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John Balmes: Don't Let a Killer Pollutant Loose

Professor John Balmes, close colleague and friend, and physician member of the California Air Resources Board:

PM 2.5 kills people. There has been little dispute that microscopic particulate matter in air pollution penetrates into the deepest parts of the lungs and contributes to the early deaths each year of thousands of people in the United States with heart and lung disease.

One recent study called PM 2.5 “the largest environmental risk factor worldwide,” responsible for many more deaths than alcohol use, physical inactivity or high sodium intake.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s own website says: “Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms.”

Which makes it deeply troubling that the very people at the helm of the Trump administration’s E.P.A. responsible for protecting public health and the environment are now pursuing a course that would make the air we breathe even more hazardous.

Understanding Air Pollution with Art: "The Air of the Anthropocene" and "Mutual Air"

Playground, India Institute of Technology Campus, Delhi, India - PM2.5 500 - 600 µg/m3

Artist Robin Price and Professor Francis Pope use experimental photography to “see” small particles as part of their “Air of the Anthropocene” project (h/t Zoe Chafe). The photos are stunning. From a Guardian piece highlighting many of the photos:

Using a custom-built digital light painter and wearable particulate sensor, I take long exposure photographs that paint the amount of PM2.5 particles in the air as particles of light. As the light painter’s sensor detects more pollution it draws correspondingly greater numbers of light particles into the photograph. The effect is as if the microscopic pollution has been enlarged and lit up, shedding light on the invisible particles.

Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, Artist Rosten Woo uses chimes to make air pollution audible:

Mutual Air is a network of roughly thirty specially designed bells that generate a soundscape reflecting and responding to the changing composition of our local and global atmosphere. By sonifying air-quality fluctuations, Woo hopes​ to engage the public in an experiential understanding of climate science and how aspects of our atmosphere, while a shared resource, reflect socioeconomic disparities.

His work was featured on PBS News Hour:


See also Smog Meringues and British Pathe - Air Pollution

Indian Election Analysis: Election manifestos feature air plan but little action on ground

A new report titled “Political Leaders Position and Action on Air Quality in India” released by Climate Trends also highlighted that members of parliament in 14 Indian cities, among the most polluted cities globally as per the WHO 2018 urban air quality database, have done little to get their cities to comply with safe air quality standards locally.

“The manifestos of both the national parties have proven that political parties cannot ignore and neglect air pollution related health emergency any more. This rhetoric is a good sign. But the bigger question is - if this electoral promise will translate into strong enough political will to push for hard action with accountability and show results,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment. Delhi’s air pollution levels recorded a fall in 2018 because of multiple strategies, she added.

Energy and Health in the 2019 BJP Manifesto

The BJP’s Manifesto was released in the last few days. A little hard to hunt down, initially, though a PDF is hosted at documentcloud.

In a section that is partly a list of achievements and partly a description of next steps:

We have evolved technologically better strategies and devices to map the level of pollution in cities and rivers and have taken effective steps to reduce the level of pollution in major cities, including the national capital. We will convert the National Clean Air Plan into a Mission and we will focus on 102 most polluted cities in the country. Through concerted action, we will reduce the level of pollution in each of the mission cities by at least 35% over the next five years.

Another part of he Manifesto is framed around 75 milestones for India’s 75th anniversary, including some focusing on health, energy, air pollution, and water & sanitation.

Under Infrastructure:

Ensure a pucca house to every family. Ensure the LPG gas cylinder connection to all poor rural households. Ensure 100% electrification of all households. Ensure a toilet in every household. Ensure access to safe and potable drinking water for all households. Bharat Mission to achieve ODF+ (Open Defecation Free) and ODF++ in cities and villages. Ensure ODF status for all villages and cities.

Under good governance:

Work towards substantially reducing the current levels of air pollution. Work towards completely eliminating crop residue burning to reduce air pollution.

A running list of how President Trump is changing environmental policy

McClatchy reporting today:

The Trump campaign is seeking a list of “climate change victories” that can be attributed to Donald Trump’s presidency, reflecting a shift in strategy ahead of the 2020 election as polls show growing voter concern over global warming, two sources familiar with the campaign told McClatchy this week.

To hell with that. National Geographic has provided an excellent rebuttal with “A running list of how President Trump is changing environmental policy”. They peg it at a 70 minute read.

Some highlights:

TRUMP SIGNS ORDER GREENLIGHTING KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE

EXECUTIVE ORDER CALLS FOR SHARP LOGGING INCREASE ON PUBLIC LANDS

EPA CRIMINAL ENFORCEMENTS HIT 30-YEAR LOW

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ROLLS BACK OBAMA-ERA COAL RULES

FIRST OFFSHORE OIL WELLS APPROVED FOR THE ARCTIC

Washington Post: If I were still working at the EPA, I would resign

Bernard D. Goldstein, former chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and EPA assistant administrator for R&D under Reagan:

I had hoped that Wheeler would reverse Pruitt’s initial policies. Instead, he has taken them well beyond the point that, were I a member of CASAC, I would have resigned. Neither my conscience, nor my concern for the respect of my peers, would have allowed me to provide advice on a complex health-related subject when I cannot interact in a scientific consensus advisory process with those who have the necessary expert credentials.

I cannot ask President Trump’s EPA assistant administrator for research and development to resign. That position remains unfilled. Nor is it likely that any credible scientist would accept such a nomination. But I urge the current members of CASAC to step down rather than seemingly acquiesce to this charade. The EPA’s leadership is destroying the scientific foundation of environmental regulations, to the detriment of the health of the American people and our environment.

Read the whole thing.

New Yorker: The Hidden Air Pollution in Our Homes

Nice piece by Nicola Twilley, co-host of Gastropod:

“So there is a big question here,” Marina Vance pointed out. “If all these studies have found an association between outdoor air pollution and a decrease in life quality and life expectancy, but we’re not outside, how does that relationship still hold?”

One possibility is that the brief moments we spend outdoors have an outsized impact on our health. Another consideration is that outdoor pollutants can and do come inside. But one homechem researcher, Allen Goldstein, recently co-authored a paper that suggests a fascinating inversion. The dominant source of VOCs in Los Angeles is now emissions from consumer products, including toiletries and cleaning fluids. In other words, vehicle emissions have been controlled to such an extent that, even in the most car-clogged city in America, indoor air that has leaked outdoors may create more smog than transportation does.

It’s true — some surveys done in the last couple of decades show that people in North America spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors. It’s unlikely that our air pollution exposures — measured as ambient concentrations at central sites, far from where we live and spend time — capture what’s really going on.

One point of contention with this article — despite some nice historical thinking on the relationships between indoor and outdoor air, there was no mention of the very large exposures that continue in the developing world, where solid fuels like wood, grass, dung, and coal are used indoors. A substantial oversight.

Update: Nicola Twilley wrote on twitter that mention of the developing world didn’t make the final version.

Science vs Fringe Thinking: EPA Science Panel Considering Guidelines That Upend Basic Air Pollution Science

NPR, reporting on a recent EPA Meeting:

At a public meeting Thursday that ran nearly two hours long, multiple members of that committee, including Chair Tony Cox and Steven Packham of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said they do not agree that breathing air polluted with soot can lead to an early death.

“[Committee] members have varying opinions on the adequacy of the evidence supporting the EPA’s conclusion that there is a causal relationship between [particulate matter] exposure and mortality,” said Cox, reading from the committee’s draft recommendations before explaining that he is “actually appalled” at the lack of scientific evidence connecting particulate pollution to premature death.

From Nature:

A quarter of a century of research has shown that breathing in fine airborne particles emitted by cars, power plants and other sources shortens people’s lifespans. But that scientific consensus is now under attack from a top advisor to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just as the agency is rushing to revise the national air-quality standard for such pollution before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. Scientists fear that the result could be weaker rules on air pollution that are bad for public health — and based on politics, not science.

The case has been made — repeatedly — that the health and economic benefits of the Clean Air Act and subsequent regulatory processes are clear. This is summarized succinctly in the figure below, which shows energy consumption, vehicle miles traveled, GDP, and total emissions of EPA criteria pollutants.

Figure from The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health

Let’s put aside the economic argument and focus on the principles that undergird the Clean Air Act - protection of public health, with standards set to protect the most vulnerable. This critical prerogative is undermined by these (and other) recent efforts to roll back regulations that have clear and demonstrable health benefits. This is yet another example of the Trump administration’s abnegation of responsibility to the health and welfare of the US population.

For more information, see Gretchen T. Goldman and Francesca Dominici’s discussion in Science and their claim-by-claim evidence base. See also a nice summary of the issue at NRDC and a letter from Professor John Samet to the EPA that comprehensively outlines issues with changes to the evidence review process for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The Return of London's Fog

London’s fogs may be about to make a comeback. Christine Corton, in the NYT:

In January, researchers at King’s College London announced that pollution levels on Oxford Street, in central London, had exceeded limits set for the entire year in just the first four days of 2015. Similarly alarming numbers have been recorded for other streets in the city — and yet the mayor, Boris Johnson, has delayed implementation of stricter air-quality measures until 2020.

What’s happening in London is being played out in cities worldwide, as efforts to curtail the onslaught of air pollution are stymied by short-term vested interests, with potentially disastrous results.

I just experienced a particular, particulate version of this hell first-hand in Delhi. For the last few days of my trip, a dense, thick haze - clearly not an innocuous fog - permeated the city and surrounding environs. On one trip back to our flat, all of my fellow taxi passengers complained of burning eyes and sore throats.

The closest PM monitor during that drive back — actually quite far from us — read over 250 µg/m3. That’s around 10x higher than a ‘bad’ day in the US. Moreover, we guessed that the levels we were experiencing were closer to 350 µg/m3. As a point of reference, the maximum mean hourly PM2.5 concentration in London since 2008 was approximately 30 µg/m3.

Corton points to a behavioral component to the historic London Fog episodes — a parallel I find particularly interesting:

There was a cultural component, too. The British were wedded to their open fires. Closed stoves, popular throughout much of Europe, especially in Germany, were shunned by Londoners. During World War I, Britons were exhorted, in the words of the famous song, to “keep the home fires burning.” Politicians were simply not willing to risk unpopularity by forcing Londoners to stop using coal and go over to gas or electric heating instead. In Britain today, in an echo of these earlier concerns, the government is cutting subsidies for onshore wind and solar farms, anxious not to offend voters in rural areas where such facilities would be built.

It took a disaster to force London to change direction. In 1952, a “great killer fog” lasted five days and killed an estimated 4,000 people. In a Britain trying to turn a corner after the death and destruction of the Blitz, this was unacceptable. A Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, forcing Londoners to burn smokeless fuel or switch to gas or electricity, power sources that had become much cheaper as these industries expanded.

Let’s hope that policy levers and momentum — not a disaster — can help transition away from solid fuels in India and beyond.

Conditional cash transfers for energy poverty... and murder reduction

Conditional cash transfers — paying people to change behavior, usually to spur positive ‘social’ outcomes — continue to be in the news. Much of the focus is on their use as poverty reduction tools (Bolsa Familia in Brazil, JSY in India) through encouraging behaviors like antenatal care visits and sending children to school.

Two recent article — one in the NYT, one in Mother Jones — highlighted the use of CCTs and other targeted cash transfer tools for dramatically different outcomes.

In the NYT, poverty and energy issues were at the fore:

The Indian government subsidizes households’ purchases of cooking gas; these subsidies amounted to about $8 billion last year. Until recently, subsidies were provided by selling cylinders to beneficiaries at below-market prices. Now, prices have been deregulated, and the subsidy is delivered by depositing cash directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, which are linked to cellphones, so that only eligible beneficiaries — not “ghost” intermediaries — receive transfers.

Under the previous arrangement, the large gap between subsidized and unsubsidized prices created a thriving black market, where distributors diverted subsidized gas away from households to businesses for a premium. In new research with Prabhat Barnwal, an economist at Columbia University, we find that cash transfers reduced these “leakages,” resulting in estimated fiscal savings of about $2 billion.

There’s even more “smart” targeting coming soon. My advisor and colleagues in India have been working to “[describe] how the LPG subsidy could be even more completely targeted to the poor without any actual ‘taking away’ of the subsidy from the rich and middle class, which would likely trigger heavy political push back. As a result, several hundred million additional poor Indians could have affordable access in the next decade without increasing subsidy costs to the government (indeed probably reducing them) or LPG imports — both not likely to be popular.”

In Mother Jones, CCTs were being used to reduce murders:

Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached [Devone] Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren’t the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who’d been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?

It seems to be working.

It was a crazy idea. But since ONS was established, the city’s murder rate has plunged steadily. In 2013, it dropped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—a 33 year low. In 2014, it dropped again. Boggan and his staff maintained that their program was responsible for a lot of that drop-off by keeping the highest-risk young men alive—and out of prison. Now they have a study to back them up.

On Monday, researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a non-profit, published a process evaluation of ONS, studying its impact seven years in. The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”

India is building millions of toilets, but that's the easy part

Rama Lakshmi, in the Washington Post, on the push for many, many more toilets throughout India:

Modi has made toilet-building and sanitation a rallying cry since October. He has enlisted large companies to help. In the past year, his government has built more than 5.8 million toilets — up from 4.9 million the previous year. But reports show that many of them are unused or that they are being used to store grain, clothes or to tether goats, thwarting Modi’s sanitation revolution.

“Even as we accelerate toilet construction now, much more needs to be done to persuade people to use them,” said Chaudhary Birender Singh, India’s minister for rural development, sanitation and drinking water. “For long, we assumed that if the toilets are built, people will automatically use it. But we have to diligently monitor the use over a period of time and reward them with cash incentives to the village councils at every stage. Only then will it become a daily habit.”

This all sounds really familiar.

Ye Olde Smog Meringue

image from coclimate.com

Nicola Twilley, writing at ediblegeography.com:

After running around New York City in order to source our precursor ingredients (a huge thanks to Kent Kirshenbaum, chemistry professor at NYU and co-founder of the Experimental Cuising Collective), we spent Thursday afternoon and evening in the kitchens of Baz Bagel (excellent bagels, amazing ramp cream cheese, and truly lovely people) assembling the cart, mixing different chemical precursors, and then “baking” them under UV light to form a London peasouper, a 1950s Los Angeles photochemical smog, and a present-day air-quality event in Atlanta.

We chose these three places and times to showcase three of the classic “types” that atmospheric scientists use to characterize smogs: 1950s London was a sulfur- and particulate-heavy fog, whereas 1950s Los Angeles was a photochemical smog created by the reactions between sunlight, NOx, and partially combusted hydrocarbons. Present-day Beijing often experiences London-style atmospheric conditions, whereas Mexico City’s smog is in the Angeleno style.

Meanwhile, at its worst, Atlanta’s atmosphere is similar in composition to that of Los Angeles, but with the addition of biogenic emissions. An estimated ten percent of emissions in Atlanta are from a class of chemicals known as terpenes, from organic sources such as pine trees and decaying green matter. We had also hoped to create a Central Valley smog as well, but time got the better of us.

Each city’s different precursor emissions and weather conditions produce a different kind of smog, with distinct chemical characteristics—and a unique flavour.

Pictures of Lake Tahoe during the drought

August 2014:

Late May 2015:

We’re lucky enough to live near Lake Tahoe and all the surrounding glory — and fortunate enough to make it up there every now and then. Our most recent jaunt was a nice one with a great hike, good food, and all around fun times.

It was clear while roaming around town that the Lake Tahoe was very, very low. Docks had ladders and secondary structures to allow access to vessels. The walkable area extended much further than before. This was all amplified when we stood at the edge of the lake — now a few dozen meters further out than in August of 2014 — at one of our favorite public access points.

Field Notes - Measuring Village Air Pollution in Bajada Pahari

Twenty minutes from INCLEN’s SOMAARTH field headquarters lays Bajada Pahari1, a sleepy, picturesque village of ~120 households. The road to Bajada Pahari twists through bustling little villages, becoming more and more narrow until what remains is suited more for bullock carts, tractors, goats, and shepherds than personal vehicles. As the settlements dwindle, large open croplands — of tall sugarcane, bright yellow mustard, and various green sabjiyom2 — dominate the field of view. Enormous metal structures for high voltage powerlines stand erect yet untethered: no cables connect them. Below, and all around, the landscape is dotted with small, oblong discs of gobara3 used for fertilizer and as fuel.

Bajada Pahari is trapezoidal in shape, buttressed to its north by a small hill, upon which sits an old, abandoned watchtower4 and a small informal shrine to Shiva marked by narrow, red flags. Immediately behind the ridge, a green pool sparkles in the hazy winter daylight. Stray dogs roam a nearby shallow dig - perhaps an old quarry. Looking away from the village, pasturelands extend for as far as the eye can see. Barely visible brick kilns spew grayish black emissions. From the hilltop, the only audible sounds are chirping birds and rustling leaves, punctuated occasionally by a wailing child, a barking dog, a puttering engine.

We arrived in Bajada Pahari mid-morning and went first to the home of the Sarpanch, the head village elder5. At his residence, on the edge of town, a large gate opens first into a foyer full of mechanical farm tools — a tractor, a manual chopper — and a few simple cots and then leads into an outdoor space with trees, cows, chairs, and chulas. The Sarpanch arrived shortly thereafter, on a motorcycle bearing his title. After initial pleasantries and introductions, we discussed the village, which won an award for progress on sanitation and cleanliness, and our air pollution project.

Village air pollution is a hard concept to grok. For most, the pervasive images conjured by the word ‘rural’ are clean and pure, especially compared to places like Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing. The sources of air pollutant emissions are no doubt different — quaint cookstoves, open fires, brick kilns, and small village industries look innocuous when compared to massive smokestacks and endless diesel vehicles visible in large Indian cities6. Tens to hundreds of these little village sources, simultaneously used over a small geography, probably adversely impacts air quality. Think of each one as a small contributor to a larger village smokestack.

The sarpanch is (unsurprisingly) thoughtful, measured, and interested. Mayur explains what we’d like to do, and why, succinctly and in simple language - a difficult feat he has perfected in his years with INCLEN. We talk about why we’re interested in understanding air pollution in a rural village (unmeasured, significant, and likely related to simple combustion of wood and dung) and why we think it’s important (trying to convince government to monitor and regulate the entire airshed, not just in urban areas). We show him some of our toys — including a miniature quadcopter, similar to the larger one we’ll use to measure some meteorological parameters and PM2.5. He laughs at the copter and approves of our plans. He decides we should discuss further with others on the village council.

We walk down the street, past a few cows lounging next to an abandoned biogas plant. At the intersection of two of the town’s biggest roads, a group of men and empty plastic chairs await us. Our discussion with them is similar to the previous one with the sarpanch. A few sarcastically questioned if we are asking them to stop cooking entirely. Others suggested their households, as proxies for the village, would be enthusiastic to move to LPG if the hassle of acquiring fuel wasn’t so great. They noted that there were no home deliveries and that it was difficult to coordinate pickup and dropoff of the cumbersome cylinders. One man, in particular, railed against the notion that food cooked on LPG was any different than that cooked over an open fire; he opined that it wasn’t the fuel that made the food, but the cook. His example was of village boys, who move to a city and eat food cooked on LPG by a stranger; they blame the poor taste on the fuel. He blamed the cook — or, more accurately, the fact that this food wasn’t the food they grew up eating, that they were accustomed to. A pretty neat (and new) insight. Not atypically, we spoke with only men about tasks they weren’t directly involved with.

We learned a little about electricity in the village, as well. It is reliable and consistent — rare for these areas. It arrived first in 1978. Many households have multiple electric appliances, including a washing machine, metal rods used to heat water, fans, and small electric stoves known as ‘heaters’. Our final task in the village involved locating a site to place an ambient air pollution and meteorological monitor, along with associated solar panels. We found a nice rooftop location, in the center of town, adjacent to a beautiful, decaying old farmhouse.


1 Alternate spellings include Bajda Pahadi, Bajda Pahari, Bajada Pahadi, and various other permutations. Depending on the spelling, the town’s name takes different meanings. My favorite is “lazy hill,” which sums it up succinctly. Bajada also has a Spanish meaning, which is curiously on point: “a broad alluvial slope extending from the base of a mountain range into a basin” or, more simply, “descent, slope.”

2 Vegetables

3 Dried bovine dung

4 The history of the tower is a little ambiguous; some of the village boys said it was an old British outpost, while others claimed it is a much older Mughal structure.

5 The sarpanch serves as a link between the local and regional governments and the community. There’s some push to pass along certain judicial and legislation-related powers to Sarpanches.

6 The situation is complicated by a national emphasis on cities as thriving centers of vitality, modernity, and growth. The concerns of rural villages don’t align with those of the metropolis - as such, their ranking in the national conscious and in the media is low. This despite ~80% of the population living in rural areas.

LED lighting: an accelerated learning curve?

News from Samsung (exiting the LED market) and Philips (spinning off their LED division) would seem to indicate rapid learning in the LED space. From Reuters:

Analysts say Samsung Electronics’ retreat reflects the growing competition from Chinese manufacturers even as demand for LED lighting remains strong. LED lamps last 10 times longer than fluorescent bulbs and 100 times longer than traditional incandescent tungsten filament bulbs.

“It appears that Samsung decided to fold the business because price competition was so fierce and there was not a lot of room for growth going forward,” said Seoul-based IM Investment analyst Lee Min-hee.

Philips said in September that it will spin off its lighting business to expand its higher-margin healthcare and consumer divisions. Two month earlier, Germany’s Osram Licht AG , which also makes LED lights, announced a cost-cutting plan that included nearly 8,000 job cuts.

Jason Snell put it best:

So, bad news for Samsung and other businesses betting on big margins for bulbs, but good news for everyone else.

NYT: "Emissions From India Will Increase"

India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, in the New York Times:

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.

Not great news. Vox has interesting coverage of this story, as well; the bottom of their story has a great collection of links.

Paulson on Climate Change and the Price of Inaction

Henry M. Paulson, writing in the NYT:

In a future with more severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising seas that imperil coastal cities, public funding to pay for adaptations and disaster relief will add significantly to our fiscal deficit and threaten our long-term economic security. So it is perverse that those who want limited government and rail against bailouts would put the economy at risk by ignoring climate change.

This is short-termism. There is a tendency, particularly in government and politics, to avoid focusing on difficult problems until they balloon into crisis. We would be fools to wait for that to happen to our climate.

When you run a company, you want to hand it off in better shape than you found it. In the same way, just as we shouldn’t leave our children or grandchildren with mountains of national debt and unsustainable entitlement programs, we shouldn’t leave them with the economic and environmental costs of climate change. Republicans must not shrink from this issue. Risk management is a conservative principle, as is preserving our natural environment for future generations. We are, after all, the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

Last Week Tonight's John Oliver on Climate Change, Scientific Consensus

Priceless. More, please.

Naomi Klein on Climate Change

Well-written and well thought piece on some of the challenges surrounding climate change from Naomi Klein in The Nation:

Another part of what makes climate change so very difficult for us to grasp is that ours is a culture of the perpetual present, one that deliberately severs itself from the past that created us as well as the future we are shaping with our actions. Climate change is about how what we did generations in the past will inescapably affect not just the present, but generations in the future. These time frames are a language that has become foreign to most of us.

This is not about passing individual judgment, nor about berating ourselves for our shallowness or rootlessness. Rather, it is about recognizing that we are products of an industrial project, one intimately, historically linked to fossil fuels.

And just as we have changed before, we can change again. After listening to the great farmer-poet Wendell Berry deliver a lecture on how we each have a duty to love our “homeplace” more than any other, I asked him if he had any advice for rootless people like me and my friends, who live in our computers and always seem to be shopping for a home. “Stop somewhere,” he replied. “And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.”

That’s good advice on lots of levels. Because in order to win this fight of our lives, we all need a place to stand.

British Path�'s films on smog and air pollution

From Variety:

British Path�, the U.K. newsreel archive company, has uploaded its entire 100-year collection of 85,000 historic films in high resolution to YouTube.

The collection, which spans 1896 to 1976, comprises some 3,500 hours of historical footage of major events, notable figures, fashion, travel, sports and culture. It includes extensive film from both World War I and World War II.

Naturally, I looked for some videos about smog, air pollution, and the environment. The Archive doesn’t disappoint. There are pieces called “The Smog Menace”, “Smog Detector”, and a documentary called “Guilty Chimneys” (part 1 + 2, part 3).

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in the archive beyond smog and air pollution. Pretty cool.

Daniel Stoupin's Slow Life

Astonishing.

“Slow” marine animals show their secret life under high magnification. Corals and sponges are very mobile creatures, but their motion is only detectable at different time scales compared to ours and requires time lapses to be seen. These animals build coral reefs and play crucial roles in the biosphere, yet we know almost nothing about their daily lives.

Urban Air Pollution in Delhi, India

I’ve got some fundamental issues with this recent article in the NYT, starting with its absurd title: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. The difference between levels in Beijing and Delhi are nigh indistinguishable shades of the same grey - we’re seeing similar and important trends playing out in large urban centers. We know the levels are health damaging and we know that the exposure-response relationships for a number of health impacts are not linear - a decrease from 400 to 300 ug/m3 doesn’t incur the same benefit in a population as the decrease from, say, 150 to 50 ug/m3. The latter decrease seems to have a far more profound and substantial positive impact on health. That, of course, is not to say we shouldn’t applaud any and all decreases in ambient air pollution — but instead to emphasize that we have a long way to go to fully protect public health.

No doubt, these issues need to become more prominent in Indian discourse, as the author acknowledges:

… [For] the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”

Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.

But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Rural India is fraught with air pollution concerns of a different type — that arising from solid fuel combustion for household cooking. This ‘household air pollution’ results in approximately 900,000 annual deaths in India - 10% of national mortality. It disproportionately affects the rural poor, who, for the most part, don’t have access to modern fuels for cooking, heating, or lighting. It’s estimated that approximately 700 million people - more than twice the US population - in India rely on solid fuel use for household energy needs.

I applaud the NYT for covering air pollution in Delhi and across India. That said, neither of the above articles consider air pollution out of urban centers - and neither address the fact that these types of pollution events were commonplace in now-developed countries (see Donora, PA; London Smog; Thanksgiving Day Smog, NYC, 1966 ) as they stumbled in search of progress.

Some more graphs of Beijing's Air Pollution

A bunch of folks across the internet have been doing some great stuff with the air quality data coming out of China via official channels and the US Embassy twitter feeds. My advisor asked for some graphs of available data. They are posted below (all were created in R using ggplot2). If time ever permits, I’ll post some interactive visualizations.

Lisa Jackson on the Moth

Lisa Jackson, former EPA Administrator, tells an audience at the Moth about how she transitioned into Environmental Engineering. Great story.

Earth Island Journal's Conversation with Naomi Klein

A good interview with Naomi Klein leading her new book coming out in 2014. Read the whole thing here.

You’ve said that progressives’ narratives are insufficient. What would be an alternative narrative to turn this situation around?

Well, I think the narrative that got us into this - that’s part of the reason why you have climate change denialism being such as powerful force in North America and in Australia - is really tied to the frontier mentality. It’s really tied to the idea of there always being more. We live on lands that were supposedly innocent, “discovered” lands where nature was so abundant. You could not imagine depletion ever. These are foundational myths.

And so I’ve taken a huge amount of hope from the emergence of the Idle No More movement, because of what I see as a tremendous generosity of spirit from Indigenous leadership right now to educate us in another narrative. I just did a panel with Idle No More and I was the only non-Native speaker at this event, and the other Native speakers were all saying we want to play this leadership role. It’s actually taken a long time to get to that point. There’s been so much abuse heaped upon these communities, and so much rightful anger at the people who stole their lands. This is the first time that I’ve seen this openness, open willingness that we have something to bring, we want to lead, we want to model another way which relates to the land. So that’s where I am getting a lot of hope right now.

The impacts of Idle No More are really not understood. My husband is making a documentary that goes with this book, and he’s directing it right now in Montana, and we’ve been doing a lot of filming on the northern Cheyenne reservation because there’s a huge, huge coal deposit that they’ve been debating for a lot of years - whether or not to dig out this coal. And it was really looking like they were going to dig it up. It goes against their prophecies, and it’s just very painful. Now there’s just this new generation of young people on that reserve who are determined to leave that coal in the ground, and are training themselves to do solar and wind, and they all talk about Idle No More. I think there’s something very powerful going on. In Canada it’s a very big deal. It’s very big deal in all of North America, because of the huge amount of untapped energy, fossil fuel energy, that is on Indigenous land. That goes for Arctic oil. It certainly goes for the tar sands. It goes for where they want to lay those pipelines. It goes for where the natural gas is. It goes for where the major coal deposits are in the US. I think in Canada we take Indigenous rights more seriously than in the US. I hope that will change.

Rim Fire images from NASA & the KPCC Fire Tracker

Devastating. KPCC has an interesting, interactive tool for monitoring California’s wildfires. A bit is embedded below, but the whole thing is worth a look.

NASA’s posted a number of photos of the fire from space. A smattering are embedded below.

In some of the photos, you can see the plume from the Rim Fire and the plume from the American Fire in Tahoe National Forest.

Reno’s been adversely affected by the plume from the Rim Fire, reporting unhealthy on their AQI (can’t find any numbers, at the moment); NASA projects that the plume is impacting AQ in 4 states.

Good luck to the firefighters and rangers working to control the blaze. Our thoughts are with them and others in the surrounding communities.

EIA: World petroleum use sets record high in 2012 despite declines in North America and Europe

U.S. Energy Information Administration:

The world’s consumption of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil, and other petroleum products reached a record high of 88.9 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2012, as declining consumption in North America and Europe was more than outpaced by growth in Asia and other regions (see animated map). A previous article examined regional trends in petroleum consumption between 1980 and 2010; today’s article extends that analysis through 2012.

Some other specific points of interest:

Between 2008 and 2012, Asia’s consumption increased by 4.4 million bbl/d. The rapidly industrializing economies of China and India fueled much of Asia’s demand increase, growing 2.8 million bbl/d and 800,000 bbl/d, respectively. If China’s use of petroleum continues to grow as projected, it is expected to replace the United States as the world’s largest net oil importer this fall.

Petroleum use in Europe has declined in every year since 2006. Part of this decline was related to a reduction in overall energy intensity and government policies that encourage energy efficiency. Europe’s weak economic performance has also affected its petroleum use, with declines of 780,000 bbl/d in 2009 and 570,000 bbl/d in 2012 occurring at a time of slow growth and/or recessions in many European countries.

John Nelson's A Breathing Earth

John Nelson, writing about the creation of these images:

Having spent much of my life living near the center of that mitten-shaped peninsula in North America, I have had a consistent seasonal metronome through which I track the years of my life. When I stitch together what can be an impersonal snapshot of an entire planet, all of the sudden I see a thing with a heartbeat. I can track one location throughout a year to compare the annual push and pull of snow and plant life there, while in my periphery I see the oscillating wave of life advancing and retreating, advancing and retreating. And I’m reassured by it.

Of course there are the global characteristics of climate and the nature of land to heat and cool more rapidly than water. The effects of warm currents feeding a surprisingly mild climate in the British Isles. The snowy head start of winter in high elevations like the Himalayas, Rockies, and Caucuses, that spread downward to join the later snowiness of lower elevations. The continental wave of growing grasses in African plains.

But, overall, to me it looks like breathing.

Past EPA Administrators: The US "must move now on substantive steps to curb climate change, at home and internationally."

Writing in an NYT Editorial, four previous EPA administrators make a strong case for climate action now.

Climate change puts all our progress and our successes at risk. If we could articulate one framework for successful governance, perhaps it should be this: When confronted by a problem, deal with it. Look at the facts, cut through the extraneous, devise a workable solution and get it done.

We can have both a strong economy and a livable climate. All parties know that we need both. The rest of the discussion is either detail, which we can resolve, or purposeful delay, which we should not tolerate.

Mr. Obama’s plan is just a start. More will be required. But we must continue efforts to reduce the climate-altering pollutants that threaten our planet. The only uncertainty about our warming world is how bad the changes will get, and how soon. What is most clear is that there is no time to waste.

The writers are former administrators of the Environmental Protection Agency: William D. Ruckelshaus, from its founding in 1970 to 1973, and again from 1983 to 1985; Lee M. Thomas, from 1985 to 1989; William K. Reilly, from 1989 to 1993; and Christine Todd Whitman, from 2001 to 2003.

China to spend $277 billion to curb air pollution

Reuters, reporting on statements by Chinese state-run media:

China plans to invest 1.7 trillion yuan ($277 billion) to combat air pollution over the next five years, state media said on Thursday, underscoring the new government’s concerns about addressing a key source of social discontent.

The money is to be spent primarily in regions that have heavy air pollution and high levels of PM 2.5, the state-run China Daily newspaper quoted Wang Jinnan, vice-president of the Chinese Academy for Environmental Planning as saying. Wang helped draft the plan.

EIA: World energy consumption will increase 56% by 2040

EIA’s recently released International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) to 820 quadrillion Btu. Most of this growth will come from non-OECD (non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, where demand is driven by strong economic growth.

Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing 2.5% per year. However, fossil fuels continue to supply nearly 80% of world energy use through 2040. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel, as global supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane increase.

The industrial sector continues to account for the largest share of delivered energy consumption and is projected to consume more than half of global delivered energy in 2040. Based on current policies and regulations governing fossil fuel use, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise to 45 billion metric tons in 2040, a 46% increase from 2010. Economic growth in developing nations, fueled by a continued reliance on fossil fuels, accounts for most of the emissions increases.

Thomas Prior's Insane Photos from Fireworks in Tultepec, Mexico & El Torito de Antigua

Kottke linked to Thomas Prior’s collection of celebrations laden with fireworks in Mexico. Madness.

The original article at Wired tells us a bit more:

The annual nine-day festival attracts more than 100,000 people to bathe in the glow of pyrotechnicians’ expert displays. The main event is the Pamplonada — a seven-hour running of the (wooden) bulls in which more than 200 timber-framed toros of fire roll through the streets with up to 4,000 fireworks on each in perpetual explosion.

Tultepec is the center of the country’s firework industry, accounting for half of all fireworks made in Mexico. Approximately 30,000 of the 120,000 Tultepec townsfolk work in the pyrotechnics industry building frames, supplying parts and distributing goods. Two thousand work daily in the 300 registered workshops manufacturing fireworks.

The National Pyrotechnic Festival takes place in honor of Saint John of God, the patron saint of hospitals, the sick, nurses, firefighters and alcoholics — quite fitting given the occasion’s flaming revelry and danger.

Those photos reminded me of some revelry I encountered in Guatemala. Witness El Torito de Antigua:

The video actually captures it pretty well. The nonchalance of the fellow who’s got explosives strapped to a wooden bull he’s wearing over his head. The nervous, bemused excitement and terror of the crowd. The madness of the entire endeavor. Not quite the same level insanity as in Tultepec… but of a similar. Mothers, don’t let your babies grow up to be pyrotechnics.

We also monitored air pollution in the plaza (of course) during the march of El Torito.

Report of the US-China Climate Change Working Group

From the report:

We have prepared this Report mindful of the overwhelming scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change and its worsening impacts, as well as the urgent need to intensify global efforts to combat climate change. Rising temperatures are predicted to lead to sea level rise that could affect tens of millions of people around the world, as well as more frequent and intense heat waves, intensified urban smog, and droughts and floods in our most productive agricultural regions. Global climate change represents a grave threat to the economic livelihood and security of all nations, but it also represents a significant opportunity for sustainable development that will benefit both current and future generations. We believe that ambitious domestic action by China and the United States is more critical than ever. China has given high priority to building an “Ecological Civilization” by striving for green, circular and low-carbon development. It has adopted proactive policies and measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The United States is implementing robust policies to promote renewable energy, enhance energy efficiency, and reduce emissions from transportation, buildings, and the power sector. Both countries recognize the need to work together to continue and build on these important efforts.

Five key areas of collaboration were outlined.

  1. Emission reductions from heavy-duty and other vehicles.
  2. Smart Grids
  3. Carbon capture, utilization, and storage.
  4. Collecting and managing greenhouse gas emissions data.
  5. Energy efficiency in buildings and industry.

There’s an explicit acknowledgement of coal as a bad actor here, but nothing explicated about moving from dirty to clean fuels for generation of electricity. Some mentions of co-benefits, as well.

NYTimes: "A single word tucked into a presidential speech...

Justin Gillis, writing in the NYT about Obama's choice to use the word divest:

He knows that if he is to get serious climate policies on the books before his term ends in 2017, he needs a mass political movement pushing for stronger action. No broad movement has materialized in the United States; 350.org and its student activists are the closest thing so far, which may be why Mr. Obama gazes fondly in their direction.

�I�m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends,� he said plaintively at Georgetown. �What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.�

Let's hope the movement towards divestment grows.

Details on 'Power Africa,' the White House's new plan for electrification across sub-Saharan Africa

From the White House:

Today the President announced Power Africa, a new initiative to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. More than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lack access. Power Africa will build on Africa’s enormous power potential, including new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas, and the potential to develop clean geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy. It will help countries develop newly-discovered resources responsibly, build out power generation and transmission, and expand the reach of mini-grid and off-grid solutions.

According to the International Energy Agency, sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity access by 2030. Only with greater private sector investment can the promise of Power Africa be realized. With an initial set of six partner countries in its first phase, Power Africa will add more than 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity. It will increase electricity access by at least 20 million new households and commercial entities with on-grid, mini-grid, and off-grid solutions. And it will enhance energy resource management capabilities, allowing partner countries to meet their critical energy needs and achieve greater energy security.

As that first paragraph points out, this is inherently an issue of rural energy — and of household energy. The following bit seems a bit… optimistic:

Power Africa will work in collaboration with partner countries to ensure the path forward on oil and gas development maximizes the benefits to the people of Africa, while also ensuring that development proceeds in a timely, financially sound, inclusive, transparent and environmentally sustainable manner.

The 'Social Cost Of Carbon' Is Almost Double What The Government Previously Thought

Think Progress has a nice summary of the report out of the Obama administration updating the social cost of carbon (SCC). From the report’s executive summary:

The SCC estimates using the updated versions of the models are higher than those reported in the 2010 TSD. By way of comparison, the four 2020 SCC estimates reported in the 2010 TSD were $7, $26, $42 and $81 (2007$). The corresponding four updated SCC estimates for 2020 are $12, $43, $65, and $129 (2007$). The model updates that are relevant to the SCC estimates include: an explicit representation of sea level rise damages in the DICE and PAGE models; updated adaptation assumptions, revisions to ensure damages are constrained by GDP, updated regional scaling of damages, and a revised treatment of potentially abrupt shifts in climate damages in the PAGE model; an updated carbon cycle in the DICE model; and updated damage functions for sea level rise impacts, the agricultural sector, and reduced space heating requirements, as well as changes to the transient response of temperature to the buildup of GHG concentrations and the inclusion of indirect effects of methane emissions in the FUND model. The SCC estimates vary by year, and the following table summarizes the revised SCC estimates from 2010 through 2050.

After reviewing the full document, the changes update the science to the state of current understanding. As such, the projections offered within are more current (and based on more evolved science) than previously SCC estimates. The conclusions from the report are significant, but seem to overplay the US’s actions and role to date:

However, the climate change problem is highly unusual in at least two respects. First, it involves a global externality: emissions of most greenhouse gases contribute to damages around the world even when they are emitted in the United States. Consequently, to address the global nature of the problem, the SCC must incorporate the full (global) damages caused by GHG emissions. Second, climate change presents a problem that the United States alone cannot solve. Even if the United States were to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to zero, that step would be far from enough to avoid substantial climate change. Other countries would also need to take action to reduce emissions if significant changes in the global climate are to be avoided. Emphasizing the need for a global solution to a global problem, the United States has been actively involved in seeking international agreements to reduce emissions and in encouraging other nations, including emerging major economies, to take significant steps to reduce emissions.

This is a step in the right direction, but dodges real leadership.

Stories To Mark 60 Years Since First Summit Of Everest

slayers among men.

From SFGate:

Nepal celebrated the 60th anniversary of the conquest of Mount Everest on Wednesday by honoring climbers who followed in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

Among them was Italian Reinhold Messner, the first climber to scale Everest without using bottled oxygen and the first person to climb all of the world’s 14 highest peaks.

“I am here in Nepal again for filming … not any more for climbing,” Messner said, adding he did reach the base camp of Mount Kanchenjunga during his visit. “I am full of energy and full of enthusiasm for this country.”

Nepalese officials offered flower garlands and scarfs to the climbers who took part in the ceremony. They were taken around Katmandu on horse-drawn carriages followed by hundreds of people who marched holding banners to mark the anniversary.

Hillary and Norgay reached the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953. Since then thousands of people have reached the 8,850-meter (29,035-foot) peak.

and from NPR:

On this, the 60th anniversary of the first successful summit of the world’s tallest mountain, there’s plenty of news about Mount Everest. Here are six stories [NPR] found interesting.

The Koch coke pile in Detroit

The NYT reports on a growing pile of coke, a byproduct of refining, in Detroit. In this case, the coke is produced as a result of tar sands refining; due to its high sulfur and carbon content, it is largely useless in the developed world. It seems that Koch brothers, who have purchased the coke from tar sands operations in Alberta, plan to sell it abroad.

Coke, which is mainly carbon, is an essential ingredient in steelmaking as well as producing the electrical anodes used to make aluminum.

While there is high demand from both those industries, the small grains and high sulfur content of this petroleum coke make it largely unusable for those purposes, said Kerry Satterthwaite, a petroleum coke analyst at Roskill Information Services, a commodities analysis company based in London.

“It is worse than a byproduct,” Ms. Satterthwaite said.”It’s a waste byproduct that is costly and inconvenient to store, but effectively costs nothing to produce.”

Murray Gray, the scientific director for the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta, said that about two years ago, Alberta backed away from plans to use the petroleum coke as a fuel source, partly over concerns about greenhouse-gas emissions. Some of it is burned there, however, to power coking plants.

Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China

As Kirk pointed out in an email this morning, the NYT missed half of the problem. He wrote:

Remarkable narrow vision to fail even to mention that household air pollution has about an equal impact in the country. Even though the GBD study shows both on the same graphs, journalists and policy makers see one, but not the other. These is also an estimated 0.2 million overlap, what we call secondhand cookfire smoke, which is the portion of outdoor air due to cooking fuels in the country. If you account that to household air pollution, than the total impact of household air pollution is greater than that from outdoor air pollution due to all other sources combined (1.2 million premature deaths compared to 1.0 million).

Our work has been showing — in India and in China — that outdoor air pollution isn’t just an urban problem; it is simply measured most commonly (and thus identified most easily) in urban areas. We’re working to quantify that contribution and to make the case that cleaning up households can help clean up ambient air — in urban and rural areas.

NYT Public Editor's Journal: For Times Environmental Reporting, Intentions May Be Good but the Signs Are Not

Margaret Sullivan, the fifth public editor appointed by The New York Times, on the recent closings of the Environment Desk and the Times’ Green Blog:

Here’s my take: I’m not convinced that The Times’s environmental coverage will be as strong without the team and the blog. Something real has been lost on a topic of huge and growing importance.

Especially given The Times’s declared interest in attracting international readers and younger readers, I hope that Times editors — very soon — will look for new ways to show readers that environmental news hasn’t been abandoned, but in fact is of utmost importance. So far, in 2013, they are not sending that message.

Understatement of 2013, thus far.

Ella Chou: What Would China's Carbon Tax Regime Look Like

A thoughtful and insightful overview of the proposed carbon/environmental tax by Harvard graduate student Ella Chou. Some excerpts follow.

The first thing I want to clarify is that calling it a “carbon tax” would be a gross misnomer, because for a long time to come, the majority of the tax collected from this would still be from what used to be called “pollution discharge fees”, not from taxing carbon emissions.

The tax on carbon would in fact be puny. The Xinhua report noted that previous MOF expert suggestion for the carbon tax was 10 yuan (US $1.5) per ton of carbon dioxide in 2012, with gradual increase to 50 yuan ($7.9) per ton by 2020.

…[T]he tax on coal in China is merely 2-3 yuan (US $0.4) per ton, and 8 yuan (US $1.27) per ton for charred coal, even though the price of coal has increased to several hundreds of yuan per ton.

The point of a carbon tax, be in China or elsewhere, is to set the price signal straight. We tax income; we tax property; we tax goods and services — all the things we want more of, so wouldn’t it be logic to actually tax the thing we want less of: pollution?

I should note that the proportion of environmental tax in the overall revenue of any level of government would be tiny, as is the pollution discharge fee portion of the revenue mix now. Local governments would continue to come up ways to give industries tax rebates and subsidies to attract them to their own jurisdictions, so the effect of the environmental tax or the carbon tax on the industries would be negligible. Standardizing fees into a tax is a step in the right direction. China can use a price on carbon, and environmental issues in general, as a starting point to address the price distortions that are stifling its long-term growth.

Traditional cooking and household energy use in the Library of Congress online archives

In the past few weeks, a lot of people have been mining the LoC photo databases for images of public works posters, images of cities early in their development, etc. The archive is outstanding and a lot of the pictures, negatives, schematics, and drawings are available online in multiple resolutions.

I ran some searches for household energy, hearths, cooking fire, cooking stoves, etc and found a number of fascinating results. Many of the pictures from the US were not available online yet - in particular, two libraries of “cooking technologies” from the 1920s and 1930s weren’t around. I’m working on getting access to those through some data request channels. A few that were accessible are below. The majority are from Sikkim and were taken by Alice Kandell between 1965 and 1971. The large one above is supposedly from Jerusalem and was taken between 1900-1920. The seventh one below is from 1908 in Paterna, Spain.

Clearly a wealth of interesting historical information in the archives. Looking forward to further explorations.

Climate Change in Obama's 2013 State of the Union

Strong words from President Obama on climate change during his 2013 State of the Union Address

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it’s too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let’s take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long. I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

Wind industry installs almost 5,300 MW of capacity in December

Today in Energy:

Approximately 40% of the total 2012 wind capacity additions (12,620 MW) came online in December, just before the scheduled expiration of the wind production tax credit (PTC). During December 2012, 59 new wind projects totaling 5,253 MW began commercial operation, the largest-ever single-month capacity increase for U.S. wind energy. About 50% of the total December wind capacity additions were installed in three states: Texas (1,120MW), Oklahoma (794 MW), and California (730 MW)…

Wind generators provided the largest share of additions to total U.S. electric generation capacity in 2012, just as it did in 2008 and 2009. The 2012 addition of 12,620 MW is the highest annual wind capacity installment ever reported to EIA. Wind capacity additions accounted for more than 45% of total 2012 capacity additions and exceeded capacity additions from any other fuel source, including natural gas (which led capacity additions in 2000-07, 2010, and 2011).

EPA Releases its "Climate Change Adaptation Plan"

We live in a world in which the climate is changing. Changes in climate have occurred since the formation of the planet. But humans are now influencing Earth’s climate and causing it to change in unprecedented ways.

It is in this rapidly changing world that EPA is working to fulfill its mission to protect human health and the environment. Many of the outcomes EPA is working to attain (e.g., clean air, safe drinking water) are sensitive to changes in weather and climate. Until now, EPA has been able to assume that climate is relatively stable and future climate will mirror past climate. However, with climate changing more rapidly than society has experienced in the past, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. Climate change is posing new challenges to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

EPA: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Large Facilities

A cool tool for visualizing large GHG emitters in the US.

Through EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program, facilities that emit 25,000 metric tons or more per year of GHGs are required to annually report their GHG emissions to EPA. The facilities are known as direct emitters. The data reported by direct emitters provides a “bottom-up” accounting of the major sources of GHG emissions associated with stationary fuel combustion and industrial processes. Well over half of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are accounted for in this facility level data set, including nearly complete coverage of major emitting sectors such as power plants and refineries.

The Drive Back from Bear Valley

Last weekend, the Lovehardsteins, ChAriel, Beth and I went to Bear Valley for a weekend of skiing, hot tubs, and some fantastic team cooking led by Ben. I x-country skied, but that’s a story for… never. On the drive back, we encountered a lot of outstanding randomness, including the following:

1) a large number of cows, walking in a straight line, down a path, despite huge swaths of trodable land surrounding them;

2) a boy on a dirt bike, racing parallel to us, in a field;

3) some very, very large birds;

4) a murmuration.

Today, kottke.org coincidentally featured a cool video about murmuration (posted below).

Air Quality in Delhi

From India Ink at the NYT:

But in New Delhi on Thursday, air pollution levels far exceeded those in Beijing, only without any government acknowledgement or action. It is not the first time pollution in India’s capital has outpaced that in China.

The level of tiny particulates known as PM 2.5, which lodge deep in the lungs and can enter the bloodstream, was over 400 micrograms per cubic meter in various neighborhoods in and around Delhi Thursday, according to a real-time air quality monitor. That compared to Beijing’s most-recent air quality reading of 172 micrograms per cubic meter. (The “Air Quality online” link to the left of the Delhi website gives you real-time monitoring of Delhi’s pollution levels.)

At the University of Delhi’s northern campus at 12:30 p.m., the reading for PM 2.5 was 402 micrograms per cubic meter; in the eastern suburb of Noida it was 411; at the Indira Gandhi International airport it was 421.

Having spent winters in Delhi, I can attest to the intensity of the air pollution. Part of the problem, like in other large cities, relates to winter meteorology; another significant component is the location of industry and power production in close proximity to urban population centers.

I’m working on culling the data from the Indian Ministry of Earth Sciences air pollution monitors; check back soon.

In Focus: China's Toxic Sky

The Atlantic has an amazing collection of photographs of Beijing’s sky during these last few weeks of intense PM pollution. Particularly striking are the before-and-after shots, which on their site allow you to fade between polluted and less polluted days. One is adapted below, but check them all out.

Since the beginning of this year, the levels of air pollution in Beijing have been dangerously high, with thick clouds of smog chasing people indoors, disrupting air travel, and affecting the health of millions. The past two weeks have been especially bad — at one point the pollution level measured 40 times recommended safety levels. Authorities are taking short-term measures to combat the current crisis, shutting down some factories and limiting government auto usage. However, long-term solutions seem distant, as China’s use of coal continues to rise, and the government remains slow to acknowledge and address the problems.

The focus, of course, has been on Beijing, but astute observers note that it is hardly the most polluted city in the country. As a result of the widespread pollution - which has been getting remarkable coverage in the mainstream media - Chinese activists, educators, and policymakers are speaking out.

Professor Qu Geping, China’s first environmental protection chief, in a recent interview with the South China Morning Post:

“I would not call the past 40 years’ efforts of environmental protection a total failure,” he said. “But I have to admit that governments have done far from enough to rein in the wild pursuit of economic growth … and failed to avoid some of the worst pollution scenarios we, as policymakers, had predicted.”

After three decades of worsening industrial pollution resulting from rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, China has accumulated huge environmental debts that will have to be paid back, Qu said.

He said recently he regretted that some of the very forward-looking strategies - emphasising a more balanced and co-ordinated approach to development and conservation, that were worked out as early as 1983 - were never put into serious practice when China was still at an early stage of industrialisation.

Pan Shiyi, “one of China’s highest profile antipollution warriors” and a real estate mogul, asked Chinese bloggers and social media users to vote on whether or not China should enact national clean air legislation. According to the WSJ’s China Real Time Report,

In less than 10 hours of voting, nearly 32,000 microbloggers have said they agree with real estate mogul Pan Shiyi’s call for China to implement a clean air law. Fewer than 250 said they were opposed, while just over 120 said they weren’t sure.

As of a few minutes ago, 46,353 people had participated in the poll. A drop in the ocean, but a start.

Finally, according to the Times, the Beijing government is taking steps to curb emissions in the capital. The state run news agency reports that 180,000 old vehicles will be removed from the road; the heating systems of 44,000 old, single story homes and coal-burning boilers downtown will be replaced with clean energy; and 40% of Beijing will be forest covered in the next five years.

The city also plans to reduce coal consumption by 1.4 million tonnes and volatile organic compounds emissions by 8,000 tonnes, in addition to closing some 450 heavily polluting plants, according to municipal authorities.

Reasonable measures, but not ones that will occur rapidly. And, as mentioned, this doesn’t help much with the other, equally or more heavily polluted cities throughout the country.

In 2011, China consumed nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined

From EIA’s interesting today in energy series:

Figure based on available EIA data

Coal consumption in China grew more than 9% in 2011, continuing its upward trend for the 12th consecutive year, according to newly released international data. China’s coal use grew by 325 million tons in 2011, accounting for 87% of the 374 million ton global increase in coal use. Of the 2.9 billion tons of global coal demand growth since 2000, China accounted for 2.3 billion tons (82%). China now accounts for 47% of global coal consumption—almost as much as the entire rest of the world combined.

Robust coal demand growth in China is the result of a more than 200% increase in Chinese electric generation since 2000, fueled primarily by coal. China’s coal demand growth averaged 9% per year from 2000 to 2010, more than double the global growth rate of 4% and significantly higher than global growth excluding China, which averaged only 1%.

Another thought-provoking climate post from David Roberts

A good, compelling piece from David Roberts, who appeals to a fundamental moral need for climate action:

The U.S. must act because all people have a moral obligation to act. We have no guarantee that if we act, others will act; we have no guarantee that if everyone acts, it will be enough. But inaction is not a choice. If the danger were an invading army from another planet or a raging global pandemic, we wouldn’t be having these arguments. The need for everyone to act would be obvious. Quibbles over who acts first, or who benefits most from the planet not being invaded, or how to avoid spending “too much” to avoid being annihilated would rightly be seen as verging on sociopathic. Everyone would be eager to act, despite having no certainty of success, because the alternative is simply unacceptable.

That’s the root of it: The results of inaction are morally unacceptable. They are also economically unacceptable, worse than virtually anything we might inflict on ourselves through too-vigorous pursuit of clean energy, regenerative agriculture, reforestation, resource-efficient land use, and resilient infrastructure. But ultimately it is a moral argument. We know we are on track for unthinkable human suffering and we know how to avoid it. Even if we can’t make a dime by saving millions of future children in Africa and Asia, we ought to save them. Even if we’re not certain of our success, we have to try. It’s a matter of human decency.

There was a time, not that long ago, when America took pride in leading the world against such dangers. Where is that pride now?

Your Warming World

newscientist.jpg

New Scientist has released a web app that asks you to think about climate change in a more selfish manner — for yourself or your community. It loads a world map and you can click where you live and get a quick glimpse of how temperatures have changed — for you.

The graphs and maps all show changes relative to average temperatures for the three decades from 1951 to 1980, the earliest period for which there was sufficiently good coverage for comparison. This gives a consistent view of climate change across the globe. To put these numbers in context, the NASA team estimates that the global average temperature for the 1951-1980 baseline period was about 14 �C.

The analysis uses land-based temperature measurements from some 6000 monitoring stations in the Global Historical Climatology Network, plus records from Antarctic stations recorded by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. Temperatures at the ocean surface come from a measurements made by ships from 1880 to 1981, plus satellite measurements from 1982 onwards.

It’s a neat, somewhat egocentric approach. I’m not sure if it really engages a broad audience — but it points towards the kinds of interactivity that may be able to reach skeptical members of the public.

Nicholas Stern: 'I got it wrong on climate change - it's far, far worse'

Heather Stewart and Larry Elliott at The Guardian:

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are “on track for something like four “. Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, “I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise.”

He said some countries, including China, had now started to grasp the seriousness of the risks, but governments should now act forcefully to shift their economies towards less energy-intensive, more environmentally sustainable technologies.

“This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”

David Roberts: The 14 fossil-fuel projects poised to seriously damage the climate

David Roberts, writing at Grist:

If we want a reasonable hope of hitting our 2 degree target, we have to leave about 80 percent of the known fossil fuels in the ground.

That is indeed terrifying math, but it may become slightly less so as it becomes more specific and concrete. (It is always helpful to break a large task into component parts.) Toward that end, today saw some fascinating new work from the research consultancy Ecofys. Commissioned by Greenpeace, it attempts to rank the most dangerous fossil-fuel projects currently being planned.

The metric is simple: how many additional tons of CO2 the project will emit by 2020. (See the report for more on methodology.) Here’s how they rank:

China’s Western provinces / Coal mining expansion / 1,400

Australia / Coal export expansion / 760

Arctic / Drilling for oil and gas / 520

Indonesia / Coal export expansion / 460

United States / Coal export expansion / 420

Canada / Tar sands oil / 420

Iraq / Oil drilling / 420

Gulf of Mexico / Deepwater oil drilling / 350

Brazil / Deepwater oil drilling (pre-salt) / 330

Kazakhstan / Oil drilling / 290

United States / Shale gas / 280

Africa / Gas drilling / 260

Caspian Sea / Gas drilling / 240

Venezuela / Tar sands oil / 190

A simple pie chart here is useful — of the 14 projects, the majority of the problem involves coal, though others aren’t far behind. Note that the the compression here is a bit tricky — coal includes export expansion, for instance. Nonetheless, the point stands — our dirtiest fuel, from a climate and health perspective, appears to be on a trajectory to create more substantial problems for the global environment.

Climate change and sustainable energy in President Obama's second inaugural address

President Obama, during his second inaugural address (emphasis added):

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet…”

Tackling the world's forgotten killer

My advisor, writing at CNN:

About the worst thing you can do is stick burning stuff in your mouth. Every year, tobacco kills more than six million people, according to the World health Organization. Including secondhand tobacco smoke affecting non-smokers, it is the chief cause of ill-health (measured as lost years of healthy life) among men globally and for everyone in North America and Western Europe.

The terrible disease burden imposed by tobacco is recognized by most people, but the risk of another form of smoke is also highlighted in the new “Global Burden of Disease” report released last Month in The Lancet - smoke from cooking fires. About 40 percent of the world still cooks with solid fuels, like wood and coal, in simple stoves that release substantial amounts of the same kinds of hazardous chemicals found in tobacco smoke directly into the household environment. Indeed, a typical wood cookfire emits 400 cigarettes worth of smoke an hour.

This “household air pollution” is responsible for about 3.5 million premature deaths each year. Perhaps it is not surprising that the impact on health is so high when one considers that this smoke particularly affects a very vulnerable group - poor women in developing countries.

Why we shouldn't compare Beijing in 2013 to mid-20th century London, Pittsburgh, and Chicago

This week, amidst all the kerfuffle over Beijing’s smog, both Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic looked back to historical periods of extreme pollution in the US and the UK as proof that cleaning up the air in large, rapidly developing cities can happen — will happen — given long enough time frames. Madrigal points to Chicago and Pittsburgh, noting

The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.

So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.

Similarly, Revkin first looks back to the 1950s London smog episodes and then looks forward, offering potential solutions.

…Much of what we in the West see as shockingly aberrant in today’s industrializing countries and fast-growing cities was our norm a short two generations ago. The same is true for rivers. As I wrote last year, while Nairobi has foaming floods of pollution now, the Hudson, which is now swimmable, had shores sticky with adhesive and shimmering with automotive paint a few decades ago. Prosperity leads to rising public environmental concern and the wherewithal for governments to change rules and practices.

Last year, I asked this question: “Can China Follow U.S. Shift from Coal to Gas?” The country has vast reserves of shale gas but lacks expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, the innovative mix of technologies that is poised to transform America’s energy prospects (if drilling is done with communities and the environment in mind). A prompt shift from coal to natural gas in China — which would have to involve substantial collaboration with the United States — could potentially be a big near-term step toward stopping growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course clearing the air in crowded, coal-dependent cities.

A few things stand out. While it’s perhaps fair to argue that pollution controls will come on a long enough time frame, it’s a bit problematic to compare 1940s - 1960s Chicago and Pittsburgh to emerging market mega-cities. Beijing’s population is approximately 20 million. Delhi and its surrounding National Capital Region, which suffer from similar bouts of intense ambient air pollution, have an estimated population of a bit over 22 million. In 1940, the population of Pittsburgh was ~700,000; Chicago was home to ~ 3.4 million. London was quite a bit larger during the smog episodes, with a population of ~9 million, but still much smaller than current-day mega-cities. The magnitude of the pollution in these cities — coupled with the sheer number of people residing within them — leads to extremely large, health-damaging population level exposures.

As Revkin points out, there’s a path forward that could lead to more rapid improvements in environmental quality and have a number of political and health-related cobenefits — collaboration between developed and developing markets to improve the quality of energy production. While I’m not 100% onboard with fracking, Revkin’s general point emphasizing cooperation should hold. We, the West, have repeatedly been through the pathway of industrialization -> environmental degradation -> outrage, illness, death -> <- regulatory struggles -> technological innovation -> cleaner environments. We’ve emerged from it in two or three generations with vastly improved environmental conditions, though we must now face the looming specter of climate change. It is in our own selfish interests — indeed, in everyone’s interest — to facilitate cleaner energy production and industrialization globally. The pollutants affecting millions in China and India have long-lasting global impacts that affect us all. Developing and developed countries acting in concert to reduce emissions results in a win-win.

Some caveats. I’m in no way implying that Revkin and Madrigal haven’t thought through these issues. They have - repeatedly and far more eloquently than I - throughout their writings. Second, I fully acknowledge that development occurs on vastly different timeframes and scales in each emerging market. The pace of development today is breathtaking — change occurs at a pummeling pace, enabled by our past technological innovations that now have a global reach. One hopes, given our global interconnectedness and inter-dependency, that we could avoid repeating some of these catastrophes. We’ve been through this repeatedly. We know the cost of environmental degradation in terms of human life, ecosystem quality, and money. And, to an extent, we know how to clean up our industrial processes. We have a fundamental obligation to share this knowledge, to make it heard, and to use our significant global clout to bring it to bear.

NASA/NOAA: Smog in China, as seen from space

smog_space.jpg

NOAA:

Smog is a common part of life across much of eastern China; however the past week has seen extremely high air pollution counts, some exceeding 750 micrograms per cubic meter of particles that are 2.5 microns or less in diameter. In the U.S., the EPA classifies any PM2.5 concentration above 100 as “unsafe,” as these tiny particles are able to penetrate deep into airways causing many health risks. This image of eastern China was taken on January 13, 2013 by the NASA/NOAA Suomi NPP satellite. Clouds can be seen as bright white areas, whereas the smog and other pollutants appear as a dull gray blanket over the region.

The great Beijing 'fog': dispatches from around the web

Dashiell Bennett, at The Atlantic Wire:

Chinese officials have shut down factories and ordered cars off the roads to try and save their capital city after spending three straight days under a cloud of toxic smog. Visibility has been as low as 100 yards in some parts of the city, as an increase in winter coal burning, combined with low wind conditions pushed the nation’s already crushing pollution problems to dangerous levels.

To put the current crisis in perspective, the World Health Organization considers an acceptable level of airborne particulates to be 25 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3). On Saturday, readings in Beijing reached 993 ug/m3. The head of cardiology at Peking University People’s Hospital said “The number of people coming into our emergency room suffering heart attacks has roughly doubled since Friday.”

James Fallows at the Atlantic, highlighting excerpts from an English-language version of an editorial in Global Times, a state-run newspaper:

It’s worth reading the English version of a notable editorial in Global Times, a government-controlled and often hard-line paper. In days of yore, the Chinese press would downplay pollution reports — calling it “fog,” saying that foreigners were meddling in Chinese affairs by even monitoring the most dangerous pollutants, etc. In context, this editorial is filled with quite eye-opening lines, which I have helpfully highlighted:

“The public should understand the importance of development as well as the critical need to safeguard the bottom line of the environmental pollution. The choice between development and environment protection should be made by genuinely democratic methods…

“The government cannot always think about how to intervene to ‘guide public opinion.’ It should publish the facts and interests involved, and let the public itself produce a balance based on the foundation of diversification.

“The government is not the only responsible party for environmental pollution. As long as the government changes its previous method of covering up the problems and instead publishes the facts, society will know who should be blamed.”

Additional interesting coverage at Live From Beijing, with reasonable explanations of what all the numbers mean.

Finally, a set of photos at WSJ’s China Real Time Report and a summary of the Chinese media response to the ongoing “airpocalypse.”

Beijing's Air Quality hits "Crazy Bad" status again

From the NYT:

The municipal government reported levels as high as 500 on Saturday evening from some monitoring stations. The Chinese system does not report numbers beyond 500. Nevertheless, readings in central Beijing throughout the day were at the extreme end of what is considered hazardous according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency standards. (By comparison, the air quality index in New York City, using the same standard, was 19 at 6 a.m. on Saturday.)

Pollution levels in Beijing had been creeping up for days, and readings were regularly surging above 300 by midweek. The interior of the gleaming Terminal 3 of the Beijing Capital International Airport was filled with a thick haze on Thursday. The next day, people working in office towers in downtown Beijing found it impossible to make out skyscrapers just a few blocks away. Some city residents scoured stores in search of masks and air filters.

Revisiting the old, real-time graph I created from the Twitter data:

The magnitude of the pollution is somewhat hard to comprehend. We often see levels as high as these peaks in unventilated, indoor spaces where people cook using solid fuels (like wood, grass, or dung). To imagine concentrations like that at ambient levels is terrifying from a public health perspective. Health data from Beijing in the coming weeks should back this up — if it is made accessible. Indicates a clear need for some sort of action to preserve population level health, especially amongst the most vulnerable.

NYT dissolves environment desk

I heard about this via kottke.org and found it pretty shocking. Most of the response on the internet has been somewhat bimodal, with positions of meh and dismay.

Grist offers a somewhat more balanced response.

…While the environment desk itself is fairly new, the Times has been a bulwark of robust climate coverage for decades. While it’s not clear if the reassigned environment desk reporters will still maintain a focus on the environment in their reporting, other areas of the paper will gain new reporters with a deep knowledge of and concern about environmental issues. The Times will still continue to turn out good climate coverage.

Part of the (justifiable!) hand-wringing over the move stems from the poor reporting of climate issues elsewhere. Earlier this week, a study revealed that the number of newspapers that maintain a weekly “Science” section dropped from 95 in 1989 to 14 currently. (The Times is one of the 14.) Television news continues to give climate coverage short shrift, especially in the context of policy and politics. With public opinion suggesting that Americans link the threat of global warming with information about its effects, it’s understandably disconcerting to think that one of the most vocal outlets on the subject is changing its approach.

There’s one thing that is certain. As the months and years pass, every other bureau of the New York Times will have to deal with the effects of a changing climate: business, international, health, even sports. Having reporters close at hand who are well-versed in the subject will be an asset to the paper. The problem is less with how the Times staffs its environment coverage and far more with how few other outlets knowledgeably cover the environment at all.

While I tend to agree with Grist’s take on the issue, a couple things stand out. First, we won’t really know how this will impact the paper’s coverage of environmental issues and climate change for weeks or months.

Second, and importantly, much of the uproar has surrounded potential impacts on coverage of climate change. The Times has been a stalwart source of information on other environmental news, as well — including political positions and opinions on the environment, global environmental change, environmental health,the relationship between industry and the environment, and the like. While climate change is perhaps the most pressing of our ongoing environmental concerns, it is certainly not the only one.

I worry that some the Times’ nuanced coverage of other environmental issues may suffer from this move. Moving knowledgeable reporters to other desks in the news department could help bring an environmental perspective to more stories. But it may also lead to weaker coverage of the environment — one can imagine environmental voices getting drowned out by other concerns and editorial decisions. Time will tell.

The Imported Landscapes of Petur Thomsen

Petur Thomsen, an Icelandic photographer, has been documenting “man’s attempts to dominate nature” and “man’s transformation of nature into environment.”

One set of photographs - his “Imported Landscape” series — is particularly striking. It examines the impact of the Karahnjukar Hydroelectric Project in eastern Iceland.

The project consists of three dams, one of them being the highest in Europe, and a hydroelectric power plant. The dams block among others the big glacial river Jokula a Dal, creating the 57km2 artificial lake Halslon.

The power plant is primarily being constructed to supply electricity to a new Aluminum smelter built by Alcoa of USA in the fjord of Reyoarfjorour on the east coast of Iceland.

The artificial lake and the constructions have spoiled the biggest wild nature in Europe. Making the Karahnjukar project, not only the biggest project in Icelandic history, but also the most controversial one. There have been a lot of debates about this project. Environmentalists are fighting for the preservation of the wild nature while those supporting the project talk about the need to use the energy the nature has to offer.

The best way for me to participate in the debate was to follow the land in its transformation.

Environmental degradation in the name of energy production — even ‘clean’ energy production — is nothing new. Thomsen’s take starkly frames the respective powers of man and nature as antagonists. For me, he conveys perfectly our conflicting senses of nostalgia/loss and awe/control. His photos embody contrasting, awkward meanings of power — electricity, energy, dominion, destruction, beauty.

Via The Fox is Black.

Memories for the Future: Documenting what was lost during the Tohoku quake & tsunami

Really cool - and thoughtful - use of internet tech from Google. The before and after photos, in particular, are striking and overwhelming. I like this kind of thing — it imagines the internet and social networks out of the doldrums of daily life and highlights the power of these kinds of technologies; it remembers the old promises of what these technologies could do for us.

On March 11, 2011 a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan, causing unimaginable damage. Many people lost their lives, their homes, and all their precious memories collected over generations. Among the things lost were precious photos and videos — cherished images of family, friends, pets and once-in-a-lifetime events — buried in rubble or washed to sea.

To help people in Japan share their photographs and videos that did survive, Google created a website, “Mirai e no kioku” (text is in Japanese only), which means “Memories for the Future”. Through this site, people have been able to rediscover lost memories of their homes and towns.

Google is now also providing thousands of miles of Street View imagery in the affected areas that were collected before and after the disaster. Seeing the street-level imagery of the affected areas puts the plight of these communities into perspective and ensures that the memories of the disaster remain relevant and tangible for future generations.

Click the “Before” or “After” links at the top of this page and use the Google Maps display to see the areas where we have Street View coverage. Find an image in Street View by dragging the yellow “Pegman” icon onto the map where you see a blue overlay. Then click between the “Before” and “After” links to see how the earthquake and tsunami impacted that area.

If you're 27 or younger, you've never experienced a colder-than-average month

From NOAA’s State of the Climate (as reported by Grist) October 2012:

The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces during October was 14.63�C (58.23�F). This is 0.63�C (1.13�F) above the 20th century average and ties with 2008 as the fifth warmest October on record. The record warmest October occurred in 2003 and the record coldest October occurred in 1912. This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature. The last below-average month was February 1985. The last October with a below-average temperature was 1976. The Northern Hemisphere ranked as the seventh warmest October on record, while the Southern Hemisphere ranked as second warmest, behind 1997.

Read more at NOAA.

On the Cold Front: Photos of Receding Glaciers

In an effort to provide concrete visual proof of climate change and its devastating effects, photographer James Balog embarked on a years-long project that spanned the northern reaches of the globe. He set up cameras from Greenland to Alaska in order to capture horrifying—yet undeniably beautiful—time-lapse photos that reveal the unprecedented rate at which glaciers are receding. As the award-winning Chasing Ice, which chronicles Balog’s monumental endeavor with his Extreme Ice Survey, hits New York on November 9, VF.com showcases breathtaking photographs from Balog’s Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, published by Rizzoli.

From Dave Pell’s NextDraft

Q: What do a broken fuel injector, a helicopter evacuation, a plague of diarrhea, a minor tornado, and Rohtang Pass all have in common?

A: The 2012 Himalayan Health Exchange Kargiakh expedition.

More on all that later, though. We made it through the whole trip relatively intact. The trip was long and productive.

Around 600 people came through the public health and medical camps, with complaints ranging from simple osteoarthritis to worms to primary syphilis (yup!). We were able to sample indoor air quality in six villages across the Zanskar valley - a minor miracle. Remarkably, the levels of pollution during this time of year seem to be a bit lower than expected, though we won’t be able to say anything definitive until we do some more thorough data analysis.

The team arrived post-trek in Manali late on August 24th after a harrowing drive down Rohtang pass. The sky was thick with cotton-gauze fog, sharply contrasted by sticky, dense brown mud smothering the road. Our bus met them both, sliding around corners, sometimes narrowly avoiding steep drops, all the while pummeling through pea soup. The driver performed admirably, exhibiting nerves of steel save occasional bouts of hyperactive profanity. The passengers did alright, as well, though they were clearly many frayed, over-stimulated synapses at the end of the bus ride. Manali is a kitschy oasis of hot showers, beer, and wandering Druids. Our motley crew fits in well and is re-finding their footing among the modern.

We head to Delhi by bus in a few minutes, another long sojourn before we all disperse to our separate homes around the world. It’s been a great trip - and one I look forward to describing more in the coming days.

Leh

I arrived in Leh yesterday morning after an exceptionally early start. My taxi arrived at Noida at 2:40a and we began the longish drive to the airport. Typical of all taxi experiences, we made a couple of round-about navigational decisions, had to go a permit renewed, and got stuck in traffic at 3:30a behind large, large trucks struggling up an overpass.

The entire process at Delhi airport was far better than in previous years; the domestic and international airports merged into a single location. Checking in was easy and getting to the gate relatively painless. No re-identification of bags required, either. The flight to Leh was typically beautiful, with the sun rising over the Himalaya, mountains extending in one direction forever, peeking through dense fog. On the other side, the plains of India. The crowd on the plane was interesting — primarily Europeans and Indians, both older than I would have expected.

Development in Leh seems to have slowed a bit over the past four years; there are fewer new hotels and construction than in the past. A good thing, in my opinion. The main strips are still crowded, full of trucks, and a little grungy — but the outskirts of town remain as they have for quite some time. Beautiful, quiet, nice.

Catching up with Hem and the HHE staff was a delight. Much has improved from a logistical / organizational standpoint — and much is still the same. Looking forward to the trip.

Some tragedy — a driver, who had been with HHE for many years, died a few weeks after his marriage. A truck rolled backwards and over him in his home-town, not 50 meters from his house. Truly sad. He was a gentle, kind, and funny man.

Yesterday was a day of rest and acclimatization. Not much to report. Sleep last night was fitful; interrupted at 3:30a by a mournful prayer from the local mosque. The packs of stray dogs that control Leh added a chorus of howls and barks to the lilting dirge. Odd, a bit annoying, and captivating.

Today, I got up early — around 5 — and climbed up to the monastery and palace that overlooks Leh. The views were typically beautiful and the space was blessedly empty. A nice morning.

Air Quality in London During the Olympics

Earlier this week, a few British newspapers ran stories about the implications of poor air quality in London and the impact it may have on athlete’s performance. The articles were a bit scant on details, but hinted at dangers for vulnerable populations and an increased risk of exercise-induced asthma during certain times of the day, especially for athletes. They cited London Air, a site that is tracking a number of important pollutants at sites throughout London.

They’ve got a remarkable amount of relatively easily accessible data on their site, and a special subsection catered towards visitors to London for the 2012 games. They’ve also created (in collaboration with the Environmental Health group at King’s College) free location-aware smartphone apps for Android and iOS that are impressive, easy to use, and comprehensive.

Click here to see a map of PM10 concentrations around London and visit their site for more information.

The AP story has been picked up by the Washington Post.

Rains in China + Changes in Air Quality in Beijing

Not so long ago, I created a little javascript to pull data from the US Embassy’s Twitter air quality feed from China, parse it, and plot the data. It’s worth revisiting now, since Beijing air has literally been washed by the huge amount of rain (and subsequent road closures and power outages) the population experienced last week.

From the NYT

The heaviest rainfall in six decades caused widespread havoc in this capital over the weekend, killing at least 37 people and forcing the evacuation of 50,000 others from waterlogged neighborhoods and villages, according to the state news media.

And from BBC:

State news agency Xinhua said 460mm (18.1 in) fell in Beijing’s Fangshan district, with the capital as a whole averaging 170mm.

About 1.9m people had been affected by the downpour, and flood and economic losses had been estimated at 10bn yuan ($1.5bn, £960m), Pan Anjun, deputy chief of Beijing flood control headquarters, was quoted as saying by Xinhua news agency.

By Sunday evening, more than 65,000 people had to be evacuated. Beijing officials said 37 people had died, 25 of them from drowning.

Outside the capital, 17 people were reportedly missing in northwestern Shaanxi province and eight people dead in southwestern Sichuan province due to heavy rains, said another Xinhua report.

Here’s the real-time data, again — only useful for a few more days. Note the sudden drop in PM2.5 and the slow creep back up. More rain expected this week. Hopefully all colleagues and friends in China are keeping safe, dry, and out of the streets.

The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun is a 32 year old Chinese photographer born in Sichuan, China. He’s created a large-format collection of photographs called “The Yellow River Surging Northward Rumblingly.” The images — with their muted tones — showcase a stunning, vast landscape mottled with people. The large intrusions and scars on the scenery — smoke stacks, superhighways, cooling towers — appear unnatural, huge, imposing. Large compared to the scale of the people in his photos, but small in comparison to the enormity of the surroundings. Really impressive work.

It is a river, with its unity of bend and straight, fullness and imperfection, rapid and slow, active or tranquil, majestic and elegant, simple and wonderful, bright and dark, light and color, form and spirit, visionary and real… It embraces people’s reality and fate, joy and sorrow, firmness and leisure.

I determined to follow its pace, with all my courage and my… large format camera.

See the whole set here.

Dave Pell's NextDraft: Meet Me in the City

Dave Pell, in his excellent NextDraft newsletter, points to a couple of quick and entertaining links about cities.

First, from NPR, a fun way to figure out if you live in a city.

Second, from The Atlantic Cities, a short but entertaining look at cities that may or may not have been without air conditioning. Pretty scary stuff, when we think about the rapid increase in AC use in the developing world and the concomitant strain on power supplies and use of harmful, climate forcing chemicals.

China's Air Quality Dilemma

Fascinating commentary in JAMA (related primarily to this article). The article and the commentary focus on the extraordinary pollution mitigation and control strategies undertaken by the Chinese government in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics.

To ensure acceptable air quality during the Olympics (held from August 8-24) and the Paralympics (held from September 6-16), the Chinese government launched a series of aggressive measures to reduce pollutant emissions. To reduce industrial emissions, the operations of combustion facilities were restricted in smelters, cement plants, power plants, nonattainment boilers, and construction and petro-chemical industries. To reduce traffic emissions, certain vehicles and trucks were banned, 70% of government-owned vehicles were kept off the streets, and other vehicles could travel through the city only on alternating days.

The pollutant reductions are striking and substantial — reductions in mean concentrations of sulfur dioxide (-60%), carbon monoxide (-48%), nitrogen dioxide (-43%), elemental carbon (-36%), fine particulate matter (PM2.5, -27%), ozone (-22%), and sulfate (-13%), were reported. (Of note, even during the cleanest days in Beijing, mean concentrations exceeded the worst days in LA).

The study by Rich et al in JAMA (linked above) presents compelling evidence of changes in biomarkers due to the decreased pollution that point towards the vast potential for improved health with air quality regulation. The nitty-gritty scientific details are interesting, but more salient, I believe, are the policy ramifications. The reductions in ambient air pollution under the pressure of the IOC and widespread, international attention prove that change is possible, though at a potentially steep economic cost.

China’s dilemma, like many countries with emerging industries, is how to reconcile rapid economic growth with environmental protection. In recent decades, China has achieved industrialization and urbanization. However, China has been much less successful in maintaining the quality of urban air. Several factors challenge the implementation of air pollution controls in China: heavy reliance on coal as a main heating system, especially in subsidized housing; lack of political incentives for trading slower growth for less pollution; economic factors: most Chinese factories and power plants run on extremely thin margins and fines for polluting are generally lower than the cost of controlling emissions; and economic transformation of the landscape, from ubiquitous construction sites to the rapid expansion of the nation’s vehicle fleet. If air pollution in China and other Asian nations cannot be controlled, it could spread to other continents. A recent study by Lin et al provides compelling evidence that Asian emissions may account for as much as 20% of ground-level pollution in the United States. Clean air is a shared global resource. It is in the common interest to maintain air quality for the promotion of global health.

Cookstoves & the shadow of the past

There’s been a lot of “controversy” in the development sphere over the value of cookstove projects, stemming largely from one large trial in one country using one (arguably not) improved stove. The abstract nicely sums up their point:

We find no evidence of improvements in lung functioning or health and there is no change in fuel consumption (and presumably greenhouse gas emissions). The difference between the laboratory and this study’s field findings appears to result from households’ revealed low valuation of the stoves. Households failed to use the stoves regularly or appropriately, did not make the necessary investments to maintain them properly, and use ultimately declined further over time. More broadly, this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts, and to test them over a long enough horizon to understand how this behavioral effect evolves over time.

Cheers to JPAL for bringing in researchers from diverse backgrounds to think about and work on household air pollution and cookstoves. The field moves forward when alternative perspectives force us to think in new ways.

The rub, though, is that many of us in the field are acutely aware of the explicit requirement that any intervention be fully vetted with the community before being deployed. This isn’t the first time the development world has been interested in cookstoves; past large-scale interventions have had mixed success in part due to precisely what’s outlined in the article. Fully vetting devices in the community to make sure they are culturally appropriate, usable, clean, and efficient is a known requirement.

There’s always a chance an intervention will still fail, but due diligence dictates prolonged and complete community engagement. Because a product is available on the local market and has claims of “proven” laboratory performance means little. The laboratory provides a first step to grade stoves — but the field is where final decisions should be made. And the value of an ‘improved’ label is heavily diluted - we’re barraged by dozens of these products regularly. We derive value from meaningful, beneficial, and unobtrusive interaction with and use of appliances. Devices that fail to provide those traits fail to be used. This is definitely true here and seemingly true everywhere.

Two fundamental conclusions from the recent brouhaha stand out. First, the astonishing hype surrounding this article fits within the larger patterns we see in the news machine. A single article, statement, or editorial snowballs and catalyzes a lot of discussion (in the popular media for a news cycle, and in academia for an eternity). Not a bad thing in and of itself, but problematic when the media ignores the history of available knowledge and treats the news as something profoundly new and unequivocally true. Second, the coverage helps focus and hone the message of those working in the field — never a bad thing. It reminds us of past learnings and helps light a path forward.

In a blog post from June 18 on National Geographic, Radha Muthiah (the Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves) and the authors of the above article write,

This research, and the work of others, suggests that the first goal must be to develop cookstoves that people would actually want to acquire, use, and maintain—in addition to ones that meet clear guidelines and standards for cleanliness, efficiency, and safety. To ensure that scarce development resources are spent wisely, all promising cookstove designs must be tested in real world settings to assess their long-run benefits on health and greenhouse gas emission prior to large scale adoption of clean cookstoves. Moreover, additional research should continue in order to provide greater insight into what types of social marketing can improve the general acceptance of the stoves.

No argument there.

Perfection: Xaver Xylophon's "FOR HIRE! BANGALORE RICKSHAW"

This short animation captures the cadence of local travel in India perfectly. It nails those conflicting sensations of monotony, adventure, and relief.

Green, yellow, black. They are the blood in the veins of Bangalore: the 450,000 rickshaws and their drivers. Knocked together from bits and pieces, decorated, ready for the junk heap or carefully maintained like antique cars, the vehicles are as charismatic as their owners, who brave the monstrous traffic of this metropolis daringly, sleepy, chattering or stoic, making sure the passanger’s trip from A to B will be full of memorable experiences.

Based on days of riding around in rickshaws and drawings made locally, this animation captures the tough workaday life of a rickshaw driver, seen through the eyes of a European visitor.

Result of a one month trip to Bangalore, India as part of the project “The Law of the Market” at the University of Arts Berlin Weißensee, 2011

Gary Snyder in the Paris Review

Beth and I saw Gary Snyder speak at Berkeley in Doe Library a few nights ago. Snyder is among my favorite poets; hearing him speak and read some of his works fulfilled an old dream. He lectured mainly on his acts of translation, interwoven with anecdotes from his past.

This interview from the Paris Review sums up many of the reasons I like the man. A few gems follow (some line breaks added to split up the text):

I guess one’s work as a writer really holds one to the literally physical act of writing and visualizing and imagining and researching and following out the threads of one’s project. However, if one is a nonfiction prose writer or a poet, one is apt to be much more closely engaged with daily life as part of one’s real work, and one’s real work actually becomes life.

And life comes down to daily life. This is also a very powerful Buddhist point: that what we learn and even hopefully become enlightened by is a thorough acceptance of exactly who we are and exactly what it is we must do, with no evasion, no hiding from any of it, physically or psychologically. And so finding the ceremonial, the almost sacramental quality of the moves of daily life is taught in Buddhism. That’s what the Japanese tea ceremony is all about. The Japanese tea ceremony is a model of sacramental tea drinking. Tea drinking is taken as a metaphor for the kitchen and for the dining room. You learn how to drink tea, and if you learn how to drink tea well, you know how to take care of the kitchen and dining room every day. If you learn how to take care of the kitchen and the dining room, you’ve learned about the household. If you know about the household, you know about the watershed. Ecology means house, oikos, you know, from the Greek. Oikos also gives us economics. Oikos nomos means “managing the household.” So that’s one way of looking at it. I understand that there are other lines and other directions that poets take and I honor them. I certainly don’t believe there’s only one kind of poetry.

And then the fundamental ethical precept: whatever you do, try not to cause too much harm.

Some gems from President Obama

These are non-sarcastic gems — honestly outstanding quips. First, on Congress and interest rate hikes on student loans (emphasis added).

For the first eight years of our marriage, [Michelle and I] were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage. So we know what this is about.

And we were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income. But we only finished paying off our student loans—check this out, all right, I’m the President of the United States—we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.

Madness.

Second, on false and forced dichotomies:

There will always be people in this country who say we’ve got to choose between clean air and clean water and putting people back to work. That is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children.

I heard some interesting facts along these lines today from John Harte. No amount of praise I can heap on John is sufficient — he’s a brilliant scientist, an outstanding professor, and occupies a rare, trusted position in the realm of public intellectuals. John discussed a few examples of the environment vs. jobs myth, honing in primarily on old growth preservation in the Pacific Northwest. He noted that instead of jobs being lost by forest preservation, quite a few were created through the processing of “lesser” wood products that had a larger market. Profits increased, as well. He also pointed to rapid growth in the environmental sector in other countries who have a larger focus on renewables — China and Germany, predominantly.

Finally, back to Obama and the students, as he slow jams the news with Jimmy Fallon.

That mic drop was priceless.

Burn: An Energy Journal

It is the fundamental issue of our time: Energy; where we get it; how we use it; what happens then. It powers our homes and our economy; it creates troubled alliances and disturbing divisions; it empowers and impoverishes; it enables almost all that we do and now threatens all that we have become.

The Peabody-award winning SoundVision Productions presents BURN: An Energy Journal, a broadcast and digital project hosted by one of public radio's most trusted journalists and master storytellers, Alex Chadwick. Alex will explore our energy future through the intimate stories of visionaries of research, maverick inventors, industry insiders and concerned citizens. These personal stories will help explain how and why we face an energy crisis, the dilemma of the continuing demand for energy, the realities and consequences of a mostly carbon-based industry and infrastructure, and some possible alternatives and personal/global solutions to an energy and climate future in the coming decades. BURN will follow the quest for Energy answers and the stirring public initiative required to transition to this new energy world.

I'm listening to the first episode now about the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and what it means for nuclear power in the future. Really well put together and reported. And timely. Highly recommended. Listen here.

Interactive, motion-filled US Windmap

A pretty stunning visualization of wind direction and speed over the continental US. Data is pulled from the National Digital Forecast Database every hour, so the visualization is almost in real-time. And, impressively, they're using HTML5 to draw the map and wind animation.

Beautiful + impressive.

Bloomberg Tech Blog: "Now Can We Start Talking About the Real Foxconn?"

Tim Culpan, on 20 March :

There are also things happening at Foxconn that just aren't sexy to talk about: the cheap accommodation and subsidized food for workers, the Foxconn-run health centers right on campus, the salary that's well above the government minimum and other companies, the continuous stream of young workers who still want to work there.

The problem with Mike Daisey's lies is that they've painted a picture of the Evil Empire, a place devoid of any happiness or humanity. A dark, Dickensian scene of horror and tears. They also make anyone who tries to tell a fuller, more balanced account look like an Apple or Foxconn apologist because your mind is already full of the "knowledge" of how bad it is there.

To the public, a story about a 19-year-old shrugging her shoulders and claiming work is not so bad just can't stand up against a 12-year-old working the iPad factory lines. The naïve and youthful smile of a kid having found his first girlfriend at a Foxconn work party pales in comparison to a crippled old man holding an iPad for the first time. Compared to the lies, the truth just doesn't make good theater.

And again, on 23 March:

If one of the most ardent and well-versed groups in the whole labor debate struggles to put a finger on exactly what the standards are for good employment practices, then there's little hope that the rest of the industry's stakeholders can reach a conclusion, let alone actually achieve it.

Some things are clear. Worker deaths are bad. Underage labor, with such ages clearly defined, is also bad. A safe, clean, healthy work environment is good. Social welfare such as health-care and pensions, also good. Student internships are a grey area while that ultimate desire of all workers - a decent living wage - hasn't exactly been solved in the West. So far neither local laws nor industry self-regulation have succeeded in turning these principles into rules the industry will comply with. Meanwhile, neither camp has done anything to compare conditions at Apple suppliers with the rest of the industry, the country, or the rest of the world.

His second set of points hit the nail on the head. We know what's good and bad -- but we don't know how to contextualize what we know about Apple and Foxconn in the larger global picture. More importantly, we're not clear how to move forward. So, yes, we can all acknowledge there's a problem and something needs to be done. But until there are clear standards and actionable, realistic, mutually agreed upon steps forward, the caustic, circuitous discourse will continue.

Mike Daisey: "It's not journalism. It's theater."

Ira Glass, showing again why he's among the best journalists in America today:

I have difficult news. We've learned that Mike Daisey's story about Apple in China - which we broadcast in January - contained significant fabrications. We're retracting the story because we can't vouch for its truth. This is not a story we commissioned. It was an excerpt of Mike Daisey's acclaimed one-man show "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," in which he talks about visiting a factory in China that makes iPhones and other Apple products.

The China correspondent for the public radio show Marketplace tracked down the interpreter that Daisey hired when he visited Shenzhen China. The interpreter disputed much of what Daisey has been saying on stage and on our show. On this week's episode of This American Life, we will devote the entire hour to detailing the errors in "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory."

Daisey lied to me and to This American Life producer Brian Reed during the fact checking we did on the story, before it was broadcast. That doesn't excuse the fact that we never should've put this on the air. In the end, this was our mistake.

We're horrified to have let something like this onto public radio. Many dedicated reporters and editors - our friends and colleagues - have worked for years to build the reputation for accuracy and integrity that the journalism on public radio enjoys. It's trusted by so many people for good reason. Our program adheres to the same journalistic standards as the other national shows, and in this case, we did not live up to those standards.

Friends and loved ones encouraged me to see Daisey's show and listen closely. They pointed to my like of Apple products. I read about it, thought about it, and tried to balance it with the picture of conditions that Apple (and now others) puts out about their industrial hygiene and environmental practices. It didn't all fit, but I made room for it.

Today, then, the shocker -- This American Life is retracting the previous show and dedicating an hour to setting the record straight. Who does this in this day and age? Who makes a public pronouncement of their own fallibility and goes out of their way to correct it in an ethical way that respects their audience?

I'd argue very few do this. Corrections are relegated to the dusty interior pages of print papers and magazines and hidden from online viewers, for the most part, in the nether regions of websites. NPR may be the exception (as a slight aside, their ethics portal clearly and nicely lays out their stance on a number of things, including retractions, social media, and the like).

Looking forward to hearing the show and continuing to support This American Life's breed of ethical, conscientious, and respectful journalism.

One amendment: I doubt working conditions are perfect in Apple's contractor's factories in China and elsewhere. We know that efforts are being taken to improve them. We know that Apple is beginning to be more transparent about what goes on and is working with independent auditors to get some more precise data about working conditions. And we know they have a long way to go to true transparency.

Industrial hygiene and environmental audits of this type are difficult -- they're heavily biased because they are scheduled visits, often with predetermined and specific objectives. What Daisey's conflation of theatre and journalism does, though, is undermine legitimate reports of working conditions. Exaggeration for theatre may be fine, but the maniacal press tour -- with his descriptions of specific chemical exposures, guards with guns, underage workers, etc passed off as fact -- doesn't work. No one will argue that conditions should improve - but for them to improve, we need a true understanding of baseline conditions, actionable interventions to make the situation healthier, and regular reporting to understand how the situation is changing.

Pop Song Carbon Footprints

A little silly, but fun. My favorite is below.

"Light My Fire" by the Doors

The time to hesitate is through. No time to wallow in the mire. Try now we can only lose, And our love become a funeral pyre, Come on, baby, light my fire

Carbon Footprint: A traditional open-air funeral pyre burns for around six hours, using approximately 385 lbs. of wood. A single funeral pyre produces 362.25 lbs. of CO2, though in India four million tons of wood are used annually for traditional cremations.

Guardian Blog: Once the smoke clears: how clean cookstoves can transform lives

Julia Roberts, writing in the Guardian:

Alarmingly, nearly 3 billion people still rely on solid fuels to cook their food each day. When burned in open fires and inefficient cookstoves, fuels such as wood, coal, charcoal and animal waste create a toxic smoke that fills homes and communities the world over.

Two million people die annually from pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and heart disease caused by cookstove smoke, and millions more suffer from these ailments for years, as well as from injuries such as cataracts and burns.

Women are predominantly the household cooks in most countries, and with their children swaddled to their backs or at their side as they cook, the entire family becomes victim to this silent killer.

Before they can even begin cooking, however, women will likely have spent hours searching for wood and other fuel sources. Children often accompany their mother on this journey, which keeps them from attending school or earning an income.

Such a nurturing act as cooking should not put lives at risk. There are effective solutions, which can save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and combat climate change.

NYTimes: Low Tide

Min Jin Lee, reporting nearly a year after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami:

There are two sayings in Japan for when bad things happen: shikata ga nai, an idiom that means "it can't be helped"; and gambaru, a verb translated as "to persevere against adversity." When life doesn't go your way -- a job loss, illness or a romantic failure -- your friend is likely to say, "Sho ga nai" (a variation of shikata ga nai), it's out of your control. If you need a boost before an exam or when your favorite team is losing, you hear "gambatte," you can do it.

Several survivors shown here, their faces carved deeply like woodblocks, withstood wars, rationing, atomic bombs, postwar reconstructions, economic booms and busts and now an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown. From the outside, it looks as if the Japanese accept all things with equanimity. But we cannot know if inside, the survivors want to spit at another well-intended sho ga nai.

See the associated slideshow, Faces of the Tsunami.

Resilience.

TOKYO (AP) -- Last Sunday was the six-month anniversary of the day the massive earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan's northeast coast.

Some 20,000 people are dead or missing. More than 800,000 homes were completely or partially destroyed. The disaster crippled businesses, roads and infrastructure. The Japanese Red Cross Society estimates that 400,000 people were displaced.

Half a year later, there are physical signs of progress.

Much of the debris has been cleared away or at least organized into big piles. In the port city of Kesennuma, many of the boats carried inland by the tsunami have been removed. Most evacuees have moved out of high school gyms and into temporary shelters or apartments.

Last week the Kyodo News agency distributed an amazing group of combination photographs showing three scenes. The first scene is right after the earthquake and tsunami hit, then three months later and finally, how the scene looks now.

Not compromise, but capitulation.

In a letter to Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administration, the head of the White House office of regulatory affairs, Cass Sunstein, said that the president was rejecting her proposal to tighten the standard.

"He has made it clear he does not support finalizing the rule at this time," Mr. Sunstein said.

He said that changing the rule now would create uncertainty for business and local government. He also said there was no compelling reason to rewrite the ozone standard in advance of the scheduled reconsideration in 2013, a key demand of business interests.

Mr. Sunstein told Ms. Jackson that since the rule is due for reconsideration in 2013, an earlier review would promote confusion and uncertainty.

"In this light," he wrote, "issuing a final rule in late 2011 would be problematic in view of the fact that a new assessment, and potentially new standards, will be developed in the relatively near future."

From the NYT
update: another from the NYT: Stung by Obama, Environmentalists Weigh Options.

Assessing Willingness to Pay for Environmental Health Interventions

Attended a great lecture today by Isha Ray and Jack Colford as part of a new BERC IdeaWorks series. It was a discussion of "Water resources for sustainability and health", focusing mainly on water quality issues in the developing world. A number of interesting studies were described (amazingly clearly, given the complexity of them on the ground) by Dr. Ray and Dr. Colford - both masterful professors. Dr. Colford's undertaking a multi-country assessment of water, sanitation, and hygiene interventions (individually and combined) to see their effects on height, weight, diarrhea. The challenge of doing this kind of randomized trial is not to be underestimated; they plan a year of pilots before the full study begins. A heady undertaking.

Dr. Ray described a couple studies that try to understand how people use these services, how they pay for them, and how they weigh options for water and sanitation. The most striking example she gave is a study kicking off shortly in Tanzania. Her research team is assessing how willing people are to use and pay for six commercially available point-of-use water treatments (like chlorine, a safe-water bucket, a UV filter, a biosand filter, etc). Her approach is novel. As with all studies of this sort, intervention devices will be given to participants. At the end of the study, she'll try one of the following two things: (1) randomly give participants an envelope with a cash amount her team will pay to buy back the point-of-use device or (2) plan the study so that at its conclusion all devices are returned to the researchers; participants are given the option to buy the device back, again at a randomized price. Its an elegant solution to figuring out how much a person would be willing to pay for a technology that is available on the local market.

Our work in the stove world needs to look towards these kinds of assessments to help us frame the issue of poor uptake and compliance of cookstove usage. Both of these types of environmental health interventions often run into the same issues - the technology is poorly designed for the target population, or the population doesn't perceive a need for it. Trying out locally available technologies and helping NGOs and governments figure out which ones people are willing to pay for -- which we hope is a proxy for willing to use -- is one step in the right direction.

This discussion ignores the impact of the devices on the market -- it assumes they work. That's a second, additional wrinkle that plays into the technology adoption.

NYT Editorial on Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Great, short editorial in the NYT about the clean cookstove initiatives.

Here is a shocking statistic: nearly two million people -- mostly women and children -- in the developing world die annually from illnesses brought on by breathing toxic smoke from indoor cooking stoves. The Obama administration is rightly doing something about it.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a global partnership aimed at providing 100 million clean-burning stoves to villages in Africa, Asia and South America. That would cover about one-fifth of the 500 million poor families that burn wood, crop waste, coal, even dung, for cooking and heating.

The United States will provide $50 million in seed money to the project, known as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Other countries and private organizations have pledged a mere $10 million to the cause. But, as Mrs. Clinton noted, "we have to start somewhere," and Washington will, and must, press for more.

Researchers have long known of the risks of primitive indoor stoves -- including pneumonia in children, lung cancer, pulmonary and cardiovascular disease. They have also known that these stoves contribute to global warming by producing large quantities of fine-particle soot normally associated with diesel engines and burning down forests.

The replacement stoves are relatively small, simple cylindrical devices costing less than $100 and capable of capturing between half and 95 percent of the harmful emissions. The program will sensibly not use the money to buy and ship stoves but, rather, to create small manufacturing companies close to the target populations -- creating new jobs in the process. This is an ingenious and overdue response to a global problem.

athabascan tar sands = "energy insanity"

Classes started today. Began my return to academia in what I'm told was true doctoral student fashion -- I missed my first class because I was on a conference call about a potential project :). It was completely worth it. Its fun to glean and interact [even minimally, at this point] with brilliant, engaged folks.

I made it to the second class, in a big theater filled to the brim with an eclectic smattering of students - undergrads, masters, doctoral, the works, from every discipline across the board. The class is out of the Energy & Resources Group and is titled "Energy and Society." Its going to be awesome and cover a breadth of topics pretty quickly.

We concluded today's lecture with a brief discussion of fossil fuel stores, much of which was enlightening to me. I knew about some of the general environmental issues surrounding tar sands and the rampant destruction producing crude from tar sands entails; I had little clue about the complete energy inefficiency of the process. The prof noted that if we include shale and oil/tar sands in our peak oil calculations, the notion that we've hit 50% capacity becomes moot -- we've hit something like 2.5% capacity. That said, he mentioned that if we assume sweet crude to require environmental/energy inputs equal to 1, tar sands is 30 or 40% higher. The process for refining tar sands [which i'll revisit as I learn more] goes something like the following:

Dig a deep-ass pit. Around 100m down, you'll hit tar sands, or as the Canadians like to call it, oil sands. Mix with water and separate the oil. There's a lot of sulfur in tar sands, and we don't like sulfur. So we take CH4, strip the carbon off, and bubble this hydrogen through the tar sand slurry. This'll form H2S. Precipitate the elemental sulfur in an ice bath, release the hydrogen into the atmosphere. You waste natural gas, you throw hydrogen away, and you get all of this goodness:

Sulfur Stockpile

Apparently there's a glut of sulfur in the market, so that just sits there in all its inimitable yellowness. Piles upon piles of sulfur cakes.

This process above is over-simplified, but that doesn't change the fact that its completely f-ing insane. The size of the Athabascan tar sands hellhole is equivalent to Saudi Arabia's oil field before it was pilfered. The government of Alberta thinks it can push production beyond 3 million barrels per day. Hard to imagine a world in which we're not reliant on oil when we keep finding ways to extract it.

A relaxing, impossible day

what a day. i got the call saying we were working today around 8:00 in the morning; i was up, but was hoping for a lazy, lazy day. alas, non. i got dressed, crammed some cereal down my throat, and split. the bus pulled up two seconds after i got to the stop; it took around 50 minutes to get to the train station. 12 rupees later, i was on the panvel express to khargar, where the YUVA office is located. I got there around 11:30 or so. The traffic this morning wasn't bad; as usual, the trains get super crowded at kurla, where two lines intersect and where the dash to get on the train embodies insanity. it is truly beyond description.

we hung around the office for around two hours, taking care of minor business; i looked over old YUVA annual reports. the reports are well put together; the organization does a lot in a ton of sectors. they are an amazing group of people.

around 1:30, we left the office - I presumed we were heading to k-wada... but I was way off base. We went to visit four of Rajen's activist friends, all of whom are living in a small apartment in Navi Mumbai, working on homeless rights - specifically migrant workers rights. The fellow in charge is bold, inspired, and inspiring. he advocates that the government of mumbai and maharashtra should provide some sort of transient home for the over 250,000 migrant workers officially thought to be homeless in mumbai. the number's most likely a lowball estimate. he's assembled a team of folks who have a variety of backgrounds - education, hunger advocacy, economic theory, social work. they bring a bunch of diverse backgrounds to the table - and have managed to get coverage on major indian news networks. they've caught the ears of politicians and large advocacy groups. change, though, is slow.

we sat around for hours and had a wonderful lunch, enhanced by really engaging conversation about development, about the way development has occurred in india, and about what motivates them in the context of an seemingly endless struggle. for abhishak, the public face of the group, it was simple - he said he was unable to close his eyes to the situation around him, and couldn't understand how others could ignore the obvious plight of so many in india. again, its hard to describe, but it is literally impossible to escape the crushing poverty here - even in the richest parts of bombay, you're never more than a few minutes from oppressive destitution.

development's damn tricky. we talked about the ways india is rapidly modernizing and developing. we discussed why development has been so different in the newly developing countries vs the 'older' developed countries. i always come back to simple arguments - the west forces a mode of development on third world countries that possess significantly different social, political, and religious institutions. develoment plans inherently undermine, undercut, and devalue those institutions in an effort to rapidly industrialize. the individual loses autonomy, loses self in the face of homogenization to improve efficiency, to make the country look developed. the process took hundreds of years to evolve in the west - and it evolved as the society created it, as the society grew into it. in LDCs, the society's not creating anything, change is seemingly being forced from the outside - a panacea embraced by self-aggrandizing politicians and economists. but there's no stopping development, the march of progress, or SAPs where the seeds have already been sown - the trick will be finding ways to maintain or retool successful indigenous institutions with the capabilities to find a footing in a rapidly globalized, developed world. it would be amazing if large business in india - be it state run or private industries, like TATA - could step up to the plate and make significant changes or commitments [be it to the environment, workers' rights, or health] that fostered societal change. amazing, but unlikely. imagine if a large state run energy company took a strong stand for alternative fuels in a country of 1+ billion. or if india's largest auto manufacturer committed to producing electric or hydrogen ice vehicles. it would be a monumental slap in the face to the rest of the world, and would warrant the attention both over-populated nations so crave.

ranting, raving. meeting those four was a true treat. they are so inspiring, work so hard, and manage to keep their wits about them and remain hopeful. i pray i'm lucky enough to continue to meet people like them, wherever i may end up.

after that, rajen and I hopped on a motorbike and took off into the hills of navi mumbai. riding beeyach on the bike with 40 lbs of gear strapped to your back... made me cherish life a bit. slightly scary stuff. navi mumbai is already far less crowded than mumbai; heading into the hills was bizarre. population density vanished. trash vanished. it was beautiful - rolling hills all around; a couple of streams flowing swiftly, meandering through the small mountains; kids playing in the water; some wildlife. we hung around for an hour or so, and then returned to the hustle bustle madness. i hopped on the train back to worli, by way of vadala. it was packed.

at some point, a blind beggar came through the car. he sang as he walked up and down the aisles, using his cane to keep a simple beat. his voice and song were beautiful, a lilting dirge that made it seem as though all he had lost in vision was made up 100 fold in voice. and, for once, i wasn't the only one to notice - much of the car fell silent as he sang. some respect, at least, for another one of india's surprising miracles.

the day ended like so many others... i took the wrong bus home. :)

Blorgh!

Hell's bells, its been like ten trillion days since i've written. Since then, much has come to light, many things have gone down, blah blah.

Monitoring

The work has been extremely, insanely challenging. The rains subsided earlier this week; the heat rolled back in, the sun beaming down irately in a vain attempt to sunburn the 16 million melanin-enhanced residents of Mumbai.

It's been hot. Haydes fire and brimstone hot. Anyway, given the fortuitous change in weather, we decided to sample like mad. Since Tuesday, we've sampled 11 homes and run all the blanks - somewhere around 48 or 49 samples total. Remarkably, there have been no real mechanical problems - one pump went nuts, one family disconnected the monitor, but nothing too insane. A typical day of sampling kicks off around 7:30 or 8:00, when I hump 50 pounds of equipment over to the bus stand and wait for Magic Bus 85, which whisks me away to Sion Hospital. After a short walk to the slum, the work begins in earnest. We identify two homes, get consent, and set up the monitors for a four hour run in the morning.

Potters are on a schedule that lends itself to monitoring - they prepare pots in the morning, let them sit in the sun during the day, and kick off the firing process around 3. We monitor both inside and outside homes in the mornings from 9:30-1:30, before the kilns begin. Then, i swap out monitors and we monitor inside and outside again, while the kilns are running.

Two days ago, I encountered hands down the worst air quality i've ever witnessed. You could see/feel the pollution three blocks away; in the slum itself it was nearly impossible to get around due to the smoke. Imagine taking hot peppers, sprinkling them with acid, mashing them up, and then pouring them on your eyes; forget about breathing; plan on showering asap - the fires burn hot and dirty. The last home i visited was a disaster - when i stepped inside, i almost doubled over from the smoke; they had shut the doors and windows in attempt to keep the smoke out, but instead were preventing any air circulation. Smoke crept in through cracked windows, gaps in the doors, poor roofs. The indoor air was like pudding. Bad, burning, caustic, smoke pudding. The two matriarchs were just kickin' it in the kitchen; one little fellow who's been tagging along/helping out took one step inside the place and had the good sense to get the hell out of there. The air inside was a thousand times worse than the air outside, surprisingly. To make things more trying, the temperature inside was easily fifteen to twelve million degrees higher than outside. I'm doing no justice to the situation - it is awful. Its a miracle the children can breathe at all; many have a perpetual hacking cough and runny nose. Today, two of the older chaps involved in the co-op talked openly about a number of folks in the community with cancer.

How did Dharavi come to be?

As a result of becoming more familiar [or numb, take your pick] to my surroundings, i've been getting curious. How did Dharavi, sandwiched between moderately high income parts of town, arise? And, perhaps more significantly, what allows it to keep sitting there? My first, instinctual answer to the latter question revolves around simple economics – the place churns out goods sold throughout Mumbai and India. It is economically self-sustaining; like in other places throughout India, the division of labor is phenomenal. Everyone has a job and pays some fee for people to do nominal things for them. A tremendous number of the goods produced cheaply in Dharavi – including textiles, leather, pottery, the like – are exported to other regions of India for sale. The economic impetus for keeping the people there is present – especially when, by vacant land tenant law, the government does not have to officially recognize or support squatters with infrastructure. There's an open window for folks to be booted from the land at any point.

History tells an interesting story of Dharavi. Originally, as far back as 1909, it was one of the great koliwadas of Mumbai – a great fishing village, flanked on one side by a bustling creek that fed into the Arabian sea. British reclamation efforts dammed up the creek, redirecting it prior to simply eliminating it - spelling the end of the thriving fishing community. The area fell into extreme poverty and slowly grew into the modern day slum of Dharavi.

That's it - that's all i've been able to glean from reading and research. There are some folks in the slum - two elderly couples in particular - who have been there for 40 or 50 years. I plan on picking their brains once the monitoring is finished.

Bedtime. more to relate later on: women's group meetings; kids, cricket, and caram boards; politics; video scheme; supplies for the school.

Yesterdays

rewind -----> all aboard the shrimp train

i was slow catching my train, so i quickly scurried into a very small compartment - reserved, much to my surprise, for fish vendors carting their wares about the peninsula. (fantastic! perhaps I can acquire food for the evening.) the car smelled like one would imagine- pungent and brackish; raw shrimpy goodness. positive i was on my way to hurl city, i flung myself out of the train at the next stop [okay, flung is too strong... hopped daintily out of the "shrimp car"] and jumped into the next open car.

big, big mistake.

the only analogy i can think of is the floor at philips when we saw NIN... a number of sweaty folks, except this time crammed into a thin, barely lit tin can. all pushing. to make things more fun, the people waiting at the next stop fight and throw arms and generally take a running dive into the train. picture: flickering lights; a gaggle of limbs, flailing about; a small american-indian, grappling for air complete with pained look upon face; hundreds of people, rushing the car, as though the one true answer to the mystery of life, sex, wealth, happiness, and samosa resides in the cubic centimeter of space between resident indians 1 through 4 and non-resident alien me. i'm not claustrophobic, but at one point i was crammed between one dude's armpit and another's fella's back and pinned to the wall and seriously thought i was going to flip out, yo. i had to close my eyes and just sort of wish myself outta existence for a little while. Two sweaty armpits and their associated staaaank whisked me violently back into reality.

The shrimpies were a far more tempting fate.

fast forward -----> Tanneries, Textiles, & Domestic Violence

Yesterday scared me. Anil, Rajan, & I went to the slum to collect B footage and interview some children, women, and a few other folks for YUVA's documentary. The interviews were smashing; one elderly gentleman in particular, who has been making pottery for over 25+ years, remarked intelligently on the strong need for change in the community and the excellence of the gas-powered kiln. He spoke about his breathing and heart trouble, and how they seemed to be worse with the smoke; he spoke on his children, who have found other work; and he spoke on the way the gas kilns fired pots, how some of them broke but no more than when firing with the traditional kilns. He recognized the resistance in the community to change, but felt it necessary, inevitable. It was refreshing to hear an elder statesman speak positively of change, to be in favor of change. Similarly, the B-roll footage of the kids and the women's group went well. The kids adore "shooting" [as the filming is called] and stuck around until we had to chase them off.

The early chunk of the day was similar to others - fun yet not central to my work. The later part of the day involved shooting in other regions of Dharavi for the introduction to the video - this portion was insane. The areas with tanneries and other small to medium-sized enterprises were unlike the potters' colony; they were cramped, without the wide lanes to accomodate bhatti; sewage and trash were rife; naked children, beggars, flea-laden dogs. small pathways careening through makeshift housing alongside informal, open sewage ditches. overwhelming and intense.

i started looking for something less... caustic. a group of children with a litter of kittens. three men, pushing a wheel chair-bound companion through muddy, muddy alleyways, all of them laughing hysterically as they slide around. a beaming mother, looking down on her elder daughter of 5 or 6 holding her newborn brother, who is cooing and gurgling loudly. i felt and still feel remarkably out of place. i have no right to be there, invading, internalizing.

the industries themselves make the sweatshops of NBC and Baraka look tame. Groups of between five and ten workers of ages ranging from 7-80 are crammed in a reasonably large, unventilated room with one wide opening. they're all working; the eldest gent, 100000 years old, hums out a familiar hindi tune along with the radio whispering in the background; its hot, but sweating here is a way of life. Perhaps most striking are the products they are working on - one shop worked on plastic containers found around blankets and comforters; another worked on fabric, pressing it and printing it; and the tanneries worked hides. the tanneries were an environmental disaster. chromium was everywhere, green and blue, frothing, mixed with god knows what else. hide was everywhere. the place smelled of death, fixatives, and mold. across a major road, leather wholesalers abound. no regulation binds action here, and concern for the environment comes second to scraping by.

india doesn't allow visitors to focus on just the attractions or remain in fun, comfortable places. for better or worse, the beautiful stuff plays footsy with the devestating stuff on every street corner, at every tourist attraction, around every corner. difficult.

step forward -----> Thunder Lightening Strike!

"Very heavy rains expected in Mumbai in the next 48 hours. Thank you and have a safe monsoon."

The rains have begun. For those of you who've lived in Louisiana, think storm season times ten. The streets in Dharavi flooded in minutes, and the rains didn't let up for over an hour. They began anew two hours later, twice as intense.

Slums + Development

K-wada is a small chunk of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum that hosts 1 million people of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dharavi sprawls in all directions - upwards for two or three stories, and out and out and out. K-wada's an interesting part of Dharavi. It's the region's largest pottery colony, home to some 1200 families. Around 600 of those families earn meager wages as amazing artisanal potters. The pots are stunning, but more amazing is watching the community at work - some work the clay, preparing it for the potters; other prepare the kilns; other still glaze the pots. The final products vary - some serve a strictly utilitarian purpose; some decorative; the majority find a niche between utility and decoration. The functioning, organized, delineated process of the operation is striking, contrasting sharply with larger Indian inefficiency.

Development is a tricky concept to grasp at home. It is even more convoluted in India, a country in the throes of modernization, industrialization, commercialization - all the "-tion" buzzwords affiliated with development. We went to the slum on Saturday to hold a drawing competition with around 30 of the children and to give the cooperative members their pictures, which I had taken the day before. The cooperative members were sincerely grateful and enjoyed the 7 or 8 basic portraits I had taken, which came out well. The lighting was awful, so some improvisation was required, but they were adequate. Anyway, at one point around 40 kids burst into a tiny office, surrounding a small desktop computer so they could see digital photos from a trip they had taken to the park. Technology be damned and all that, but the kids' reaction to the computer, to the images, was priceless - the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. There's this side of modernizing - the amazing trickle of technology to societies who otherwise don't have access to it. The people in k-wada aren't marginalized by large MNCs, by the national government, or by any of the usual suspects - instead, repression comes from history; from an archaic, outdated caste system that, while buckling under pressure, manages to maintain a firm, vice-like grip on Indian society. Mobility outside of your designated lot in life isn't a reality, it's a pipe-dream. It seems impossible. Yet watching those kids - a few in particular - one gets the impression that things will change, that they have to change, that they are changing. The kids speak broken English, while their parents speak none. The kids read and write, few of their elder's do. Many of the teenagers volunteer at the school as tutors, mentors, as little leaders - of their own volition, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. They kids seem to yearn for something else. The parents, like parents everywhere, boast and show-off scores from their chillun that ARE as good as students from more prosperous areas. The ability is there - it always is, always, in every single person - but will the society let it flourish? And then, the flipside of all this, the loss of cultural customs to developmental homogenization. To the desire to escape the current lifestyle. Lays potato chips next to homebrew masala-laden hot mix. Plastic containers in place of hand-made earthenware. High capacity housing in place of sprawling slums. I'm in no place to judge that escapist desire. But, for the first time, I'm not sure where I stand with regards to development. There is life here that doesn't exist elsewhere, energy and vitality and an approach to living that world is rapidly losing... but the need to ramp up production, the desire to create more product for as little money as possible, the pressure of modernization has lead to tremendous difficulty in continuing to actively pursue pottery in a sustainable fashion. The current kilns simply are not sustainable - from an environmental perspective, an economic perspective, and a political perspective. The sheer volume and thickness of smoke created EVERYDAY when the kilns are run is extraordinary. Sometime last week, I watched one elderly gent get caught between two kilns that were firing pottery and take a hacking deep breath - and then cough up blood and pass out. All hell broke loose, as children tried to move this fellow five times their size. Everyone mobilized to help him, and after a few minutes he regained consciousness. Then, the kids return to running around the kilns, playing cricket, chasing each other - blissfully ignorant of the poop they're breathing in. Elders look on, relatively unconcerned. This is how its been, and how it will be. This is their lot in life. Long live tradition, but foofaa that.

Traveling and Arrival, Recounted

these are ancient posts. only edits are to correct my potty-mouthed tendencies

Around 10 days ago, I threw comfort to the wind and left for Mumbai. Those last few days, I surprisingly found myself unprepared for departure. I was aware of how wonderful my friends were before leaving, but now I'm keenly, acutely aware of it. All the time. I miss you all more than I can describe.

I've never been to Mumbai, never imagined Mumbai, never conceptualized all that Mumbai is/could be/may be. On paper, I knew some facts - 16 million people, a city built by "reclaiming land from the sea", Bollywood, bhangra, clubs. Beaches.

16 million people - an unimaginable number, as though one person for every grain of sand on the beach. Then, in the larger context, 16 million is nothing... 16,000,000 out of over 1,000,000,000 in India. A glass of water against the oceans. 1+ billion people. Unfathomable.

Flights are flights, and I'll leave out most of the details of the prodigiously long flight from Atlanta to Mumbai via Amsterdam. Suffice to say, the flights were packed [though my concept of packed people moving has since changed]. I had brief conversations with a fellow from Cameroon, which was interesting; and even more interesting, I found myself sitting next to a fellow who works for the same company as Meg's dad. Small world.

The flight arrived on time, miraculously. The terminal at the international airport in Mumbai smelled ancient, like my old high school - lingering odors of mold, flopsweat, dust, saltwater. It felt creaky, rickety. I rushed myself through the airport to baggage claim, attempting to reassure myself that collecting my baggage and making it through customs would be a cinch.

Alas, non.

But, before I get ahead of myself, let me describe Indian baggage claim. The carousel snakes around a large, rectangular room, curving and swirling about senselessly, as though to maximize inefficiency. Indians coming home from abroad tend to return with copious excess baggage, often beyond the designated limit of 2 pieces per person - for example, the family of four that was standing to my right had 8 checked bags, probably each in excess of the weight limit, and 8 carry-on pieces. Never mind the fact that one family member is probably 4 and another is still in swaddling clothes. Seriously, no big deal.

I digress. The horn sounds, and the baggage starts coming through the very small entry point. Not single file, not piece by piece, but instead bags stacked haphazardly atop bags - a house of cards, a pyramid shaped flea market of oddly colored, oddly named suitcases, boxes, duffle bags, strollers, televisions, rice cookers, air quality monitors - you name, veeee have it. Every fifth piece gets caught in the entry door. Ever other piece has some strap that gets caught in the conveyor belt, resulting in literally dozens of large pieces of luggage crashing to the floor. This being India... the luggage just sits there, as though eventually - at some point - it will gain sentience, realize its mistake, and hop back onto the belt. Or, more likely, someone else will come by and take care of it. Small children sit on the fallen luggage, play amongst it, and then try to move it. Occasionally, they succeed. More often, they become trapped by it, and start screaming. Loudly.

My bags were two of the last ones off the plane, but they arrived intact, a blessing. Blessing be cursed; customs was a nightmare. After reclaiming bags in India, one is presented with two options - the "Green Channel" and the "Red Channel" for customs. The green channel facilitates rapid movement for residents and non-residents who have nothing of consequence they are importing; the red channel is for folks who need to make some sort of declaration. I hustled over to the queue for the green channel, but was instantly spotted. A large customs official - dressed from head to toe in spotless, pressed, pristine white - heralded me with great fanfare to the red channel, where not one, not two, but three magical customs officials awaited me. At this point, my pulse quickened to a breakneck pace, my pores began springing sweat like a geyser, and my brain turned into a smoldering lump of coal.

My bags contain around 10,000 USD worth of equipment, three-quarters of which belongs to Harvard and the remainder of which belongs to Emory. Every piece is essential to the study. And so the conversation begins...

Hello, bya, bags ma kya ha?(Hello, brother - what's in the bags?)

Well, in this one, camping gear. I'm going to Ladakh in August. Clothing, personal medicine - normal travel stuff.

And in this one?

More camping gear, some electronics.

Electronics? Quickly, bring them here (points to X-ray machine, bags go on x-ray machine. Man makes rapid clicking sound with mouth, Indian for, nonononono.)

What is all of this?

Long, drawn out explanation. Volunteer in slums, air quality monitoring, student, equipment all goes back to US.

... ... ... ... ... ... How much USD do you have?

350.

Duties for this equipment are $400

(oh, of course they are, since I only have 350. Foofaa, to be honest, I don't really have 350. I bought coffee and a sandwich at the airport. What if he takes all my money? Then what? Bribery! Must... bribe...customs fellow. What if he's honest? Jackass, slap yourself later, he's not honest. Figure out a way to bribe him. 100 bucks is like 4600 rupees. One month's pay. Foofaaing piece of poo assholes. Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa.)

I don't have 400, and all of the equipment is coming back with me - it is NOT staying in India.

Give me 50 USD.

Wha...Excuse me? (I mean, yeah, I had contemplated 100, but the reality is so much more severe and... poop.)

He now calls two guys with big guns, who usher me to a back room. They speak to each other in Tamil or Maruthi, which I cannot understand; we go over to a wall with a one-way viewing mirror. Extending from the wall is around 2 feet of table, like a bar; they make me exchange the money literally under the table. I find this final flourish both inexorably cruel and hideously, ridiculously amusing. Finally, after between two and three hours, I'm outside of the airport, passport and equipment in hand. It's a bit after 1 am.

Harpreet & Niladri (Batman & Robin, The Justice League, Fantastic Two, Turner & Hooch, JD & Turk) come to my rescue. I get a prepaid cab, we stop at a restaurant, and we head into Mumbai. Despite it being 1 am, its still extremely hot out - the sort of heat that sticks to you like flypaper. 1000% humidity. Supersaturated air. You exhale here, it rains somewhere.

Finally, we're at the apartment; its beautiful. Running water, two beds, plenty of space. Constant electricity. A foofaaing television! Pots pans silverware cleaning supplies. Unbelievable. I owe these two chaps my life.

Sleep that night consisted of lying awake, wide-eyed, wishing for a beer and friends.