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Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Population Problem: Not as Bad as You Might Think

The Essentials
First the good news: great progress has already been made! It turns out women around the world are on board with zero population growth! It turns out zero population growth is not all that difficult or expensive to achieve! The bad news: the people with wealth and power in the world are largely uninterested in funding it.

Ok, let’s back up. The rapid expansion of human population past the finite limits of what our planet can support is a messy business if there ever was one, full of politics, religion, and basic human needs and desires. People worried about the fate of the planet like to despair about population growth to the point of paralysis. Why lift a finger to avert the climate and energy-depletion disaster ahead of us when overpopulation will do us in however much we insulate our homes, change out our light bulbs, ride our bikes, etc.

But the situation is not nearly so hopeless. Of the 224 countries in the world, the population growth rate is negative in 34 of them, including Cuba, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine.  These countries are not small potatoes. Russia and Japan are the ninth and tenth biggest countries in the world. (Note: population figures and most other data in this blogpost are from the CIA World Factbook, much of it recently updated for 2016.)

Let’s examine the essential drivers of world population growth: births per woman, mother’s mean age at first birth, and mean life expectancy.

Births per woman. Here’s the good news. This number has been dropping worldwide, falling from 5 in 1960 to 2.42 in 2016. In developed countries, the replacement fertility rate is generally considered to be 2.1 births per woman. (This accounts for those children who, through disease or accidents, do not reach reproductive age.) In very poor countries, the replacement fertility rate can be much higher. More good news: in a study of 40 countries, fertility rates between 1.5 and 2.0 are shown to generally bring economic benefits that lead to a higher standard of living.

Births per woman by country (green good; blue better!)
Births per woman in the US is now at 1.87, well below the replacement rate. But this number is actually high for a developed country. Out of the 224 countries in the world, 82 have lower fertility rates than the US, including developing countries such as Vietnam, Iran, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, China, Thailand, and Cuba. Across the entire world, 136 countries are below 2.1 replacement rate fertility. That leaves just 88 countries to worry about.

I find the 80/20 rule useful in dividing big problems into smaller ones. In this case, 80% of the world’s population resides in the 34 most populous countries. Of these 34, eighteen countries already have fertility rates below the replacement rate of 2.1 (Brazil, China, Columbia, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Japan, Poland, South Korea, Russia, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam.) No need to worry about these countries.

Bangladeshi feat (photo: Mark Edwards)
Of the sixteen that remain, six countries have made great strides and are very close to the replacement fertility rate (and may already be below their own replacement fertility rate): Argentina (2.28), Bangladesh (2.19) Indonesia (2.13), Mexico (2.25), Myanmar (2.15), and South Africa (2.31).  Birth control use is widespread in these countries, from 46% (Myanmar) to 72% (Mexico). These countries are likely to trend below 2.1 by 2020 or sooner. A special shout out to Bangladesh where a large percentage of the country lives on less than $2 a day. Their achievement in reducing their fertility rate has been so remarkable that they should probably be the ones now training everyone else how to do it.

That leaves ten countries to worry about. Of these, six have cut their fertility rate by at least half over the past 50 years: Algeria (2.74), Kenya (3.14) India (2.45), Pakistan (2.68), Egypt (3.53) and the Philippines (3.06).  These countries could still use encouragement and financial support but they are not where the biggest part of the problem lies.

That leaves just four countries that need heavy-duty work on the fertility rate front: Tanzania (4.83 births per woman), Nigeria (5.13), Ethiopia (5.07), Congo DR (4.53). It’s not that these countries have made no improvements; they used to range from 6 to 7 births per woman. It’s just that they still have a long way to go. But worrying about four countries is much, much easier than worrying about 224. These four nations comprise 422 million people. Even within these countries there are bright spots. For example, in Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, the fertility rate is already below population replacement levels.

Early Birth Control Clinic
The task of reining in the fertility rate in these four countries seems daunting. Indeed, for decades many have insisted there was nothing to be done about over population because women would always have as many babies as they could. It turns out, however, that when given education and access to voluntary contraception, women all over the world--of all races, of all religions, on all continents--choose to have small families. Indeed, some women choose to have no children at all. This is how birthrates have fallen all over the world, even in Islamic countries like Turkey, Iran, and Bangladesh, even in Catholic countries like Poland, Mexico and Brazil. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise since pregnancy and childbirth are no cakewalk; in fact, in some parts of the world both are quite dangerous. And women have long known that it’s easier to successfully raise children to adulthood the fewer one has to tend. In any event, the fact that, when given a choice, women prefer small families is great, great, stupendous news. If women didn’t have a natural predilection for small families, if we had to fight against women’s innate desires to avoid calamity, the world would indeed be in trouble. The true problem we face is that in developing countries 225 million women want to delay or stop childbearing but are uninformed about effective contraception or lack access to it.

Again, so we’re clear:

Education + Contraception + Women’s Innate Preference for Small Families = Low Fertility Rate.


What about men, you might ask? Don’t they matter to population growth rates? If men stopped having sex with women altogether, they might, but this appears to be against the innate preference of most of them. When men use birth control or are sterilized they matter to population control, but male sterilization is a hard sell worldwide, and male condoms, while cheap and better than nothing, have a high failure rate. Where men really count is insofar as they prevent women from getting educated or keep them from access to reliable forms birth control. This is not to say boys and men shouldn’t be educated. This is not to say it wouldn’t be helpful if men wanted small families, too. This is not to say it wouldn’t be great if we could come up with some kind of long-acting reversible form of birth control for men. But right now, it’s women and girls who impact fertility rates and population growth in a big way.

Now you might think this can’t be, that low fertility rates are an outcome of wealth not education. Women in poor countries have lots of children; women in rich countries don’t. But this ain’t necessarily so, as we can see when we plot the data from our 34 most populous countries:

Births/Woman vs GDP/Capita

High GDP/capita countries have low fertility rates, but so do lots of low GDP/capita countries. What is predictive of fertility is women’s education, especially literacy.

Births/Woman vs. Female Literacy Rate


Educate girls and young women, births per woman go down.
Notice a pattern? (UN data 2000)


Mean Age at First Birth. Why is this important? Imagine a cohort of ten women. If each them has a daughter at age 20 and a son at age 22, and if all their daughters do exactly the same, at the end of 102 years, 120 new human beings would result, with the last set of sons born in year 102. Now let’s imagine this same cohort, but change the women’s age at their children’s births to 25 and 27. At the end of 102 years, 100 new human beings would result, with the last set of sons born in year 102. A twenty percent difference! So you can see, spacing out the generations results in a substantial reduction in population growth.

For our 34 highest population countries, the mean age at first birth ranges from 18 to 30.3. What promotes a higher mean age at first birth? Well the number of years girls spend in school seems to correlate.

Years at School vs. Mean Age at First Birth

If we want to raise mean age at first birth, it’s also a good idea to reduce the teen birth rate. This usually involves a combination of keeping girls in school and giving teens access to contraception. In developing countries, the average cost to educate a child for a year of lower secondary school with reasonable class size is $339. The average cost to educate a child for a year of upper secondary school with reasonable class size is $738. (It turns out children all over the world learn little when there are fifty kids per teacher.) Thirteen years of education for a child is roughly $5420, which comes out to $417/year. The cost to provide a woman with contraception in a developing country runs roughly $18/year. So let’s say 13 years of education and 15 years of contraception. Total lifetime cost: $5690.

Technology that matters
Out of the 422 million people in these four nations most in need, roughly half are women, or 211 million. All these countries skew young with a median age of 18 – 19. This puts the number of girls in these five countries between the ages of 5 and 18 around 76 million. Right now roughly half of these girls don’t go to school at all. The cost to educate all 76 million of these girls for one year would be $31 billion. The cost to provide one year of contraception for 80% of the 90 million women between the ages of 15 and 30 in these five countries is $1.3 billion. So $32.3 billion a year for the next ten years is what is needed to get the world’s population growth problem under control.

$32.3 billion a year. This may seem like a lot, but it’s really not. It’s just .04% of the world’s annual GDP. No, the decimal point is not wrong. The cost to make significant headway on over population is just 4/100ths of a percent of the world’s annual income. Heck, it’s less than 2/10ths of a percent of US GDP. The US plans to spend $26.2 billion in foreign humanitarian and military aid in 2017, but 29% will go to just five countries: Israel ($3.1 B), Egypt ($1.46 B), Afghanistan ($1.25 B), Jordan ($1 B), and Pakistan ($.74 B). The African four that need the most help will receive only $2 billion in total, less than Israel will receive alone.

Excellent investment
In 2015, the US spent $598.5 billion on its military. If we took roughly 6% of that and applied it to girls’ education and women’s contraception in these four desperately poor African countries annually, we would turn around the gnarliest part of the world’s population problem in short order.

Let’s look at it another way. If the 967 million citizens of twenty very rich countries (New Zealand, Norway, Australia, Switzerland, US, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Canada, Belgium, France, UK, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Italy and Spain) kicked in just $34 per citizen a year, cataclysmic disaster for all of humanity could be averted. That’s nine lattes at Starbucks.

Education + contraception. It’s not brain surgery; it’s not pie-in-the-sky geo-engineering. It’s cheap, it’s low tech, it works.

Now let’s examine mean life expectancy. This is the factor that has been masking both the drop in fertility rates and the rise in mean age at first birth in countries all over the world. As people live longer they increase the population. For example, imagine an island where one person is magically born each year. If each person lives seventy years, at year 70 this population would reach steady state, where one person would be born for every person that dies. If each lives for 75 years, then the steady state population would be reached at year 75 with 75 people. So as the median lifespan inches up, it causes population growth. But the growth is not geometric like fertility rate growth is, and it won’t continue forever. As countries progress, lifespans increase rapidly, but then they reach a plateau, after which increases happen slowly, if at all. In addition, countries that reach longer lifespans tend to do so concurrently with the education of women and higher mean age at first birth. This means, remarkably, that the countries on the planet with the longest of lifespans also have well below replacement fertility birthrates. Eventually the deaths in that country will exceed births, and population will decline. Which is what we see happening in Japan and Germany today.

What is the carrying capacity of Earth? I’ve seen lots of numbers, but let’s imagine a relatively pleasant planet with adequate room for other species to exist (beyond zoos), where every single person alive enjoys the advanced standard of living of, say, the average Swiss citizen today. The ecological footprint of the average Swiss is 5.8 hectares. The biocapacity of the planet to support human life is equal to roughly 12 billion hectares. (This includes all biologically productive land and water that supports significant photosynthetic activity.) Figure at least a third of that should be set aside for other species. But also figure humanity will put its collective mind to the task and outdo even Swiss efficiency and ingenuity to get that footprint down to 3 hectares per person with still a Swiss standard of living. That would imply that the planet can support about 2.7 billion human beings sustainably in a fairly nice fashion. Everyone eats well, everyone gets lovely health care and education, everyone born can expect to live to the grand old age of 83. And we all live lightly enough on the planet that it can repair and replenish itself and provide for humanity indefinitely. Sound good? But how do we drop down to 2.7 billion people without mass suffering and pain?

You guessed it. Through worldwide education of girls and providing contraception to women. Increasing the mean age of first birth worldwide to age 25 will balance out the rise in lifespans. At the same time, the reduction in fertility rate worldwide, to just under the replacement rate, will give us a 1% per year population decrease. Imagine that for every hundred people who die, ninety-nine come into the world. The incremental difference would be small, but it would add up.

So say we stop being shortsighted and stupidly cheap. Say we manage to stabilize world population at 8 billion. And then, through voluntary birth control and education of girls, we start decreasing population by a mere 1% a year. Nothing traumatic, nothing humanity couldn’t take in its stride. (Yes, we’d need a new non-growth based economic system, but we’re going to need that anyway.) In just twenty years, we’d be down to 6.5 billion. In fifty years we’d be down to 4.8 billion. And in 108 years, we’d achieve 2.7 billion on a healthy planet, with plenty of food, clean water and a high standard of living for all. How we get there is by educating girls and providing contraception to women, something that we already know how to do and that doesn’t cost much.

What can I do, you might say, besides encourage my government to immediately start spending money on education and contraception in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Lots of things.

 1)   Put some space between generations. Don’t have children before the age of 25. Don’t be    in a hurry for grandchildren. Encourage your daughters to stay in school and make sure they have access to the very convenient forms of long-acting reversible birth control available these days. Spread the word that age 25 is plenty early to become a parent.
 2)   Support sex education and contraception for teens. Yes, no one likes teens having sex except the teens themselves, but preventing teen pregnancy is paramount. Long-acting, reversible contraceptives are also the best way to prevent abortions.
 3)   Donate money to girls’ education efforts in Africa via organizations such as Camfed, Share in Africa, or Enhance Worldwide.
 4)   If you don’t want children, don’t have them! Don’t let anybody guilt-trip you into them. If you want just one kid, that’s fine! Only children do very well in life, often better than children with siblings. If you do decide to become a parent, be a very good one.
 5)   Never shame or guilt-trip anyone into having children. Never imply it’s selfish not to have children; never imply that it’s sad or tragic. Not everyone is called to be a parent, and that’s a good thing. And some people who have children would be far better off if they hadn’t.
 6)  Don’t boo hoo or forecast doom when a nation has negative population growth. Celebrate! They are doing the world a favor.
 7)   Don’t focus on immigration. We are all on this planet together. The point is to reduce the number of births wherever they happen. We shouldn’t be building walls, we should be educating girls and providing women with contraception. (If you’re an American worried about Mexico, consider contributing to an organization such as Mariposas Mexico that supports the education and development of young women in rural Mexico.)
 8)  Ensure your country offers enough support to the elderly so that children aren’t essential to old-age survival.
 9)   Support dog parks in your town/city. This may seem crazy, but it isn’t. Many people have pets instead of children. This choice should be honored and supported.
 10)Advocate for making long-acting, reversible contraception and voluntary sterilization free or nearly free in your country. Support organizations that offer free or nearly free long-acting, reversible contraception and voluntary sterilization.
 11)Treat the children in your community like the wonderful, precious beings they are. Help them grow up to be joyous, secure, principled adults who will create and then prosper in the harmonious, equitable future they will inhabit.

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Renewable Energy Future Is Here--It's Just Unevenly Distributed

Renewable Monsters
Electricity production data is out from the US Energy Information Agency for the first half of 2016. Nation-wide, renewables (including distributed solar but not hydro) accounted for 10.2% of electricity sales, up from 8.4% the first half of 2015. The increase in renewables nationally is making headlines, but it’s even more instructive to drill down to the state level where we find some states are making phenomenal headway, and others are making none at all.

I like to look at renewables as a percent of electricity consumed rather than generated, because if a state generates little of its own power, it may still be responsible for ginormous carbon emissions that it’s simply shoved on to someone else. On the flip side, some states are already meeting a high percentage of their electricity needs via renewables, a fact masked by the large amounts of electricity they generate for export to other states. In addition, locally-produced power means lower transmissions losses, reducing the amount of electricity needed to be generated in the first place.

So, let’s dive in. First we’ll evaluate non-hydro renewable electricity production, including distributed solar, as a percent of total consumption for the first half of 2016. The top states are Iowa (46%), North Dakota (43%) and Maine (40%). Iowa and North Dakota both burnt coal in order to export electricity, although the amount dropped by 32% in Iowa and 13% in North Dakota. The next two states that have really stepped up renewable production as a percent of electric consumption the first half of this year are Kansas (39%) and Oklahoma (34%). Both of these states also burnt coal in order to export electricity, but much less than in 2015—21% percent less for Kansas and 44% percent less for Oklahoma. Overall the US burnt 20% less coal to produce electricity the first half of 2016 over the first half of 2015.

Looking good!
The second tier of states in renewable production as a percent of electricity consumption are: Wyoming (28%), South Dakota (26%), California (24%), Hawaii (21%), New Mexico (21%), Colorado (21%), Minnesota (20%), New Mexico (20%) and New Hampshire (20%.)  Where is Texas, you might ask? Even though Texas has increased its renewables production by the largest absolute amount (i.e. phenomenally), because it’s such a populated state, it’s still only meeting 17% of its electricity consumption via renewables, putting it in the third tier of states, as outlined in the table below.

Oregon
19%
Vermont
18%
Texas
17%
Idaho
16%
Montana
16%
Nebraska
13%
Washington
12%
Illinois
10%







For the US as a whole, renewables (including distributed solar) made up 10.2% of electricity sales the first half of 2016 compared to 8.4% the first half of 2015.

Though many states have made considerable progress with renewables, some have not. States that have made a particularly poor showing (2% or less of their electricity from renewables) are Ohio, Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Florida. I will point out that Missouri, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida have solar insolation levels equivalent to one of the sunniest countries on earth, Spain. Ohio and Missouri have decent wind in the western halves of their states, while New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have access to substantial wind offshore.

Due to better rainfall, 2016 has been a good year for hydro. While hydro has its own environmental problems, it provides a nice adjustable baseload that can offset the intermittency of renewables, as well as potential for large-scale energy storage via pumped hydro, although this comes with a 20% efficiency loss. If we add hydro to renewables, we get a bit different picture. Our stellar states then become:

Lots of juice

Yes, both Washington and Oregon created more electricity via hydro plus renewables than they consumed the first half of 2016. Unfortunately both states also burnt small amounts of coal so that they could export additional electricity. Montana and North Dakota burnt a substantial amount of coal so that they could export electricity. Any state that wants to reduce its carbon emissions should not import electricity from states that burn coal. I’m looking at you, California, the greatest electricity-importing state in the country. Although, to be fair, each year California is producing more of its own electricity and importing less. The first half of 2016, California imported 9% less electricity than the first half of 2015.

Other states that produced more than a third of their domestic electricity consumption via renewables + hydro the first half of 2016 were:

Iowa
48%
Vermont
44%
Kansas
39%
Oklahoma
39%
California
36%
New Hampshire
35%
Wyoming
34%

Nationally, the US produced 19% of the electricity it consumed via renewables + hydro.

In order avoid catastrophic climate change, our civilization needs to become vastly more energy efficient (see: Efficiency Is Not the Enemy of Resiliency) and replace fossil fuel use with renewable electricity (see: Obey the Law of Exergy (Time to Go All Electric.)) How much renewable  + hydro electricity per capita/day will each state need in order to meet all its energy needs, including heating, cooling, industry and transportation? Currently, if we take all primary energy consumption in the US and convert it to kilowatt-hours, it comes to 230 kwh/capita/day. During the first half of 2016, the US as a whole produced 6 kwh/capita/day through renewables + hydro. Even our very best state, Washington, produced only 37 kwh/capita/day via renewables + hydro. Three other states came close: North Dakota (35), Montana (34), Oregon (34). The next four highest were: Wyoming (26), Idaho (23), South Dakota (22) and Iowa (20.)  Sadly, twelve states produced 2 or fewer kwh/capita/day via renewables + hydro: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Virginia, and Mississippi. If you live in any of these states, you have serious cause for concern.

Yikes! We’ve got a long ways to go. But it’s not as bad it seems. If we look to Europe, we see that through efficiency many countries enjoy a quality of life arguably better than the US while consuming the energy equivalent of 90 - 120 kwh/capita/day. (see: An Energy Diet for a Healthy Planet.) And some US states are energy intensive largely due to extracting/processing/refining fossil fuels. Without coal mining, oil production, and oil refining, per capita energy use will drop dramatically in energy-gobbling Louisiana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Alaska. Even Texas should see a nice drop.

Pump it up
In order to integrate a high level of intermittent renewables into the electric grid, every state is going to need substantial energy storage, whether it takes the form of electrochemical batteries, ice, molten salt, hydrogen, flywheels, compressed air, pumped hydro, or seasonal thermal energy storage. Most likely, as the price of wind and solar continue to drop, states will create excess capacity of both forms of electricity production. On windy days, when all grid demand is met, excess electricity can be directed to create hydrogen through electrolysis, which can be used as fuel for ferries or cargo ships, or in the production of inorganic fertilizer. Excess solar capacity, much easier to predict, can be directed during the peak of the day to charge batteries, pump water uphill, heat water in buildings for the evening heating load (winter), or create ice or chilled water in buildings for the evening cooling load (summer.) Early leaders in energy storage are California, New York, Hawaii and Arizona.

The amount of electricity a state will ultimately need in order to efficiently and comfortably meet its energy demand will no doubt depend on its climate, population density, and amount of heavy industry. States like California and Hawaii with low heating and cooling loads might get by with 80 kwh/capita/day, as might states with high population densities that are already frugal energy users, like New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Rural states with intense winters like North and South Dakota may need 120 kwh/capita per day. Still, most Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, home to prodigious wind resources, could easily produce all the electricity they need from wind and hydro, plus have ample for export. Out of thirteen states windy states (MT, WY, CO, NM, ND, SD, KS, NE, IA, TX, OK, MN, MO), eleven of them have already made substantial progress in taking advantage of their renewable resources. Two haven’t. (I’m looking at you Nebraska and Missouri.)

The Pacific Northwest—Oregon, Washington and Idaho--with its hydro and nice pockets of wind should be able to reach 100 kwh/capita/day without much trouble. California and Texas have put the most effort into renewables and produce the greatest absolute amount of electricity from renewables by far. But because their large populations, reaching even 80 kwh/capita/day is going to be an effort. At the moment, both only produce 6 kwh/capita/day by renewables + hydro.

Alaska beats Germany
Hawaii has great solar and great wind and pays ridiculous sums for its imported fossil fuels. However much its utilities fight it, I expect Hawaii will be energy self-sufficient within a decade. Remarkably, Alaska has better solar insolation than Germany, but since it also has fabulous wind resources, the odds are high that’s the direction it’ll take.

It’s the South, along with Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Missouri that appear to have the most challenges ahead, mostly because they have poor on-shore wind resources (with the exceptions of western Missouri, western Ohio and pockets of the Appalachians) and, with the exception of North Carolina and New Jersey, haven’t made much of an effort to make use of the really very good solar resources they do have. This inertia will impact their economies hugely over the next decade. Over sixty major corporations have committed to power themselves with 100% renewable energy, including Google, Hewlett-Packard, Adobe, Johnson and Johnson, Mars, Microsoft, Nike, P&G, Salesforce, Steelcase, Unilever and Walmart. None of them expect to lose money from this commitment. As a result, some are already choosing to locate data centers and manufacturing sites in states where such energy is available. Although I favor small and medium-sized businesses over large corporations, it’s foolish for states to believe that continuing to burn fossil fuels for electricity will give them any kind of competitive advantage. Seventeen US cities have already committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2030. However, keeping with the trend, none of them are in the mid-Atlantic or the South, except for Ithaca and East Hampton in New York. States without renewable energy can expect to bleed industries, jobs and even population continuously over the next decade.

Coal-burning states have long suffered the indirect economic triple-whammy of higher health care costs, higher public health burden, and the environmental degradation that comes with coal power. A study in Michigan found that just nine coal-burning power plants in that state cost Michiganders $1.5 billion in extra health care costs each year. A 2013 study found that each kwh in the US produced by burning coal incurs $.32 of cost in terms of illness, premature mortality, lost workdays, and direct costs to the healthcare system associated with emissions of particulates, NOx, and SO2. (Each kwh from oil incurs $.13 and each kwh from natural gas incurs $.02, although this estimate might be low given the recent natural gas debacle in Aliso Canyon.)

As to environmental impact, I’ll mention just a few of the many factors. Thermal power plants consume an enormous amount of water and substantially contribute the water-supply stress of states experiencing drought. When these power plants return warmed water to nearby rivers, lakes and oceans, they harm ecosystems and wildlife through thermal pollution. Coal power plants also produce wicked toxic waste in the forms of coal slurry and coal ash that must be meticulously contained in order to prevent toxic heavy metals from leaching into drinking water, metals that cause cancer, birth defects, reproductive disorders, neurological damage, learning disabilities and kidney disease. Unfortunately, not all coal toxic waste is meticulously contained. Indeed, at least 42 percent of coal waste nationally is kept in unlined ponds or landfills, making leaching likely to occur. And then there’s the long-term impact of dumping CO2 into our atmosphere, and the fact that, due to widespread leaks in natural gas infrastructure, natural gas is almost as bad as coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. One would think at least coastal southern states would be worried enough about nuisance flooding to try to prevent sea-level rise, but so far no dice.

Energy companies that produce fossil fuels and utilities that burn the stuff make profits at everyone else’s expense. This is a lucrative business model--of course they don’t want to change! Of course they will spend vast sums on denial, misinformation, and campaign contributions to protect their income streams. Legally, corporations must maximize the best interest of their shareholders, not society at large. They must follow the law, but if laws (often written by those they help elect) allow them to wreak health and environmental havoc, is it any surprise that they do so?

Low hanging fruit aplenty
The price of solar, wind and energy storage is dropping quickly. The levelized cost of both onshore wind and utility-scale solar are already cheaper than all forms of fossil fuel new electric generation, including diesel and natural gas reciprocating engines, gas peaker plants, integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC), standard coal, and gas combined cycle. They are also both quite a bit cheaper than new nuclear. At the moment we subsidize renewables to even the playing field with fossil fuels only because we subsidize fossil fuels heavily by letting them off the hook on externalities. All these energy subsidies are ridiculously expensive, and, worse, they discourage sensible energy efficiency measures by keeping up the pretense that energy is far cheaper than it actually is. All energy subsidies should go, every single one, but that includes the subsidy of shirking the cost of externalities. If the price of fossil fuels included even half the cost of the negative health and environmental impacts that they impose on society, the US would find itself doubling its energy efficiency with remarkable speed (so much low-hanging fruit!) and transitioning to a largely renewable electric supply within a decade. As it stands, Americans thoughtlessly squander energy right and left, health care costs in the US consume nearly a fifth of our nation’s wealth, Americans have the poorest health in the developed world (largely due to pollution, poor diet, and relying on fossil fuels rather than our bodies to move us even short distances), and environmental costs are left to future generations to pay.

As might be expected, there is wide variation in renewable adoption not only between states but between countries. According to BP’s 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy, the US got 6% of its total energy (not just electricity) supply from renewables + hydro. This puts the US behind 24 of the 67 countries for which BP provides detailed information, including China (11%), Vietnam (22%), New Zealand (38%), Sweden (44%), the UK (10%), Italy (16%), Germany (14%), France (8%), Denmark (25%), Norway (67%), Austria (31%), Switzerland (33%), Turkey (14%), Canada (29%), and Brazil (33%). It puts the US behind 23 countries in terms of renewables as a percent of total energy. Indeed, nine countries in the world obtained 10% or more of their total energy from renewables alone in 2016, and this number is increasing each year. In the US, only 3% of the total energy supply came from renewables alone in 2015.

As you can see, some states (and nations) are leaping into a renewable future like mountain goats bounding across alpine meadows. Other states are moving with the speed of a recalcitrant three-toed sloth. The states out in front on this inevitable transition will have more vibrant, diversified, robust economies. They will also have greater energy security in the face of fossil fuel volatility. (Is there anyone who really expects Saudi Arabia to last as a stable country another ten years?) Just as reminder, it takes a couple gallons of diesel to strip mine a ton of Powder River Basin coal (40% of all coal production in the US.) This might not seem like much, but Powder River Basin coal currently only sells for $8.70 a ton. Last week, a gallon of diesel in the Rocky Mountain states cost $2.48. So 57% of the price of coal is eaten up by just by the diesel used to produce it. Any oil price volatility will have an enormous impact on coal prices and/or coal profitability.

Keep those plates spinning
The Federal Reserve has kept fossil fuel plates spinning the last eight years through endless cheap debt available for sub-prime car loans, corporate stock buy-backs, junk bonds, speculation and even corporate dividend payments. This all works as long as no one is ever expected to pay off debt, just roll it over into ever-increasing amounts new debt. How long a hollowed-out, debt-infested economy can keep going on fumes is anyone’s guess, but when the music stops, states dependent on industries addicted to cheap debt infusions are unlikely to be the ones to thrive.

Food, water, energy and health are essential to a functioning society. (Please note, I’ve specified health, not health care.) The states dawdling on renewables, especially those dependent on burning coal, will suffer heart attacks, pollution, asthma, bronchitis, acid rain and job losses in the near term, and blackouts, brownouts and population loss in the long term. Though renewables are no guarantee of economic vitality, lack of them assures economic decline. Those states with economies heavily dependent on coal mining—Kentucky, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Montana, and West Virginia--need to read the writing on the wall and embrace the future rather than be dragged into it kicking and screaming.

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. Everyone alive on this planet a hundred years from now is likely to reap the consequences of climate change and sea-level rise regardless of how much his/her ancestors contributed to the problem. But medium-term, say fifteen years from now, there will variability in outcomes. Just how tattered your state’s part of the garment of destiny will be depends on actions taken now.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Reclaiming Public Space--A Peak Experience


Above it all
If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, you’ve no doubt seen the two dramatic hills that punctuate the city’s center known as Twin Peaks. Tourists flock to the vista offered by Christmas Tree Point on the northeast edge, but those in the know climb Eureka or Noe Peaks to get a 360 degree view of the Bay Area, the Golden Gate, and the Pacific Ocean.

Who should go to Twin Peaks? How should they get there? What activities should be available to them once they arrive?

Primeval Past
Until recently, the answers to these questions were: tourists, bus/car, stare at the view from a concrete and stone terrace, or, if too windy, from behind a car windshield. Perhaps this isn’t surprising because when the road was first built up to Twin Peaks in the 1920’s, the area was remote enough from the rest of the city that driving seemed the only way to get there. Gradually, though, the city encroached on Twin Peaks until now there are just 64 acres of open space left up there full of coastal scrub and grassland, home to brush-nesting birds, rabbits, coyotes and the endangered Mission Blue Butterfly. In fact, Twin Peaks is likely the only part of San Francisco that looks the way it did five hundred and even a thousand years ago. Primeval San Francisco, if you will.

Hike the loop
It turns out that locals like to go to Twin Peaks, too. It turns out that for some locals (like me) it is the largest substantial swath of green space within walking distance. It turns out Twin Peaks is part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, a proposed 550 mile continuous loop circling the San Francisco Bay, 367 miles of which are currently open to hikers.

Twin Peaks is a mile from my house, all up hill. It’s a lovely walk, as I describe here: Conquer Twin Peaks and Stand on the Rooftop of San Francisco. If you’re visiting San Francisco, I recommend taking Muni to the Castro Station and starting your walk from there. (Another option is to take the 37 bus to Crestline Drive, a few minutes walk from the top.)


Karl visits
Sometimes the top of Twin Peaks is enshrouded in fog (locally known as Karl); sometimes it’s ridiculously windy. Sometimes the sun shines and the air is crystal clear and the views stun even the jaded long-time resident into speechless gratitude at the magnificent splendor, both manmade and natural, before her.

The walk from my house is lovely because it’s largely car-free, except at the top, where, until recently, a hardy pedestrian had to scramble over concrete barriers, breathe tour bus diesel exhaust, and dodge two lanes of car traffic in order to access the area. Until recently, it was only amidst the rumble of internal combustion engines that you could admire wildflowers and hear birdsong.

Caution: change ahead
A few weeks back the city closed the eastern half of the figure eight on Twin Peaks to cars on a two-year trial basis. As usual when any change in San Francisco is proposed, the end of civilization was at hand, even though cars and tour buses can access the vista at Christmas Tree Point as easily as they could before. Drivers howled, tour bus operators wailed. Some diehards even protested the closure by declaring they enjoyed walking next to cars.

Promenading
My husband and I checked out the new .35 mile car-free promenade (as it’s now being called) on a sunny, windy Sunday afternoon. We saw that the city had added maybe thirty parking spots where there’d been little or no parking before. We saw people leave their cars and hike up the peaks or stroll along the promenade. We saw the two-way traffic on the western half moving at slower speeds than previously, although still not congested except near the added new parking. We saw scores of people hiking up to the promenade from the neighborhood below, just as we had. We saw bicyclists who’d made the long climb via the roadway; we saw skateboarders; we saw people walking dogs. In fact, we saw a heck of a lot humans milling about, moving. The eastern half of the figure eight now has far more asphalt than necessary. Hopefully once the trial period is over, much of it can be returned to a more natural state.

Biking the roof
We didn’t go all the way to Christmas Tree Point (because, seriously, it’s mostly a big parking lot), but I imagine it was packed as usual with people standing and sitting. Not moving much. Because there isn’t much place to go, unless on your way there you happen to notice a peak with a bunch of people on it and think, “Hey, I want to do that. How do I get there?” If you’re determined, you’ll backtrack and figure it out, but for the majority, the experience at Christmas Tree Point is static.

Walking thirty minutes a day is better for you than any drug you can take. (See The Brilliance of Walking.) It is the single best thing we can do for our health. In fact, if Americans walked thirty minutes a day, they could probably get by with three-fourths fewer medications, as evidenced by the fact that Americans are 5% of the world’s population, consume 75% of all prescription drugs in the world (80% of all opiods), far outspend all other nations per capita on health care, and collectively still have the worst health in the Western world. Study after study shows that thirty minutes a day of moderate exercise like walking (also bike riding) will substantially reduce the risk of four different types of cancer (breast, uterine, colon and prostate), heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis, and depression, not to mention it boosts the immune system so you'll catch colds and the flu less often. Really the only problem with walking is that Americans have designed their entire way of life to avoid it.

Which is more important--recreation or health? What if you could offer both at the same time? Which is a higher public good, someone saving two minutes of travel time, or someone joyously climbing a peak? Is it better for tour buses to have an extra twenty seconds of view, or for a neighborhood to have a serene connection with nature? Might giving people, even tourists, interesting, enjoyable places to walk encourage them to do so? In a dense city like San Francisco, with the exception of handicapped access, is space dedicated to cars public space or a sacrifice of public space?

Maybe there's a link?
You can be a little overweight and be healthy, but you can’t be sedentary and be healthy. In fact, being sedentary is second only to smoking for the harm it does to the human body. Every single community in America could do more to integrate walking into daily life. Every single community could do more to take walking seriously as a form of transportation. The entire country would benefit from a citizenry fit enough to hoof it a mile or two without puffing or breaking a sweat.

Even if you think cheap oil will last another fifty years, even if you think you’ll be dead before climate change affects you, even if you think human beings are so clever someone will surely solve the myriad problems humanity faces so, hey, chill out, this much is clear: the American sedentary, car-based way of life is a disaster for public health. This would be true even if all cars magically became electric tomorrow.

Heck of a hike
For those of you who, like me, are less sanguine about future prospects down the road, let me tell you a story. Long ago I met an American woman who’d been married to an Iranian and lived in Iran during the last days of the Shah. As protests arose and borders closed, she began to go for walks each morning because she knew that if things got bad she would have to walk out over the mountains to leave. Each day she walked miles and then more miles, building her strength, her stamina. Once the revolution began in earnest, she indeed left Iran on foot over the mountains.

It’s unwise to wait until there are empty store shelves to put in a vegetable garden. It’s useless to wait until the middle of a heat wave to plant a shade tree south of your house. Being fit enough to walk a few miles without effort is as important to resilience as solar panels, a sealed and insulated attic, or a bicycle in working order. Which city or town is more likely to thrive in any circumstance—one where most people routinely walk and few take medications, or one where few people walk and most take multiple medications? Which kind of town, which kind of neighbors do you want to have?

Corporations profit from bad health; communities profit from the opposite. (Corporations especially profit from chronic conditions “managed” by expensive medications and other interventions.) A town or city with lots of parking and public space devoted to cars has bad health designed into its very fabric. We need to transform parking lots and repurpose street space to serve people on foot and bicycles, even if it means drivers are inconvenienced. We need to pedestrianize shopping streets like cities have done all over Europe. We need protected bike routes safe and pleasant enough that even children and seniors can use them. (Seniors, check out electric trikes!)

My husband and I have a car and use it occasionally. (My mode share is 40/40/10/10, walking/biking/transit/car.) When I’m behind the wheel, I’m just as impatient as my fellow drivers, wanting to get where I’m going ASAP and then park ten feet from my destination. Go, go, go, my trip is important, get out of my way, the driver in me cries. But the saner part of my brain knows that just as we’ve reduced smokers’ convenience in order to protect non-smokers from second-hand smoke, so should we reduce drivers’ convenience to protect non-drivers from the many, many negative externalities of cars, including death from speeding, careless, or reckless drivers. As frustrating (and even threatening) as it might be to those whose lives are designed around car use, for the public good we need to reclaim and repurpose space currently devoted to motorized vehicles.

Not exactly elegant, but it'll do
The next time you’re in San Francisco, forgo the car. Take BART in from the airport (or the suburbs) and tackle the city on foot, bike or transit. You’ll see and experience so much more. If you’re up for it, conquer Twin Peaks under your own power. It’s so worth it.