Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Environment versus Economics

It was heartening to hear UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's speech at the climate change meeting in Poland (there seems to be one of these every month!). If you missed it he said that even though the economic crisis is serious, the threat of global warming is still there.

It is interesting to see the change in rhetoric over the last year. First we had oil prices steadily increase to over $140 per barrel. When that happened we had everybody stumbling over each other to claim how green they were.

Now that oil is back down below $50 per barrel, and the credit crisis has had its effects, and what you hear is "we must get out of this economic crisis first".

So what happened to the "green" economy? Well, there never was such a thing. It was all green washing. Yes, there are companies in the fields of wind power, etc. But I am speaking of the "traditional companies" who claim to be greening like the coal industry (heard of "clean coal" - there is no such thing).

At the EU meeting just completed in Brussels, the coal industry in Poland and heavy industry in Germany both want exemptions from global warming requirements. Chemical companies in Europe opposed recent regulations on chemicals. Airlines do not want to have there emissions included in carbon trading schemes. Oil and mining companies want to be exempt from restrictions in parks and wildlife preserves.

In other words, everybody wants to be exempt. So if we give these exemptions, who is left?

And as the US auto companies show, the most polluting and inefficient industries then come whining to the people. Come on!

To paraphrase that famous saying, "It is the environment stupid".

Friday, November 21, 2008

Economic crisis, development, and environment

Of course all the news now is about the financial crisis. There is much said about it and I won't repeat much of this. I want to concentrate on its effect on the environment and sustainable development. But first I will give my take on what has happened.

There are three things that I think have contributed to this crisis. First was the selling of loans. The banks which give out the loans now often sell those loans to another company (I had student loans from four different banks, everyone was sold). The bank now makes a profit and the debt is given to somebody else. The crisis occurred when loans where sold from company 1 to company 2 to company 3 to ...

The second is the use of "innovative finance": derivatives trading, selling short, and all that other newspeak. These have nothing to do with the reported purpose of the stock markets - to provide liquidity and raise capital. The only purpose of this innovative finance is to make money -- period. The stock market IS about speculation.

The last thing was the use of floating interest rates by banks. In most cases the banks would give out loans at one percent, then after a year jack up the interest to five, seven, or higher percent. Innocent people (who do not understand finance) thought one percent was a good deal, but could not pay back the loan at higher rates. My take on this is quite simple -- it is fraud!

What has been bothering me lately is that from the recent news it sounds like nothing has changed. The story that really brought it home was the complaint that China's economic growth rate was only nine percent. Only!!! Most countries would die to have a growth rate that good. Was it not the attempt to increase economic growth through so-called innovative finance that led to the economic crisis?

Just a few days before the news from China, George Bush was encouraging the rest of the world to follow the US's lead. But, he said, that other countries should not do anything that damages the free market. Wait a minute! Was it not the freeing of the financial market that led to the mess we are in now?

I am convinced that the unconstrained economic growth, and especially the idea of no interference in the free market, are the cause of much of the environmental damage done today. Just look at climate change, loss of environmental habitat, or problems with hazardous waste. We need sustainable development, not "anything goes" development.

The US and Europe poured billions of dollars into the financial companies and did it amazingly quickly, claiming a fiscal "emergency". This wrote off huge amounts of debt. This money went directly to financial institutions -those that caused the problem, with none of the money going to those damaged by the crises - pension fund holders, people with floating-rate mortgages, etc. At the same time the developing world needs money for emergencies and humanitarian relief. Yet much of the money for such is not been given out despite being pledged.

Some quick sums: The US bailout package is 700 billion dollars. The UK rescue package is almost the same (680 billion). The total of the packages in the Eurozone (most of the EU, but not the UK) is estimated* at 1370 billion dollars. That is 2.75 trillion dollars in total.

Now let us look at the funding for emergency relief efforts worldwide through the UN Flash appeals**. The total flash appeals for 2008 through October 24 was 6.9 trillion dollars. Forty percent of which has not been met. That is about 2.77 trillion dollars that is still needed. Almost the same as the amount of as the emergency funding for financial institutions.

In other words, money for these financial institutions can be found immediately, yet the money for the most disadvantaged -- well, we will have to think about it. And oh, you need to have sound economic policies.

The conclusions of all the above is the following:
1. Let us have sustainable development. And yes I am talking to the developed countries also.
2. So far nothing has been done to change the financial system. We need to make a radical! change in the world's economic system, not trying to do cosmetic changes.
3. If we need to have government intervention let us give the money to the people who really need it, not to institutions whose only purpose is to make money.

Here are some suggestions as possible ways forward:
1. Fix the financial markets. Prohibit, permanently, derivative trading, short selling, index trading (i.e. trading on value of a stock exchange). And prevent speculative trading on currency exchanges, such as that which caused the Asian crash.
2. Make the banks provide there designed services, instead of just making money. Prevent any loans from having interest rates increase during the term of the loan. Prohibit banks from selling loans to another company.
3. Radically reform the IMF. The developing countries must be given equal voting powers. Even more importantly, IMF must give equal rate to social issues. Currently, the IMF usually calls for austerity measures, which means that health care, etc. are the first things affected.
4. Have guaranteed pension funds and health insurance. These must be guaranteed by governments with businesses paying into the program.
5. Give up the neoliberal free trade rhetoric. In practice the proponents of free trade have been forcing other countries to open their markets, while increasing restriction in theirs.
6. Most importantly, give priority to the environment, social issues, and human rights over economic growth and profits. This needs to be done at all levels - development banks (like World Bank), foreign direct investment, national and local governments, etc.

* BBC's estimate
** These are for both UN agencies and for NGO's. They are coordinated by the UN's Office of Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs.

Update (24 Nov)
1. The recent news of Obama's reported choice for Secretary of the Treasury, the current head of the NY Federal Reserve Bank, is totally wrong. The Federal Reserve has been part of the problem. So much for change!. (For a related topic - about Obama's chief economic advisor Paul Volker - see here)

2. This article from Planet Ark (Reuters) shows some of the ideas mentioned in this article.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Environment and Family

We are coming on the two year anniversary of when the US reached the population of 300 million (see this report). At the time I wrote an article (1) about that milestone (if that is the correct word for it). Seeing that article in my old blogs and having just recently reading a blog entry on morals and the environment on Reuters, made me think of the issue of environment and the family.

Many years ago I was working a booth for a local environmental organization, of which I was president, on the campus of the University of Missouri. One person came up to me and asked me that why should we be concerned about the environment when the Bible says that God gave the Earth for people to use. That thought has remained with me to this day. I believe that it represents the view held by many ultraconservative Christians, and is the reason why the environmental record of the Reagan and Bush administrations and many states led by conservatives is so dismal.

These people who often state their position being for "family values". And they claim to have the moral high-ground. Remember the Moral Majority? So when people talk about morals my question to them is usually "whose morals?".

Please note that this view in not restricted to the US or to Christians. The Pope and the Catholic hierarchy talk about supporting the environment, but do not want to take steps to curb AIDS and the population problems, because the solutions conflict with their of conservative "family views". Poland has a conservative party called the Polish Family Party. In Nigeria, polio spread again after having been almost completely eliminated because Muslim leaders in the North of the country said that vaccination was against Islamic practice. Fundamentalist Hindus in India often claim the equivalent of family values.

Getting back to the environment, I really do not understand why these people are so opposed to the environment. Population is probably the biggest threat to the environment and to the survival of the human species (2), yet they are opposed to birth control.

And what does family values have to do with unregulated globalization and economic growth, opposition to government regulation (except to support their values), the war in Iraq, or believing their is no climate change (ala Sarah Palin).

Notes: (1) Unfortunately my article is no longer available on the Internet.
(2) I know many now consider global warming is bigger, but that problem is really a consequence of the bulging human population

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Hazard assessment is often used to predict what risks there are from a chemical or chemicals. One method of hazard assessment is to use a model which determines the concentration of a chemical in the air or water within a given area. This could either be within a facility or in the environment near the facility. These models are then used for making decisions on equipment, operating procedures, etc.

But from my observations, from both within industry/consulting and from outside, there are severe problems with these assessment models. Note that the concept itself is not the target of my criticism. Rather it is how it is applied and what models are used to make the assessment.

The most important of these problems is that managers do not know how to use the results from hazard assessment. Generally, managers take an all or nothing approach to the assessment. For example, say an emission standard is 500 ppm. If the predicted concentration in an area is 450 ppm, they will say "the level is below the standard therefore we do not need to do anything".

Let me interject at this point one common misconception. People often think that if a pollutant's level is below the standard then it has been scientifically considered safe. Not true. A scientifically determined safe level is called a criteria. Standards may be based on criteria, but they also take into account such things as technology, and most importantly, politics. Regulatory agencies and legislators are often heavily lobbied by the chemical and other industries. And in some countries the standard making body is also responsible for promoting the same industry. Bottom line: standards are about as much politics as they are science.

So back to our manager. Rather than saying "let us reduce the hazard to the best degree available", he will nothing. Or worse he may remove existing or planned safeguards. What should he do? He should be using the results as guides as to determine where to best use his resources, the best technology to use, etc.

The second problem with the hazard assessment models I have seen is something called sensitivity. Sensitivity in models is the change in the results due to small changes in the input values. A model is called sensitive if a small change in the input produces large changes in the output.

The hazard assessment models I have used are very sensitive. For example, in one case I changed the value of density in one program by only 5 percent and the result was a doubling of the output value. If models are too sensitive, then there output values are unreliable.

The last problem is the use of models on either only one part of the plant or on only one plant within a given area. For example, in Thailand near an industrial estate, many people complain about air pollution. But the environmental impact assessments for the individual plants all say there should be air pollution problem. What has happened is that the models used considered only the specific plant and not other nearby sites. But the sum of those emissions is a problem.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Arms Control Quiz

About a year and a half ago I set the following quiz (updated):

What country meets the following criteria:
It has failed to honor the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty
It has ratified the Chemical Weapons treaty - but it will miss the deadline for destruction of chemical weapons by eleven years
It has signed the Biological Weapons treaty, but refuses to agree to a verification protocol
It refuses to sign the land mine treaties or discuss a small arms treaty

I can now add the following criteria -- it refuses to even consider a ban against cluster bombs.

And so the answer is ... The United States of America.

The cluster bombs issue was recently discussed in a meeting to draft a convention that would ban their use. What was very disturbing was that the US, along with the other major producers -- Russia, Israel, China, India, and Pakistan -- did not only oppose the ban, but forced through an article which allows cooperation between countries which sign the treaty and those who do not.

To understand the problems with cluster munitions take a look at the recent report by landmine action on the economic impact of the use of cluster bombs by Israel in Lebanon, 2006. As it demonstrates that the costs to the environment, agricultural, and peoples livelihoods can be great.

The US claims that cluster weapons are useful for stopping advancing armies. But as the Lebanon report states "In contrast to the problems caused, no evidence has been provided that this use of cluster munitions achieved a direct military advantage that could justify this civilian cost."

[UPDATE: There are reports that Russia has used cluster munitions in Georgia. See this article.]

The US's position on the landmine issue somewhat parallels its position on cluster weapons. Again the military insists that mines are a useful defense to "protect" areas from invading forces. They often cite the case of North Korea. I would rather look at the case of the Vietnam war, where landmines are still maiming people thirty years after the war.

One of the greatest threats to mankind and the environment is nuclear weapons. The US, Britain, and France warn about terrorists who have "weapons of mass destruction (WMD)". Yet in the US's latest Quadrennial Defense Review (2006), all references to WMD imply foreign countries or organizations; when discussing the US's nuclear force it uses the terms "Nuclear Deterrent" or "Triad".

We often hear in the media that countries that are parties to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but which do not possess nuclear weapons, must not develop nuclear capabilities. But very seldom do we here that the treaty also requires that the countries which already possessed nuclear weapons at the time of the treaty must attempt to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Article VI states that the Nuclear Weapon States must "pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures related to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." (italics mine)

To put it another way, as the Canberra commission stated, "Nuclear weapons are held by a handful of states which insist that these weapons provide unique security benefits and yet reserve uniquely to themselves the right to own them."(quoted here) Or as K. Subrahmanyam mused, "It cannot be legal for some countries to possess a category of weapons it is illegal for others to do so."

As for the US, it is currently undergoing a "modernization" of its nuclear arsenal, including developing newer weapons. In addition, the administration as stated that if they agree (that is, agreement with Russia) to reduce their nuclear missiles, they will store, not destroy any nuclear warheads removed from the missiles. In other words, the US claims to be committed to reducing nuclear arsenals, but has done in fact, the opposite.

One additional note on nuclear weapons. In the media we continue to hear about Iran's failure to live up to its "additional protocol" under the NPT. However, the US, even though signing the additional protocol (which includes unannounced inspections), has not implemented it.

To me another very disturbing attitude of the US is its position on biological weapons. The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of biological weapons, while the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) (1972) banned their possession, development, or production. However, neither provide for a verification procedure.

A protocol for verifying the BWC was close to agreement, when the US suddenly decided it would oppose any verification protocol. As any agreement requires a unanimous approval of all parties to the convention to be approved, this action effectively killed the protocol. It should be noted that only the US is opposed to such a protocol. Their opposition seems to be based on two premises: it could harm national security and that it would could do damage to private industry.

As for harming national security, there is only one argument which I can see that the US government could use -- its biodefense program. Biodefense programs are allowed under the BWC; however, there are many concerns that the US biodefense program actually is in violation of BWC. As an European official said in 2001 "If the U.S. administration had seen such work underway in other countries, then it would be the first to point the finger that this is questionable."

As for the damage to industry, the suggestion by the government is that verification procedures could harm "intellectual property" (Ohh...how I hate that phrase). So, in other words if a private company creates biological weapons (or their precursors) it is OK. But more to the point, is that profits should not override safety of people, the environment, or human life.

I better news applies to the chemical weapons convention (CWC). The US has signed and ratified it. The CWC required that states to report the number of chemical weapons they have stockpiled. The US reported the second most number of weapons (after Russia). All parties are supposed to have destroyed all their weapons by 2012. However, by the Department of Defense's (DOD) own estimate, they will miss the deadline. The DOD says it will take until 2023. What is ironic about this is that the US is funding other countries destruction programs.

A lesser known arms convention is the "Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons". It is in fact composed of five separate "protocols", of which a country can subscribe to any number of them (even though, a signatory must agree to at least two). The protocols are: I - Non-detectable Fragments (i.e. fragments too small too be seen in an x-ray); II - Landmines, Booby Traps, and other Devices (regulates but does not ban them); III - Incendiary Weapons (use against civilians prohibited); IV - Blinding Lasers; and V - Explosive Remnants of War (i.e. unexploded and abandoned ordinance).

Again here the US has in fact only signed up to two of the protocols - I and II. It must therefore not accept the banning of incendiary weapons or blinding lasers. Protocol III would ban the use napalm and similar weapons as used in Vietnam (when near civilians), a practice the US military probably wants to repeat. But even more worrying is the failure to sign Protocol V. Unexploded ordinance (UXO) is one the major hazards to civilians in former war areas, probably second only to landmines. There are some places which are no go areas thirty years after the fighting stop, because of unexploded ordinance. Not only is the ordinance a direct threat to people, but it can also prevent them from working in the fields, hunting, etc. because the present danger.

The UN has recently been trying to reduce the huge number of small arms. As a secretary-general's report stated "In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed could well be described as 'weapons of mass destruction'". Yet the US is opposed to all measures to reduce small arms. Indeed, they did not even attend the most recent biennial meeting (July 2008).

Another area where the US is opposed to is a treaty on the arms trade. This is not surprising considering that the US accounts for by far the largest amount of arms traded internationally. It is almost twice the next largest country (Russia) and accounts for 41% of the global arms trade. The US claims to support democracies, but gives large amounts of military aid to major dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Many of these countries are criticized by the US's own State Department's report on human rights. (Look here for an interesting related report)

And finally there is outer space (the final frontier ... for the military). There is an Outer Space Treaty, but it only refers to weapons of mass destruction. It also does not restrict ballistic missiles, which only passes through outer space, but which may have nuclear warheads.

Russia and China have recently proposed a new outer space treaty, which would address any possible arms race in space. This has been opposed (of course!) by the US. Why? Look no further than last years new Space Policy. It explicitly states the US will not accept any arms control treaty which restricts any control of arms in space. The policy basically says that the US has the right to fully protect its right to using space.

We must now ask the question: why is the US so opposed to arms treaties? I think the reasons are as follows:

There are many, especially among the neo-conservatives, who feel that the US should dominate the world and feel that any arms control measures threaten that domination. Indeed there is a significant number of people in and close to the administration that oppose any arms control legislation.

Militaries world wide always think that they must be able to use whatever means are necessary to stop their enemies. To put it another way, they feel they can do anything as long as it is for "national security". That includes the right to use any type of weapons to achieve their objectives (whatever that maybe). And specifically to nuclear weapons, they are extremely powerful, and therefore the military wants to be able to use the most powerful weapon.

Lastly, is that the US does not want to lose millions of dollars from weapons sales. As mentioned above the size of the US's military sales is staggering. The defense industry is huge and very profitable. Many military officers (including generals and admirals) go to work for the industry soon after leaving the military.

I will conclude with the following question: Why does the US, which claims to be a supporter of human rights and a peaceful country oppose almost every measure which is designed to reduce the threat to human life and the environment?

PS I hope the election in November will change this thinking, but I do not think so.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Cyclone Nargis -- How Not to Respond to a Disaster

There has been a lot of stuff written about the cyclone Nargis that hit Burma last week. Probably the best coverage has been the BBC.

I will not go into details here, but here are some highlights (or should that be lowlights):

  • The damage was very severe, mostly due to the tidal surge and flooding. The satellite photos from NASA are stunning, showing the vast amount of flooded areas in the Irrawaddy Delta and near Rangoon.
  • A quote from a Rangoon resident - "When there were protests the army was everywhere, now they are nowhere to be found".
  • The military government refused to allow disaster response teams from the UN into the country.
  • They would allow aid, but only the Burmese military could distribute it (with what they said were their seven helicopters!).
  • Even Burmese citizens have been stopped from giving out food and other relief aid to other Burmese.
  • There were reports where aid received from outside was printed with the Burmese generals names in order for them to get credit.

A country not wishing to have outside help or aid is not unprecedented. In fact, India did almost the same thing with the 2004 tsunami. But to not allow outside help AND not do anything themselves is what is very distressing.

Essentially all of those who were affected by Cyclone Nargis were pawns in a high stakes political game. The whole thing was about control -- control at any cost.

We can do all we want into terms of disaster preparedness, with the Hyogo framework and all, but when politics interfere all of that goes out the window. Disaster response must be immediate - indeed the first few hours are the most important. Maybe the international community should start to concentrate on access (1). Burmese actions must be condemned at the highest levels and steps taken to prevent they time of behavior from occurring. Access to disaster relief must be made a human right. Should denial of these rights be considered "war crimes"?

This was absolutely the worst response there has ever been to a natural disaster, and let us hope that it never happens again.

NOTE: (1) I was disappointed that after the cyclone the only statement (pdf) from the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction concerned early warning.

PS. It was interesting to see the difference between the government reactions to Cyclone Nargis and to the 7.8 earthquake in China.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


I was wondering the other day what was knowledge management. So I typed in "knowledge management" in Google and looked at the first entry. In it was the following definition.

Knowledge Management is a new branch of management for achieving breakthrough business performance through the synergy of people, processes, and technology. Its focus is on the management of change, uncertainty, and complexity. It evolved from the need for advancing beyond the failing paradigm of Information Technology Management that accounts for 70%-80% system failures. As 'IT' becomes more of a commodity and endowed with more complex 'potential' capabilities, there is need for re-focusing on strategic execution. As we transition from an era of information scarcity to information glut, there is need for re-focusing on human sense-making processes underlying decisions, choices, and performance. In this new paradigm for increasingly uncertain and complex business environments, dynamically evolving performance outcomes are the key drivers of how 'smart minds' use 'smart technologies' to leverage strategic opportunities and challenges.", www.brint.com/km

Will somebody translate that into English?

To be honest, I am getting tired of "x management" Today we have risk management, consumer relations management, human resources management, knowledge management, ... I am waiting for "manager management".

I see two big problems with all of these. First is why should these things be managed in the first place. For example, the field I am most familiar with is risk management (as related with safety/environment, not financial risk). In my opinion risk is something to be avoided, not managed.

Secondly, all of the x management really is directed to one goal: money management (or should that be profit management?). All x management is really done to either increase revenue or decrease costs. Risk management is done to reduce the cost of building control equipment, doing mitigation measures, or retooling current equipment.

Let us get back to knowledge management. Often in the discussion of knowledge management, the question is asked "can knowledge be managed?". I really think that question is irrelevant. The real question is should it be managed? We should encourage knowledge and the use of it, not manage it.

In fact, I would go further. The for-profit corporation as it is today actually discourages the acquirement and use of knowledge. It tells its employees to be innovative and then demands that it keeps the patent rights. Why should the employees be innovative when they get no benefits, while the company and its directors get the money and the credit.

Then what really is knowledge management?? To begin with, it is another buzz word for consultants and academics to use. It (and all their other x management buzz words) justifies their existence and gives them something else in which to make money.

But it is mostly an excuse for a company implement policies to maximize profits while protecting its(?!) "intellectual property". When I say intellectual property(1) of course I am referring to the collective of all its employees. Hence knowledge management is all about control.

It is interesting that all the knowledge management "gurus" never mention the free/open source software development model. As one business academic said "it is management as we have never seen". In the open source world, developers are mostly unpaid and do it either as fun or to fulfill a niche. They will usually respond to request for additional features, make security fixes as soon as possible (usually within days), and then provide their work free under the GPL (GNU Public License (2)).

If companies could emulate this style we might have better workers and more intellectual freedom. Indeed intellectual freedom is to me much more important than knowledge management or the profit line.

NOTES: (1) Actually intellectual property is a misnomer. It includes patents, copyrights, and trademarks, which are three different things. See www.fsf.org/licensing/essays/not-ipr.xhtml/view?searchterm=patents

(2) For information on free source software, including the GPL look at the Free Software Foundation website.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

PLoS and Open Access

Previously, I have referenced the Public Library of Science (PLoS). See for example, my recent blog on biodiversity. Also see the link on the right.

PLoS is an organization which publishes a number of online journals with the standards of peer review and cutting edge science you find in Nature or Science. However, it is a radical departure from most academic journals. The PLoS journals are what are called open access (OA) journals.

Open access journals are based on two criteria: no price barriers and no permission barriers. For a detailed explanation see Peter Suber's Open Access Overview

No price barriers means that it free to view the journal. Most journals have subscriptions, most are huge. For an amusing look at this serious topic see Sticker Shock 2 from Cornell University.

The major problem with this is that access to journals is extremely difficult, especially in developing countries. I am a scientist/engineer living in Thailand and it is extremely difficult to get academic articles. Libraries here do not have the budget to pay for journals and, of course, the journals are available online for subscribers only. How can we have technology transfer when there is restricted access to the information?

The second criteria for open access is no permission barriers. Most journals require that you sign away the copyright to your article. That is, the publishing company, not the author, owns the copyright. As an author, I find it disturbing that some else gets the rights to what I write.

For articles in PLoS the author keeps the copyright using the Creative Commons license. This license allows people to copy the article provided they credit the original author. (This blog is also under the Creative Commons license, click on the link at the bottom for more information.)

The open access "movement" is growing, as is the number of open access journals. This is despite opposition from publishers who do not want their revenue stream damaged.

Write academic articles for PLoS or other OA journals (for a list see the Directory of Open Access Journals, become a member of PLoS, or simply publicize open access. (For a more complete list of things to do see here).

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Monsanto, bigger Monsanto, fake Monsanto

This week I found two distrubing stories about Monsanto.

The first story was Monsanto buying up another vegetable seed company. Monsanto bought De Ruiter Seeds Group of the Netherlands. Monsanto already controls the majority of all GMO seeds sold. But Monsanto is also one of the large producers of agricultural chemicals. They therefore, seem to want to have total control over all GMO crops in order to be able to dictate what seeds people use and what chemicals they produce. (see my article "What is wrong with GMO's")

The other story was about an organization claimed to be a dairy farmers organization which supports using artifical growth hormone, rBGH, but is supported and founded by Monsanto. And guess what?, Monsanto is the producer of rBGH.

What Monsanto is doing is protecting its market. There have been many questions about rBGH and some countries have banned its use. Monsanto is therefore, trying to convince people (and regulators) by deceiving them into believing rBGH is a good thing.

To begin with I do not care for companies which buy up companies in order simply to get a control on the marketplace in order to increase their profits. But to then go and deceive people by setting up fake organizations in order to be able to sell their products is not only unacceptable, but is bordering on fraud.

These are the problems when you have a company which controls too many of the facets of one market.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Biodiversity vs. Humanity

A while ago I saw an interesting article in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS). We have see a lot of articles about how human activity is reducing biodiversity. But this essay discusses how loss in biodiversity is reducing human well-being.

One of the areas the loss of biodiversity has a major effect is in agriculture. Indeed, for a while people have been warning about agriculture tending toward a monoculture. Many varieties have been lost due to agricultural practices. Ironically, the use of GMO's has in fact reduced the diversity of crops because of the practice of seed companies such as Monsanto (see my article What is Wrong with GMO's?).

A biodiverse environment helps improve the soil and also prevent soil loss through erosion. Biodiversity also helps crops through pollination, seed dispersal, and controlling pests and diseases

Many people have discussed how nature is a storehouse for medicine. Many drugs are derived from plants found originally in the wild. Reduction in biodiversity would reduce the possibilities to discover new medicines and therefore could have an effect on human health.

Protection against disasters (especially floods) is affected greatly by loss of forest habitat that has gone on throughout the world. This forest loss causes increase in flood intensity because vegetation allows the water to soak into the ground instead of running off. Forests can also act as barriers against natural disasters, reducing their effect on the local area.

All of these effects are collectively called ecosystem services. In other words the ecosystem is providing a service to humans. In a way I would also that the above contributes to our human knowledge. I now wonder if this is what business people mean when they say "knowledge management" ;).

Note: This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared at my old (and now defunct) blog: johnsearth.blog-city.com.

UPDATE: After I wrote the above, I found this article briefly discussing the issue of agricultural biodiversity but from the side of livestock.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thoughts on Disasters

I have been thinking a lot lately about disaster and more specifically about disaster reduction.

For many years I taught chemical safety to (mainly) engineers. There are of course many connections between safety and disaster reduction. But I think the most important of these is what I call "safety culture". That is getting people to be aware of the hazards around them. An example of this is that when I enter a laboratory I instinctively look for the location of fire extinguishers, exits, etc. Most people would not do that since they have not been "immersed" into a safety culture.

The same thing applies to disasters. People need to be aware of their surroundings and what hazards may be present, both local and regional. This includes the physical state, by which I mean the conditions of buildings, the location of buildings (for example, in a flood plain or too close to the sea), etc. It also includes the weather and how that affects hazards (such as flash floods).

A recent report by the UN's International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), pointed out that very little has been done in the areas of land-use planning and building codes.

My experience with planning is that local people must be involved with the action. Otherwise big land owners, who usually do not live in the area, gain too big an influence. They are usually interested in building buildings to gain a profit. So, for example, they may build a hotel too close to the shore simply because they think that will bring in more tourists.

Similar things occur with building codes. Even though in this case it is often an enforcement problem. In other words, the regulations are there, but they are not followed. Here the influential owners simply can get away with not having to follow rules. For example, Thailand had a major fire at a department store owned by one of the richest and most powerful families in the country. Despite the law requiring it to by completely removed, the owner was allowed to use the burned out structure.

The other thing mentioned in the ISDR report is the use of early warning in the case of climatic hazards. My observation is that they weather departments (at least in tropical asia) are not very good at doing their real job. Yes, the may do a good job at collecting weather information and data, but when it gets to providing information to the public or other agencies they are very poor. I once heard a forecast that the weather would be "cool. cold in the North, and colder in the mountains" -- no temperatures were given. (For anybody living in temperate climates, 18 degrees C is considered cold in Thailand :-) )

The other thing related to weather is the understanding of the dangers that severe weather can create. Recently there was heavy rain in Southern Thailand in an area near a dam. Some tourists wanted to go to a cave located in a national park. They were warned by the park rangers, but the boat drivers who take tourist to the cave insisted on going. They were all trapped in the cave when the water started to rise. Most were drowned. The park rangers should have completely closed the cave (it was closed after the incident) and prevent the boat drivers from going.

So much of what I see happenning is relying too much on technology or on the wrong type of technology. For example, in response to the 2004 Asian tsunami the Thai government put up warning sirens on beaches (which I was told mostly don't work), but the government have done no action on planning or building standards. And this is exactly what the ISDR has shown to be the trend in most of the world.

Technology can give early warnings but if no action is then taken the warnings are meaningless. And much more work needs to be done on using technology to improve building standards. In Asia at least, some of all that economic growth needs to be channelled into improving disaster reduction.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hanford, Nuclear Energy, and NIMBY

Recently, I found an interesting (albeit somewhat technical) report about high-level nuclear waste leaking at the Hanford Nuclear Site. (A powerpoint presentation on the leaks can be found here) The site, owned by the US Department of Energy, is where much of the plutonium for the nuclear weapons program was produced. The site consists of old nuclear reactors, former plutonium and uranium reprocessing facilities, and most importantly a nuclear waste facility. More information on Hanford, including its history, can be found in the Wikipedia article.

It has a large amount (53 million gallons/200 million liters) of high level nuclear waste.

The important points of the report are:

DOE admits at least one million gallons (4 million liters) of waste has leaked. However, how much more has leaked is not known.

The DOE has continually broken the regulations which apply to nuclear and hazardous wastes. These include rules related to containment, monitoring, and retrieval of wastes.

Sixty percent of the waste is in single-shell tanks,instead of double shell tanks which include a leak detection system between the shells. Single shell tanks are in violation of all hazardous and radioactive waste laws.

One tank has been designated by DOE as not leaking despite evidence that it is leaking.

The contamination due to the leaked wastes is much greater in both amount and extent that is admitted by DOE. Importantly, the radioactive plumes are heading toward the Columbia River.

Characterization of the actual amount of contamination needs to be done. This characterization is not being proposed by DOE.

DOE has attempted to avoid the disclosure of the tanks leaking. This includes not sufficient data on the leaks. This has been also pointed out by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Department of Energy (DOE) claims that it is self-regulating and not bound by federal or state laws related to the waste. It has therefore, ignored or avoided many requirements for containing and monitoring waste, both that in the tanks and that leaked to the environment. As noted in the report, DOE does have an exemption for storage, but not if the waste is released to the environment.

This relates to a number of topics I have touched on before. In my last post I talked about NIMBY (Not In My BackYard). This is a perfect example of why NIMBY exists.

DOE's self-regulatory claim is a variation on the national security argument. Even though the DOE does not explicitly use "national security" as their excuse in this case, the basis of the DOE getting an exemption in the case of storage is for exactly that reason. For discussion on the national security argument, see this blog entry.

It also shows the problems with nuclear waste. If the government cannot handle the waste on this site properly, how can it be responsible for all the waste produced by the nuclear power plants? The problems with the Hanford site show that nuclear waste is not a small problem, as I have heard some "experts" claim. I touched on this problem at this blog.

Another thing this shows is how voluntary standards do not work. Since DOE thinks it does not have to follow the specific laws and regulations, it then does what it simply what it wants to do, no more. That is exactly how voluntary standards work in industry, too.

I now ask should we trust the nuclear industries?

Monday, January 21, 2008


Often when the location of a waste disposal facility, power plant, industry, dam, etc. is chosen the people living nearby the site often protest. This is often called the not in my backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. Those in industry (plus many government officials and some academics) complain about NIMBY, thinking the protests are based on hysteria and fear.

NIMBY is usually discussed in developed countries. But what about developing countries which either do not have the regulatory framework or which have lax standards? I will argue in this article that in fact the NIMBY syndrome is beneficial in such countries.

NIMBY syndrome occurs very commonly in Western countries, especially with local projects. Classic examples include siting of landfills, industrial parks, and power plants. It also occurs with bigger projects which have considerable local impact, such as construction of dams. Sometimes NIMBY will invoke physical protests (big or small), but more often it is fought in courtrooms, legislative committees, city councils, and executive agency offices.

Why do so many in industry and others complain? We might tell from their comments. Here are some of the comments I have heard during my many years in the environmental field.

"They do not understand us"
"This project will benefit us all"
"They are against progress"
"We have filed/received all the necessary permits"
"Our studies show this to be the best site"
"We need to put ___ somewhere"

I will let the reader to make any conclusions from these.

After the 2004 Asian tsunami, I was with a team which surveyed the damage in Southern Thailand. The tsunami caused a tremendous amount of debris. We were concerned with how the debris was being disposed. Much of this was dumped in old tin mines or simply on vacant land owned by the local authorities or the national government. No consideration was given to water tables, nearby streams, or other sources of potential contamination. Interestingly, there was no visible opposition, or NIMBY, to this.

This scenario is repeated with most disasters, including earthquakes and hurricanes. But it is not restricted to emergency situations. It also occurs in when companies or the government wishes to dispose of waste. Yes, there maybe environmental laws, but these are often weak or nonexistent. In addition due to corruption or simply the government ignoring the law, the waste may be dumped wherever the guilty party wants to dump it.

In much of Asia there has not been a tradition of protest against authority in the environment area. Even though in some countries that has been due to authoritarian governments, there is still an avoidance of conflict due to religious teaching, especially Buddhism. Governments often take advantage of this by invoking "the common good" idea.

Therefore, there has been very little NIMBY. There have been notable exceptions, mostly involving very large projects. However, it is possible to learn from these exceptions. In many of these cases after protests occur, the media then gets involved and the public becomes very aware of the project. That is when questions start to be asked and environmental issues are raised.

So, back to my point at the beginning. If a country has inadequate laws or regulations, NIMBY can do two things. First it can make people aware of environmental dangers. Second it can force through changes in the legal code - both through direct impact on the government and indirectly by influencing public opinion toward greater environmental protection.