Saturday, December 30, 2006

Cloning around

As we prepare to usher in the new year, things just seem to get curiouser and curiouser. Science has succeeded in blurring the lines between reality and fantasy and, in the process raised enough new ethical questions to fill a library. The recent FDA ruling that basically gives products made from cloned animals a clean bill of health concerns whatsoever, elevates the debate to a new level (or plunges it to a new low, depending on your perspective).

Hello Dolly, it would be so nice to have you back where you belong. (GW)

Serving Up Dolly: Implications Of An FDA Ruling

By Bart Mongoven
STRATFOR Policy Intelligence Report
December 28, 2006

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced that it has no safety concerns about food products made from cloned animals. The announcement, which was telegraphed at an FDA public hearing notice in October but announced Dec. 28, was delayed for years as various interest groups fought to slow or stop the entry of such products to market. However, with growing evidence that food from cloned animals was virtually indistinguishable from that made from non-cloned animals, the delay became more difficult for the FDA to justify.

The decision puts the FDA at odds with a number of special interests and in line with only a few. Favoring the approval are some livestock industries that see possible benefits for their operations down the road. Also supportive are those involved in the cloning of animals: research organizations, laboratories and corporations that specialize in various biotechnologies. Opposing the decision, for a variety of reasons, are many dairy farmers, dairy marketing associations, multinational consumer product companies, consumer protection organizations, some religious groups and animal welfare activists.

On its own merits, the issue facing the FDA was fairly simple: The agency's job is to certify whether a food product is safe, and FDA scientists have said there are no health concerns associated with the products -- food from clones, unsurprisingly, is identical to food from non-cloned animals. Of course, the approval of foods from cloned animals for U.S. consumption could cause significant problems for U.S.-based consumer product companies, lead to concerns about animal welfare or eventually hurt a domestic company's global market share, but all of this is irrelevant to the safety issue itself. In other words, this is a political question rather than a scientific one.

Given the state of party politics in the United States and the current configuration in Congress, the next phase of the debate over cloned animals and food will be difficult -- and for a number of reasons, neither Congress nor the Bush administration is likely to keep food made from cloned animals from moving to market. As a result, such food products soon will be placed on store shelves around the world. Consumers in the United States are unlikely to notice or care a great deal, but in much of the rest of the world, trade barriers might be erected or consumer campaigns against American food products could emerge. In the end, it is likely that the consumer product companies will reluctantly undertake a public education campaign on cloning and the safety of food from cloned animals.

Examining the Opposition

To understand the commercial implications that likely will stem from the FDA's announcement, one must consider the positions of the various actors arrayed in the "against food from cloned animals" camp. And the opposition is quite varied indeed.

The most powerful opponents are multinational food companies, which worry that consumers in Europe and Japan will recoil at the idea of eating "cloned food" and eventually might come to view American food products generally as being unsafe, unhealthy, or simply unsavory. These companies see their brands -- the most valuable asset they possess -- as being placed at risk by the emergence of food from cloned animals.

Companies with carefully built and maintained brands, such as Kraft and Nestle, fear that their products will be perceived as "contaminated" due to their use of ingredients from cloned animals. These companies currently monitor developments in cloning carefully as they attempt to stay ahead of the issue, but they tacitly acknowledge that -- legal prohibitions notwithstanding -- ingredients from cloned animals have entered the U.S. food supply. Even without the cloning issue on the table, market research has shown that Europeans consider European-grown and -processed foods to be "purer" and "more wholesome" than American foods, which they view as more likely to be "artificial." Major food product companies anticipate that the FDA's decision on the issue will only strengthen these perceptions.

And in fact, these perceptions have posed a hurdle for American consumer product companies and livestock marketing associations for years. The U.S. beef industry embarked on a years-long campaign to re-enter Asian markets -- and is still trying to fully break back into Taiwan and South Korea -- after cows in the United States were found to be infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or "mad cow disease") in 2003 and 2005. Other commodity groups likewise took a hit when shipments of food products to Europe or Japan were found to contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that were not approved at that time for consumption in those markets.

Even the industry that is most likely to bring cloned food to market, the dairy industry, is ambivalent at best about the FDA approval. For some dairy farmers, the move will lead to more efficient operations, as the most productive cows will be cloned and then bred. Still, the impact on the whole could be negative if foreign markets close themselves to the milk products these farmers will be exporting. Further, many small farms and family farm groups oppose the decision because the efficiencies will be realized mainly by the larger operations, placing small farms at a competitive disadvantage. Nevertheless, once one operation starts using cloned animals for increased dairy production, it will be incumbent on others to follow suit, simply in order to keep up.

Opposition from consumer protection and food safety organizations derives from another source. These groups stringently oppose approval of food from clones because they claim the science the FDA has relied upon is not nearly as conclusive as cloning proponents or the FDA make it out to be. These groups are likely to build arguments designed to stoke fears among European and Japanese consumers, in an attempt to keep up the pressure on U.S. food companies and, through them, regulators. While activist claims about the science relating to food from cloned animals have little to back them up, they reflect the broadly precautionary approach to regulation and product safety that consumer groups increasingly advocate. These activists simply argue that it is not known conclusively that food from clones is safe. Further, they argue that the public should not assume the risks on policy matters in which reward accrues primarily to major corporations, with few benefits trickling down to the consumer.

Animal welfare groups, led by the Humane Society, oppose the FDA decision because they fear the approval will lead to increased suffering for animals; cloning operations routinely have produced many deformed or chronically ill animals.

Various religious groups, meanwhile, have warned that the approval of food from cloned animals will encourage advances in cloning generally and will whittle away at public resistance to the practice. In this way, they argue, the FDA's announcement indirectly could encourage the pursuit of human cloning and erode values pertaining to the sanctity of human life.

The Political Backdrop

In approving food from cloned animals, the FDA has fulfilled its mission: The agency's science boards have determined that the products are safe for consumers, and the way has been cleared for these products to enter the market. And despite objections from various quarters, the U.S. political establishment is not likely to intervene -- either to slow the pace of the market entry or to mitigate any ill commercial effects that the country may suffer as a result.

Those who want Congress to step in and address the clone issue find themselves in a difficult crossruff. Many of the same individuals and organizations who oppose the approval of food from cloned animals have led in calls for Congress to exert greater oversight of the FDA. Congress is indeed preparing a number of oversight hearings, including a series that will focus on how the FDA has been run under the Bush administration. The hearings will focused on questions of whether drug approvals (or denials) were influenced by politicians and whether drug companies exerted influence in the approval process. The hearings will be designed to portray Republicans as politicizing the FDA's scientific mission or, worse, as corrupting food and drug safety.

Democrats will step into controversies about political interference in the FDA's apolitical mission with relish, but the cloned food debate touches on none of these issues. For Congress to halt the introduction of food from cloned animals, Democrats in Congress would have to do precisely what they are accusing Republicans of doing: overriding the scientific findings of the FDA in order to make a political point. Thus, by stepping into the debate on food from cloned animals, the Democrats not only would be taking action that runs counter to the position they want to stake out, but they would run the risk of obscuring the very issues they want to emphasize in the coming year.

For its part, the Bush administration needs no new controversies involving the FDA or the scientific establishment, particularly after the Democrats used the administration's support for a continued ban on federal funding of stem cell research as a bludgeon in this year's congressional election campaigns. The Democrats used the White House's position on the issue to portray the GOP as a small-minded and overly religious party -- one that holds back scientific progress on health issues on the basis of a narrow religious interpretation. At this point, the administration and the GOP generally are unlikely to venture into another such battle.

For those who will have to sell food around the globe after this decision, product labeling would seem to offer the surest protection against a consumer backlash overseas. However, the issues surrounding labeling processes are quite complex and could create more headaches than conveniences for the industry.

In the United States, food labels are very strictly regulated: Only certain attributes are listed on labels, and then only under certain circumstances. For instance, the United States has resisted following the example of Europe and Japan in labeling foods that contain GMOs. The FDA argues that such a label would imply there is a problem or concern about GMOs, which its scientists have not found to be the case. The FDA has found that food from cloned animals is no different from food from non-cloned animals; therefore, the agency is highly unlikely to enforce a mandate that food from cloned animals should be labeled that way.

It is permissible, under U.S. regulations, to label products as being free of GMOs, and consumer product companies will likely be able to do the same with food from cloned animals. So long as regulators do not consider the phrasing of the label to be misleading or cast aspersions on competitor products, it would be permitted by law. (In other words, a product -- say, "Stratfor Cola" -- could not be given a label such as "the cola without polonium," since that would imply that competing products indeed contain polonium. But "Stratfor Cola: Does not contain polonium" would be accepted.)

Consumer product companies themselves, however, would not be eager to pursue the labeling option, which from a corporate perspective amounts to tremendous expense, onerous oversight requirements and waste. To label a food as "clone-free" would require that the company monitor its entire supply chain. And even using the most modern technology, this is not an easy task in cases involving milk or meat from dozens of suppliers who ship to numerous processors. In the GMO example, consumer product companies have pushed this expense onto processors, who in turn police their suppliers. But the cloning issues would add yet another layer of supply chain monitoring for the processors, at a cost that would borne by the consumer product companies. This, in turn, would place consumer product companies sourcing from the United States at a cost disadvantage and drive up prices for U.S. consumers.

Thus, multinational food companies are at a crucial juncture in this issue. Their options are either to ensure that food from cloned animals never enters their supply chain, or else attempt to reverse negative public perceptions about food from cloned animals. They cannot achieve the first objective on their own, and the federal government is not going to use its power to assist any efforts on this front. Therefore, corporations will be drawn to the second option: a campaign to convince consumers that food from cloned animals is perfectly safe, indistinguishable from food from non-clones. This is not a task the industry wanted -- and it is still lobbying to slow the introduction of food from cloned animals into the U.S. market -- but it appears increasingly likely that this will be a task the industry cannot avoid.

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Friday, December 29, 2006

In Mali, where light equals life

Stories about the horrible natural and man-made tragedies inflicted upon the peoples and environment of the African continent seem unending. Earlier this year, the International Livestock Research Institute published a report entitled "Mapping climate vulnerability and poverty in Africa" that concludes that the impacts of climate change on the African continent, where the resources to adequately deal with them are scarce, will likely be considerable.

However as John Davison points out in the New Zealand Herald story below, some solutions to Africa's plight are well within reach. (GW)

Renewable energy gives hope to Africa's victims of climate change

By John Davison
The New Zealand Herald
Tuesday December 26, 2006

BOUMOU - Kadija Keita, a midwife in rural Mali, West Africa, demonstrates how she used to deliver babies at night, with her head at an angle to hold a torch against her shoulder.

She recalls with sadness one infant who died shortly after birth, because she was unable to identify a problem until it was too late. She simply could not see properly.

But now Kadija's work in Boumou has been transformed. Thanks to help from Christian Aid, her tiny health centre has a solar lighting system. Mothers-to-be and other patients are flocking to her. In the past year alone, she has delivered some 60 babies. "For me, light equals life," says the midwife.

Her story shows how renewable energy can change the lives of poor people in an area far beyond the reach of grid electricity. But as the effects of climate change begin to bite more deeply, creaking health systems in countries such as Mali will need more support.

Carbon emissions in the rich world are causing drought and rising temperatures in the Sahel region. As wells are depleted and the water table falls, access to clean water - the lack of which is responsible for half of all diseases - becomes harder. And as farmers' incomes collapse, they and their families get less to eat, making them more vulnerable to any ailments they contract. According to research by Christian Aid, disease brought about by climate change could take 182 million lives in sub-Saharan Africa alone by the end of the century.

Mali, where droughts are predicted to double in coming decades, is on the front line. Demand for health care is growing so fast that communities are building small health centres like that in Boumou with their own hands.

The Boumou solar-light system, and others in 30 villages, were installed by the Mali Folkecentre (MFC), an organisation funded by Christian Aid.

Dr Ibrahim Togola, MFC's director, has pioneered the use of renewable energy - from the sun, wind and bio-fuel - in poor communities. "Climate change for us is like living with HIV/Aids," he says. "We are seriously sick, we are going to get hurt more and more, and it is not in our control. We have to know how we can adapt our life to these conditions."

The southern village of Tabakoro, where MFC has its training centre, shows the full benefit of renewable technologies for its 2000 people. Solar-powered pumps, connected to a deep bore-hole, supply clean running water. This drastically cuts down the time and effort that women have to spend fetching water. For many, this allows them time to attend evening adult literacy classes - lit by solar power.

The village also boasts a small milling machine, powered by bio-fuel, to take away the strenuous and time-consuming work of pounding maize into flour.

Perhaps the most valued resource, however, is the health centre, complete with solar-powered light and refrigerator. Dr Ismail Diarra, who runs it, is in no doubt about the value of being able to react quickly, and with light to work by. "The night before last a child was brought here with a very high fever in a chronic stage of malaria. Because of the light and the drugs, we were able to save that child's life."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bringing it all back home

In his book "Making Globalization Work" Nobel-Prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz argues that while globalization holds out great promise for integrating the world economy as a force for good, rich nations are preventing that from happening by manipulating the rules of the game to their advantage. This is especially true when it comes to trade agreements.

"In part, free trade has not worked because we have not tried it: trade agreements of the past have been neither free nor fair. They have been asymmetric, opening up markets in the developing countries to goods from the advanced industrial countries without full reciprocation. A host of subtle but effective trade barriers have been kept in place. This asymmetric globalization has put developing countries at a disadvantage. It has left them worse off than they would be with a truly free and fair trade regime."

Family farms here and abroad have been on the endangered species list for decades -- the victim of predatory agribusiness practices and flawed national and international policies. So-called "free trade" could be the final nail in the coffin unless genuine free trade policies and practices are put in place soon. (GW)

Bringing Fair Trade Home to the U.S.

InfoShop News
December 26, 2006

by John Peck, Family Farm Defenders

Ever wondered why the fair trade label only applies to products from outside the U.S.?

Why are all the fair trade certifies located thousands of miles away from the producers?

How can corporations that are so unfair towards workers, farmers, and consumers in the U.S. get away with selling and promoting themselves as fair trade?

What ever happened to the idea of applying fair trade principles in our own backyard?

It is pretty ironic to realize that virtually all of the certified fair trade products now sold in the U.S. – coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, fruit, rice, olive oil, clothing, handicrafts, etc. – originate outside the country. This reality appears downright hypocritical when one understands that such a double standard could only exist thanks to a fundamental perversion of the fair trade model itself. More simply put, fair trade in the U.S. – like the organic sector – has come to suffer an acute case of corporate cooptation.

This wasn’t always the situation. When fair trade first came to Madison, WI a decade ago, the new Consumers for Fair Trade group made its debut with community organizing around two popular products – coffee and cheese. Within short order, Equal Exchange fair trade coffee was available in many locally owned coffee shops, and Family Farmer fair trade cheese from Cedar Grove was on the dairy shelf in local grocery co-ops. Back in the early heyday of fair trade, there was no distinction made between imported and domestic items, since it was held that everyone deserved economic justice– coffee pickers in Nicaragua and dairy farmers in Wisconsin alike.

This “fair trade for all” approach still guides much activist work in places like Madison in the 21st century. The Fair Trade Holiday Fair, which has been hosted by Community Action of Latin America (CALA) for ten years running (, includes all types of vendors selling both locally made and imported items, as long as they follow fair trade principles. Just Coffee, Madison’s 100% fair trade and fully unionized roaster (affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) – the only labor union that recognizes worker collectives ( has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding five years ago. Family Farm Defenders has now sold over 12,000# of cheese, worth $50,000+ in fair trade income for struggling dairy farmers. In spring 2005 Just Coffee and Family Farm Defenders teamed up to launch a fair trade school fundraising initiative, enabling dozens of schools to offer fair trade items such as coffee, tea, cheese, and chocolate to parents and children who would rather not have to peddle corporate junkfood.

Unfortunately, the dark side of neoliberal globalization has also reared its ugly head, and in many communities market-driven fair trade has eclipsed all other options. When Starbucks first came to Madison in 1998 to open its flagship outlet on State Street near UW, the manager dismissed fair trade and implied that local coffee drinkers (and protesters) were ignorant of trends in the wider gourmet coffee world. Of course, years later Starbucks has now become the largest fair trade coffee seller in the world, even though fair trade still accounts for less than 2% of its multi-billion dollar business. Like Walmart (which will soon claim the mantle of largest organic grocer in the U.S.), Starbuck’s token effort appears larger than life when it’s the biggest gorilla on the block. Those fair trade advocates and socially responsible businesses, which laid the foundation for “another world is possible,” now find themselves marginalized by opportunistic carpetbaggers.

Let’s look closer at some of the obstacles that now frustrate efforts at real fair trade:

Certification: It is important to have independent third party verification of standards. Unfortunately, much certification in the U.S. has now become a dumbing down exercise for consumers and a costly extortion tactic for producers. Rather than having an informed and meaningful economic relationship as fair trade implies, shoppers have been trained to look for a trademarked logo and put their conscience on autopilot. Certifiers like Trans Fair have sought to create their own monopolies and many would argue have now fallen captive to their largest customers, like Starbucks. In the worst case scenario, certifiers end up running interference as corporate public relations apologists since that is how their bread gets buttered. Conflicts of interest abound, undermining public confidence in the entire fair trade system. Meanwhile, impoverished rural producers are stuck in the position of paying thousands of dollars for a dubious certification procedure that seems more like another version of neocolonial exploitation. As with free trade, many in the South would argue that the North has no business unilaterally imposing fair trade conditions either.

Labor Rights and Living Wages: The primary objective of fair trade is to bring economic justice and workplace dignity to farmers and workers. It would seem odd, then, that the fair trade price for the sector’s flagship product - coffee - has been “stuck’ at $1.26 per pound ($1.41 per pound for organic) for over a dozen years now. A real fair trade system would have the producer in the driver seat, determining a parity price that covered their cost of production and gave them a decent household income (adjusted for inflation). Realizing how wrong it is when a few powerful buyers wield undue influence to suppress market prices, Just Coffee is now paying between $1.56 and $2.00 per pound to its suppliers. A similar situation applies to the Family Farmer fair trade cheese project where producers have enjoyed a 25% gain in their return on rBGH-free milk over the last few years. The $20/100# they now receive is nearly double that set by corporate traders in Chicago ( Workers at both Cedar Grove Cheese and Just Coffee earn a living wage, plus benefits, as part of the fair trade system. In contrast, Starbucks is trying to bust an IWW-led union drive amongst its barristas ( and even uses prison labor to bag its fair trade coffee.

Transparency: Another principle of fair trade is democratic accountability, and this is rigorously enforced against producer cooperatives in the South, whose books must be constantly open to public scrutiny. Yet, this rule does not apply to the same corporations in the North who reap the greatest profits from fair trade. Apparently, the commodity chain enters into a black hole of proprietary information once it crosses the U.S. frontier. While 100% fair trade roasters like Just Coffee are proud to post their producer contracts on their website ( and share solidarity stories of the relationships they’ve developed with communities from Chiapas to Ethiopia over the years, this is not the case for a player like Starbucks. Instead, one hears tales of price gouging, corruption, insider trading, racketeering, ghost buyers – all the worst hallmarks of corporate capitalism. Sadly, there is no internal policing mechanism left when the major fair trade certifiers are bought off.

Amidst all this doom and gloom, there are encouraging countervailing pressures. In 1999 the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) issued a call for domestic standards in sustainable agriculture and this soon led to an excellent collaborative paper on this very topic ( Justice?_final.pdf). A local fair trade network has cropped up in the Twin Cities, involving producers in MN and WI (, and in August 2006 Organic Valley hosted the second domestic fair trade working group strategy session at its headquarters in La Farge, WI which drew 75+ activists from across North America, including several migrant farmworker leaders. Just Coffee has joined with twenty other ethical fair trade roasters in an umbrella organization, Cooperative Coffees (, to better pool resources and mount a serious challenge to the corporate fair traders whose only real interest is profiteering. United Students for Fair Trade ( continues to organize both on campus and off, educating the next generation of fair trade consumers, holding would-be fair trade outfits accountable, and building coalitions with other struggles for worker rights, food sovereignty, and global justice. One such joint project is the Justice From Bean to Cup campaign that is targeting – you guessed it – Starbucks.

Will fair trade go the way of organic – just another marketing moment ripe for corporate picking? Or can a grassroots coalition of consumers, workers, and farmers reassert that people still come before profit under a genuine fair trade system. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Dammed if they do

The climate change crisis has done more than anything to raise public awareness about the relationships connecting economic development, energy use and environmental quality. If there has been a downside to the public education efforts around global warming, it may be the inadvertent overshadowing of other (equally important) environmental issues that loom on the horizon. Of these, none is more urgent than those surrounding global water quantity and quality.

A previous post highlighted the water problems in India. A recent Boston Globe article (below) illustrates how China’s exploding economy has finally brought the controversial Three Gorges Dam project – the world’s largest hydroelectric dam -- to fruition. Debates over the costs and benefits of the project continue to boil over. (GW)

Huge China dam costly to farmers

Land seizures, corruption decried

CHONGQING, China -- Officials here say the mammoth Three Gorges Dam Project along the historic Yangtze River will control deadly flooding, provide electricity to millions of people, and create vital inland navigation along a 400-mile long reservoir.

But behind the project's promise and grandeur -- the $30 billion endeavor is widely billed as the world's largest construction project -- lie stories of corruption, land seizures, and despair.

According to farmers displaced by the project, local officials routinely violate the rights of the 1.2 million people being moved off their land to make room for the dam's massive reservoir, and firmly suppress stirrings of protest.

Fang De Gui, 41, is a recently unemployed man in Guangtiangou commune in China's central Chongqing province, just west of Hubei, where a large part of the Three Gorges Dam's reservoir will stand. He said the project might have been conceived to enrich and develop China, but has ended by costing his family and friends their land and livelihoods.

The dam's winding reservoir will submerge 13 major cities and more than a thousand villages, and Fang said the small piece of terraced farmland on which his family grew eggplants for the last 22 years was recently appropriated by local authorities to accommodate a new bridge across the Yangtze. But Fang said his family never received any compensation for their loss.

"No one knows what happened to the money we were to get for that," Fang said.

What burns Fang and his family even more is that the roughly built concrete apartments they erected with their own money in the mid-1990s will be taken from them for about $6,000 each, half of their replacement cost.

"It's absurd and we've gone from one official to the next, but no one is interested in helping us," said Fang's wife, Chen Ya Juan, 41.

Zeng Yan Guang, 62, a neighbor and friend of Fang's, nodded in agreement.

"For now I can get by eating what I grow," said Zeng, who illegally farms what was his land by the bank of the Yangtze. "Once my land is under water I've no idea what I'll do to survive."

Most of the other people in the commune have left their quaint old wooden homes set along the area's verdant hills and moved into the drab urban apartment blocks in which Beijing resettles displaced families. But Zeng and a handful of others from Guangtiangou commune are fighting for better compensation and staying put in what is now a ghost town full of half-demolished houses and abandoned fields.

They admit they have little chance of winning. But the manner in which many people adversely affected by the dam accept the upheaval in their lives is emblematic of the perceived social contract in today's China.

While Fang and Zeng complain bitterly about the local officials who they say are responsible for their situation, they say they find no fault with the Three Gorges Project overall. In fact, popular support for the dam is surprisingly common.

"The government took away 1 mu [about 7,000 square feet] of my land that was worth about $12,000 and gave me only $800 for it," said Mao Yuan Xiu, 52, a farmer in Ling Du village in Chongqing, whose land was appropriated to house some people displaced by the Three Gorges Dam. "But I don't mind -- this is my gift to the nation."

To some extent this apparent fraternalism shown by people affected by the government's hard-nosed development style is genuine, said Wu Deng Ming, president of The Green Volunteer League of Chongqing, a local environmental nonprofit organization.

Locals also support the project, which consists of several dams along a 125-mile stretch of the Yangtze River between the Qutang, Wuxia, and Xilin gorges, because planners say it will control the constant flooding of the Great Dragon, as locals call the legendary river, which has killed a million people in the last century alone. And when several of the smaller dams in the project are completed in 2009, 10,000-ton freighters will be able to travel up and down the 400-mile reservoir, giving the remote region's economy access to the rest of the country.

With much of China seized with a genuine passion for nation-building, something that Confucian values say often calls for individuals to sacrifice for the group, Mao and Fang said they don't mind being poorly compensated by the government for their loss of land and business and for the expenses incurred by relocating.

But Wu said part of the reason people short-changed by the authorities put on a brave public face is fear.

The dam "is a very sensitive issue, especially its displacement of people," Wu said. "Those who talk about this can get some bad punishment."

The Three Gorges Dam was first conceived by China's republican leader Sun Yat-sen in 1918 and Mao Zedong revived the idea in the 1950s. But China lacked the capability to implement it at the time. When work on the dam finally commenced in 1993, the Communist Party held up the project as a symbol of its power and prestige. Now anyone criticizing the gigantic endeavor is seen to be challenging the party.

In May, when Fu Xiancai, 47, a farmer in Chongqing, spoke to foreign journalists about the inadequate compensation given to people displaced by the dam, he was assaulted by thugs after being called in to visit the local police station, and beaten so badly he is now paralyzed. A police investigation declared that Fu's injuries were caused when he accidentally fell down a hillside.

Critics say that while the dam is presented as a means to develop China's interior regions, more than 40 percent of its electricity goes to Shanghai and coastal regions.

Most significantly, if the main dam at Yichang, which is in a seismically unstable area, were to break, it would flood one of the most populated areas in the world.

Disturbingly, numerous local news media reports have already been saying cracks are developing in the main dam and that some of the materials used to construct it have been sub-standard. But the government has denied this.

Zhang Xue Qing, 62, a storekeeper near Fang's commune whose family was also displaced by the dam, said the project has deteriorated into a gigantic opportunity for contractors and officials to make money.

Many activists agree, and say that while the Chinese government has made short-changing poorer residents displaced by the dam an essential way of saving costs, the profits being made by cement companies, engineering firms, and other businesses working on the dam are skyrocketing.

"Is this fair? No, but this is China," said an activist in Beijing who asked not to be identified out of fear of reprisal. "The cost of development is not paid by the richest but the poorest."

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Rudolph the inflamed-proboscised reindeer?

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Space-Time Wave

By Simon Singh
New York Times
December 6, 1998

Each year the science journalist Roger Highfield searches for stories with a Christmas angle -- the evolution of gift giving, the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem, how reindeer fly, cloned Christmas trees and anything else that might add flavor to his column in The Daily Telegraph of London. He has now gathered them in a delightful compendium of seasonal science, ''The Physics of Christmas.''

Many might feel that scientific analysis of festive phenomena would destroy the spirit of Christmas. Indeed, this is possible, as demonstrated by the British scientist Richard Dawkins. In his book ''Unweaving the Rainbow,'' he explains that Santa would have to travel faster than the speed of sound to visit all the children in the world in a single night. Hence, as he accelerates to and from each house, his sleigh would break the sound barrier, thereby generating a tremendous shock wave and a sonic boom. Because we never hear this sonic boom, Dawkins claims that Santa does not exist. In fact, he proudly admits to using this argument to disprove the existence of Santa to a 6-year-old.

However, Highfield's approach to the science of Christmas is quite the opposite. Relying on the research of an eminent list of scholars from around the world, he endeavors to enrich our understanding of everything associated with the holiday, providing genuine insights as well as fanciful speculation. For example, the reason we do not hear deafening sonic booms on Christmas Eve is that Santa's sleigh is fitted with an antinoise mechanism. Sound can be thought of as a series of peaks and troughs. The sleigh emits a noise to accompany the sonic boom, such that a peak in the boom is matched by a trough in the emitted noise, and vice versa. The result is that the sonic boom is canceled, and we are left with a silent night.

Despite its title, the book covers a range of scientific topics, including a detailed analysis of the hangover, the explanation behind the strange taste of brussels sprouts and the hunt for the perfect Christmas tree (a straight trunk that slips easily into the stand, limbs angling upward at 45 degrees, a uniform conical shape tapering downward at 40 degrees and good needle retention). There are also chapters covering the sociological and psychological aspects of Christmas.

In 1944 the psychologist Richard Sterba drew some extraordinary parallels between Christmas celebrations and the customs surrounding childbirth: the preparatory excitement, secret anticipation, the last-minute flurry of activity and delivery of a gift, whether it is a baby or a pair of socks. Sterba stated: ''It is not surprising that the presents come down the chimney since the fireplace and chimney signify vulva and vagina in the unconscious. . . . This casts some light on the figure of Santa Claus. He, no doubt, is a father representative.'' According to Sterba, those people who hate Christmas are reminded of their unconscious and unresolved conflicts about childbirth.

One hypothesis with slightly more evidence to back it up is the theory that Christmas has a death-defying effect. It appears that people on the verge of dying can strike a deal with God (or exercise willpower) in order to live for a few extra days and experience a final family gathering. The best evidence for this theory comes from a study of Jewish men who died in the weeks on either side of the Passover festival. The advantage of studying Passover rather than Christmas is that its date is not fixed, and so the effect of the festival can be distinguished from the impact of seasonal factors. The results showed that deaths increased by 25 percent in the week after Passover. The effect rose to 61 percent when Passover fell on a weekend, presumably because family gatherings are larger and the desire to survive even greater. It is interesting to note that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, summoning up the extra strength required to witness the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

In addition to the science, Highfield also examines the history of the festival, from Christmas cards to the origin of Santa. The inspiration for Santa seems to be the generous St. Nicholas, born around A.D. 245 in the town of Patara in what is now Turkey. The story of most relevance tells how Nicholas secretly deposited three bags of gold in a house, so that a father could pay for the marriages of his three daughters. Interestingly, legend says that he sneaked the third bag into the house by dropping it down the chimney, which may have given rise to the modern interpretation of Santa's preferred method of delivering presents.

If St. Nicholas is the original Santa, and his home is in Turkey rather than Lapland, then Highfield suggests that perhaps sunburn is the explanation for Rudolph's red nose. Alternatively, if Rudolph does reside in the Arctic, then parasites may be the cause of his inflamed proboscis. Reindeer noses contain an elaborate concentration of folded membranes, which act as heat exchangers. Inhaled cold air is rapidly warmed as it enters the body, and exhaled air is cooled before leaving. This helps the animal to retain heat, and also reduces moisture loss. In the journal Parasitology Today, Odd Halvorsen of the University of Oslo pointed out that the warm, humid respiratory system provides a comfortable home to many parasites, including 20 that are unique to reindeer. Hence, Halvorsen suggested that Rudolph's celebrated discoloration is the result of parasitic infection.

Inevitably, Highfield includes a few stories that will be familiar to many, such as the mystery of Santa's incredible annual present-giving escapade, but even this chestnut is spiced up with the latest research. In 1994 I worked on a television program that intimated that Santa's exploits were achieved by quantum teleportation. Scientists had only just completed some very tentative experiments, but it seemed that Santa's Arctic laboratory had mastered the technology. Highfield describes this and other similar theories, involving warp-drive sleighs, wormholes and surfing on the crest of the space-time wave, and he adds another, more believable theory.

The mathematician Ian Stewart of Warwick University in England says that ''reindeer have a curious arrangement of gadgetry on top of their heads which we call antlers and naively assume exist for the males to do battle to win females. This is absolute nonsense. The antlers are actually fractal vortex-shedding devices. We are talking not aerodynamics here, but antlaerodynamics.'' This phenomenon arises on the wingtips of a Concorde, but it is only apparent on antlers at very high velocity. However, in order to deliver all the presents, the reindeer are forced to fly at speeds of 6,000 times the speed of sound, far in excess of the speed required for antlers to generate lift.

As a final thought, it is worth noting that the American edition of ''The Physics of Christmas'' omits two chapters included in the British edition. One relates to a peculiarly British delicacy (Christmas pudding), and its omission is understandable. The other concerns the Virgin Birth. I presume the editors wanted to steer clear of controversy, and therefore took the safe option. The result is that they have lost a thought-provoking chapter, one that would only have contributed further to an already enchanting scientific celebration of Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The sustainable revolution

While the state of Fidel Castro's health continues to be a mystery, it seems as if the revolution he inspired and led for decades remains strong and vibrant. In an article entitled 'Fidel's Final Victory that will appear in the January 2207 issue of Foreign Affairs Julia Sweig reports that the inevitable transition of power has already begun and is progressing seamlessly. It is designed to preserve the underlying foundations of the revolution. She writes:

"The smooth transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his successors is exposing the willful ignorance and wishful thinking of U.S. policy toward Cuba. The post-Fidel transition is already well under way, and change in Cuba will come only gradually from here on out. With or without Fidel, renewed U.S. efforts to topple the revolutionary regime in Havana can do no good -- and have the potential to do considerable harm." (GW)

Kurt Robb's observations on the evolution of Cuba's sustainable agriculture movement provides some key insights into the revolution's appeal and durability.

Cuba's strange path

By Kurt Cobb
Resource Insights
December 17, 2006

Cuba has become the poster child for a transition away from an agricultural economy based on fossil fuel inputs and for a society focused on self-sufficiency. Strangely, it may owe much of its success in this regard to its relative backwardness and its isolation from the world community. The implications for so-called modern industrial countries in a world approaching peak oil couldn't be more striking. To understand this, it is worth briefly tracing Cuba's path since the Cuban revolution.

After the 1959 revolution Cuba increasingly embraced industrial farming techniques that were already widespread in other countries. It was the modern thing to do. Rationalize farming along industrial lines so that the country could grow more crops for export. Inputs such as diesel fuel, fertilizer and pesticides were cheap. Cuba had become an ally of the Soviet Union which supported the country with subsidized oil and agricultural chemicals drawn from the Soviet's vast hydrocarbon reserves. Cuban plans to create a more diversified agriculture were abandoned.

There was one small exception. The military believed that Cuba could at any time suffer a naval blockade. Cuban military leaders realized that one of the key threats of such a blockade would be the loss of access to pharmaceuticals, almost all of which were imported. So the military set up a special laboratory devoted to herbal medicine which among other things gathered information about the already widespread use of herbal medicine within Cuba. This narrow effort would prove prescient.

After the Soviet block began to collapse in 1989, Cuba suddenly found itself denied the subsidized fuel and fertilizer it had been used to. By 1993 economic activity had plunged by almost half, a drop far worse that what the United States experienced during The Great Depression. Cuba's guaranteed markets and preferential pricing for its sugar (pricing that was on average 5.4 times the world price) had vanished and with them the money to import many of its necessities including fuel.

The country struggled to feed itself as its export-oriented agriculture based on fossil fuels had to be transformed into one that could feed the Cuban people with few fossil fuel inputs. Some visionary members of the country's Ministry of Agriculture suggested that the low-input, organic methods they had been experimenting with for years be introduced on a broad scale and that agricultural output be directed toward local consumption. This tumultuous time became known as the Special Period in Peacetime. Few countries came to Cuba's aid and the United States even tightened its embargo.

Today, the agricultural economy has recovered becoming largely organic and focused on satisfying local needs. This has made Cuba self-sufficient in almost all foodstuffs. It has significantly reduced the country's need for fuel and fertilizers. The plant-based medicines which the military had carefully studied for years in its special laboratory have become a mainstay of Cuban medicine.

While the number of private automobiles has diminished, a new public transportation system thrives. Many people have returned to the land and are making reasonably good livelihoods as farmers. The city of Havana has become one big urban food garden.

The oft-cited scientific prowess of Cuban society certainly had something to do with the remarkable and rapid transformation in Cuban agriculture. Cuba is said to have only 2 percent of Latin America's population, but 11 percent of its scientists. But to whom did those scientists turn for many of their clues about how to effect such a grand transformation? They turned to the country's many campesinos. These small farmers had continued to farm using animal power and without fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides. In effect, they had informally preserved a vast bank of knowledge about how to conduct organic, nonmotorized farming on the island of Cuba. They became important partners in teaching others how to make the transition to low-input agriculture.

Other characteristics of Cuban society also seemed to have eased the transition to a low-energy economy. While health and education standards consistently improved during the rule of Fidel Castro, the country never attained a modern consumer culture, a development that was certainly stymied by America's embargo and Cuba's resulting isolation from normal world trade flows. In transportation, many of the cars which remain on the road today--and there are far fewer than before the crisis--date from before 1959. Modern car culture never became widespread either.

Hugo Chavez's subsidized oil exports to Cuba may tempt the country to return to a petroleum-based path. But for now it has enabled the Cubans to forego the need for large additional foreign investment, investment that would link it ever more tightly with a global trade system that destroys self-sufficiency and sustainability. (What ought to be of great concern is the island's increasing dependence on foreign tourism which is itself a product of the continuing availability of cheap oil and the cheap transportation it fuels. The government inexplicably maintains a focus on investment in this area as if future oil availability were merely a local rather than a worldwide issue.)

The more modern parts of Cuban society, its health system and its education system, were also key to the transition. Free and universal health care provided to the Cuban population helped to avert what could have been a public health disaster during the Special Period. It is claimed that the the average Cuban lost 20 pounds during this time. And, yet no widespread health disaster took place. A free education system has enabled Cuba to train more scientists and doctors than it can itself use. Many doctors, for example, work abroad. But the surfeit of scientists has allowed Cuba to do practical research that has been exceptionally useful in the transition to more sustainable agriculture.

There are echoes of the Cuban situation in the simultaneous decline of its old patron, the Soviet Union. Dmitry Orlov recently posted a slide presentation that makes the case that the people of the former Soviet states were actually better able to withstand the economic implosion which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in part because of their relatively less developed economy. Please understand that what passes for development these days are the following: high private ownership of housing; private transportation, especially private automobiles; suburban sprawl; shrinking and deteriorating public transportation systems; just-in-time inventory systems; outsourcing of critical manufacturing and food production; and a ruthless focus on individual financial achievement to the detriment of solid human relations and community responsibility.

All of this, of course, has important implications for countries that meet the definition of modern industrial societies, but especially for the United States in the event of a peak oil induced decline. In Cuba every vocational student now learns to grow food organically. In the United States very few people know anything about how to grow food of any type; and, Americans have become ever more dependent on fast food restaurants and food processors to do food preparation for them. The number of those with knowledge of organic techniques is increasing, but information on animal power in agriculture is now the province of a tiny cadre of animal power enthusiasts.

Health care (except for the elderly and the poor, but not the working poor) remains a largely private affair. More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. The health care industry is just that, an industry now largely bound by the same profit incentives that govern any privately owned corporation. The hospital as a public utility, for example, has been almost completely lost. It is hard to see how an equitable system of treatment could be worked out under extreme conditions when it cannot be worked out under conditions of great affluence.

The American transportation system, of course, relies very heavily on private automobiles. As Orlov points out in his presentation, most Russians live in compact cities with public transportation. The collapse of the Soviet system forced no changes in this pattern. It is difficult to see how the American system of sprawl could endure a prolonged decline in oil supplies.

In places such as Cuba and Russia education remains free. The response to rising costs in education and declining public support for it in the United States has been to transfer costs to students and their families. In the resource-challenged era to come, will Americans have the vision to invest more in their education system in order to maintain the levels of competence needed to run society? There is the separate question of reforming that preparation for the kinds of challenges we will actually face. At this point it is hard to imagine both a push for more money in education and a revamping of the curriculum to include, for example, organic gardening.

I could go on. But all of this is said to point out that the supposedly advanced systems of modern industrial civilization float on a sea of cheap hydrocarbons. Once that sea begins to recede, these systems fall into immediate peril. Those whose systems have relatively less need for such hydrocarbons will by definition be less vulnerable. It is for that reason that Cuba's strange path may have much to teach us.

The book, Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba, and the film documentary, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, were invaluable resources for understanding Cuba's response to declining oil availability.

The essay originally appeared at Kurt Cobb's website, Resource Insights.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Offshore turbulence

Offshore wind energy projects continue to generate concerns wherever they are proposed. However, permitting systems in several EU countries like the UK are less tolerant of strategies used by opponents for the purposes of delaying projects in hopes that developers' funds will be bled dry and the projects abandoned. The UK process encourages substantive public comment and input early in the process. Where appropriate, that input is used to influence the project's ultimate design. If legitimate concerns are identified, developers must address them. If they do so adequately, the project usually proceeds even in the protests continue.

Federal and state permitting processes that the Cape Wind and Long Island Power Authority offshore wind projects are undergoing here in the U.S., while technically thorough, are structurally susceptible to confrontational delays. The opportunities for project opponents to successfully employ delaying tactics are many. In fact, many environmentalists honed these skills in the efforts to block the construction of nuclear power plants and other environmentally-challenged projects. (GW)

World's largest offshore wind farm approved for Thames estuary site

Maritime experts warn that £1.5bn scheme is potential shipping hazard

By David Adams, environment correspondent
December 19, 2006

Plans to build the world's largest offshore wind farm off the coast of south-east England were approved by ministers yesterday in a move that could eventually bring 341 turbines to the Thames estuary.

The £1.5bn scheme, called London Array, could generate 1,000 megawatts of power, enough to meet about 1% of the UK's electricity needs.

The consortium behind the scheme, which includes Shell and E.on, says the wind farm between Margate and Clacton could cut UK emissions of the chief greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, by 1.9m tonnes a year. But the project is dependent on local planning officials giving permission for an onshore electricity substation to channel the power generated about 12 miles offshore into the national grid. Swale borough council has refused permission for a substation in Graveney, Kent, and an inquiry to discuss revised plans is due to start next month.

It emerged yesterday that the estuary wind farm scheme has been altered to protect a little-known bird called the red-throated diver. Ministers will approve the 90 square mile (230 sq km) development only if a first phase of 175 turbines does not damage a 7,000-strong colony of the birds which spends the winter on waters nearby. The birds, which were thought to number only about 5,000 in the UK, were discovered in an environmental survey of the region by the power companies.

Alison Giacomelli, a conservation officer with the RSPB, said: "The risks of climate change are very great but we don't want to destroy what we've already got now. This is the best of both worlds and a really positive step. Other developers we've worked with haven't always given the same priority to birds."

The government granted a licence for Warwick Energy to build a second wind farm nearby. The £500m Thanet project, seven miles from North Foreland on the Kent coast, will consist of 100 turbines over 13.5 square miles. It is expected to be completed by 2008 and will supply electricity to about 240,000 homes.

Alistair Darling, the trade and industry secretary, said the two wind farms were a significant step towards the UK meeting its target to generate 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, up from about 4% now.

"Britain is second only to Denmark in the offshore wind sector and projects such as the London Array and Thanet underline the real progress that is being made."

David Miliband, the environment secretary, said he expected the announcement to be the first of a number of large-scale offshore wind farms in the UK which "will provide real impetus for the continued developments in the offshore renewable energy sector that will benefit generations to come".

Maria McCaffery, chief executive of the British Wind Energy Association, said: "The significance of these decisions is far greater than the projects themselves. Far more important is the clear signal from the UK to the rest of the world that this country is open for business for offshore wind."

But the decision to approve the larger London Array project was attacked by Mark Brownrigg, director general of the Chamber of Shipping. "The planning of the Thanet wind farm has taken proper account of all estuary users but the ill-considered decision on the London Array threatens lives and livelihoods. The announcement came at a time when the consultation process is supposed to be still in full flow."

He said the development would be too close to shipping lanes and the turbine blades could interfere with ships' radars. "With visual and radar detection of vessels impaired, the risk of collision at sea is greatly increased. Should such a collision involve a chemical or oil tanker then the repercussions would be immediate and far-reaching. It is hard to understand why an environmentally minded project has been pushed forward with little consideration given to its potential to cause an irreversibly damaging environmental disaster."

The two Kent projects are the first of a new phase of offshore wind farm construction, which has proved more difficult and costly than advocates had hoped. Only four of 18 schemes planned are operational, with the rest held up in planning inquiries or delayed because of the rising cost of steel and a shortage of equipment such as turbine blades.

Onshore wind projects face similar obstacles. The RSPB is among objectors to a huge wind farm planned for Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The government recently announced proposals to change the planning system to fast-track wind farms and other schemes designed to tackle climate change.

Other projects

Triton Knoll

The company npower renewables wants to build this giant 1,200MW offshore wind farm in the Greater Wash, off the east coast of England. When completed, it would claim the London Array project's title of the world's biggest offshore wind farm.

Isle of Lewis

Developers want to build up to 500 onshore wind turbines in three separate farms on the remote Hebridean island. The local council has encouraged investment in the renewable energy but local communities are bitterly opposed. The RSPB is concerned that the wind farms would affect golden eagles and other birds, and damage sensitive peat land.


Permission for Scottish Power's massive onshore wind farm at Whitelee, near Glasgow, was finally granted this summer after the company agreed to erect a new radar tower for Glasgow airport. The 322MW facility, the largest of its type in Europe, will produce enough electricity to power 200,000 homes when it enters full operation in 2009.

Gywnt y Mor

Another npower offshore scheme, this time about eight miles off the north coast of Wales, and further out than the existing North Hoyle offshore site. Government and Welsh national assembly officials are weighing up the plans, which would see some 200 turbines put in place to produce 750MW of energy.

Click here to read related story: "World's largest offshore wind farm plan given a stormy reception".

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What a wonderful world

Just when you thought it was safe to assume that consensus had been reached on the topic of climate change, it may be worth listening to some rumblings coming from "Down Under". There are apparently some die-hard non-believers in climate change still around, and not all of them can be summarily dismissed. New Zealand Herald columnist Deborah Coddington thinks she's found a highly credible skeptic in economist, Indur M. Goklany and is touting his soon-to-be released book that makes the case for an "Improving State of the World". This stands in stark contrast to a series of reports I highlighted in an earlier post.

I make it a habit to read and listen to those folks I vehemently disagree with (Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Michael Crichton, etc.), figuring it's good practice to "know thy adversaries".

Mr. Goklany does not deny that climate change is real. His response seems to be: So what's the big deal? Stop crying and prepare to adapt to the changes, which he believes is cheaper than trying to stop it.

As Alfred E. Neuman would say: "What, me worry?" (GW)

Against the tide of chic climate change gloom

By Deborah Coddington
New Zealand Herald
December 17, 2006

Here's a bit of Christmas cheer. Planet Earth is not, contrary to Nicholas Stern, Al Gore and acolytes, ending in a boil-up.

According to a book about to be published in Europe later this month, the world is richer, healthier and environmentally better off than ever before.

According to the latest Spectator - which hails the book's author Indur Goklany as an "acclaimed American economist" who served as the US delegate to the United Nations' intergovernmental panel on climate change - The Improving State of the World will provoke "intense controversy".

In this country it will be dismissed as rubbish, especially by those on the extreme left, for whom global warming is a fantastic opportunity to attack wealth and happiness. Climate change is suddenly everyone's New Best Friend, including - Gawd help us - the National Party.

Global warming is the new threat we must "battle", according to the Labour Government. Oh, that must mean all those other battles are over - the war on terror, Asian bird flu, Sars, not to mention racism and oppression against minorities.

But back to Goklany's statistics, for which we can be grateful.

The world's poor, he reckons, now enjoy the most dramatic rise in their standard of living. And, telling us something many of us already know, as countries have abandoned communism, state control and/or poverty, they have become more environmentally clean and their people more healthy.

Here's some statistics: in poor countries, the daily intake of calories per person has increased by 38 per cent since the 1960s to an average of 2666 calories per day, and those countries' populations have increased by 83 per cent in the same period.

There was a 75 per cent decrease in global food prices (in real terms) in the second half of the 20th century, attributable largely to improved agricultural productivity and free trade.

In prosperous countries, the price of essential foodstuffs like flour, bacon and potatoes has dropped by a massive 82 to 92 per cent in the past century, and Goklany notes that similar trends are now evident in developing countries.

In the late 1970s, the number of people subsisting on the equivalent of $1 a day was 16 per cent of the world's population; today it's down to 6 per cent. Now only one fifth of the world lives in absolute poverty.

Which, of course, is no comfort to those hundreds of millions in places like North Korea and sub-Saharan Africa, starving to death as I write. And while we should not simply shrug our shoulders and pretend these dreadful situations don't exist, it doesn't mean we should be so depressingly despondent and pessimistic.

This book, from the previews I have seen, should be required reading for every New Zealand politician over their Christmas break, as they compete to be the most environmentally sanctimonious, and scramble for votes in the process.

You may choose not to believe it, but in 2006 the demand for oil from rich countries actually declined, despite the fact their economies continued to grow.

Climate change, Goklany argues, "might exacerbate existing problems, such as malaria, coastal flooding and habitat loss" but this doesn't justify the "heavy-handed interventionism" advocated in Sir Nicholas Stern's report which trips so easily from the lips of New Zealand MPs at National Radio's microphones.

What they fail to mention is that Stern is head of the British Labour Government's Economic Service and was commissioned by Gordon Brown to write his report on climate change. When the report was released, recommending the setting of carbon emissions targets and a credit purchase system for businesses, which exceed them, Brown was reportedly furious.

Goklany argues that it may be cheaper to adapt to higher temperatures than try to stop them.

New Zealand has just suffered the ideal winter for politicians who want to make us all poorer so they can save the planet. Slips, floods, icebergs - we've seen it all. But was it fair to blame global warming? The icebergs took seven years to reach the Dunedin coast.

Old farming codgers remember worse flooding, even in summer. I, for one, was known in our district as the flood baby. Born in February 1953, central Hawke's Bay roads were washed out by rain so a tractor, using a dog chain, towed my mother's car up and over steep farmland to get her to the maternity hospital in time for my birth.

And speaking of babies, Goklany's book says infant mortality is now down to 57 per 1000, vastly improved since the days before industrialisation when at least 200 out of every 1000 children died within 12 months of birth.

But will this make us happy? Absolutely not. It's chic, right now, to be uber-environmentalist. Green is the new black. And black is New Zealand's national colour.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Rural engines of African economic development

Between the university and the village

By Mokubung Nkomo
Business Day
December 8, 2006

Show us a country that ignores the rural sector and we will show you a country with a high poverty quotient. Show us a country with a high poverty quotient and we will show you a country packed with implosive material. A century ago, amid the extreme contradictions that characterised Britain, Charles Dickens made the profound observation that “detestation of the high is an involuntary homage of the poor”. South Africa is a country of contradictions. Two decades ago few would have found it easy to declare its trajectory with certainty. Ten years ago, the country seemed to be balancing on a thin edge. Today, while pregnant with hope, filled with resilience, and still rich with robust debate, it is also mired in dangerous countervailing tendencies. The paradox of SA is that despite its ostensible achievements it remains divided in a number of crucial ways.

The gap between rich and poor remains huge, and available evidence suggests it is widening. Despite the end of apartheid, severe poverty and huge socioeconomic inequality remain, leaving the country a powder keg of social unrest.

Universities can be at the forefront of the epochal battle against poverty. A situational analysis conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) at the universities of Fort Hare and the North (now Limpopo) argues that universities, especially rural-based universities, can and should play a vanguard role in poverty reduction.

Rural universities in SA are located in environments that are characterised by the anaemic conditions of the second economy. They are predominantly black, underdeveloped and surrounded by poverty and high unemployment. The two universities mentioned are strategically positioned to play a crucial role in releasing the rural sector from its traditional marginal status.

There now exists a permissive environment that makes previously inconceivable possibilities realisable: there is a democratic dispensation that, despite some ambiguities, allows for relative academic freedom, unfettered creativity and innovation; an enabling legislative and policy framework; technology that can break the spatial isolation; synergistic partnership networks; the vision to harness indigenous knowledge systems; and the creation of trust among stakeholders.

These are the requisite conditions for the conversion of the albatross-like, rural-based universities to catalytic agents for sustainable development. The National Plan on Higher Education and the Integrated Sustainable Rural Development Strategy are the instruments at the disposal of the rural-based universities that can launch them into the realm of the possible.

Despite the challenges they faced in the past, rural-based universities produced many among the current crop of leaders in politics, business, science and culture. The question is: if they were able to produce such leaders under adverse conditions, why can’t they do so today under favourable conditions? If they take advantage of the existing opportunities and there is commitment from government and development agencies, they can become the long sought-after hope for the millions in rural communities; and a ladder to leapfrog into the first economy.

There is a critical need to resuscitate the rural economies as potential engines of economic growth and development. A strategy to achieve growth and development must be founded on an understanding of how rural areas grow. Growth in agriculture, tourism, forestry, and other primary activities generates additional income. For example, agricultural growth generates demand for inputs and the retailing activities associated with delivery. Also, natural resources will always be an important factor in rural development, as these may be the only assets people possess. Via research and development initiatives with local industry, government, research institutes and community agencies, rural universities can add value to locally produced goods through beneficiation activities, and add value to the service sector. There is also a need for the development of initiatives designed to exploit existing government programmes that have the possibility of wide impact. The success of such initiatives will become possible if based on well-co-ordinated bottom-up approaches.

The situational analysis, accompanied by reflective essays, points to the need for a concerted effort to critically engage rural people’s day-to-day life experiences. Such an approach seeks to bridge the gap between the university and the village through the application of appropriate research and technologies.

Integration through effective partnerships should be the goal of sustainable rural development. The success of sustainable development depends on welding together a variety of players in the sector to generate the necessary synergy that can be sustained for the benefit of posterity.

Even though the institutions may still display symptoms of the debilitating past, there is strong evidence they can reinvent themselves within the context of a democratic dispensation, relevant legislative and policy frameworks, visionary leadership, and institutional culture change that includes unleashing indigenous knowledge systems encased in their communities.

Rural-based universities can become critical nodes for development, enlisting the various players within their environments. The land-grant universities and community colleges in the US, the Gandhigram Rural University in India, and the Northern Scotland University of Highland and Islands are but a few examples of the important role they can play in countries’ development.

Poverty, like HIV/AIDS, is a cruel pandemic that must not be given space to breath. A fundamental reconstruction of the soul as well as the transformation of the mind set is needed: that is, encouraging the development of attitudes, values and ethics that will serve as the fuel for sustainable development and averting social implosion.

Nkomo is a professor of education at the University of Pretoria and a co-editor of Within the Realm of Possibility: From disadvantage to development at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the North, published by the HSRC Press (2006).

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Some fresh air for Cape Wind

There is an old saying about the weather in Massachusetts: "If you don't like it, wait a while, it will change. The same may be said about the political climate surrounding the Cape Wind project-- the nation's first proposed offshore wind farm. A month ago, an army of prominent elected officials from Massachusetts were on record in opposition to the historic project. But the election of Deval Patrick as the Commonwealth's first African American governor has changed the political landscape. Is the seascape next?

Let the new games begin. (GW)

Cape Wind's Prospects and Energy Output Get a Boost

Bill Opalka
Energy Central
December 13, 2006
Topic Newsletters

Controversy still swirls around the proposal to place 130 wind turbines off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. One formidable political obstacle, however, will soon leave the scene, with a strong supporter taking his place.

Democrat Deval Patrick, an early and strong supporter of the Cape Wind project, was easily elected governor of the Commonwealth, breaking a 16-year string of Republican control of the office. Republican Governor Mitt Romney, a Cape Wind opponent, chose not to seek reelection. His lieutenant governor and potential successor, Kerry Healey, who also campaigned against the project, lost.

Along the way, Patrick this year also defeated Attorney General Tom Reilly, another Cape Wind adversary, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

And while the election will not hasten federal review of the project, Cape Wind hopes the change in regime will serve multiple purposes. The company hopes the remaining state reviews will not be drawn out by chief executive-directed challenges and a timid bureaucracy, and that other places with pending offshore wind projects will see that the political momentum has shifted in favor of Cape Wind's completion.

Project opponent The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound met with Patrick earlier in the campaign. The group's opposition wasn't persuasive. But Charles Vinick, the Alliance president, told the Cape Cod Times he was eager to meet with Patrick again. ''Clearly, we must bring before his administration the concerns we've raised for public safety, the concerns that fishermen have raised,'' Vinick said.

The Alliance has based its opposition on concerns over the environmental impact of the project, purported damage to coastal fisheries and what it says a 24-square-mile industrial project would do to tourism. The Alliance is also pinning its hopes on Senator Edward Kennedy, whose family compound in Hyannis overlooks the proposed site. As a senior Democratic leader, he is now part of the Congressional majority and could have more clout over federal review.

Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, downplays those prospects. "One thing that has resonated with the public in the last election are the themes of energy independence and support for renewable energy. And this received bipartisan support throughout the campaign," he says.

Longer Review Process

But one change necessitated by EPAct 2005 was to transfer jurisdiction of offshore wind projects from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the U.S. Interior Department's Minerals Management Service. The MMS oversees drilling for oil and natural gas in federal waters and has had wind energy added to its responsibilities. It just concluded its public comment period over the summer. Three quarters of the public comment letters received by the MMS were positive, Cape Wind says.

One thing that has resulted from the shift in the regulatory review is that the timeframe for completion keeps getting pushed back. MMS is now expected to conclude its work in early 2008. Construction would then occur in 2009 and 2010 under this revised schedule, according to Cape Wind. Massachusetts's regulators are continuing their own parallel review of the project, but federal authorities are clearly leading the way and have primary jurisdiction.

Rodgers cited how the permitting process can be interfered with, when the Massachusetts Energy Facilities Siting Board in 2005 approved the interconnection of Cape Wind's buried electric cables to the electric transmission system in Massachusetts. The process normally takes 12 months but lasted 39 months for Cape Wind.

Another impediment was when Massachusetts redrew its boundary line to include some rock outcroppings off the Cape, forcing the wind project developers to reconfigure a few turbines to keep the entire project within federal waters.

One other swirling controversy is the possible affect wind turbines have on military radar. A Defense Department report indicates that commercial wind turbines have the potential to affect radar installations. The same report called a previous review of Cape Wind by the U.S. Air Force that cleared the project in relation to its potential impact on the Cape Cod Air Force Station "overly simplified and technically flawed."

Critics say the study validates its longtime concerns about the wind farm and radar. In addition, the Alliance called for further investigation.

Rodgers points out that the report did not draw any conclusions about the project, but ordered further study.

Meanwhile, Cape Wind recently announced several changes to the project that will increase energy production and have impacts on its visibility from the mainland.

The project will boost annual production of energy by 7 percent by using the new GE 3.6 megawatt XL model. The maximum output of the turbines is unchanged, but the new model is more productive during light winds. Cape Wind says its annual expected wind power production will now be 1,594,207 megawatt hours, up from 1,489,200 megawatt hours.

The new wind turbines are slightly taller than the turbines previously proposed. The wind turbine tower height will now be 258 feet, up from 246 feet. The maximum wind turbine blade tip height will now be 440 feet, up from 417 feet. The increase in wind turbine height will slightly change its visual impact from the shore.

Cape Wind also is proposing a reduction in the number of red aviation lights that will be used. The number will be reduced from 260 down to 57, an elimination of 203 lights. This updated aviation lighting plan is consistent with the new wind farm lighting guidelines being used by the FAA. Previously, each wind turbine was planned to have two red aviation lights, under the new plan, only the wind turbines on the perimeter of the project footprint, and the wind turbines next to the electric service platform, will each have one light on the top of the turbine nacelle.

Altogether, about 12 off-shore wind projects are under consideration in the United States. Texas has proposed a 150 megawatt project about seven miles off of Galveston Island. Texas is uncommon because the wind farm would be built entirely in state-owned waters, unlike most proposed off-shore deals that are in federal waters.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Go fly a kite and haul a tanker

I always look forward to the New York Times Annual Review in Ideas edition of their Sunday Magazine. While it contains a disproportionate share of chic and trendy stuff, there are usually more than a few really solid and potentially world-changing ideas that find their way onto the pages.

The concept of employing "free flying sails" (that look like gigantic kites) to pull ocean vessels of various sizes -- from pleasure craft to commercial tankers -- through the water is one of the more intriguing ideas that appears in this year's issue. It's so logically outrageous you hope that its developers have the right stuff to pull it off and turn it into a successful venture. That's what the folks behind KiteShip intend to do. They've taken the concept of sailing ships to a new level. Here's how they describe themselves on their Web site: "We are a group of forward-thinking sailors, designers and visionaries. We've been using the fundamental advantages of traction kites for three decades. Our goal is to bring this technology to the world."

Maybe wind energy really can cut our dependence on oil.

Sailing an Oil Tanker

By Timothy Lesle
New York Times Magazine
December 10, 2006

While you might fume about rising gas prices while filling up your car, you can always take the bus and save a few dollars. Not so if you’re in an industry tasked with, say, shipping cars or oil from one hemisphere to another. That’s one reason 2006 has been a good year for the California-based company KiteShip, which makes “very large free-flying sails”— basically, giant traction kites that harness the wind to pull very large free-floating objects.

If you’ve ever gone to the beach and seen someone kite-surfing — standing on a board while being pulled by a kite — then you’ve seen a traction kite in action. KiteShip currently sells the Outleader, which helps increase yacht speeds. And it is working to improve the range and the speed of fast ferries and oceangoing research vessels without burning more fuel. Dave Culp, the engineer who helped found KiteShip, calls the three-person operation a “micromultinational.”

But Culp has bigger plans, which helped KiteShip win the Lexus Transportation Prize at the first California Clean Tech Open this year. Culp would like to build kites of up to 50,000 square feet — roughly the size of a football field and big enough to help move cargo ships and oil tankers. Working in tandem with an engine, the kites could allow fuel savings of 15 percent to possibly 30 percent. But why kites and not traditional sails? It’s all a matter of cost, Culp says. A traditional sailing rig needs a mast, which requires either significant structural modifications — or building an entirely new ship. A kite is much more flexible and can easily be attached to an existing ship or moved from one ship to another.

KiteShip is currently talking with two of the world’s largest oil companies — macromultinationals — about testing its kites on their tankers. Who knows? In a few years, we may see tankers full of non-renewable fossil fuel being pulled across the oceans by completely renewable wind.

Horatio Salinas. New York Times Magazine

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Cool mayors" making a difference against climate change

According to the Web site Cool Mayors for Climate Protection, eighty percent of Americans now live in cities. By 2050, 90 percent will. It is therefore no surprise that cities are a major contributor to many of society’s most serious environmental problems including climate change. Cities are where most of the planet’s resources are consumed and where its by-products are discharged. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that more than 400 mayors in 43 states are taking the initiative and are working with their citizens to develop strategies designed to reduce their ecological footprints. The results thus far have been very encouraging. Imagine how much more could be accomplished if there were even a little leadership from the White House. (GW)

Global warming, local initiatives

Unhappy with federal resistance to world standards, communities are curbing their energy use
and emissions.

By Stephanie Simon
Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times
December 10, 2006

BOULDER, COLO. — Frustrated with the federal response to global warming, hundreds of cities, suburbs and rural communities across the nation have taken bold steps to slash their energy consumption and reduce emissions of the pollutants that cause climate change.

This outdoorsy college town recently adopted the nation's first "climate tax" — an extra fee for electricity use, with all proceeds going to fight global warming. Seattle has imposed a new parking tax, and the mayor hopes to charge tolls on major roads in an effort to discourage driving — a leading source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Cities not typically associated with liberal causes have also jumped on board. In Fargo, N.D., Mayor Dennis Walaker swapped out every traffic-light bulb for a light-emitting diode, or LED, which uses 80% less energy. In Carmel, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis, Mayor James Brainard is switching the entire city fleet to hybrids and vehicles that run on biofuels (made from plant products rather than petroleum).

"It's quite incredible, the number of things cities are beginning to do. It's very heartening," said Tom Kelly, who directs a national environmental group called Kyoto USA.

Boulder Mayor Mark Ruzzin says skeptics often ask why global warming must be a local priority. He responds by acknowledging the obvious: "Even if Boulder could somehow wish away all of our greenhouse gas emissions, that wouldn't be a drop in the bucket. It would be a drop within a drop."

Then he argues that the city must try anyway — if only to prove to larger communities that they, too, can reduce pollutants without spending huge sums or slowing economic growth.

"Every one of us has the ability, small as it may be, to make change," Ruzzin tells his residents, asking them to substitute a push mower for a gas mower, or at least to turn out the lights when they leave a room. "No one's going to be able to escape the responsibility."

The movement began nearly two years ago, when Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels announced that his city would strive to meet the targets of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that aims to control global warming. The treaty requires industrialized nations to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants that hover in the lower atmosphere. In what is known as a greenhouse effect, these pollutants create an invisible shield that keeps the sun's rays from dissipating. Many of the trapped rays are reflected back to Earth, raising temperatures.

Greenhouse gases are directly tied to energy use, because the process of burning fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide. So any measures to conserve energy can indirectly cut greenhouse emissions.

Planting trees can also help, because they absorb carbon dioxide — and several cities have launched campaigns to take advantage of that fact. Denver, for instance, plans to plant an average of 140 trees a day for the next 20 years, while Los Angeles is replacing its famed fan palms with more leafy sycamores and oaks. Chicago encourages the planting of lush rooftop gardens, which have the added effect of cooling buildings, reducing the need for air conditioning.

Fargo acts on climate change more directly by trapping the methane that normally wafts out of its landfill as a byproduct of rotting garbage. The methane — a potent greenhouse gas — is then sold to a soybean processing plant, which uses it in its boilers.

"All these cities are like little laboratories, experimenting with what works. Then we learn from each other," Brainard said.

President Bush rejected the goals of the Kyoto treaty soon after he took office, calling it ineffective and unfair because developing countries such as China and India are exempt. He also argued that it would be enormously expensive for the U.S. to comply.

Determined to prove him wrong, Nickels challenged his fellow mayors to adopt Kyoto's targets at the local level. He has received more than 330 pledges from mayors representing 54 million people. All have vowed to reduce their cities' emissions below 1990 levels within the next several years.

The nation's biggest urban areas have made the pledge: Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Miami, Dallas, Denver. So have Turtle River, Minn. (population 79) and North Pole, Alaska (population 1,778).

Meridian, Miss., where nearly 30% of residents live in poverty, has signed on to the Kyoto goals. So have Sugar Land, Texas; Dubuque, Iowa; and Norman, Okla. Scores of blue-state coastal cities are on the list, including Berkeley and Cambridge, Mass. The industrial Rust Belt town of Gary, Ind., is also taking part.

Some of the cities that made the pledge have since lost interest. Topeka, Kan., is on the list, but that's because a former mayor signed up. The current mayor, Bill Bunten, has other priorities: "Our environmental problems in this city are just trying to make it clean and attractive."

But enough cities remain active in the program that the U.S. Conference of Mayors this fall hosted a climate summit. Also this fall, actor Robert Redford invited several dozen mayors to his ranch in Sundance, Utah, to talk global warming. There's even a new website — — where city officials can exchange policy ideas.

The 70 cities that reported statistics last year reduced carbon dioxide emissions by an aggregate total of 23 million tons. That's not a huge sum considering that the U.S. would have to eliminate more than 1.6 billion tons to meet the Kyoto targets.

But those working on the issue expect the numbers to pick up dramatically in the coming years. More than 100 mayors have found the reforms so painless that they've set far more ambitious targets than those laid out in Kyoto, according to Michelle Wyman, executive director of ICLEI, a nonprofit working with local governments on climate change.

Governors, too, are joining the effort. At least 20 states, including California, have laws requiring a certain percentage of electrical power to come from solar, wind and other renewable sources. Just last week, former Vice President Al Gore announced a grass-roots campaign to encourage communities to hold emissions of greenhouse gases at their current levels rather than let them rise year after year as energy consumption increases.

Here in Boulder, even a skeptical Chamber of Commerce decided to back the climate tax, reasoning it would give the city's image a boost and attract progressive businesses. The tax, which will cost the average homeowner less than $2 a month, won approval in November from 59% of voters. City officials will use the money for conservation education, including subsidized energy audits.

On a recent morning, Kathie Joyner opened her modest bungalow to just such an audit. Inspector Michael Broussard prowled every cranny, looking for drafts, leaks and wasted energy.

Broussard, who runs a private company that contracts with a local nonprofit for the audits, urged Joyner to add weather stripping here and caulking there, to insulate her water pipes and consider a fiberglass front door instead of wood. He even suggested she trade in her desktop computer for a more energy-efficient laptop.

If Joyner implements every suggestion — which could cost her $4,000 — Broussard said her utility bills should drop by at least a third and she would reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 9,000 pounds a year.

Taking careful notes, Joyner promised to get to work. "I used to think it would be a drop in the bucket; what could it possibly mean?" she said. "But there are lots of local governments taking steps to make a difference. It pushes the country along."

Brightfields Project, Brockton, Massachusetts

Click here to read a related story: "Small town, global issues, Climate change, energy costs at heart of utility district's vote on coal-fired power"