Saturday, February 28, 2009

Personal comments on ecosystem services

From Aguanomics:

Discuss the possibility of monetizing the value of the environment, i.e., ecosystem services

One thing that I feel needs to be included in an analysis of ecosystem services is the issue of existence value, and without trying to sound like I'm setting up a strawman argument, I think this sets up a situation that I don't think is suitable to economics.

What is the existence value of human life? What is the existence value of a blue whale or even a fire ant? What is the existence value of those individuals compared to each other? Would you say the blue whale is worth less than the human since it does not produce goods and services to others? Could economics turn the question on its head and ask if the blue whale is not more valuable than the human, since the human's impact upon the resources of the blue whale are greater than the other way around?

How can any of this this be equally calculated while taking into account the fact that members in an ecosystem (including humans) work upon each other? The cards are stacked on the sides of favoring humans, since economics -- not to mention law, governance, etc -- is geared toward the benefit toward humans (and because of our biological perspective as humans).

What is the benefit of any human conscious action for an ecosystem? Taken from the point-of-view of economics, an ecosystem has no needs other than existence. An ecosystem is always operating at 100%. If you change something in an ecosystem so that it is producing more of some product, then that ecosystem is still operating at 100%, but as a different ecosystem than previously. The fact that there is a measurable difference is of significance to us, but not to that of the ecosystem.

The concept of "ecosystem services", however, is that we can measure benefits to us from the ecosystem. Looking at benefits to us is still working within the paradigm of how ecosystems benefit humans, not how humans benefit ecosystems. Trying to figure out how to conduct an exchange between ecosystems and humans (which we could well argue are key drivers of ecosystem change) would be more useful, imho, than discussing the topic of "ecosystem services", which is ultimately a discussion of determining how ecosystems are of greater or lesser benefit to us.

Even if we use the arguement that measuring ecosystem services is a good method of determining conservation agendas, it ultimately embraces the concept of not paying the ecosystem for its services (again, unless I am wildly mistaken).

Am I making an argument that we should not cause impacts to nature? Well, I think that no matter what we do, we make impacts. I think, though, that before we take a view of "ecosystem services" as a general benefit to humans that we look at ameliorating "human costs" to ecosystems and figure a way of paying for them, either through improving efficiency, decreasing population, or both.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Comment on a comment

I was reading the Detroit Free Press this morning and saw this:

Stimulus joke

What a joke, this stimulus package of Obama's. It amounts to $400 per person -- a person who has been working all year and providing something to our economy. What is $400 in today's economy?
Jere Olson
Okay so Jere is thinking this whole thing is pointless, but what the heck is that dollar-figure from? $400/person? He can't be doing straight math here, because:

$787,000,000,000/303,824,640 people = $2590/person.

So we know that he's not doing straight division (plus, doing a straight division based on all people in the US is a very conservative number, since I assume that the population figure includes minors who are unlikely to be employed in this stimulus package). However, looking at the stimulus plan, I can't figure out where Jere's getting to his $400/person figure.

This guy seriously needs some simple algebra, or he needs to be a little more specific on how he reached his number.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Role of government in science.

I was thinking about this for a while before Obama made that statement of putting science in its rightful place during his inauguration. Since that time, Scienceblogs has been abuzz with contributors writing about what (exactly) is the "rightful place of science"? I've been keeping track of some of these discussions, but since they are written mainly by scientists, I think there is a bit of a bias... (Note: I am of a science background, I still do science, but I also investigate policy. Thus the wierdness of the hats displayed in this blog.)

Anywho... I've been keeping a greater interest in the back-and-forth presented on The Questionable Authority. Today, there was another response-post on this topic. It got me into the writing mood, and I made a response. All of it was off-the-cuff, but I think that one of the major points that both Dunford and Sandefur don't discuss at length (maybe I missed it in other exchanges) is the environment as a public good. So I decided to respond.

You also don't describe those things that are otherwise listed as "externalities" of concern by business. Things like public goods or club goods.
For example, air and water quality affect many people, but the pollution of it is also caused by many people. (You could also argue that the people affected create a feedback loop of creating more pollutant because the want to buy stuff, the manufacture of which causes pollution.) However, there are two problems with air quality (or water quality) versus profit.

1) Air quality is a public good that is not (or not completely) considered in the course of business. These are costs that are spread out among the public, that are effectively paid by no one and suffered from by everyone.
2) Shifting baselines. (I don't mean the SciBlog.) People's memories are not good at remembering what things were like a long time ago, and completely fail at remembering what things were like before they were born, even when it is described to them.

Pollution of large public-goods like air and (large bodies of) water mean that changes occur slower than the ability of the human brain to acknowledge on its own (reducing us to use numbers and graphs to show long-term trends, and we all know where that argument can lead to -- just look at the AGW 'debates'). Therefore, one cannot bring a free market argument against industry on long-term incremental negative changes without an infusion of funding of science.
Incorporating the externalized factors of pollution is not something that is popular for business to do, especially if the subject is not shown to have 'serious scientific consensus' or if people don't see it as clearly as the nose on their face (again, look at the issue of AGW -- or cigarettes).

Furthermore, the first company to change to incorporate higher production costs relative to its competitors will likely be the first one to have the highest financial burden of shifting, and not likely to increase the loyalty of its purchasers (at least not until the reason for the switch becomes highly accepted in society -- again, look at shifts to CFLs and how it's framed in the AGW vs. energy efficiency meme). Due to this high cost burden of shifting (not to mention the need to change or upgrade manufacturing or training infrastructure), companies are likely going to put off the option until the option to change is better than the option of not changing (not the many reasons given for the failure of the US's Big Three).

On the other hand, governmental science can be used to help protect the access and quality of public goods, such as air quality and water quality. After all, there is little incentive for private industry to maximize public goods, unless they are allowed a monopoly on them and required to minimize profits. Then they become only slightly more expensive than the government, but still aching to change toward higher profit-margins (see how Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan has been moving from non-profit to for-profit over the past couple years).

Of course, one could well argue that one job of government is to protect public goods from destruction or decimation. However, entrusting the management of public goods to a government that has few checks, balances, or oversight means that we can get things like China's "Blue Skies" indexes, or Bush 43's forest 'management' and air pollution [non]reduction measures.

Winston Churchill said something about democracy being the worst form of government (save for all the others). I would say that government is the worst form of company to manage public goods (save for all the others). There's my 2 pennies. Now I'll stick this on my own blog. :)

Monday, February 16, 2009

"It" refers to single objects (that can be implied)

A student today noted that when he took English language classes in Korea, he was told that the word "it" can only refer to a singular object, and not a clause in a sentence. My initial reaction was, "No, 'it' can be used to refer to a clause in a sentence, because I just used 'it' right there to refer to the preceding clause." Then I thought about it some more, and came to this realization:

If a clause or sentence can be simplified to a description that is a single thing, then that thing can be referred to as "it." Take the following example:

"The invading army was pouring through the mountain pass, swords waving menacingly above the distorted faces of the screaming soldiers."

This sentence can be simplified to the simpler phrase:

"Screaming, sword-waving invading soldiers charged through the mountain pass."

Here, the importance to detail is omitted in favor of a less-colorful description of "just the facts." However, this is not the single item we were looking for. However, this simplified sentence can be altered thusly:

"We were being invaded via the mountain pass."

In this modification, the details of "screaming", "sword-waving", and "charging" are removed, to describe the implication of what those omitted words mean. However, this is not yet that single item we are seeking. We will change it once more:

"The invasion."

Now we refer to the whole action's implication as one "thing". Therefore, we can refer to "the invasion" as "it." Voila! Now we can realize why the following two sentences are not disconinuous with one another.

"The invading army was pouring through the mountain pass, swords waving menacingly above the distorted faces of the screaming soldiers. It was not a good way of launching his first day as General of the Sun Legion, but Randolph Wimplebottom the 17th felt that he was given an opportunity to prove his valor."

Monday, February 09, 2009

Ford USA moves forward by reaching into the past of Ford Europe

From the Detroit News:
The first European product in Ford Motor Co.'s lineup to reach American shores could change the way some companies do business.
The 2010 Ford Transit Connect is versatile, has average fuel economy in the 20-mpg range, and a starting price of $21,475.
Derrick Kuzak, Ford's vice president of global product development, said the Transit Connect will achieve 40 percent better fuel economy over the company's full size E-Series van.
They go on to further quote Kuzak as saying, "One way to maintain leadership is to take our product in a whole new direction". A "whole new direction" is achieved by building a vehicle that they have been making in Europe for over 40 years? Okay, so the first generation of the Ford Transit looked more like a VW van, but they first rolled of the assembly line in 1961 in Koln, Germany, and was the Ford version of a previous van that started production in 1953!!!

Okay, so the current model of the Ford Transit - the one that Ford USA is unveiling in Chicago - is more akin to the 7th generation of the vehicle (which has been in production since 2006, and - at least in terms of body shape - not significantly different from the 4th generation that started production in 1986).

So what is a Ford Transit, for all of you dear readers not living/have lived in Europe? Well, a Ford Transit van is a cunning piece of engineering: take a car engine, stick it in a vehicle body that is (from the top) basically a box that fits perfectly the dimensions of a lane of traffic. Make the front-end somewhat aero-dynamic (i.e., give it a slant-angle), the cargo area as roomy as possible, and able to handle the most commonly used size of building materials (i.e., 4x8 sheets of plywood, 2x4x8 lumber). There you go: you have the basic concept of a Ford Transit.

Will this vehicle do well on dirt roads? No.
Will this vehicle go well on an obstable course? No.
Will this vehicle be able to haul large loads? No.

What is this good for, then? Well, it gets much better mileage than a vehicle built on a truck engine, since it need all that extra horsepower. It is optimized for working in cities, where its size is perfect for maximizing hauling capacity without sacrificing drivability. It's been used by everyone from bands hauling equipment between gigs to small businesses making lots of deliveries to using it as a getaway vehicle to police using it for various purposes. However, if you are a trained racing driver, you can really do some performance things with this puppy!

Yay to Ford USA, finally racing forward by trying to catch up to its European branch! Maybe they will finally introduce the Ford KA to this country, soon, too. (After all, what can Ford do to compete against the Mini and the Smart?)

Addendum: I mixed up my vans, apparently. Ford USA is going to start production of the Ford Transit Connect (not to be confused with the Ford Transit). Sorry. The FTC is a smaller vehicle that began production in 2002. Still, though, Ford USA is reaching into the ingenuity bag of another international division to make itself better on the home-front. (And I thought that this sort of thing was supposed to happen more quickly.)

True, the US version is going to be all electric, but it doesn't really change the crux of my argument.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Living in the woods

Now that I live in a small cabin in the woods, I have a new appreciation for several things that I didn't realize that I took for granted.

I now live roughly 4 miles to the central campus of the University of Michigan. That means a 20-minute bike ride through ice-and-snow covered woody trails to the road, and then down the long slope to downtown, up the other side of the valley of the under-grounded river, and along the boulevard to the university campus. (It's a 40-minute bike ride back home). Oh, and there's minimal street-lighting for the mile near the woods, making night-time riding "fun and interesting".

This means that I have to adjust my lifestyle a little bit. First off, if I realize that I have forgotten something after I hit mile two, I'm not going back for it. Second, the importance of being seen by cars is very high, so I purchased some Blackburn Fleas - really bright rear and front flashing lights. Third, since I don't have a motor-vehicle (and no laundry facilities in-home), I bring my laundry in to drop it off to get washed and folded near campus. Fourth, since I have a large stores on my way home, I can easily make small detour trips to get stuff without having a need to make one huge trip on a weekend.

The plus side of cycling 8 miles a day is that I have started shedding poundage.

Heat. The cottage in which I live is probably close to 100 years in age, and isn't much bigger than a large studio apartment (but it has a loft). One problem, though, is that the windows are old wooden-framed things that really could do with an upgrade to double-glazing that actually closes all the way. Additionally, there is no duct-work in the place, and with a chimney that doesn't draw very well on one end of the room, and a gas furnace with no distribution system on the other end, I find myself constantly thinking about warmth. (Not in the yearning-for-it sense, but more in the it's-in-the-back-of-my-mind sense.) Walking around nekkid during the winter time isn't really an option - if I want to stay warm, that is.

In-door Plumbing. Yes. I have an outhouse. The trek out there at night can be annoying, especially during winter. Luckily, the outhouse does have a space-heater and a light, meaning that cold dark nights are less cold and dark inside the outhouse. I do have an indoor shower and running water in my sink, though. So showering and cleaning dishes isn't that difficult. Still, no laundry, and no dishwasher (not that I need the latter).

Solitude. Being alone in the woods is nice. Really nice. So nice that you really can get quite annoyed when people come traipsing along like it's some sort of public park. True, the public are allowed to walk around in the woods, but it isn't a park. Nor is it their personal place to have their dogs run around off their leashes. (Some people are really. Really. Annoying.)

Cycling. Ask me a year ago if I thought that living 4 miles out of town was a great idea, I would likely have told you that I wasn't for it. However, ask me if I wanted to be a caretaker of a university property 4 miles out of town, I probably would have said yes even then. Especially since I purchased my bike, the commute into town has been not-that-bad (recall, too, that I've only been cycling that route since the end of January, and we've had plenty of sub-zero Fahrenheit weather). The only thing that I wish I really had was some footwear that would keep my toes warm while riding through near-zero (Fahrenheit) temperatures.

Walking directions on Google.

So... Google Maps has these two new tabs for helping people find directions from A to B (and/or C, D, etc.): by car, by public transit, and walking. The public transit option doesn't work in all locations, since public transportation might not be available, or they haven't organized with Google to have their schedule and routes online. However, the walking option works ... in most cases (remembering, that it is trying to optimize one's trip for time, not distance). I just asked it to give me walking directions from St. Andrews, UK to London, UK, and it told me to take a ferry from Rosyth in Dunfermline & West Fife (aka, Fife, Scotland) to Zeebrugge (Belgium), walk a few miles, and then take another ferry from Oostende (Belgium) to Ramsgate in Kent (England)!