Saturday, May 25, 2013

Water conservation more important than ever.

500 researchers assembled last week in Bonn, Germany for the Global Water System Project Conference, "Water in the Anthropocene” where they adopted recommendations focused on the “science, governance, and management of water resources.”
They warned that, in as little as two generations, and without global change, billions of people will face severe challenges accessing fresh water. The researchers called on participant nations to renew commitments to adopting multi-scale and interdisciplinary approaches to water science and to make use of recent cross-disciplinary studies of knowledge about fresh water.
Their declaration calls for institutions and cities to recognize the urgent need to train the next generation of water scientists and practitioners in global resource change research and management.
Beyond just access to technology the report urges researchers and officials to consider ecosystem-based alternatives to costly structural solutions for climate proofing. Design, they argue, should make use of the existing environment and include both traditional and green infrastructural improvements.
In order for any of these recommendations to succeed cities, states, and nations will need to stimulate innovation in their water institutions.
Solving the problem of clean water access will require a balance of technical solutions and political compromises that take heed of differing value systems and equity. They warn that a failure to adopt inclusive approaches will make it impossible to design globally effective green growth strategies or implement sustainable economic policies.
Fortunately Corvallis and city water management policy is already moving to be in line with many of the recommendations made by this report. One such project, done in conjunction with the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition, is the “Three Waters Project” at the South-Town First Alternative Co-Op.
Set to finish next month, the project is an ambitious plan that serves as a demonstration that “ businesses and residences can reduce tap water use, plus wastewater and stormwater discharge into municipal systems by 50% while maintaining current standards of living, health, and convenience.”
Given the exponential rise of cities around the world and the influx of once rural residents to urban areas, projects like this will be vital to ensuring adequate access to clean fresh water resources.  
In addition to projects like the this, the city is challenging residents to take the “shorter shower challenge”  and reduce their showers to just six minutes, down from the average of eight minutes. The average shower head sprays out an amazing 2.1 gallons a minute making an eight minute shower a 17 gallon affair.

By reducing showers to just six minutes and using low flow high pressure faucets Corvallis residents can reduce their personal water usage by thousands of gallons a year, which would result in tens of millions of gallons of water saved by the city collectively.
It is not just Corvallis residents and businesses that are working on water conservation. OSU strives as an institution to do its part to reduce the amount of water that it uses and to improve local water resources through aggressive stormwater management.
The university makes use of stone and vegetated swales to reduce debris in and flow of runoff, participates in rainwater collection & reuse, uses permeable hardscapes to reduce run-off, deploys filter and detention manholes, builds green roofs, and plants numerous rain gardens.
While Corvallis is at the forefront of sustainable water management there is more that can be done. The conference participants concluded that “stewardship requires balancing the needs of humankind and the needs of nature through the protection of ecosystems”. However, without a global design framework, they fear that fragmented decision-making and persistent maladaptive approaches to water management will merely make the situation worse.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

More people have cellphones than have access to running water.

Humanity is on the precipice of one of the most significant changes in our evolutionary history. For the first time ever, more than 95% of the worlds population has a cellphone and more than 40% of households have access to the internet. More people have access to a cell-phone than have access to running water, indoor plumbing, or consistent electricity.
While that might seem a simple thing, a cellphone and access to the internet, these two technologies are the most disruptive and empowering technologies since indoor plumbing and refrigerators. Think about just how much the Western world has changed since cellphones and the internet went mainstream. New words, communities, jobs, and services have made their way into mainstream society.
The same is true in the developing world, new jobs are being created in the very communities that need them.The desire for western electronics and access to the internet has already ready spurred market innovation. In rural India
charging Kiosks have sprung up in response to the demand for electricity for charging electronic devices, and for 15 Rupees, about 10 cents, an individual can get their device recharged.
image courtesy of Thrive Solar
In fact, according to the OECD 20% of the world’s population still lacks basic access to electricity, and yet many of these people have access to a cell-phone. The local desire and need for mobile technology is creating the demand that will drive development.
So while American’s might complain about multi-hundred dollar phone bills, billions of people are connecting, for the first time, to the global telecommunications network. People who never had running water, never had consistent electricity,don’t know how to read, and have never had a landline, are suddenly plugging into the 21st century.
Whole continents are leapfrogging legacy landlines and bypassing desktop computers in favor of mobile devices that enable them to start small businesses and create cooperative exchanges for trading their goods and services.
Cellphone Kiosk owner from the African city of Anam.

In fact, throughout the developing world, mobile broadband is cheaper than fixed broadband, despite prices dropping 82% over the last decade. So while their per bit prices are still higher than the prices paid by their Western counterparts, their societies are saving billions by not investing in legacy technology.
It is important to remember that for these people cellphones are more than just a way to twiddle away with their thumbs. The adoption of cellphones represents an existential change to the way they live their lives. Farmers, crafters, and artisans, many of whom are women supporting extended families, who have never traveled more than a few kilometers outside of their villages are suddenly networking with other small groups to exchanges goods, services, and information about potential threats from warlords and opportunities in regional and global markets.

Killing snails and slugs never tasted so your dog.

With June fast approaching local gardeners are gearing up for their yearly battle with the common garden pests, slugs and snails. The most common tool for combating these pests are

Researchers, from OSU, writing for the National Pesticide Information Center, recently released a meta-analysis looking at the previous 11 years of reporting on iron toxicosis in pets due to exposure to molluscicides and the results are heartening. Their intent was to determine whether or not EPA mandated warning labels had reduced incidents of canine exposure to toxic garden pesticides.

The EPA, in 2006, began requiring pesticide manufacturers to clearly label pesticides with metaldehydes in them because pets, dogs specifically, exposed to metaldehydes can experience severe muscle tremors, hyperthermia, and metabolic acidosis(renal failure).

Metaldehyde baits are attractive and toxic to more than just slugs and snails. Dogs,because of the addition of food byproducts like molasses, are also very attracted to these kinds of baits.  According to the researchers, “Dogs tend to eat all of the bait available, even digging to retrieve buried bait applications.”
In the analysis, the researchers found that 1,500 molluscicide animal exposures had been reported between 2001 and 2011, with the majority, 81%, coming from the West coast. Of these 1500 exposures, 1285 stemmed metaldehyde exposure and resulted in 35 canine deaths and 603 symptomatic events. The remaining 215 exposures were from iron phosphate exposure and resulted in no canine deaths and only 86 symptomatic events.

Because there is no antidote for metaldehyde poisoning the EPA and these researchers feel it is important that all gardeners who have dogs, or whose neighbors have dogs, be aware of the dangers of using metaldehydes and instead opt for alternative compounds for dealing with garden pests.  

Thankfully, gardeners appear to be getting the message. The researchers noted that there was an apparent increase in the number of exposures from 2001-2006, pre EPA mandate, and an apparent decrease subsequently. They attribute this to an  increasing usage of Iron-phosphate based alternatives.

So this year when you head to your local garden shop for slug and snail bait, make sure you reach for the Iron-phosphate based molluscicides instead of the metaldehydes. Your dogs and your community’s dogs will thank you.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Media Bias - You keep saying that but I don't think it means what you think

Claims of media bias and protestations about “liberal media bias” are old hat at this point. Politicians from across the political spectrum routinely fall back to the idea that their position would be more broadly accepted but for “media bias.”

Leaving aside semantical debates about what “bias” is or what “liberal” or “conservative” actually mean, whining about media bias is common amongst most politicos and ideologues, regardless of their political leanings.  Generally when claims of biased reporting are made, what the claimants actually mean is that media outlet in question is intentionally distorting the truth, in order to advance some “agenda.”  

In actuality, when claims of bias are made, what is generally occurring is that someone’s personal political bias is being challenged.

There are  dozens of different kinds of biases, from memory bias and anchoring bias to confirmation bias and familiarity bias. Humans are simply not particularly good at acting without some kind bias.  So yes, the media, being made up of fallible humans, is biased.

One of the most common and persistent forms of bias is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out information that confirms one’s existing worldview, while simultaneously ignoring information that challenges it.

All humans perceive the world through these biases, or lenses. Individuals acquire over the years, from their parents, friends, and communities, a system of beliefs, or a collection of biases, that anthropologists call “worldview.”

A worldview consists of all the personal truths, political truths, and beliefs that one has and uses to understand one’s place and function in the the world.

Worldviews, unsurprisingly, differ from person to person, are heritable, and have enough flexibility and overlap to allow for grouping. Hence nationalism and the partisan divide in this country between “liberals” and “conservatives.”

The Commuters resident Tea Party Conservative, Dale Hummel, recently published a piece on media bias in which he lamented the current state of political discourse in this country and made the bold claim that, “The lack of reporting on the Benghazi scandal, Fast and Furious, voter fraud, The Secret Service prostitution scandal, Solyndra, the lack of positive Tea Party and Second Amendment coverage are clear signs that most of the media have a clear bias and far from real journalism.”

Rather than being a series of examples of blatant media bias, this is an excellent example of ideology and confirmation bias, leading one to the spurious conclusion that most media is liberally biased.

The easiest way to illustrate this bias is with one of Dale’s claims: the lack of positive Tea Party and Second Amendment coverage being clear signs of bias and shoddy journalism.

This claim rests on two testable assumptions. First, that the preponderance of news media coverage concerning the Tea Party and the second amendment is “negative,” and second, that the preponderance of news media, in general, espoused said view. This is demonstrably untrue.

According to reports at Mediaite on  Nielsen, a television ratings company, media research, “FNC ranked fifth in all of cable during January, behind only ESPN, USA, History and TBS (CNN and MSNBC ranked 23rd and 27th respectively).” The rest of the news networks don’t even place in the top 100 networks watched.

Simply put, Fox’s News coverage is, by definition, the mainstream coverage, as the most individuals who watch cable news watch it on a Fox network.

Given that Fox aggressively promoted Tea Party events, and even let one of their hosts, Glenn Beck, lead a Tea Party event, it is hard to accept the premise that some kind of “liberal media bias” has been occluding the Tea Parties true virtues.  

Dale’s claim perfectly illustrates confirmation bias; for him, and many other Tea Partiers, that their own media outlets are dominant doesn’t affect their reasoning. To them, “the media” is against them, against their beliefs, and are biased.

Rather than being an oppressed minority, the Tea Party has received a tremendous amount of coverage, in no small part because of the National Tea Party patriots relationship with FNC.

They received so much coverage, that despite being a particularly small minority (50% of the Republican party at it’s height), they were able to derail the national conversation about the economy onto whether or not Barack Obama was a citizen.

If there were some kind of systemic liberal media bias it seems that their claims about his heritage would never have seen the light of day.

Dale’s further claims, about a lack of reporting on Benghazi and Solyndra are also examples of confirmation bias. One can quite easily find several articles on the NYT and WaPo, so called liberal institutions, lambasting the administration for their flat-footed response to the Libyan attacks. This alone undermines his entire argument about systemic liberal bias.

One can also find articles, from several different news sources, detailing how Solyndra was a poor investment choice. In fact, every single example that Dale points to as being an example of shoddy journalism, is merely an example of a news agency not agreeing with Dale’s political positions on specific issues.

Solyndra for example - yes, it was a bad investment, but it was an investment made along with several other investments, of which most have returned profits to the administration. It begs the question of why some insist on focusing on just one of the high risk investments, instead of looking at the total package of investments made.

The point here is that there is more than one way of viewing a story. One view may be that government was engaged in crony capitalism to enrich political allies, another view is that the administration was engaged in something called “venture capitalism,” a notoriously high risk/reward investment strategy.

That the bulk of the investments made by the administration in the green energy have panned out doesn’t seem to matter to the Tea Party. All that seems to matter is that one out of dozens failed.

The Fast and the Furious example is yet another story that has more than one view. Simply not believing in the Tea Party version is not an example of intentional bias, but rather is an example of differing political viewpoints.

It is completely possible, even reasonable, that the attempt by the Justice Department to curtail cartel purchases of firearms through sting operations, as are done in cities across the nation, was merely mishandled instead of being some kind of conspiracy.

All of which isn’t to say that explicit media bias doesn’t exist, but rather that most bias is of the incompetent or implicit kind, rather than the nefarious kind.

In fact, just this week Jon Stewart, a card carrying member of the “liberal elite”, took Obama to task over the IRS scandal and the DOJ appropriating AP phone logs. Stewart could have whitewashed, or even ignored these events, but instead he treated them just as he treats all political shenanigans, with wit and sarcasm. His bias towards using comedy as a means for illustration was in full view, but what wasn’t in view was some kind of political bias or secret agenda to support the president.

When individuals watch ostensibly partisan sources like Fox or MSNBC, according to research by FDU political scientist Dan Cassino, results show “Ideological news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, are really just talking to one audience. This is solid evidence that if you’re not in that audience, you’re not going to get anything out of watching them.”

Basically, if you are mostly watching, listening, or reading from ostensibly partisan outlets, everything else is going to be appear to be biased. This “ideological anchoring” is what causes individuals to believe that there is widespread media bias, when in point of fact what there is, is, widespread differences of political opinion amongst the media.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Will the EU ban matter?

Bee drinking photographed by Jo Naylor

It is no secret that over the past fifteen years bee populations across the world have dramatically declined. Hive populations are at fifty year lows in North America alone.  Entomologists and beekeepers have taken to calling this decline, “Colony collapse disorder” (CCD). Everything from errant cell phone signals, pulsing power lines, and stress from factory farming has been investigated as a potential cause for the disorder.
Neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been commonly used against agricultural pests like aphids and whiteflies, in crops like maize, rapeseed, and sunflowers have also long been suspected to be involved in declining bee populations.
Dying bees photographed by Danny Jensen

Recently the E.U Food and Safety Authority ruled that three of these neonicotinoid pesticides, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam, will be, after December 1, 2013 for 2 years, restricted from use as soil(granular) or foliar treatments on bee attractive plants and cereals.
Neonicotinoid molecule from Patent

The limited ban will still permit the use of these pesticides as a seed coating treatment where “the seed coating is performed in professional seed treatment facilities, which must apply the best available techniques in storage and transport, and where adequate drilling equipment is used to ensure a high degree of incorporation in soil.”
The partial ban is in response to the probable connection between the use of these pesticides and CCD. EU regulators believe that these particular neonicotinoid pesticides are accumulating in dust, leaching into flower nectar, and generally being ingested in potentially lethal doses by pollinating insects like honey and bumble bees.
Because larvae, and future queens, feed on regurgitated nectar, colonies of bees may be collapsing due to starvation when pollinators, weakened by nicotine laced nectar, never return.While fewer workers alone might not cause colonies to collapse, it is thought that the stress increases hive sensitivity to shocks from other pathogens, fungi, and climatic changes.

Photo by Maja Dumat

However, according an assessment from the UK Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, excluding rare extreme neonicotinoid exposures, deleterious effects from neonicotinoid exposure do not occur under normal circumstances. Additionally the UK rebuttal asserts that laboratory based studies demonstrating sub-lethal effects from exposure to neonicotinoids, do not replicate normative or realistic conditions, rather the studies observe the effects of rare and extreme exposure scenarios.
On top of UK and German resistance, US Regulators at the EPA recently approved for use Sulfoxaflor, a “fourth generation neonicotinoid”, all of which puts competitive pressure on European farmers.
Rapeseed farmers have already begun to raise alarm bells at potential crop losses in the upcoming seasons as neonicotinoids are the preferred and most effective means for dealing with pests. Photo by Martijn Nijenhuis
While all groups urged additional research into the causes of CCD and solutions to declining bee populations, beekeepers in Europe and here in the United States continue to lobby environmental protection agencies to limit pesticide use. They stress that any risk to pollinators is a risk that must be taken seriously, regardless of the economic consequences. Without the efficiency provided by insect pollinators, most of the world’s food supply is at risk of being made too expensive for the average person they argue.