly jump behind the American crew and ship, most of this has occurred without context. This isn't to suggest that if you read these links, watch these videos, etc. that you will or should support the Pirates, but I am pretty sure it will help you better generally understand some of the dynamics that the Somali people live under. It will help you better understand who is involved and why this is not just a traditional "stand off." Like most current events, when you scratch the surface, history bleeds through. I encourage you to check them all out.

First up, video interviews with K'Naan by Davey D. K'Naan is a phenomenal voice for Somalian struggle with his first two albums: The Dust Foot Philosopher and Troubadour. Remember when Chuck D said rap was Black America's CNN, K'Naan has taken that to heart in his discussion of his life and his people's lives.

Second up, an article that recently appeared in GQ magazine (yeah, Gentleman's Quarterly) by Jeffrey Gettlemen of the NY Times. The article is one of most context sensitive mainstream press article on the situation, though it has its limitations.

Third up, Black Agenda Report was one of the first analyses of the Pirates that went beyond "Pirates after booty"/"maritime terrorist" approach of mainstream media. The deeper you dig, the more you see the manipulation of political powers for the good of few and the pain of the majority. Here is a piece from December on Sadia Ali Aden on some of the US involvement in the struggles happening there.

Keep informing yourself and keep on believing in the value of human life. As K'Naan said T.I.A.

Shout out to K'Naan and Davey D's twitter feeds where I got a lot of this and you can find much more... see people twitter can be useful for more than telling us what you ate today or your complaints about the weather ;)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Think the Whales are Saved? Think Again.

Save the whales? Didn't we do this already? This is a question I've heard quite a bit lately. The truth is that although some whale species have increased in numbers due to the conservation efforts of the 70s and 80s, most species are still threatened and many are at the brink of extinction. The issue is current. One of the final acts of the Bush administration was to kick-off the process of effectively ending the international moratorium on commercial whaling by pulling together a "small working group" and drafting text that extends "scientific whaling rights" into international waters. I recently had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Jake Levenson of the International Fund for Animal Welfare that helped summarize the current and continued threats to whales worldwide.

*Humpback whale. Photo © IFAW

Many people believe that the major threat to whale species was solved with the 1986 worldwide commercial whaling ban. However, an estimated 30,000 whales have been killed in the last two decades since the ban. Japan has increased its “scientific whaling” practices which are allowed under the treaty. Iceland also continues its whaling practices using this loophole. Whaling ships in Iceland often follow whale watching vessels to find easy targets. These hunting practices often involve the use of grenade tipped or explosive harpoons, which promise to provide an 'instantaneous' death but often take several hours to kill the animal. Multiple gunshots are often used to 'speed up' the process. Although this whaling is done in the name of scientific research, all of the scientific information that is gathered can now be obtained through humane practices. Additionally, meat and oil products from endangered whale species (by products from scientific whaling) can be found in markets in several countries.

Aside from the direct threats of commercial whaling efforts, whales face three major anthropogenic threats: sound pollution, vessel collisions and entanglement. Sound travels twenty-five times faster underwater than it does through air. For most marine life, sound is not only something that is heard, but also something that is felt. Whales have evolved to communicate across oceans, in order to find hunting grounds or potential mates. Ocean background noise levels have doubled every decade for the last 60 years, causing confusion, navigation issues and potentially inhibiting mating. The primary causes of increased ocean noise include oil exploration, oil related construction and drilling, military sonar and increased shipping activity. Mass strandings of whales can be linked to military sonar activity nearby.

Vessel collisions can result in immediate death or severe injury to the whales. Amputation of fins or gashes that do not result in death can leave the animals open to infection and impair swimming abilities. Four out of six of the right whale deaths recorded in 2006 are attributed to collisions with ships. The reason is simple. Shipping has increased dramatically in the past decade and shipping lanes directly overlap right whale habitat.

More than 300,000 cetaceans die annually due to entanglement. IFAW believes this number is an extremely conservative estimate because it is reported by fishermen and not every country provides reports. The organization believes that the number is closer to 900,000. Entanglement is the number one cause of extinction among whale species. It is a slow, painful death generally realized through starvation or exhaustion. When entanglement does not result in the death of a whale it can compromise their physical conditions, leaving the individual prone to infection or adversely impacting its behavior. Again, understanding the problem is simple. There is too much rope in the water. Whale + Rope = Panic. Distentanglement efforts can be logistically difficult, dangerous to both whales and humans and can cause additional trauma to the whale. Whales must be tracked and essentially trapped in order to cut away the lines attached to their bodies.

IFAW has implemented some innovative and technologically interesting solutions to many of these anthropogenic threats. For example along the eastern coast of the United States they have deployed 13 buoys along major shipping routs. The buoys are equipped with hydrophones that listen for whale calls and alert the shore and nearby ships of whale activity nearby. The system works much like the ones used by airplanes and radio-control towers to avoid collisions in the air. There are also efforts underway to develop remote controlled rope cutting devices to provide a less traumatic disentanglement process.

Here's what you can do to Save the Whales (again)...

Send a letter to your congressperson(s) through Stop Whaling Now:

Stop Iceland from Killing Protected Whales:


IFAW is collecting worldwide pictures of people showing their support for the whales. 
As enough pictures for a country are collected, they are published in book form and sent to the government leaders of those countries.

Post your picture here:

*Twiggy Whale Tail Photo Courtesy of
For more information on IFAW and who they are check out their site: