Monday, April 30, 2012

Earth, the Operator's Manual : The Movie, with Ricard Alley

I watched this on TV the other day. Unfortunately it arrived too late in the semester for my various classes to which it applies, but you can still watch the whole thing online by clicking on the start button or the link below.

Academic Health Warning: Watching this show, even though it isn't required, might help you answer the final question on the Environmental Sustainability exam better.

Watch Full Program on PBS. See more from EARTH: The Operators Manual.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

More for the college-is-in-trouble files

Here's yet another article about the current difficulties in higher education.

What I don't yet understand is, with the particular dynamic described, why aren't more students applying to technical and scientific degree programs? Is it just math anxiety? Or something deeper.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Keith Kloor, environmental modernist

This is an interesting article. The main point is similar to my "green Keynesianism" piece of a few months ago, except it lacks the geopolitical component.

I freely admit to having started out in the environmental movement as what Kloor would regard as a "green traditionalist," but I've morphed towards his "green modernism."

I think there's actually a natural progression in human cognition between the two, a kind of Maslovian hierarchy: It's only natural, upon discovering how destructive industrialization and capitalism can be, to reject them, at least for a period. That's of course what my students generally do. But if one retains an open mind and starts thinking about other issues, particularly (in my case) democracy and geopolitics, one might come back around again to a more comprehensive perspective.

I don't think anyone can be called a "finished" or complete environmental thinker until one has integrated some plausible theory of how to maintain democracy, the rule of law, and human rights, in the transition to the world beyond our current climate and energy crisis. That would seem to require, at least in the present situation, the continuing economic and military predominance of the west. Which requires economic growth and technological development.

How did I think my way to being a green modernist? Being British, I've read my Orwell very well. That doesn't hurt. Twentieth century history in general is also necessary, especially economic history. And it was helpful to have spent a fairly long spell in uniform.

But, at the same juncture, if you haven't properly studied ecological economics, and this author hasn't, how can you safely reject all its components?

PS: Kloor has his own blog at

Interesting reading, but a little too journalistic for my taste. For instance, he riffs on Jim Lovelock's recent pronouncement of the delay or postponement of warming, but doesn't dig into the details at all. You'd have to read modeling studies for that, and if you did, you'd realize where Lovelock was coming from, and what he was really trying to say.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Old school solar

Circa 2003: Here's one of the proud moments in the beginning of sustainable energy teaching at Unity College, a solar power generator that students made partly under my tutelage. Former UC Student Government Association President Jason Reynolds was the key designer, if I remember right.

Students went on to use it for a so-called "Solar Power Dance Party."

Sounds hi-falutin', but all they really did was to hook up a boombox and have some fun outside a building one day to promote solar power on campus!

Thanks to Dr. Potter for sending it in.

Mitigation by accident, but nevertheless (wonkish)

US and other western nations' emissions have been on a better path since the recession, and seem likely to keep heading down.

I've been tracking the US gas boom carefully. I'd been thinking that since the EPA received the go-ahead from the Supreme Court to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from major polluters, mostly power plants, and since gas prices were so cheap, the result would be continued reduction in emissions, even after the recession ended.

(The Royal Society report below also shows clearly the emissions trend in developed nations, with a nice down-tick after 2008.)

It's too soon to tell if US and EU emissions have indeed kept trending down through 2012, but the best evidence suggests that they will. There are other trends that will help. New cars are selling again, and they have moderately better gas mileage than old, while a lot of oil heat is being edged out by efficiency and wood pellet in the US, and gas heat by efficiency in the EU.

I have a student, the inestimable Ms. Austin, working out the approximate total magnitude of the new US fleet fuel efficiency standards and the switch from coal to gas-fired power in terms of CO2e by 2020. The numbers don't look too bad.

Now for the Chinese and Indians.

If the west can pull off this trick of getting emissions going in the right direction, and keeping them headed that way, we need the two largest developing nations to follow suit.

Both countries officially accept climate science, and both have a lot to lose, being in the monsoon belt. China in particular has a vested interest in solar and wind, and may choose to follow that path more single-mindedly, as signaled by this article here. It's also beginning to cooperate in other key areas better than before. India's coal economy is in a shambles, and slowing development there in any case, so they may look for greener ways to bypass their current coal gridlock.

Of course, we'll have to double down on just about every kind of emission again, and again, once or twice or thrice in the next few decades to succeed, and at any moment dangerous feedback loops might kick in and destabilize the system. There will be setback after setback. And I'll be long dead before we know the result.

But I'll at least have played my part.

And I don't think we have any rational choice but to keep trying. Even if we can't stabilize below two degrees, we have to hope to stabilize somewhere, so the new climate we then have to adapt to is not still changing on us.

Possibly a vain hope, but hope nonetheless.

And none of us can really say for sure that it won't work.

Krugman, Keynes and a "reign of error"

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Royal report

The Royal Society, Britain's oldest science institution, has released a new report on human ecological problems and prospects.

Just in time for students in the Core 3 class, Environmental Sustainability, to begin to outline their final essay, which is a response to the question "Can human civilization become ecologically sustainable?"

I've just had chance to flick through the report summary and a few pages, but it seems excellent and filled with key, recently updated data.

The report particularly takes on a key problem that hardly anyone has been willing to address in recent years, the difficulty with resource consumption. We were just talking about that yesterday in class.

I expect this to be a very influential publication.

Here's the landing page:

The Donald takes on Scotland

I'm not usually a celebrity-chaser on this blog, but this one just has me amused and bemused, I supposed.

The people of the British Isles, whichever of the various nationalities, ethnicities, and regional cultures we belong to, share one important trait. We're islanders. That makes us unusually independent in many, many ways. We can be persuaded, but we're not easily coerced.

Our multiple and overlapping internal factions, which today include a myriad of new British ethnicities from our most recent Asian, Caribbean, and eastern European immigrants, also have a shared experience of literally centuries of striving with one another internally, then coming together in various coalitions, sometimes a coalition of the whole, to strive against external enemies and competitors.

This makes it very difficult for outsiders to know exactly who is which side in any given conflict. Unless of course, you try, as did various characters throughout history, including a certain Mr. Hitler, to take on the whole island archipelago, with almost all it's various inhabitants. 

In an earlier note I commented on just how much trouble these features were likely to give Mr. Trump, were he to decide to intervene in island politics.

I have to say the results are beyond my wildest expectations. Apparently Mr. Trump was the focus of a near-riot yesterday in Edinburgh.

The educator in me is fascinated to know just whether or not he learned anything from this experience. It's what we call "a teachable moment."


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The morality tale continues

Student Amy K. sent in this link to a NYT article on how austerity is driving political change in Europe.

Remembering the Kinder Trespass

Tomorrow, the 25th April, is the 80th anniversary of the Kinder Trespass, one of the world's first environmental protests. Upwards of four hundred working class ramblers marched over a property line to protest the closure by wealthy aristocrats of grouse moors and ancient footpaths where the 'right to roam" had long been thought an inalienable British right.

As a result, today there are no such restrictions and free access to mountain and moorland country is untrammeled throughout the United Kingdom as a matter of right.

I have a family connection to this important piece of British history. My paternal grandfather was one of the organizers.

Here are some links:

Monday, April 23, 2012

Solar parity in Maine -- already

Regular readers will know that I've been saying for many years that solar PV will soon achieve grid parity, and that when it does, we will then have a powerful tool to simultaneously reduce climate emissions and develop national and regional energy independence

For a few months now we've been hearing stories about new solar PV installations by our friends and colleagues at ReVision Energy in Liberty. Apparently these installations run on the leaseback/PPA model and, through creative financing, can undercut retail power costs by one or two cents per KWH.

I think this is a swell piece of news.

Better yet, now the college is considering a sizable installation too.

Not only do I get a great deal of pleasure in seeing grid parity achieved right here in Maine, but I'm a big supporter of this excellent company, where a lot of the employees are former students.

Solar PV is clearly one of the solutions to climate change.  And I'm proud that our alumni are being part of the solution.

Not only can we reduce emissions, but we can also gain a great regional and local economic multiplier.

There's one caveat: The nature of grid balancing on our region is such that most of the ISO-New England emissions that will be offset by these panels will be peak emissions, and therefore most likely from peaking combined cycle natural gas plants, not coal plants.

But even if the impossible were to occur and someone invent a solar panel that worked during the night in Maine when the grid is off-peak, the "mix" of energy in New England is such that any emissions offset would most likely be from gas and not coal.

In other words, what we need next is solar parity in other states, especially those where the mix is coal-rich. That will take a little while yet. Maine has expensive power, about twice the cost of power in the cheapest states. If, ceteris paribus, all things were equal, then for other states, the price of an installation will have to drop by perhaps another fifty percent before parity can be achieved.

But all things are not equal. Other states have more sun, so that will help.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Eco-eco at the UN

My colleague Brian Czech from the International Society for Ecological Economics posted this on ecolog.

From: Ecological Society of America: grants, jobs, news [ECOLOG-L@LISTSERV.UMD.EDU] On Behalf Of Czech, Brian [czech@VT.EDU]
Sent: Saturday, April 21, 2012 6:16 PM
Subject: [ECOLOG-L] Steady Statesmanship for Biodiversity Conservation Commences at United Nations

On April 18, 2012, steady state economics was formally introduced to the United Nations. In the General Assembly, five panelists covered limits to growth, the Anthropocene, and ecological economics. At the conclusion, "steady statesmanship" (i.e., adopting steady state economics as economic policy) for international diplomacy was proposed. The session was hosted by the Plurinational States of Bolivia and reaction of UN member states was positive.

Following introductory remarks of the UN Secretary General and the Ambassador of Bolivia, the first three panel talks pertained to life on Earth and the human impacts thereon. The fourth talk was an overview of ecological economics commencing at 1:35:35 of the webcast, and the final talk was on steady state economics for biodiversity conservation, commencing at 1:56:40. The complete webcast is available at:

The Wildlife Society and the American Fisheries Society were acknowledged as having recognized limits to growth and the conflict between economic growth and biodiversity conservation.

Brian Czech, President
Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, and
Visiting Professor of Natural Resource Economics
Virginia Tech, National Capitol Region
Falls Church, Virginia

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Are young people tiring of old econ?

That's what Revkin thinks, citing some recent debates and the Mankiw walk-out.

Here at Unity, of course, we had a recent protest by non-students (and maybe two actual students) at an economics related event held on campus. But I talked to some of the protesters afterwards, and it was pretty clear that while they definitely had a gripe with many, many facets of our current society, such as the IMF and World Bank, the bailout, politics, the tax code, and on and on (some or all of which are eminently questionable), they didn't actually have a particular economic theory they espoused.

In other words, they knew something was wrong, but didn't know how to fix it.

I wrote a fairly long explanatory email to one of them. She wrote back saying she didn't have time to read it.

(But she had time to protest, and to disrupt an event designed to help our own students decide which economics they agreed with.)

The students in Revkin's article are perhaps a bit more academic, and seem to be gravitating towards ecological economics, which is gratifying. I studied this particular branch of economics in the 1990s, under one of its primary founders.

Despite a fine education in eco-eco theory, and a decade and a half of membership in ISEE, I'm on record in this blog as stating that a move to ecological economics at this point, particularly a unilateral move to ecological economics by the west, would simply hand China world supremacy on a plate.

I stand by that thinking, so far. It seems to me that China is increasing self-assertive and belligerent, and not at all even the qualified force for good the west has been for many years. Advocates for an end to growth have to figure out how we get there without also endangering democracy and freedom. If the west stops growing and China keeps growing, democracy and freedom will likely be threatened. I can't see any other conclusion to draw from the evidence, particularly the current state of the Chinese nation.

But if the students and other protesters involved in the Occupy movement are studying eco-eco, then that is at least a beginning.

Unfortunately, to understand ecological economics you have to understand mainstream economics, so there is still a lot of work for them to do.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Recyling rocks

With a nice driving bass theme, here's the latest movie from the Sustainability Office.

It makes recycling seem the super trendy, rockin' thing.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Quote of the day...

From Philip D. Gardner, director of research at the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University

"There are really "only two choices" for graduates who want a lot of options, "to be a technically savvy liberal arts graduate or a liberally educated technical graduate."
Inside Higher Ed

More supergrid ideas -- amazing

Little by little, news (or speculation) of the scope of plans for various undersea "supergrid" investments in the North Sea area trickles out. Google, of course, has proposed a similar interconnector for the US east coast.

I find the scale of the proposed wiring staggering. Eight hundred tonnes of copper per kilometer? I'd love to know what wire gauge that reflects.

(Perhaps I can assign this as a problem in class -- after all, the main datum is the mass of copper per unit length -- the rest can be worked out.)

Imagine the impact on the world's already-stretched copper resources. The only way that kind of abuse could possibly be considered sustainable is in the context of a low or no growth "steady state" economy. If we were to imagine ourselves as setting up the conditions for that kind of economy, then it might make some kinds of sense to do this.

To some extent, these proposed investments reflect European desire to reduce climate emissions, but more than anything, I think they reflect fear of being in hock to the Russians for all that natural gas that Europeans use for space heating.

I can understand that. Transferring vast wealth in terms of gas revenue, and at the same time handing massive market power on a plate to the Russians, while they remain a neoczarist dictatorship, is a ticking geopolitical time bomb.

The sooner the west gets off that bandwagon, the better.

I do hope we seal and insulate all those Euro-houses, and switch out all the old Euro-fridges for new low-energy consumption ones, before we go out and mine all this copper.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Our easter lamb

Here's a link back to our farm blog for students interested in animals. Pictured below is wee baby Samson, born in the middle of the night on Saturday, after a fairly hard labor for his mother Quinn.

Gross National Happiness

...and other revised measures in national accounts are all on the agenda for this week's economics classes. While Environmental Sustainability students are revisiting American values and governance, a related topic.

Student Government President Amy K. is in econ, and sent in this article from The Atlantic Monthly.

Friday, April 6, 2012

More of the real work...

Regular readers will know that I'm a fan of helping students become as useful as possible, including learning to do things with their hands, especially when the things they do save energy and climate emissions.

In this most recent case, students in Energy and Energy Efficiency class helped lower our campus wind testing tower to fit a new safety cable and a pyranometer (AKA solarimeter) to measure the solar power available on site next to the large 5KW solar array on the Unity House.

The safety cable will be used to check students of Unity College and KVCC on industrial tower climbing safety and technique.

The pyranometer will measure the watts of sunshine per meter squared per hour and log those data every ten minutes to a computer memory card. We'll be able to match the data against production data from the Unity House. In particular, we'll be able to tell when the solar array is not producing what it could be producing, because it's a fixed and not tracking array.

Along the way to completing these tasks students learned some basic metalwork. Several were checked out on they various shop tools such as the machine hacksaw and the drill press. They also learned some more advanced skills such as drill sharpening and the use of pilot holes for proper drilling.

I'm looking forward to seeing the view from the top of the tower next week when the safety line work is done.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A professor gets a complaint...

Fascinating. Mankiw is the economist for the Republican National Committee, so there may be more than a little politics to this, but nevertheless, he should have taught at least some Keynes, considering what's going on in the world right now. Otherwise how are students to evaluate the ongoing debate over spending?

This is an open letter, so no-one should complain if I republish it here.

Here's the url:

And the letter:

Harvard — November 2, 2011 2:23 am

An Open Letter to Greg Mankiw

By HPR The following letter was sent to Greg Mankiw by the organizers of today’s Economics 10 walkout.
Wednesday November 2, 2011
Dear Professor Mankiw—
Today, we are walking out of your class, Economics 10, in order to express our discontent with the bias inherent in this introductory economics course. We are deeply concerned about the way that this bias affects students, the University, and our greater society.
As Harvard undergraduates, we enrolled in Economics 10 hoping to gain a broad and introductory foundation of economic theory that would assist us in our various intellectual pursuits and diverse disciplines, which range from Economics, to Government, to Environmental Sciences and Public Policy, and beyond. Instead, we found a course that espouses a specific—and limited—view of economics that we believe perpetuates problematic and inefficient systems of economic inequality in our society today.
A legitimate academic study of economics must include a critical discussion of both the benefits and flaws of different economic simplifying models. As your class does not include primary sources and rarely features articles from academic journals, we have very little access to alternative approaches to economics. There is no justification for presenting Adam Smith’s economic theories as more fundamental or basic than, for example, Keynesian theory.
Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics. Many Harvard students do not have the ability to opt out of Economics 10. This class is required for Economics and Environmental Science and Public Policy concentrators, while Social Studies concentrators must take an introductory economics course—and the only other eligible class, Professor Steven Margolin’s class Critical Perspectives on Economics, is only offered every other year (and not this year).  Many other students simply desire an analytic understanding of economics as part of a quality liberal arts education. Furthermore, Economics 10 makes it difficult for subsequent economics courses to teach effectively as it offers only one heavily skewed perspective rather than a solid grounding on which other courses can expand. Students should not be expected to avoid this class—or the whole discipline of economics—as a method of expressing discontent.
Harvard graduates play major roles in the financial institutions and in shaping public policy around the world. If Harvard fails to equip its students with a broad and critical understanding of economics, their actions are likely to harm the global financial system. The last five years of economic turmoil have been proof enough of this.
We are walking out today to join a Boston-wide march protesting the corporatization of higher education as part of the global Occupy movement. Since the biased nature of Economics 10 contributes to and symbolizes the increasing economic inequality in America, we are walking out of your class today both to protest your inadequate discussion of basic economic theory and to lend our support to a movement that is changing American discourse on economic injustice. Professor Mankiw, we ask that you take our concerns and our walk-out seriously.
Concerned students of Economics 10