Pluripotent creativity

A question sparked by Victor Hugo’s eccentric exile house in Guernsey.

The oddest tourist attraction in Guernsey must be the town house on a hill above St. Peter Port in which Victor Hugo lived from 1856 to 1870, as an exile from Napoleon III’s autocracy, at first forced, and later self-imposed. The exterior is conventional. The interior was remodelled by Hugo to his own designs, with the help of Guernsey craftsmen but no professional interior designer or architect.

theaterraum Continue reading “Pluripotent creativity”

Getting the lead out

It’s (long past) time to spend the money to eliminate the remaining sources of environmental lead.

Kevin Drum makes a strong case for spending the money to remove the remaining sources of environmental lead: old lead paint and residential water pipes. Eliminating lead paint an lead pipes each would have costs in the tens-of-billions range. In each case that would mean either (1) requiring private parties to spend substantial amounts of money or (2) spending substantial amounts of public money to fix up private property, somewhat unfairly to those who prudently spent their own money to fix it.  But neither problem could possibly justify allowing the ongoing damage from lead exposure; those are one-time expenditures, and the flow of damage from lead is a continuing cost.

One source Kevin doesn’t mention is smelters, which used to be a major source. I’m not current enough to know whether most of the smelter business has moved abroad, but I’m sure there are still some domestic smelters, and they’re inevitably bad news on the lead front.

As Kevin notes, one consequence of lead exposure is higher crime: lead reduces IQ and also specifically attacks some of the brain functions that support self-control. But consider what a horse-laugh a politician would get if he listed de-leading among his crime-control proposals.

Container deposit laws

My past keeps recycling, and everything old is new again.  Last year I was asked to write papers about NIMBY issues affecting nuclear waste recycling and high speed rail development, something I last worked on three decades ago.  Now the Massachusetts “bottle bill” is in the news again, with a proposal to extend it to water bottles.  This 1981 legislation, originally conceived as a litter reduction measure (for which it works very well), requires deposits for bottles in which various drinks are sold (usually at least beer and soft drinks) redeemable from a merchant selling the same product (the right way) or at a recycling center (the wrong way, as California implemented it).  The political history of this policy is something of a mystery.  Back in the day, it was very controversial (I know because I wrote a supportive policy analysis for Massachusetts government when I worked there in the Environmental Affairs office;  in the end it was passed over the governor’s veto and I count as some sort of coup that I kept my job nevertheless) and gave me a bunch of memorable encounters with lobbyists and the like.

It was also complicated. My colleague Bob Leone warned me when I got embroiled with it that the bottle bill was much more complicated in fact, given the structure and technology of the beverage industry, than anyone on either side of the debate realized, and he was right.  It continues to puzzle me that ten states (CA,VT,NY,CT,MA,IA,MI,OR,ME,HI) have bottle bills (laws).  After this much experience, I would think it would be clear that it’s either a bad idea  or a good idea, but only one has repealed theirs (DE), and no new bottle bills have been enacted since the initial flurry. Also, I understand “VT but not NH”, but not “OR and CA but not WA”, nor “MI and IA but not WI or MN”.  Strange.

The MA proposal to cover water bottles is a fine idea, partly because water bottles are all over the place and just as litterous as beer cans, partly because bottled water, especially in places like Massachusetts with excellent tap water, is a thumb in the eye of poor Gaia in many ways.  Hauling it around, and the bottles themselves, are profoundly ungreen. We’ve finally managed to mostly drive it out of lunches and meetings at UC Berkeley and many other institutions, and right-thinking people are getting the idea, but something a lot like a tax on this wretched product is a policy winner and I wish the Bay State forces of light well in their enterprise.

Forget it, Jake—it’s Chinatown

China has a water problem. A BIG water problem. Are the media underestimating just how big it is because they live in wet places?

The New York times had an terrific story by Edward Wong yesterday on China’s hare-brained scheme to water the northern half of the country by building three huge canals from the southern half—in spite of what seem like insuperable problems involving pollution, population displacement, and the small fact that the South, too, has long faced a water shortage. China is pursuing the plan anyway because, in Wong’s blunt words, “Northern China is dying,” through chronic drought and Yellow River pollution so severe that its water is no longer potable.  Wong has another story today on how poorly-planned existing irrigation schemes in the South have already caused lakes to dry up and forced a whole city to ration running water to five hours a day.

This whole line of reporting seems neglected.  We hear a lot about “pollution” in China, which gives an impression of huge but essentially survivable (and reversible) problems like air made dirty by coal dust. But if government incompetence leads fresh water to disappear for hundreds of millions, that’s a whole different order of problem. No water, no human life (and certainly no continued economic growth).

I blame geography. If you grow up in California (or the West and Southwest generally), you hear one cliché after another about how water is everything. California history is largely the history of water; our mythology, a set of stories about the serious business of stealing acquiring water. When someone says “whiskey is for drinking” you’re primed to reply “water is for fighting over” (though Mark Twain may not have coined that). But if you live, as our cultural and political elites do, on the Eastern Seaboard, this is all abstract. From there, water no doubt seems to be by nature a minor, manageable problem. As a result, a long-brewing catastrophe seems new to them, and therefore to us.

Technology and environment

The great CFL debate is back!  And the Tea Party stalwarts, along with the always-entertaining Joe Barton, are plunging in to defend us from overweening governments that have the nerve to tell us which side of the road to drive on and what color taillights cars should have.

As usual, the lamp (lightbulb, in common speech) discussion is stuck on flicker, color, use with dimmers, and the helical shape of CFLs [what in the world is that one about?] (all of which have improved enormously as the industry learns and innovates) and misses some interesting dimensions.  The most important problem with low-energy alternatives to incandescent lamps is their low luminosity, the amount of light a square millimeter of surface emits.  This means a given number of lumens requires a relatively large object (think of the filament of a conventional incandescent, not the glass envelope).  That’s good when you don’t want harsh shadows, and you don’t have to conceal the lamp itself, but it makes the light very hard to control and direct.  An incandescent filament, for example, can be placed at the focus of a parabolic reflector to project a very well-behaved parallel beam of light that can be further directed where you want it and where you don’t, or at the focus of an ellipsoidal reflector that will put almost all the light through a very small opening at the other focus; lcd and CFL lamp output can only be more or less corralled into a fuzzy cone.  This rules them out for theatrical lighting and a variety of architectural/decorating uses where contrast and control are important. There is no CFL spotlight. Almost any application can use a halogen source, which is about 25% more efficient than a standard incandescent; not nearly as good as fluorescent or LED but not chopped liver. Continue reading “Technology and environment”

Classic Villaraigosan Environmental Policy

What was Antonio Villaraigosa doing with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson today at the Los Angeles River? Nothing, really: only claiming credit for doing nothing.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was in Los Angeles today, announcing an official EPA finding that Compton Creek, a portion of the Los Angeles River, is a “navigable water” of the United States.  This finding means that Compton Creek can receive the protection of the Clean Water Act: most prominently, it means that any attempts to fill it or otherwise degrade it must receive a Section 404 permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers.  It’s an important protection: a nice backgrounder is here.

And there was Villaraigosa, standing right next to Jackson.  The Mayor certainly made sure that everyone knew he would be there.  Earlier in the day, he sent out a press advisory heralded a “major announcement” with Jackson, and blogged about it (or had a staffer blog about it) on the Huff Po.

Great — except what precisely is he going to do about it?  Why is it relevant to the policy of the City of Los Angeles?

Well, the City could fork over some restoration money — unlikely in this budgetary environment.  Or it could do some serious organizing around the project.  Or the Mayor could personally do some fundraising for it.  Or he could ensure that every member of Congress that represents the area (all of them Democrats) could know about this project and support it.  Or a whole lot of things.

What we get is this:

Working with community partners and the federal government, we can make the LA river a place where Angelenos hike, picnic, swim, and fish together.

That’s it.  No action plans, no follow-through, nothing.

I think that Villaraigosa would be happy if the Los Angeles River was restored.  But what will he do?  Cue the crickets.

UPDATE: Commenter Joe Linton, whose blog should be required reading for anyone interested in these issues, corrects me, noting accurately that EPA didn’t find that Compton Creek was navigable.  Rather, it found that the whole Los Angeles River was navigable, which means that its tributaries, of which Compton Creek is one, also get federal protection.  That’s an important point, and I appreciate Joe making it.  It doesn’t save the Mayor, though.

Getting serious about water policy

We picked a bottle out of the bay a couple of weeks ago thinking we were just being good citizens, brought it home, and only just discovered it had a post rolled up in it from our water correspondent, Froude Reynolds:

Three former governors supporting Gov. Schwarzenegger’s call for a new water strategy for California in an LA Times Op-Ed. They describe the crisis first: more people live here as the climate gets drier; important infrastructure in the Delta is likely to collapse catastrophically. Yep. That’s a crisis. But the proposed solutions are not much of a strategy and represent no new thinking. The four prongs of this “new water strategy” are 1. build new plumbing around the Delta, 2. everyone conserves water by twenty percent, 3. get agencies in regions together to… do something regional, and 4. put some money behind new infrastructure. Those are decent short-term responses to more people, less water and breaking infrastructure, but they are not a strategy. They are reactive techniques applied well after the problems present themselves.

A strategy would be for us to decide what we want water to do for us. Water could do all sorts of things. Water can directly sustain our bodies. Water can grow plants to feed us and the nation or plants to look green outside our houses. Water can turn turbines. Water can provide salmon and trout places to live. Water can keep seawater out of our aquifers or keep the ground from subsiding. Water can dilute plumes of toxic chemicals. Water can carry s–t away from our houses. Water can brush dirt off your driveway. Water can wash silicon wafers. Water can look attractive in fountains. Water can be turned back to snow to ski on. Water in California can do whatever we decide to pay for. But that’s the thing. A real water strategy would mean that we make decisions, not that we cobble together techniques that will let us perpetuate for a few more years the very peculiar set of things that water happens to do for us now.

Leadership, Messrs. Three Former Governors and One Current Governor, would be considerably more than listing current problems and naming disjointed techniques to solve them Whack-A-Mole-style. Leadership would be setting up a process to choose what we want water to do (one that doesn’t have “more of the same” as the default answer) and then devising a route to get there. It may be that we want water to flow to its highest economic use, which would mean eliminating the institutional barriers to a water market. It may be that we want the cleanest water available for humans to drink and that we want water to give us food security, which would mean designating waters for those uses. Maybe we want water to host wildlife, which would not be a use well-served by a water market but instead require regulation. Maybe we want a mixture. Leadership would create a vision and a strategy would get you there. There was neither in that L.A. Times editorial, no matter what they title the op-ed or call their group.