Archive for November, 2008

On the one hand, Senator Snowe’s response makes perfect sense.  In reply to a letter I’d sent asking for stronger action on global warming, she stated that the emissions responsible for climate change “…are currently coupled with the strength of our economy.”  


In other words, as things stand now, Snowe believes our economy cannot grow without concurrent growth in climate-altering carbon emissions.  If we try to spew less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by buying less, driving less, and generally hunkering down, we also stand to further our financial free fall.  Conversely, if we boldly buy big cars, eat strawberries in winter, and stuff our stockings with knick-knacks, we will inevitably smother our planet with a sickly quilt of carbon dioxide.  


In flush economic times we had the luxury of worrying about the environment (although we seem to have squandered that opportunity).  But we simply can’t afford to worry about it now, when doing so might further weaken our teetering economy.  Right?  Maybe not. 


Let’s ignore, for the moment, the fact that businesses generally save money by conserving resources (not surprisingly, it costs less to reduce electricity and fuel use).  Let’s ignore that the payback on many energy-saving initiatives is quite short.  Let’s ignore that, using fewer resources can often improve our quality of life (for example, better insulation in our walls means cozier houses and less money out the window).  Let’s also ignore the fact that, really, whatever the cost, we have no choice but to address the climate crises immediately because if we don’t the future costs will be unmanageable.


Instead, let’s get down to shopping.  Economists tell us that shopping might not be a bad idea right now, the Catch 22 being that currently no one has any money to shop with.    


Here is an environmentally friendly way we could generate some much needed capital.  Imagine, if you will, that the efficiency of your car suddenly increases by between 10 and 30 percent.  Imagine saving hundreds of dollars a year on fuel.  Imagine further, that because of this efficiency increase, U.S. oil use drops significantly.  This drop reduces the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend every year to subsidize our oil consumption.  


In a well-documented and widely cited 1998 report, the International Center for Technology Assessment attempted to quantify the true cost of using gasoline in our vehicles.  By their {begin italics} most conservative {end italics} estimates, U.S. taxpayers are subsidizing oil companies to the tune of 9 billion dollars a year in tax breaks.  We pay an additional 1 billion annually for federal programs to encourage oil production and extraction.  Tack on 27 billion for protecting oil supplies (domestically and abroad) and a whopping 231 billion for environmental and health costs, and you can see where there might be some savings in cutting back our oil use by even a modest amount.


OK, you say, but increasing the fuel efficiency of our cars will be expensive.  We’ll have to junk our old cars.  We’ll have to buy new ones.  Won’t that be bad for the environment?  Actually, all we have to do is lower highway speed limits to 55 miles per hour (mph).  Vehicles use 10-30% less fuel driving 55 than driving 65, and most vehicles get their best fuel economy between 40 and 60 mph (see www.fueleconomy.gov  and www.edmonds.com).


Well, won’t it hurt long-distance truckers?  No, because the savings in gas will compensate for the extra driving time (email me for more information on this topic).


But, won’t it take longer to get to grandma’s?  For most of the driving we do, the difference is smaller than you think.  The 30 mile drive from Brunswick to Augusta takes less than 5 minutes longer at 55 mph than at 65 mph.


Now, what to do with all that extra money?  Shop at the Saturday winter farmer’s markets in Bath and Brunswick.  Produce is often cheaper than at the grocery store and purchasing local food drastically reduces the carbon emissions used in transport.  Good for the economy, good for the environment.  


Eat at one of the many, many midcoast restaurants that purchase food from local growers.  Good for the economy, good for the environment.  


Sign up for electricity from wind and hydro rather than coal-fired power plants (in Maine, see http://www.meipl.org/).  Good for the economy, good for the environment.  


Buy fewer well-made items rather than a larger number of cheaper items.  The good stuff will likely be better loved and it will definitely last longer (thereby using fewer resources).  While you’re at it, if you can find high quality products made nearby or in the U.S., purchase those preferentially over products made overseas.  Sending money to Ohio, or better yet to a farm in Bowdoinham, helps our economy quite a bit more than sending it to China.


It is a perilous over-simplification to say that environmental concerns are at odds with economic concerns.  Perilous because it is largely incorrect, and perilous because it saps our will to address desperately needed action on climate change.


In our brave new world, Senator Snowe got it right: the health of the environment and the strength of the economy will continue to be coupled.  She just got the relationship backwards.  Our current and future economic prosperity is inextricably linked to our care for the environment.  The actions we need to take are the ones that benefit both at the same time.


Lowering the speed limit, for example, could in one breathtaking step, drop our carbon emissions quickly and easily, with no new technology, no new infrastructure, and no new investments.  The savings to consumers, both directly through filling the tank less often, and indirectly through lower taxes and retail prices would be a great stimulus to the economy.  


Then, it will be up to us to spend the savings wisely.    

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In the dark center of Ukrainian winters and in half-timbered farm houses nestled along Scandinavian fjords, I imagine my two sets of grandparents, and their parents, and their parents before them, opening the jars of precious jam they preserved in the summer.  With each jar, tangy fruit smells fill the small rooms, but also a trace of something else, heady and aromatic.


Generations of my family, on both sides, made plum, apricot, and peach jam with the same secret ingredient.  They cracked open the fruit pits, ground up the kernels inside, and stirred them back into the jam.  This rich flavoring, also the backbone of great marzipan and the reason not to eat apple seeds by the cupful, is a compound called amygdalin which easily breaks down into cyanide, a deadly poison.  I make jam this way.


Why, you may wonder, do I contentedly spread toxins on my breakfast toast?  The short answer is that toxicity is mostly about dose.  In large enough quantities anything will be toxic, including water.  Conversely, in small enough quantities, most things are relatively safe.  Botulinum toxin, while deadly in minute amounts, can be diluted to even more minute amounts to make a highly useful medicine.  


Only a few substances are so toxic that we know of no amount small enough to be truly benign.  My tasty cyanide sandwiches are about as troubling as eating a few accidental apple seeds (a conclusion supported by the longevity and intelligence of my munching peasant ancestors).


If we can flavor our food with deadly poisons, how then are we to make sense of all the chemicals to which we are exposed?  How do scientists figure out what dose of a given substance is acceptable?  Am I to panic about lead dust from our old front door, when I know that lead exists naturally in soil?  Should I worry about antibiotic residues in milk when I feed high doses of virtually the same stuff to my kids to cure their strep throats? 


It is tremendously difficult to determine if a substance is harmful.  You can’t just expose some people to a new chemical and then see what happens to them.  Aside from being unethical, it would be hugely expensive and labor-intensive.  You would have to look at each chemical’s effects at different doses, on large numbers of different types of people (women, men, a variety of ethnic groups, children, and fetuses, to name a few), and you’d have to follow them for a long time.


Our understanding about the toxicity of various chemicals comes, therefore, from extremely skimpy data.  Sometimes we suspect a chemical because we know that similar chemicals are harmful.  Some data we get from studies on animals in the hope that they can serve as proxies for human subjects.  But much of our information we glean from the giant real-life experiment in which we are all subjects – that is, we discover that something we’ve already introduced is causing problems (think lead, DDT, mercury, and dioxin).    


Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPAs) system for regulating chemicals is barely functional.  Before using a new chemical, manufacturers are required to submit to the EPA any toxicity data they may have; however, if they don’t have any data, they are not required to collect it (the exceptions being anything ingested directly such as food additives and pharmaceuticals).  The EPA can request testing, but only if they have strong evidence that the chemical might be harmful.  In other words, the burden of proof is on the EPA and chemicals are innocent until proven guilty.


With this incredibly lax system in place, you’d think we’d be dropping like flies.  


Yet the Centers for Disease Control report that average life expectancy in the U.S. continues to rise.  Whatever harm our chemical brew is causing, it’s either not affecting life expectancy (yet), or gains in other areas, such as treatment of disease, are currently outpacing the negative effects.


Nonetheless, we are playing with a loaded gun.  As just one disturbing example, The New York Times reports that the breast milk of a high percentage of American women exceeds federal food-safety levels for some known toxins such as flame retardants, PCBs, and DDT.  Many nasty poisons build up in our fat.  When we metabolize this fat to make our breast milk extra-nutritious, we can literally pass on decades of accumulated toxins to our infants.  (Note that most medical organizations continue to advocate for breast-feeding because of its many clear benefits).  


We simply don’t understand the long- or short-term effects of most of the chemicals in our environment.  Recently concerns have been raised over substances that may disrupt endocrine function.  Pharmaceuticals are turning up in our waterways at levels high enough to change the reproductive capacity of aquatic creatures.  The genesis of many cancers are poorly understood.  Yet, every year manufacturers propose around 2,000 new chemicals.


Given the profound uncertainty and the profound risks, we need to take a hard look at our chemical regulatory system.  Is it necessary, for example, to introduce untested, potentially hazardous chemicals into children’s toys?  Cosmetics?  Clothing?  Perhaps a case could be made to develop better plastics for artificial hearts or stronger and lighter frames for cars; but, do we need to be exposed to five new chemicals so our kids can have glow-in-the-dark toothpaste?  (I know, I know, it’s a great idea.)


The time to work out the safe level of flame retardants in breast milk, if there is one, is not when we start seeing unambiguous harmful effects on our children.  Maine recently enacted some of the toughest laws in the country controlling toxins in children’s toys and consumer products.  While these laws are a great start, we have a long way to go before we have a regulatory policy on chemicals that is sensibly protective of our health and the environment while allowing innovation to continue where it is needed.

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