Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Food ads and obesity

Watching TV as a kid in the 50s I vividly remember Howdy Doody telling me that Wonder Bread would help build my body 12 ways. It became a staple of my diet (granted there wasn't a lot of competition around back in those days...I can't recall ever seeing wheat bread on the store shelves at our supermarket).

Of course, what Howdy failed to say was that one of those twelve ways was around the waste. (GW)

The big debate: Are food ads to blame for child obesity?

30 November 2010

While the food industry has taken a series of initiatives to restrict advertising of unhealthy products to children, consumer groups are not convinced and call for the development of stricter criteria. EurActiv hears arguments from both sides of the debate in parallel interviews.


Marketing of food and drink in the EU is currently based on a self-regulatory approach, whereby companies voluntarily agree to follow certain codes of conduct and restrain themselves from promoting unhealthy foods, in particular to children.

Sedentary Western lifestyles and over-eating have increased obesity levels have led the European Commission to take policy initiatives.

The 2007 strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related health issues, confirmed the existing voluntary approach to regulating food marketing and advertising, arguing it can be more efficient at tackling the issue. But it said that the situation would be reviewed in 2010.

In an effort to ward off regulation, industry groups have since launched a series of initiatives to limit food and drink advertising to children under the age of 12 on TV, in print and on the Internet. The best-know example of such initiatives is the World Federation of Advertisers’ EU pledge.

But consumer organisations, while welcoming voluntary restrictions as a step in the right direction, want the marketing to children of foods high in fat, sugar or salt to be stopped altogether and have little trust in industry’s pledges to self-regulate.

Regulation of marketing to children varies considerably across Europe and few countries have specific rules on food marketing.

The food industry claims to have "dramatically shifted" the balance of products advertised to children under the age of 12 since major brands signed an EU pledge in 2005.

Food manufacturers claim they are now increasingly directing their advertising spending towards "better for you" options.

Children's exposure to products that do not qualify as "better for you" has been reduced by 60%, says Will Gilroy, director of communications at the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA), which represents national advertising associations and the world's biggest marketers, including several food and drink companies.

In some cases, they have taken even bolder steps by pulling out of children's airtime altogether, he adds.

However, consumer groups are not convinced. Specific targeting of children "has not stopped yet," said Ruth Veale of the health and safety department at European consumers' organisation BEUC.

And while the industry's EU pledge is certainly "a step into the right direction," there are a lot of 'buts' and loopholes, Veale said.

Shift from TV to other media

For example, BEUC complains that "the pledge does not cover all forms of media". While there may be a 99% compliance rate on advertising to children in television, Veale believes "industry is getting more inventive in their way of marketing to children".

Over the years, food firms have shifted their advertising from TV to the Internet and video games, she notes. Indeed, the emergence of digital marketing has created a huge opportunity for advertisers, with online ad spending growing by 40% in 2008.

The European soft drinks industry (UNESDA) admits that the Internet plays an "increasingly important role in the marketing mix," but stresses that online advertising is only targeted at adults and teenagers.

However, Veale argues that this is not enough, because children watch a lot of television or visit Internet sites that are not specifically aimed at them. In that sense, though, it seems almost impossible to stop all food advertising, as companies have a legitimate right to market their products.

"I believe that you can't shelter children from a commercial world," said Will Gilroy, noting that children watch TV at any time of day, are always on the Internet and see outdoor advertising on the street like anybody else.

However, this does not mean that industry should do nothing, Gilroy added, suggesting that advertising aimed at children should concentrate on "healthier for you" products. Moreover, he says more effort should be made to educate children to take a critical view of today's commercial environment.

Putting pressure on parents

According to BEUC, other loopholes in the industry's pledges include adjusting nutritional values to determine whether or not advertising can be authorised, as well as varying age criteria.

"The development of nutritional criteria is not transparent – we don’t know how they came up with them. We would like to have scientific criteria [...] developed to determine what foods should and should not be advertised to children," said Veale.

Meanwhile, the WFA's Will Gilroy spoke of the "cumulative effect" of advertising, whereby children are exposed to successive adverts for chocolate, burgers and sugary soft drinks, for example. This, he said, has an impact on children's food choices and preferences, which in turn has an impact on their health.

Gilroy stressed that the industry's commitments mean that brands refrain from appealing directly to children, undermining parental authority or promoting unhealthy lifestyles. In fact, "healthier for you" advertising targeted at children can actually "help parents to support their efforts to ensure healthy lifestyles," he said.

But Ruth Veale points to some perverse effects of this trend, saying "we have seen a shift by companies away from advertising to children to advertising to parents". Such targeting includes ads suggesting that "if you are a good parent you should be giving your child this," she says. Similarly, manufacturers have started promoting chocolates branded as a "perfect portion size for children".

Food ads and obesity

There is no definitive statistic on the role played by advertising and marketing in people's food choices.

But Ruth Veale claims BEUC research has shown that almost 70% of people chose a product thanks to a health or nutrition claim, which suggests that advertising plays a major role. As for making claims, responsible marketing touches upon adults as well, she said.

"This is why scientific evaluation of claims by the European Food Safety Authority is necessary and nutrient profiles are necessary, because we don't want a product high in salt, sugar or fat to bear a claim," she stressed.

But Will Gilroy underlined that fixing obesity "will take a bird's eye view of all the contributing factors". He cited a study estimating the impact of food advertising on food choices at just 2% and regretted that there is "a disproportionate focus on marketing and advertising" in the obesity debate. In fact, he sees the whole debate as an "easy fix" for politicians eager to make a difference in a four-year term.

On the other hand, Gilroy does recognise that politicians have difficult choices to make. "It is difficult to be pragmatic and see the big picture" about how different issues interplay, he said. As a consequence, policymakers face difficult decisions on cross-sectoral topics such as education, urban planning, healthcare investment and promoting physical activity over a sustained period of time, he explained.

However, Gilroy seems to be well aware of a trend towards stricter advertising regulation. "There will always be an inclination to restrict marketing, because it is the most visible of any company's activities," he said.

To read the interview with Will Gilroy of the WFA in full, please click here.

To read the interview with Ruth Veale of BEUC in full, please click here.

Next Steps

Monday, November 29, 2010

Before Pythagoras

As I read this article, the following paragraph jumped out at me:
But Neugebauer, and then his many students and rivals, also showed how sophisticated Babylonian mathematics was and how many similarities existed to later Western systems — if, that is, you counted using 60 fingers (as we often seem to, thanks to the Babylonians, when dealing with seconds and minutes and, in part, even when measuring angles).
Were the Babylonians attracted to the tetrahedron? (GW)

Masters of Math: Babylonian Tablets That Survived Millenniums

By Edward Rothstein
New York Times
November 26, 2010

If the cost of digging a trench is 9 gin, and the trench has a length of 5 ninda and is one-half ninda deep, and if a worker’s daily load of earth costs 10 gin to move, and his daily wages are 6 se of silver, then how wide is the canal?

Or, a better question: if you were a tutor of Babylonian scribes some 4,000 years ago, holding a clay tablet on which this problem was incised with cuneiform indentations — the very tablet that can now be seen with 12 others from that Middle Eastern civilization at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World — what could you take for granted, and what would you need to explain to your students? In what way did you think about measures of time and space? How did you calculate? Did you believe numbers had an abstract existence, each with its own properties?

And how would you have figured out the width of that canal (which, the tablet tells us, is one-and-a-half ninda)?

Spend some time at this modest yet thoroughly intriguing exhibition, “Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics,” and you begin to realize that the answers can be far more cryptic than these tablets were before great scholars like Otto E. Neugebauer began to decipher them during the first half of the 20th century.

The institute, part of New York University, has gathered together a remarkable selection of Old Babylonian tablets from the collections of three universities — Columbia, Yale and the University of Pennsylvania — that cover a wide mathematical range. Made between 1900 and 1700 B.C., they include student exercises, word problems and calculation tables, as well as more abstract demonstrations. Under the curatorship of Alexander Jones, a professor at N.Y.U., and Christine Proust, a historian of mathematics, the tablets are used to give a quick survey of Babylonian mathematical enterprise, while also paying tribute to Neugebauer, the Austrian-born scholar who spent the last half of his career teaching at Brown University and almost single-handedly created a new discipline of study through his analysis of these neglected sources.

Only about 950 mathematically oriented tablets survived two millenniums of Babylonian history, and since their discovery, debate has raged over what they show us about that lost world. Every major history of Western mathematics written during the last 70 years has at least started to take Babylonians into account. Generally, their systems have been seen as precursors to the theoretical flowering of Greek mathematics, out of which our own mathematical approaches have grown.

But Neugebauer, and then his many students and rivals, also showed how sophisticated Babylonian mathematics was and how many similarities existed to later Western systems — if, that is, you counted using 60 fingers (as we often seem to, thanks to the Babylonians, when dealing with seconds and minutes and, in part, even when measuring angles).

Examining the surviving tablets, including one multiplication table on display here, scholars decoded the bird’s feet of Babylonian numerals, showing that the Babylonians, like us, used the same symbol to represent different numerical values. (The same digit for us has a different value if it is in the 1’s column, the 10’s column, or the 100’s column; the Babylonians could use the same sign, depending on context, to represent a 1 or a 60 or a 3,600.)

The most famous tablets here — one showing a square with two diagonals, and another, known as Plimpton 322, containing a table of numerical symbols — suggest that the Babylonians knew at least some of the consequences of the theorem that now bears the name of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, who lived some 1,500 years after these works were chiseled.

But did the Babylonians conceive of it as a “theorem” — a timeless truth subject to proof based on accepted principles? Or was it thought of as a property of areas of land that were mapped out by surveyors? Or, as one scholar recently wrote, was Plimpton 322 “a teacher’s catalog of parameters” for calculation? Or something else completely?

Aside from the fact that the analysis of these tablets is relatively recent, one of the problems is that much of their context is hypothetical, because of the almost haphazard way in which early modern explorers pulled these artifacts out of the layered rubble of ancient mounds of detritus. In a fascinating 2008 book, “Mathematics in Ancient Iraq: A Social History” (Princeton), Eleanor Robson even suggests that many tablets like these of the second millennium B.C. “were essentially ephemera, created to aid and demonstrate recall, destined almost immediately for the recycling bin.”

But as Ms. Robson also points out, these tablets’ word problems about digging and construction, their use in teaching record keeping and calculation, and their implicit affirmation of the importance of scribes and teachers, also reveal a highly organized, bureaucratic society, an “ordered urban state, with god, king and scribe at its center.”

At the exhibition itself, it would have helped if some of the translations and interpretations of the tablets provided in an accompanying brochure had been made available directly on the labels themselves, so you could both look at the artifact and see how to interpret it.

It might have helped, too, if the show suggested the kinds of debates that have arisen about the status of Babylonian mathematics, which, in many ways, parallel larger debates about Western and non-Western cultures. In this case those debates become all the more charged because of the geographical region involved.

While once, for example, Babylonian mathematics was clearly seen as a precursor to the Greeks and to Western systems, there is an impulse now to see it as a historical victim of Western cultural perspectives. That is partly how Ms. Robson portrays it, even (unconvincingly) evoking Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”; a hint of that sentiment may even be one of the subtle draws of this exhibition.

But for an outsider surveying these objects and the history, the response is at once awe at the ancient minds that created such powerful systems for understanding and ordering experience, and still more amazement at the mathematical world that later developed and went so much further: explicitly turning individual examples into theorems, earthly practices into abstract principles and outlining new methods for understanding that are still being applied.

This is the trench solution as it appears on the Babylonian tablet. The translation, by Alexander Jones, a curator of the “Before Pythagoras” exhibition, is in the show’s brochure:

“Solution: Multiply the length and the depth, and you get 30. Take the reciprocal of the workload, multiply by 30 and you will get 3. Multiply the wages by 3, and you will get 6. Take the reciprocal of 6, and multiply it by 9, the total cost in silver, and you will get its width. One and a half ninda is the width. Such is the procedure.”

(A reciprocal in Babylonian arithmetic is in relation to 60, so the reciprocal of 10 is 6.)

“Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics” is on view through Dec. 17 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University, 15 East 84th Street, Manhattan; nyu.edu/isaw.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The stakes are high, the expectations are low

Bucky Fuller had little faith that government/politics is capable of solving - really solving - humanity's most pressing problems. He likened nations and national interests/policies to "blood clots" that block the flow of ideas and resources and prevent the emergence of a synergetic, sustainable society.

As this latest round of climate change talks begin in Cancun, I fear he was right. We continue to talk but fail to undertake the revolutionary changes that can save us all. (GW)

Don't let us down: UN climate change talks in Cancun

As world leaders meet in Mexico, people in poor countries fear little will be done

By Jonathan Owen and Matt Chorley
The Independent
November 28, 2010

As government ministers from more than 190 countries gather today in the Mexican city of Cancun for the start of talks aimed at minimising the impact of climate change, the need for a deal could scarcely be more pressing. The stakes are high, the expectations are low.

There is scant sign of the dramatic cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases needed to stop global warming exceeding 2C and devastating vast areas of the planet.

Failure to achieve meaningful progress could seal the fate of hundreds of millions of people living in some of the poorest parts of the world and in greatest danger from rising sea levels, drought and famine.

Delegates to the conference were urged by climate experts, NGOs and by the people whose lives are most likely to be destroyed not to miss this opportunity for progress.

The fudge of pledges to reduce emissions that came out of last year's discredited Copenhagen climate change conference are not enough to give even a 50/50 chance of keeping warming to within 2C. Leading climate experts warned last night that the world risks the potentially catastrophic effects of changes to the climate triggered by a global average temperature increase expected to reach 3C or even 4C by the end of the century. The Arctic ice cap would disappear, and the west Antarctic ice sheet could collapse. Entire island nations would sink under rising sea levels. Summer temperatures in southern England could reach 45C.

Delegates to Cancun will try to hammer out a deal to restrict warming to 2C. Other issues to be discussed include funding for climate adaptation, sharing of green technologies and detail of what will or won't count towards meeting emissions targets. A key item on the agenda will be the extension of the Kyoto protocol, which is due to expire in 2012.

Expectations are low 11 months on from the Copenhagen summit which descended into farce, with a globally binding deal abandoned in favour of a vague statement of intent – the Copenhagen accord. The lack of a result was exacerbated by a backlash against climate science by sceptics, some funded by fossil fuel companies. The net effect has been yet more delay in the international response to the need to cut emissions.

Despite this, British government ministers admitted there is virtually no chance of the deal that scientists and campaigners say is needed. Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, said: "We want to see progress, which means we get within shouting distance of a serious deal that we can rely on to tackle this massive problem." Writing in today's Independent on Sunday, Huhne describes the talks as the "best chance" of keeping global temperature rises within 2C. But he cautions: "We should not expect an 'instant coffee' deal – just add water and stir. It takes time to get negotiations right."

This will be little comfort to people already suffering from dramatic climate changes – the 1.7 billion of the world's poor living on what Christian Aid calls "the climate change frontline". Seidou Samba Guindo, 67, chief of Anakila village in drought-stricken Mali, is one of a growing number of climate change victims calling on politicians to act. "We need help – emergency help. My message is there have been many meetings but no agreement. They must find a solution."

Lord Professor Julian Hunt, former director-general of the UK Met Office, said: "Global warming is the greatest danger to humanity in the 21st century. We simply cannot afford to see the shambles of Copenhagen repeated in Cancun." Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, warned: "Our commitments to reduce emissions are in line with a 4C future but we are planning for the impacts of only 2C. This is the worst of all worlds."

The evidence for man-made global warming has become "even stronger" over the past year, according to the Met Office. It revealed new data showing that global temperatures had risen over the past decade.

The chances of keeping global warming within a 2C threshold are "increasingly implausible" said Professor Michael Grubb, a member of the Committee on Climate Change. He added: "We will be damned lucky, given what things look like at the moment, if we manage to keep the atmosphere below 500 parts per million and most scientists would translate that to be probably in the region of 3C."

To have even a reasonable chance of keeping an increase to within 2C, global emissions would need to peak by 2020, with deep cuts in that decade and a halving of emissions by 2050, according to Lord Adair Turner, chair of the Committee on Climate Change.

Cancun is a "make or break opportunity to save the lives of millions of children whose lives will be made even worse because of climate change", said Lydia Baker, Save the Children's humanitarian policy adviser.

Tim Gore, Oxfam's senior climate change policy adviser, added: "Climate funding holds the key to unlocking the talks and steering the world to a global solution that tackles the threat and the reality of climate change." But continuing tensions between rich and poor countries, along with the failure of the US to lead by example, make the chances of an agreement remote. Developing countries, including China and India, are anxious to avoid measures that would curtail their economies.

Funding is a key stumbling block, with countries yet to agree on how they will achieve the "goal" of $100bn a year in funding by 2020 for developing countries. Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, has described funding for climate change adaptation as "the golden key to an outcome in Cancun. Without it, there is little to discuss".

Attempts to introduce new US energy legislation earlier this year were defeated in the Senate. And the resurgence of the Republican Party could set a global deal back by years, with a "witch-hunt against climate scientists and officials", warned Joan Walley MP, chair of Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee. She added: "Unmatched by almost any other major party across the developed world, the Republican right has rejected climate science absolutely."

Additional reporting by Pavan Amara

What the experts say

"It is almost two decades since the Rio Earth Summit... the world is awash with well-meaning words but little to no sign of courageous leadership. It is such leadership that needs urgently to be forthcoming from negotiations in Cancun."

Professor Kevin Anderson, Director, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

"The international system has been built on a principle of the developing world following the industrialised world... if the US is unable to deliver, and if India and China and others stick to the view that they won't do much until the US does, we really are stuffed."

Professor Michael Grubb, Member, Committee on Climate Change

"Cutting CO2 in the short term is necessary for avoiding a 2C rise. This means having policies in place that deliver global emission reductions by 2015. The rate of emission growth driven by globalisation makes this highly unlikely."

Dr Alice Bows, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

"Ideally we would see agreement on this pathway [halving emissions by 2050]. But in practice this is unlikely, particularly given the political situation in the US. However, this should not stop countries from continuing to reduce their own emissions unilaterally."

Lord Adair Turner, Chair, Committee on Climate Change

"The most probable outcome if you look at the negotiations is 3C or 4C, and that would be terrible. This would be very damaging to the countries of the world and therefore we've got to do all we can to bring it back to more like 2C."

Sir John Houghton, Co-collector, Nobel peace prize 2007 on behalf of the IPCC

"In war, people make inventions at a very rapid rate because you are in a very stressed situation, and I think the world is in that situation. Therefore, it is very important to have meetings like Cancun where people share information."

Lord Professor Julian Hunt, Former director-general of the UK Met Office

Friday, November 26, 2010

"New geographies of centrality"

The degree to which cities and its inhabitants to co-evolve and meet the challenges of climate change will determine the fate of our species on this planet. (GW)

The Rise of the Efficient City

Smaller, more nimble urban regions promise a better life than the congested megalopolis.

By Joel Kotkin
Wall Street Journal
November 25, 2010

Most of the world's population now lives in cities. To many academics, planners and developers, that means that the future will be dominated by what urban theorist Saskia Sassen calls "new geographies of centrality." According to this view, dense, urban centers with populations in excess of 20 million—such as metropolitan Tokyo, New Delhi, Sao Paolo and New York—are best suited to control the commanding heights of global economics and culture in the coming epoch.

In fact, the era of bigger-is-better is passing as smaller, more nimble urban regions are emerging. These efficient cities, as I call them, provide the amenities of megacities—airports, mass communication, reservoirs of talent—without their grinding congestion, severe social conflicts and other diseconomies of scale.

Megacities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Sao Paolo and Mexico City have become almost unspeakably congested leviathans. They may be seen as "colorful" by those engaging what writer Kennedy Odede calls "Slumdog tourism." They may also be exciting for those working within the confines of "glamour zones" with high-rise office towers, elegant malls, art galleries and fancy restaurants. But most denizens eke out a meager existence, attractive only compared to even more dismal prospects in the countryside.

Consider Mumbai, with a population just under 20 million. Over the past 40 years, the proportion of its citizens living in slums has grown from one in six to more than half. Mumbai's brutal traffic stems from a population density of more than 64,000 per square mile, fourth-highest of any city in the world, according to the website Demographia.

Many businesses and skilled workers already are moving to smaller, less congested, often better run cities such as Bangalore, where density is less than half that of Mumbai. Much of this new growth takes place in campus-like settings on the edge of town that take advantage of newer roads, better sanitation systems and sometimes easier access to airports. Companies like Alcatel-Lucent and Infosys offer their employees facilities more similar to those of Silicon Valley or suburban Austin than to Mumbai or Kolkata (formerly Calcutta).

Consider also Singapore and Tel Aviv, which are among the best models for the efficient cities of the future. At its founding in 1965 after independence from Malaysia, Singapore's per capita GDP was about that of Guatemala and well below that of Venezuela and Iraq. Today it equals, on a purchasing power basis, that of most Western cities including London, Sydney and Miami.

The city-state bears no resemblance to the typical unsanitary and disorderly tropical metropolis. Singapore's roughly five million citizens live under efficient (if heavy handed) government. With its modern port, airport and excellent transport network, Singapore consistently ranks as the No. 1 locale for ease of doing business by the World Bank. Over 6,000 multinational corporations including Seagate, IBM and Microsoft have a large presence in Singapore.

Tel Aviv represents a decidedly different approach to building the efficient city. With roughly two million people in its metropolitan area, this little dynamo produces the vast majority of Israel's soaring high-tech exports, is home to a preponderance of the country's financial institutions and has established itself as the global center of the diamond industry. Incomes in the region are as much as 50% above Israel's national average.

Tel Aviv's pleasure-loving denizens may differ markedly from more controlled Singaporeans—or the usually more religious citizens of Jerusalem—but they employ many of the key efficient city advantages: a sharp focus on business, a well-developed sense of place and a first-class communications infrastructure. The city's tech industry includes firms such as Microsoft, Cisco, Google and IBM. It is home to Israel's only stock exchange and most of the country's resident billionaires.

The U.S. is also embracing the efficient city. Between 2000 and 2008, notes demographer Wendell Cox, metropolitan areas of more than 10 million suffered a 10% rate of net outmigration. The big gainers were generally cities with 100,000 to 2.5 million residents. The winners included business-friendly Texas cities and other Southern locales like Raleigh-Durham, now the nation's fastest-growing metro area with over one million people. You can add rising heartland cities like Columbus, Indianapolis, Des Moines, Omaha, Sioux Falls, Oklahoma City and Fargo.

Some of these—such as Austin, Columbus, Raleigh-Durham and Fargo—thrive in part by being college towns. Others like Houston, Charlotte and Dallas have evolved into major corporate centers with burgeoning immigrant populations. But they thrive because they are better places for most to live and do business.

Take the critical issue of getting to work. According to the American Community Survey, the average New Yorker's daily trip to work takes 35 minutes; the average resident of the Kansas City or Indianapolis region gets to the office in less than 13 minutes. That adds up in time and energy saved, and frustration avoided.

The largest American cities—notably New York, Los Angeles and Chicago—also show the most rapid decline in middle-class jobs and neighborhoods, with a growing bifurcation between the affluent and poor. In these megacities, high property prices tend to drive out employers and middle-income residents. By contrast, efficient cities are where most middle- and working-class Americans, and their counterparts around the world, will find the best places to achieve their aspirations.

Mr. Kotkin is a presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and an adjunct fellow at the London-based Legatum Institute.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A forgotten staple of our forefathers and foremothers

Count your blessings for turkey, tofu or whatever other option for eel you may be enjoying today.

Happy Thanksgiving. (GW)

Give Thanks for ... Eel?

By Jams Prosek
New York Times
November 24, 2010

Easton, Conn.

AS the story goes, Squanto — a Patuxet Indian who had learned English — took pity on the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony who had managed to survive that first brutal winter, and showed them how to plant corn, putting a dead fish in each hole where a seed was planted. But before that, before the ground had even fully thawed, he taught them a perhaps more valuable skill: how to catch a fatty, nutritious fish that would sustain them in the worst of winters. And this food item, likely on the table of that first Thanksgiving, would have carried special significance to those remaining colonists. Eels — a forgotten staple of our forefathers.

Indeed, eel was the dinner that Pilgrims were given on the very day after they made peace with Massasoit, the sachem, or leader, of the region. The following account is from “Mourt’s Relation,” mostly written by a Plymouth resident, Edward Winslow: “Squanto went at noon to fish for eels. At night he came home with as many as he could well lift in one hand, which our people were glad of. They were fat and sweet. He trod them out with his feet, and so caught them with his hands without any other instrument.”

Eels don’t like cold water, and spend the winter balled up, bodies twisted together in the mud. In the frigid months they were usually caught with fork-like spears, the eels pinned between the tines. The fish proved essential to the endurance of the Pilgrims, and it is fitting that a river near Plymouth Colony was named Eel River.

The peculiar life cycle of the freshwater eel was almost tailor-made for the harvest season, and for stockpiling food for the winter. Eels are born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hatched as little larvae shaped like willow leaves. From there, they drift and swim toward the coast, where they enter the mouths of freshwater rivers and streams in the spring. I have observed them in that season when plates of ice still line the banks of tidal streams, “like pieces of slender glass rods shorter than a man’s finger,” as Rachel Carson described them.

The inches-long transparent juvenile fish then make their way upstream to feed and grow. They stay for 10 to 30 years, until one autumn when they feel the urge to return to the Sargasso Sea, the warm clockwise gyre more than 1,000 miles east of Bermuda in the Atlantic Ocean, to spawn and die.

In the 17th century, the autumn runs to the saltwater would have been epic, overlapping the hurricane season when an abundance of rainwater swelled the rivers. They moved in great numbers at night, en masse, sometimes forming braids with their bodies to overcome obstacles, or large balls to roll over gravel bars that separate the mouths of rivers from the sea. On wet nights eels would even travel overland, relentless in their quest to return to their natal womb in the deep ocean.

Traditionally, Native Americans caught eels in autumn by building large river weirs, two large stone walls stretching from the banks to the center of the river, forming a large V with the trap at the vortex on the downstream side. If the conditions were right — a steady rain to raise the river level and no moon — they could catch several tons of eel in one night. The fish was then dried and smoked for the winter, manna of huge and reliable proportions. There is evidence that East Coast Indians were using these stone and wood weirs 5,000 years ago, and probably earlier.

But if eels were an essential food for Native Americans and early colonists, then why are they neglected as a food fish in modern America? Why isn’t eel, instead of turkey, the symbol of colonial resilience and gratitude?

Eels are not easy to like. Their sliminess, as well as their general tendency to stir human uneasiness, has made them a tough species to champion. Eels are conspicuously absent from news reports about our beleaguered wild fisheries (whose demise has been brought ever closer by the calamitous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico). We hear instead about the magnificent emblems of our seas: the bluefin tuna, the swordfish, the Atlantic salmon, the cod.

But the eel is also disappearing, thanks largely to a multibillion dollar market driven by Japan’s appetite for the fish. Juveniles caught in river mouths are shipped to farms in China, where they are raised to edible size and then flown to sushi restaurants around the world — giving eels one of the least sustainable routes to market of any fish, wild or farmed. What’s more, global warming, dams and pollution have taken a heavy toll on eel populations in North America and Europe.

What can we do to restore this creature that once made up 25 percent of the fish biomass of Eastern rivers? For starters, we can rehabilitate the local wetlands that nurture eels at all life stages, because eels historically fed not only humans, but nearly everything in the system, from striped bass to cormorants.

We also need to deal with dams that prevent the free exchange of life from the sea to inland waterways. If dams cannot be removed, then they should be equipped with eel ladders to help juvenile eels travel upstream. And hydrodam operators should consider turning off the turbines, which wound or kill eels, for a few hours on autumn nights during the peak of vast unseen migrations of the adult fish to the sea.

Let’s be thankful, then, for the beautiful but forgotten Thanksgiving eel. And let’s accept responsibility for preserving the fish that did so much to sustain the newcomers to these shores so many years ago.

James Prosek is the author, most recently, of “Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish.”

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The emissions "gigatonne gap"

The status of our global climate continues to deteriorate and world leaders continue to conclude that we cannot "afford" to address this crisis. (GW)

UN issues severe climate warning ahead of summit

By Michael McCarthy
The Independent
November 24, 2010

The world is now firmly on the path for dangerous climate change in the coming century, a major new assessment reveals today on the eve of the forthcoming UN climate conference which opens next week in Mexico.

All the pledges of the nations which have agreed to cut or limit their emissions of greenhouse gases, when added together, still leave the world far short of what is needed to halt the coming rise in global average temperatures to 2C, generally regarded as the danger threshold, according to the study from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The study sets a gloomy context for the international climate

meeting opening on Monday in the Mexican resort of Cancun, which is the successor meeting to the abortive Copenhagen climate conference of last year.

Copenhagen dashed many hopes when the countries of the world failed to agree new legally binding targets to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases in an attempt to keep global warming under control. However, a last-minute agreement was patched up, known as the Copenhagen Accord, under which nations could voluntarily pledge targets or other actions to get their emissions down.

Some 80 countries, including the biggest CO2 emitters – China and the US – have now made such pledges, ranging from the firm commitment of the EU and its member states to cut their emissions back by 20 per cent by 2020 (and by 30 per cent if other nations take similar action), to China's statement that it will "endeavour" to reduce the energy intensity of its economy – the amount of CO2 it takes to produce one unit of GDP – by 40 to 45 per cent by the same date.

However, the UNEP study calculates that even if these promises are carried out in full – which itself is a big if – they will still leave a massive "gigatonne gap".

Climate scientists consider that to be on a path to 2C and no higher, total world emissions of CO2 and other gases need to peak within the next 10 years and be brought down to about 44 gigatonnes (44 billion tonnes) by 2020. Currently, the world as a whole is emitting about 48 gigatonnes of CO2, and if economies take no action this figure is expected to rise to 56 gigatonnes in 10 years' time.

But even with full and strict implementation of the Copenhagen Accord pledges, this will only bring emissions in 2020 down to 49 gigatonnes – leaving a gap of five billion tonnes. And if the pledges are only loosely implemented the gap could be even greater, with global emissions rising to 53 gigatonnes in 10 years' time.

The task is to formalise and if possible increase the Copenhagen Accord pledges, but it is by no means clear that this is possible at Cancun – it may have to wait until the next climate conference in 2011.

Achim Steiner, the UNEP executive director, reflected this concern: "The challenge is to take the intent reflected in the Copenhagen Accord and bring it into a mutually reassuring framework, and you can go all the way to a legally binding agreement, or some other form."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

“This project is all about our clean energy future"

After ten years of a seemingly never-ending permitting process, one gets a little nervous about saying that anything about the historic Cape Wind project (the first offshore wind farm proposed in the U.S.) is absolutely final. But yesterday's decision by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities' approval of the contract between Cape Wind and National Grid is pretty close.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick is right on the mark when he says this is all about our clean energy future. (GW)

Last big hurdle passed for Cape Wind

National Grid can purchase output

By Beth Daley
Boston Globe
November 23, 2010

The state Department of Public Utilities gave permission yesterday for National Grid to purchase half of Cape Wind’s power, removing the last significant hurdle for construction to begin on the controversial wind farm in Nantucket Sound next year.

The agency, however, refused to approve a second agreement for the sale of the project’s remaining power. Without a buyer for that energy, Cape Wind could have trouble arranging financing for the proposed 130-turbine project, energy specialists said, with some suggesting only half of the turbines may now be built.

“The power from this contract is expensive in light of today’s energy prices,’’ the 374-page DPU decision says. “It may also be expensive in light of forecasted energy prices, although less so than its critics suggest. . . . However, it is abundantly clear that the Cape Wind facility offers significant benefits that are not currently available from any other renewable resource.’’

Among those benefits, the administration has long said, are cleaner air, reduced reliance on fossil fuels, energy security, and a more diverse mix of power sources.

While Cape Wind is expected to cost National Grid residential customers less than $2 a month, because it will account for a small percentage of the utility’s power supply, the cost of Cape Wind’s electricity will be double the current cost of power generated from fossil fuels. That higher price erupted into a major controversy in recent months, including during the gubernatorial race, amid a struggling economy and in a state with some of the nation’s highest electricity costs. The Cape Wind project is expected to cost more than $2 billion.

“This project is all about our clean energy future, and today that future is closer than ever,’’ Governor Deval Patrick, a champion of the project, said in a statement yesterday.

Opponents said they would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Judicial Court.

“We are disappointed in the DPU’s decision,’’ said Robert Rio, senior vice president of Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “National Grid ratepayers will be on the hook for billions of dollars in unnecessary rate increases.’’

The project, which Cape Wind says could produce the equivalent of three-quarters of the electric needs of the Cape and Islands, has undergone years of environmental review and political maneuvering, overcoming opposition from the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, whose Hyannisport home overlooks Nantucket Sound.

While opponents’ early concerns were centered on aesthetics — the turbines would be visible low on the horizon from the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket — the battle was fought by raising other issues, including possible effects on property values and harm to birds, fishing, aviation, and historic and cultural sites.

The DPU decision was made, in part, because Cape Wind is necessary to meet a state requirement that utilities buy 25 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2030. While the project’s starting electricity cost, at 18.7 cents per kilowatt hour, is more than double the cost of fossil fuels today, the Patrick-appointed three-member DPU commission said the increase in “electricity bills is acceptable, given the signficant and unique benefits of the project.’’

Under the agreement with National Grid, residential customers’ bills would increase by roughly 1.3 to 1.7 percent, with businesses’ bills increasing roughly 1.7 to 2.2 percent. Overall, the commission said the cost to consumers above market prices during the length of the contract would most likely be between $420 million to $695 million.

But that is if the entire project gets built and if it receives the bulk of the federal incentive money it is hoping to get. Last week, Cape Wind acknowledged it would not meet the deadline for the most lucrative federal incentive, an up to 30 percent cash grant that could have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The deadline for that grant, which required construction to begin by the end of this year, will be missed, Cape Wind officials said, because two permits — one from the US Environmental Protection Agency for air pollution during construction, and the other from the US Army Corps of Engineers for placing a structure in navigable waters — are not in hand yet.

An EPA spokesman said its permit is expected in the next month; an Army Corps official said its decision could come as soon as next month but more likely will not come until next year.

While the project is still eligible for significant other incentive funding, most would be based on the number of turbines installed by the end of 2012. If fewer turbines are built, the price of each unit of electricity generated will increase, but is capped at 19.3 cents per kilowatt hour, according to an agreement the Massachusetts attorney general’s office struck with Cape Wind. That agreement also creates ways consumers could save money if the cost of Cape Wind is less than anticipated.

In its decision, the DPU also laid out its reasoning for denying the second contract, which would have allowed National Grid to assign the remaining portion of Cape Wind’s power to another buyer under the same financial terms.

The DPU officials said there was “no clear purpose’’ for such an approval, saying that if Cape Wind wants to enter into another contract with a buyer, it should follow normal rules and go before the commission.

Some energy specialists said that denial, coupled with the loss of the most lucrative financial incentive, could mean big changes for the project.

“Everytime they get one of these halfway results, it reduces their ability to finance,’’ said Robert McCullough, an Oregon-based energy consultant who is not involved in the Cape Wind project but worked for opponents of a proposed wind farm off Block Island.

Cape Wind disputed that assertion, releasing a statement saying, “We are pursuing multiple options for selling more power.’’

Sue Reid — a lawyer with the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group in favor of the wind farm — said she expected the full project to be built. She said the DPU’s refusal of the second agreement was unimportant.

“Why would anyone come in until they know what the regulators will do with the first contract?’’ she asked. “I am convinced that Cape Wind will sign a contract for the other half’’ of its power.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.

Monday, November 22, 2010

“This is a worst-case scenario”

I've been posting a lot about China's commitment to renewable energy and sustainable development. Those accounts are accurate, but China is also committed to fueling its expanding economy as efficiently and as cheaply as possible -- at least in the near term. As a result China is burning more coal than anyone else. In fact, it has evolved from a coal exporter to net importer. (GW)

Importing Coal, China Burns It as Others Stop

By Elisabeth Rosenthal
New York Times
November 21, 2010

Even as developed countries close or limit the construction of coal-fired power plants out of concern over pollution and climate-warming emissions, coal has found a rapidly expanding market elsewhere: Asia, particularly China.

At ports in Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Colombia and South Africa, ships are lining up to load coal for furnaces in China, which has evolved virtually overnight from a coal exporter to one of the world’s leading purchasers.

The United States now ships coal to China via Canada, but coal companies are scouting for new loading ports in Washington State. New mines are being planned for the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, some of the world’s more environmentally progressive regions are nascent epicenters of the new coal export trade, creating political tensions between business and environmental goals.

Traditionally, coal is burned near where it is mined — particularly so-called thermal or steaming coal, used for heat and electricity. But in the last few years, long-distance international coal exports have been surging because of China’s galloping economy, which now burns half of the six billion tons of coal used globally each year.

As a result, not only are the pollutants that developed countries have tried to reduce finding their way into the atmosphere anyway, but ships chugging halfway around the globe are spewing still more.

And the rush to feed this new Asian market has helped double the price of coal over the past five years, leading to a renaissance of mining and exploration in many parts of the world.

“This is a worst-case scenario,” said David Graham-Caso, spokesman for the Sierra Club, which estimates that its “Beyond Coal” campaign has helped to block 139 proposed coal plants in the United States over the last few years. “We don’t want this coal burned here, but we don’t want it burned at all. This is undermining everything we’ve accomplished.”

In Australia, environmental groups have repeatedly halted trainloads of coal headed to the export docks at Newcastle this fall, and flotillas of kayaking protesters have delayed cargo pickups by Asia-bound coal ships.

Julia Gillard, Australia’s newly elected prime minister, promised during her campaign to “put a price on carbon” — in other words, make companies pay in some way for excessive carbon dioxide emissions. But environmentalists say that such laws will be meaningless if the country continues its nascent coal rush and “exports global warming to the world,” as one group, Rising Tide Australia, puts it.

This summer an Australian company signed a $60 billion contract with a state enterprise, China Power International Development, to supply coal to Chinese power stations beginning in 2013 from a vast complex of mines, called China First, to be built in the Australian outback. It was Australia’s largest export contract ever, the company said.

The deal points to the love-hate relationship many wealthier countries have with coal: while environmental laws have made it progressively harder to build new coal-fired power plants, they do not restrict coal mining to the same extent.

That is partly because emissions accounting standards focus on where a fuel is burned, not where it is dug up; because the coal trade is a lucrative business; and because the labor-intensive mining industry creates jobs.

Such benefits are particularly hard to forgo in the midst of a recession. In the last two years, “There has been an awful lot of mining development, and much of it is based on the potential of these new markets,” said David Price, director of the global steam coal advisory service at IHS-Cera, a global energy consultancy.

Vic Svec, senior vice president of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, said it was “planning to send larger and larger amounts of coal” to China.

“Coal is the fastest-growing fuel in the world and will continue to be largely driven by the enormous appetite for energy in Asia,” he said.

The conflict between environmental and trade concerns is gaining momentum in the United States and Canada as well as Australia.

Last year, the United States exported only 2,714 tons of coal to China, according to the United States Energy Information Administration. Yet that figure soared to 2.9 million tons in the first six months of this year alone — huge growth, though still a minuscule fraction of China’s coal imports.

New mines are planned to expand the market further. Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, is suing to block the lease of state-owned land in Otter Creek, Mont., to Arch Coal for mining to serve demand in Asia and elsewhere. Likewise, Peabody Energy and Australia’s Ambre Energy have been separately expanding mines and exploring the idea of opening loading ports in the Pacific Northwest.

In Washington State, the city of Tacoma decided Friday that it would not host a proposed coal loading plant, citing “a multitude of business and community factors.” This week officials in Cowlitz County are expected to decide whether to grant a permit for a proposed coal port in Longview, on the border with Oregon.

Environmental groups will be there to oppose the port, noting that policies in both states effectively block new coal-fired plants and that both have plans to close the few that remain. “It’s one step forward, 10 steps back if we allow coal export in our region,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.

Likewise, environmentalists in British Columbia, which enacted the first tax on carbon dioxide emissions in North America two years ago, are incensed that Vancouver has blossomed into a major coal loading location. “It’s just hypocritical,” said Ben West, a spokesman for the Wilderness Committee, a Canadian conservation group.

This summer, Jim Prentice, who was then Canada’s environment minister, announced a national phase-out of dirty coal-fired plants. But mines are primarily regulated by the provinces, said Henry Lau, a spokesman for the ministry. The Canadian government adds that while it is committed to its target of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, it has to balance “environmental and economic benefits for its citizens.”

The growth and shifts in coal exports to China are impressive, flowering even during the recession. Seaborne trade in thermal coal rose to about 690 million tons this year, up from 385 million in 2001.

The price rose to $60 from $40 a ton five years ago to a high of $200 in 2008. Coal delivered to southern China currently sells for $114 per ton.

China, which was a perennial coal exporter until 2009, the first year that it imported more than it sent out, is expected to import up to 150 million tons this year.

The lucrative export trade with China is expected to continue, said Ian Cronshaw, head of the energy diversification division at the International Energy Agency.

Although it has plentiful domestic supplies, China imports coal because much of its own is low grade and contains impurities. Coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming tends to be low in sulfur, for example, allowing power plants to burn more without exceeding local pollution limits.

Additionally, much of China’s coal is inland while the factories are on the coast; it is often easier to ship coal from North America, Australia or even South America.

Another emerging customer is India, whose coal imports rose from 36 million tons in 2008 to 60 million tons in 2009, the last full year for which data is available.

In Europe and the United States, coal seems past its prime, with consumption generally down from five years ago because of the recession, environmental laws and a greater reliance on natural gas and renewable energy.

For some economies, China has been a lifesaver. Although Colombia’s coal exports collapsed in 2008 when demand in America and Europe plummeted, they revived this year, with 10 million tons going to Asia.

For Australia, coal exports to China grew to $5.6 billion from $508 million between 2008 and 2009, government statistics show. While it still sends more coal to its longtime customers Japan and Korea, that balance could shift as Australian coal giants sink billions into new projects like China First.

“They are betting that there will be great markets for coal in China,” Mr. Cronshaw said.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Language has always been the consort of empire

Language is our window into the world view of cultures and the people who live within and under the influence of those cultures. Today's post reminded me of an article I read in CoEvolutionary Quarterly back in 1980 by Ivan Illich entitled "Vernacular Values". In it he points out the following:
"Let me now move from the reasonably well known to the unreasonably overlooked - from Columbus, immediately associated with 1492, to Elio Antonio de Nebrija, outside of Spain almost forgotten. During the time Columbus cruised southwest through recognizable Portuguese waters and harbors, in Spain the fundamental engineering of a new social reality was proposed to the queen. While Columbus sailed for foreign lands to seek the familiar - gold, subjects, nightingales - in Spain Nebrija advocates the reduction of the queen's subjects to an entirely new type of dependence. He presents her with a new weapon, grammar, to be wielded by a new kind of mercenary, the letrado....unlike the request of Columbus, who wanted resources to establish a new route to the China of Marco Polo, that of Nebrija urges the queen to invade a new domain at home. He offers Isabella a tool to colonize the language spoken by her own subjects; he wants her to replace the people's speech by the imposition of the queen's lengua - her language, her tongue." (GW)
Language erosion: You don't hear that often...

The discovery of a previously unknown language in the foothills of the Himalayas bucks a trend of extinction and decline, says Laura Spinney

The Independent
November 16, 2010

Tomorrow is World Languages Day, and it seems appropriate to announce a happy but increasingly uncommon event: the discovery of a previously unknown language

in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Koro, as the language is called, is spoken by hill tribes living in the northeastern state of India called Arunachal Pradesh, near the borders with China and Burma. Its discovery bucks a trend, since linguists have estimated that at least half of the roughly 7,000 extant human languages will be dead or moribund – meaning that children will not be able to speak them – by 2100. In fact, Koro was first identified by a team of Indian language surveyors in 2003, but its findings were never published. The three linguists who announced their "discovery" of Koro last month travelled to the remote Indian province as part of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project, to record two other, little-known languages belonging to the Tibeto-Burman language family, Aka and Miju, and rediscovered Koro by accident.

At first, Gregory Anderson, K David Harrison and Ganesh Murmu thought they were hearing a dialect of Aka, but they soon realised it was sufficiently different to be called a language in its own right. The sting in the tail of their find, however, is that Koro itself may be dying. Only around 800 people speak it, few of them are younger than 20, and the language has never been written down.

If it dies, says Harrison, who works at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, a unique culture will die with it. "[Koro] contains very sophisticated knowledge that these people possess about this valley, the ecosystems, the animals, the plants, how they survived here, how they adapted, so if they switch over to another language a lot of that knowledge will simply be lost," he says.

The language may also contain clues as to how the Koro speakers came to be in that valley, and why they identify themselves so closely with their Aka neighbours, even to the extent of downplaying the considerable differences in their languages. The linguists suspect they may have been brought there as slaves, though they have yet to prove it.

Harrison believes that languages such as Koro must be preserved because of the knowledge they contain, and because the sheer diversity of human languages provides a window on the inner workings of the human brain. But the idea that linguistic diversity itself could represent a valuable scientific tool has only recently gained traction in the linguistic world, which has been more or less dominated since the 1960s by American linguist Noam Chomsky's concept of universal grammar.

Universal grammar refers to the idea that children inherit an innate system of rules from which all languages are generated – a "language instinct" – which is why they learn so quickly. According to this theory, what is interesting about languages is what they have in common, not how they differ. There's no doubt that children are gifted linguists. By the age of three, the average toddler has a good grasp of the syntax and prosody of their mother tongue, and a vocabulary of almost 1,000 words. But some researchers are now suggesting another explanation for that aptitude.

As Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading, sees it, languages evolve just like organisms, and the ones that survive are the ones that are best adapted to the human brain and, hence, easiest to learn. All humans have the same brain, which is why successful languages tend to resemble one another, giving the illusion of a universal grammar. But, Pagel says, they may have arrived at that similarity via different routes, and solved the problem of being easy to learn in different ways.

"What will happen over the next 10 to 20 years is that there will be a series of papers that will show more and more how words have adapted to us," predicts Pagel, whereas if Chomsky was right, no such adaptation would be necessary because words would be generated by the language organ in our brains, already fit for purpose. If Pagel's prediction is borne out, then the differences between languages become much more interesting, because they illuminate the range of strategies the brain can adopt for learning and making sense of the world.

Last year, linguists Nicholas Evans of the Australian National University in Canberra and Stephen Levinson of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, seemed to hammer another nail into the coffin of universal grammar when they listed exceptions that had been found to long-established linguistic "rules". A rule that was once thought to be inviolable, for example, was that every language distinguishes between nouns and verbs. But Straits Salish, spoken in the Pacific north-west of North America, may blur that line.

Evans and Levinson suggest that languages may even shape the brains of their speakers, to some extent – not so much that speakers of different languages have incompatible world views, but in subtle ways, making them pay attention to orremember different aspects of their environment, for example, or interpret certain instructions differently.

An elegant demonstration of this was published last year by Daniel Haun and Christian Rapold, also of the Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen. German, like English, locates objects in space in an egocentric way – that is, relative to self – but many other, if not most, languages describe the location of objects relative to another object in the scene, or to an absolute reference such as a compass point.

The researchers taught German and Namibian hunter-gatherer children a sequence of hand movements relative to the body that followed the order right, left, right, right. When they asked them to rotate their bodies 180 degrees and do it again, the German children reproduced the same sequence, while the Namibians now produced the sequence left, right, left, left, indicating their reliance on an allocentric or absolute frame of reference.

Universal grammar is by no means dead, though. Tecumseh Fitch, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Vienna in Austria, argues that many of the criticisms that have been levelled at it are based on a misunderstanding. "Universal grammar is neither a grammar nor is it universal," he says. It actually refers to a set of constraints that limits possible grammars, so that different languages make different choices among those possibilities. Understood correctly, Fitch says, the theory is not incompatible with linguistic diversity.

As founders of the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages, Drs Harrison and Anderson are dedicated to preserving and "revitalising" endangered languages in order to protect that diversity. But whether linguists should try to save languages is a contentious issue.

According to Dr David Lightfoot of Georgetown University in Washington DC, linguists argue about the precise definition of a language, but most agree that it is, at least in part, political. "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy" is an aphorism linguists are fond of quoting. Mandarin is considered one language, for example, though native speakers of its major forms cannot understand one another, while mutually intelligible Norwegian and Swedish are two separate languages. The desire of Koro speakers to downplay the differences between them and the more numerous Aka suggests a political dimension to their linguistic heritage too.

Documenting dying languages is important, Dr Lightfoot believes, because of the wealth of information that will otherwise die with them. But saving them is another matter. That, he says, is a political decision, and not one scientists should get involved with.

Meanwhile, Paul Lewis, who edits the world's most comprehensive language catalogue, Ethnologue, says that there are probably other languages like Koro waiting to be discovered – discovered, that is, by everyone apart from their speakers – though they won't tip the balance, and language erosion will continue to be a problem. "There are still many parts of the world that are relatively unexplored linguistically," he says, giving examples of Papua New Guinea, some parts of Indonesia and Nigeria. "So we can expect that more such cases will come along."

Languages in danger


Spoken by fewer than 10 people whose lands are located in the Kalahari National Park in South Africa, the Khoisan language makes use of various clicking sounds


An Australian Aboriginal language spoken near Cooktown in northern Queensland Guugu Yimidhirr is spoken by around 200 people


Spoken by around 800 people in Arunachal Pradesh state in India, Koro has only just been discovered but is at risk


Located on the Kola Peninsula, there are no more than 10 Ter Sami speakers alive


The Ainu language is extremely complex and is spoken only by a handful of elderly people on the Japanese island of Hokkaido

Friday, November 19, 2010

"Now things are waking up again"

The nuclear industry is not dead. It's been in deep hibernation, waiting for the opportune time to reawaken. Apparently that time is right about now. If the industry is reborn, it will be the environmental/renewable energy community's worst nightmare as it comes just as analysts are predicting a severe slump for solar and wind energy. (GW)

Nuclear Renaissance Has Begun

TVA, Alstom, Westinghouse Forging Ahead

By Ken Silverstein
Energybiz Insider
November 17, 2010

Perhaps the nuclear renaissance has already begun. The restarting of one of the Tennessee Valley Authority's prominent facilities, in fact, may be a harbinger of things to come.

With the emphasis on meeting the expected future demand for electricity as well as reducing carbon emissions, the dynamics appear to be in place to rebuild the nuclear sector. But it is not that simple. Critics of the movement are arguing that the nuclear industry has a long history of cost overruns that are ultimately covered by taxpayers - a force that has made investors wary and one that has slowed the regulatory process.

"After Three Mile Island, things went quiet. Deadly quiet. Now things are waking up again," says Mayor Ron Littlefield of Chattanooga, where this writer visited with other reporters. "Alstom, Westinghouse and the nuclear industry are having a significant economic impact in this city and state."

Parts of TVA's operations are in Chattanooga. While the wholesale distributor of power uses a mix of fuels, it says that its focus is now on providing clean base-load energy. Therefore, it has begun emphasizing nuclear power [3], which it says has a 90-95 percent capacity rate - better than any other power source it employs.

It has spent $1.8 billion to restart Browns Ferry Unit 1, which added 1,100 megawatts to the system. By 2013, it expects to expand generating capacity by 1,100 megawatts with Watts Bar Nuclear Unit 2. Those plants, which were originally licensed in the 1970s, were shut down in the 1980s.

When Watts Bar 1 revved back up in 2007, the utility projected a 12-year payback. Now, it says that it will be six years - money recovered from operating revenues as opposed to debt. Next up: Bellefonte, another existing facility where the utility is pursuing an operating license. There, it will go through the structure from "A to Z" and produce what it says is a "plant that will be like new."

It's a function of supply and demand. More people are moving into the region and consuming more energy. The utility's supply is therefore stretched. "Over the long run, nuclear is cheaper than coal," says Gordon Arent, licensing manager for nuclear generation at TVA, in a talk with reporters. "Millions of dollars will be invested that will create high employment and clean power."

"Extremely Safe"

If predictions are correct and electricity demand rises by 30 percent over 25 years then nuclear energy's share of the generation mix will likely expand. If the country, furthermore, clamps down on carbon releases then the increased role is even more probable.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, to achieve carbon emissions reductions of 80 percent by 2050, electricity prices would rise 80 percent during that time. If no nuclear or clean coal is used, those prices would climb by 200 percent.

China, Japan and India are already going full force while France now generates nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear. But in this country the permitting practice is far more rigorous. With the federal loan guarantee process now underway, a major hurdle has been crossed and the resurgence can begin in earnest.

In the case of TVA, it says that it is working with all of its stakeholders to try and satisfy their concerns. Its critics have pointed out that TVA could potentially be pouring billions into nuclear power, which they say has unproven benefits and which may present safety risks. TVA responds by saying that some in the environmental movement are recognizing the new energy paradigm and have been willing to work with it to find solutions.

Nuclear proponents are cautiously optimistic about what the future holds. Beside air quality pressures and the demands for power, a sizable portion of coal-fired generators are getting old and are expected to be retired. Today's nuclear plants have shown themselves to be safer and more productive than ever before, having increased their capacity factors from the 60 percent in the 1970s to at least 90 percent today.

Indeed, a meaningful way to pay for new nuclear units is by demonstrating their efficiency levels. Today, the procedures by which they are maintained and refueled have become standardized. The goal, says Bruce Phares, director of boiling water reactor services for Westinghouse Electric Co. in Chattanooga [4], is to keep a nuclear plant running for two years before it would need to be refueled. At this point, that process should take 18 to 22 days - far less than what it once did.

Phares, who took reporters on a tour of Westinghouse's training facility, says that refueling is now a science. He explained how the containment vessels are lifted before the older nuclear fuel rods are removed from the core. That spent material is then placed in adjacent cold pools before it is put in above-ground concrete dry casks. It's all "extremely safe."

"Even if the new market for nuclear does not return, we are very confident in the retrofit market," notes Aurelien Maurice, project manager for Alstom's manufacturing facility in Chattanooga [5]. The company has invested $300 million there, which is sized to make steam turbines for the nuclear industry but which can also build ones for coal, natural gas and geothermal.

The nuclear industry is staging a come back. TVA is the first to have forged ahead with its recent rollout. But other utilities are also preparing, prompting those all along the supply chain to gear up for production. They are welcoming the challenges and are determined to prove their product safe, efficient and reliable.

EnergyBiz Insider has been named Honorable Mention for Best Online Column by Media Industry News, MIN.

So what do you think? Please share your thoughts by posting a quick comment below, or by sending a longer reply to energybizinsider@energycentral.com [6].

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