Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Can Markets Protect the Environment?

It has only been a short while since I got really interested in environmental movement and issues related to it. Till now my interest and involvement had been only superficial and will stay on that way for a while. Until now I have been more of an environmental "sympathizer" rather than an activist. In my opinion you have to "proactively" try to change things in your life and your immediate environment to be an activist. Blogging about it or reading about it doesn't count. I am however trying to use my blog as a meeting place of ideas I encounter and post about things I have learnt. One of the ideas that I have recently come across is "Free market environmentalism" [FME].

Proponents of FME argue that current methods pursued by the environmental movement focus too much on the government taking care of the environment. This means lobbying for new laws and stricter regulation for protecting the environment. FME proponents say that the government is very inefficient in doing the job and it can be better accomplished by utilizing the power of free markets. FME advocates propose market based measures like use of well specified property rights for protection of natural resources. Nature Conservancy is one of the leading organizations which is using such measures. It has purchased large areas of property (more than 117 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of river around the world) which are ecologically important for conservation.

There are many other market based approaches which are being tried. Some of them are trading of carbon credits to reduce CO2 emissions, Socially responsible investing [SRI] or green investing. Green investing is really interesting because it gives people the power to invest in companies which have implemented socially and environmentally responsible practices and in companies which are developing alternative energy sources. SRI philosophy does not stop at simply screening companies on the basis of their policies. SRI also advocates community investing and shareholder activism as further steps. As shareholders of a company you get to vote on the policies and direction of the company. A large number of environmentally conscious shareholders can then influence the company policies. Sierra Club has started its own green mutual funds to foster this idea.

There was one thing that struck me while reading about FME. The wikipedia entry on the subject lists several objections to the concept. One of the objections goes as follows:
The conservation of endangered species not necessarily achievable using the free market, especially where there is little economic value in the species in question. For example: there might be only limited profit to be made from a piece of land by maintaining it as the habitat of a rare beetle, whereas alternative economic uses for that land (which might be deleterious to the welfare of the beetle) - such as building a parking lot on it - might yield a greater profit. This objection (impliedly) assumes that the beetle has some innate value (even irrespective of its role in the ecosystem which, by definition, must be limited), an assumption which is not unproblematic, relying as it does on a conception of natural rights which has been comprehensively rebutted by thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham (who famously described the idea of inalienable natural rights as "nonsense on stilts").
I strongly believe that ecological niches which harbor rare species have innate environmental value even if they may not have "economical value". It may be because of my philosophical beliefs, but I find it very hard to deny any sentient being the right to exist simply because it does not have any economic value to humans.

I recently came across an article in India Together by Rajani Bakshi, about Green Investing in India. Although the idea is in its infancy in India, it is slowly growing roots. Bakshi gives a nice analogy for the slow transformation of the market through SRI or "mindful markets" as she calls it. It is the analogy of transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly. Here it is in her own words:
"Let us reflect a moment on that phase when the caterpillar has turned into a seemingly inert and dull chrysalis. But inside that chrysalis an incredible revolution is taking place. Within the amorphous pulp of the erstwhile caterpillar new kinds of cells begin to appear which some scientists call imaginal cells. It is these cells which carry the code, the pattern of the yet to be formed butterfly. The old caterpillar cells, naturally resist these alien cells and fight back. But the imaginal cells are determined little fellows. Gradually, the old cells get the message that they are not being threatened with destruction. Instead the imaginal cells are an invitation to be transformed into an incredibly beautiful new creation. Thus the butterfly comes into being.

The striving to foster Mindful Markets is today akin to those imaginal cells. So it is perfectly understandable if, at first, the idea of fundamentally re-programming markets seems destructive, anti-profits, some kind of fluffy romantic non-sense."
Truly beautiful!

While I agree that markets and market based approaches will definitely be needed to further environmental causes, I don't agree that relying on the power of free-markets "only" will lead to all the solutions. An ideal free market may indeed be able to protect the environment in the most effective way and to the fullest of human ability but even in the "free-est" of countries markets are far from ideal.

Some good blogs I came across regarding this topic: The Commons blog, Environmental Economics

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Decentralized Energy Production in India

I came across two posts about decentralized energy economy on EnviroPundit and Event Horizon. Both of them are featured at the first edition of the Carnival of Greens. Decentralized energy production means
"single (or small groups of) households/businesses produce their own energy through a variety of small localized sources (like small wind turbines, solar panels, fuelcells etc.)."
Both of these posts outline the concept very clearly and in detail. The main factors which make such a concept more and more feasible are:
  • Development of alternative energy sources which have high efficiency.
  • Development of high efficiency energy storage systems.
  • Developments in lighting, heating and air-conditioning equipment which are efficient, use less energy and can work on alternative energy sources.
  • Increased cost of conventional energy. This is providing the economic incentives to consumers to switch to alternatives.
  • Rising threat to energy security from terrorism. A centralized energy generation/distribution structure is more vulnerable and the effects of an attack can be widespread.
In the US and Europe large centralized distribution grids are already in place and this may have some drag on switching to a decentralized structure. In developing countries like India, where the grid has not even reached many areas, decentralized generation shows great promise. Efforts are already underway in many areas. Here are some examples:
  • I came across this post by Sunil which talks about Michael Mazgaonkar's work with the Mozda collective at Juna Mozda in Gujarat. Living with the villagers in Juna Mozda for past 12 years, Michael and his wife Swati have done some remarkable work. Now they have built a small wind turbine to provide electricity to the village. [Mozda Collective website, India Express article]
  • A small micro-hydel power generation project in Bilgaon in Maharashtra, which was funded in part by A.I.D (an organization I work with). Bilgaon is a small village in the Narmada valley. The villagers assisted by activists from NBA (Narmada Bachaon Andolan) built a micro-hydel power plant. (This was in part an inspiration for the story line in the Hindi movie Swades). [Frontline article]
  • The tribal energy project by SuTRA (Sustainable Transformation of Rural Areas) to generate energy locally using biofuel - straight vegetable oil (SVO) produced from Honge seeds (Pongamia Pinnata, 'Karanji' in Hindi) which is also available locally. [Articles 1, 2 in Good News India]
All of these projects are in deep rural/tribal areas where the state grid has not reached. They demonstrate the potential for localized generation. These projects have materialized due to the efforts of small NGOs who are dedicated, who have worked in the area for long period of time and developed a bond with the local people. The local people in each case took initiative and stepped in to pick up part of the cost of implementing the projects. In all these project the local people also contributed by means of "Shrama daan" (work donation), which means they provided free manual labor for these projects.

The power distribution in India is controlled by state electric boards. There is shortage of power everywhere in India and there are rolling power cuts. In past these power cuts used be random and businesses and households were at the mercy of the electric boards. Recently the electric boards started publishing a time table for the power cut in the local newspapers. Businesses typically have small generators which run on petrol or diesel to use during the power cuts. When I went to India this summer, I noticed that many people have installed batteries and inverter in their homes. They charge the batteries when the power supply is good and run the inverters during the power cuts. The unreliable power supply is already supporting a small industry which produces generators, batteries and inverters. In cities decentralized production can be made to work and I think there is whole industry that can grow up based on this.

As the cost of renewable sources goes down, individual households, businesses or even housing societies and colonies can implement small projects which will meet their energy needs. Each location will need a different and customized solution based on their needs. There is huge business potential for companies which can provide a full suite of energy generation systems (wind, solar, biofuel, fuel-cell etc.) along with appropriate energy storage and distribution systems. Companies producing the components of these systems such as wind turbines, generators, solar panels, batteries etc. have a huge room to grow. There is a potential for a service industry too, to maintain such systems in good condition.

The main hurdle (and most important one too) is the economic incentives. The main incentives are the saving in electricity bills and reliable continuous power supply. The cost of implementation for these projects is relatively large. So initial projects will have to be targeted towards housing societies or small industrial parks etc. Pilot projects which demonstrate reliability and cost savings can help to attract more people towards such schemes. Companies can tie up with builders and housing developers to implement these projects as a part of new housing schemes.

There is huge scope for innovation in this area. If it is money lying on the sidewalk, "Why hasn't someone picked it up?", I wonder!

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Friday, November 11, 2005

State College Starbucks Rises Up To The Challenge

Fair Trade Blend
The Starbucks challenge [::] is now in 26 states in USA, 12 countries across the world. As many as 164 challenges have been taken and 145 bloggers participating [del.icio.us feed]. Read more about the challenge and regular updates on what action Starbucks is taking on the issue, on Green LA girl's blog.

As for my part, I would give the State College Starbucks (located at the corner of Burrowes st. and College ave.) a good grade. I took the challenge three times this past week, including one this afternoon. The first time the barista (who probably was new) blurted out the list of blends they were brewing at that time. But another barista behind him quickly intervened. "But we can make a French pressed cup for you if you want", he said. So the new barista asked me which blend I wanted and I showed him the Cafe Estima blend, which BTW they had been displaying prominently for a few weeks now. The sad part was they didn't have the French presses in the store at that time. They had some meeting of some sorts and all the French presses were taken to make some coffee at the meeting. So after about 10 minutes of wait the barista graciously offered me a free coupon for any drink I wanted and a cup of regular coffee, which I gleefully accepted.

The second time, I was with a group of friends. One of them never goes to Starbucks but we had dragged him along. He drinks nothing but fair trade. I told him about the challenge and he agreed to try it with me. So we both asked for fair trade coffee. This time there was NO PROBLEM at all. The barista told us that she'll have to make a French pressed cup and it would take four minutes (just as they are supposed to according to Starbucks memo). Few minutes later we had steaming cups of fair trade served at our table.

Fair Trade BlendThe third time, the store was really crowded. Initially I was inclined NOT to ask for fair trade coffee. There was only one barista working the espresso machine, another one at the register and a third one was taking orders down the line. But by the time she came to me, another barista showed up at the register. So I decided to go for fair trade. The barista asked me if I wanted the beans or coffee to drink. I said I wanted a tall cup to go. There was no problem, she asked me to wait till she makes the French pressed cup. Then she went around the store looking for the coffee bag. I had spotted it while I was standing in the line. They are not displaying the cafe estima blend anymore. It has been replaced by "Christmas Blend"... holiday season is here! She came back to me and said they don't have the fair trade blend in the store. Apparently the barista was looking for the actual "Fair Trade blend" Starbucks' only certified coffee until recently. I picked up the bag of Cafe Estima and showed her the fair trade label. "Oh! You want the Estima blend", she goes. I got my coffee five minutes later.

Estima BlendI dunno if any other challengers have faced this confusion. Starbucks online store says that they have only ONE fair trade certified coffee [link], the Fair Trade blend. The online store does NOT say that Cafe Estima blend is fair trade certified. I guess many people don't know about fair trade label and there is more confusion because of the actual "Fair Trade blend". As far as I am concerned it doesn't matter. As long as it has the fair trade label, any coffee is OK. Is there something Starbucks can do about it? May be tell their employees about the label and what it means. In general as the awareness about fair trade grows this problem will go away on its own.

From the latest posts by Green LA girl, it seems that the message from Starbucks memo hasn't trickled down to a lot of its stores. But here in Nittany Lion country it seems like they got it right away and they are following it to the word. Good job! Starbucks State College. If Cindy from Starbucks is reading this, please give the people in this store a pat on the back, so that I can continue to have great service and nice fair trade coffee!

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Climate Change & State of Confusion

Global WarmingI completed reading State of Fear a week ago and was for a while at least in a 'State of Confusion' about the whole climate change/global warming issue. After a lot of wrestling of ideas in my head and lot of reading things on the internet, I want to put forth my thoughts just so that I clear up some of the confusion and try to achieve clarity.

First of all, about the novel itself, I wouldn't really rate it as a great thriller. The plot is pretty straightforward without any major twists. The story in short is -
'An environmental extremist group is trying to trigger a string of catastrophes across the world to turn world attention towards global warming. This group is being funded by a lawyer, Nicholas Drake (*the villain), who runs an environmental organization. The villain lawyer is trying to get a well meaning wealthy philanthropist, George Morton, to finance his evil schemes. An MIT professor who is also an undercover agent (*the hero) tells the wealthy philanthropist about the villain lawyer's plot. The philanthropist suddenly gets killed in an accident. The undercover agent/professor along with another lawyer, Peter Evans (*the Prius driving, well meaning common man who has been duped and brainwashed by the global warming hype) and a hot secretary (both working for the philanthropist) try to foil the plot (successfully!)'
There aren't any surprises or any great turns in the story that I expect from a thriller. So as a novel, it is not so great.

The MIT professor turned undercover agent is the "clear headed realist". He is the vehicle Crichton uses to drive home his opinion about climate change. In between fighting the bad guys in Antarctica, Arizona and some remote island in the Pacific, the professor tries to educate everyone about the reality behind the global warming hype. He is a walking encyclopedia of studies to quote from and statistics to cite. Crichton actually gives references to scientific studies as footnotes in the novel. (here is a good article about those footnotes BTW)

He has added an author's message and 2 appendices to further elaborate his points. Here is my attempt to summarize the message the novel sends:
  1. The global warming theory (rise in global temperatures due to increase in greenhouse gases) is not supported by hard scientific data. Global data show many contradictions which do not consistently support a warming tend. Sea levels aren't rising as predicted. Global climate models are in wide disagreement about how much the temperatures will rise globally (which in Crichton's opinion is further proof that we know zilch about this stuff).
  2. Overzealous scientists have used selective data, unverifiable computer models and speculation to perpetuate the hype that global temperatures are indeed going to rise.
  3. Politician, lawyers and the media are now using the hype to control the population by keeping it in a "state of fear".
    "In reality, for the last fifteen years we have been under the control of an entirely new complex, far more powerful and far more pervasive. I call it the politico-media-legal complex. The PLM. And it is dedicated to promoting fear in the population - under the guise of promoting safety"
    ... says a character, who is also a professor, in the novel. The latest fear on sale - 'the global warming hype'.
  4. The universities have been hijacked by the PLM complex and have now become exporters of new fears to feed the public.
In Crichton's opinion environmental organizations have turned into fearmongers, perpetuating the hype of a global warming doomsday scenario to raise funds.
"You can't raise a dime with it, especially in winter. Every time it snows people forget all about global warming. Or else the decide some warming might be a good thing after all. They are trudging through the snow, hoping for a little global warming. It's not like pollution, John. Pollution worked. It still works. Pollution scares the shit out of people. You tell 'em they'll get cancer, and the money rolls in. But nobody is scared of a little warming. Especially if it won't happen for a hundred years."
...says the villain lawyer, Nicholas Drake, who heads the environmental organization NREF in the novel.

So where do I stand on these things? Do I fully understand the issues the novel raises? Should I take Michael Crichton's word on this issue? Let's think of this some more...

I don't agree with the complete message of the model (as explained above). Michael Crichton has a big and obvious incentive to exaggerate his basic thesis so that the novel sells. So, I don't really buy that we are living under the control of PLM complex or that universities have turned into fear factories or that environmental organizations have formed a nexus with fund seeking scientists. I think all that stuff in the novel is just to sensationalize the thing.

In my opinion the people who want to debunk the theory (oil companies, loggers, miners etc.) have lot more money than environmental groups. So why is the theory still being discussed? If money was all that was needed to buy scientists and get them produce results to agree with your opinion, we wouldn't have been discussing global warming at all. We would instead all be driving Hummers through Yellowstone.

The basic argument is about the theory of global warming. It all boils down to a few basic questions:
  1. Is there accurate data that warming is indeed occuring?
  2. How much warming can the rising level of carbon dioxide and other green house gases cause?
  3. Since the previous question can only be answered by computer model predictions, how accurate or reliable are these models? Can they reliably model past data?
  4. Is the warming occurring due to natural causes yet unknown to us? How do we know for sure it is/ is not?
  5. If the temperatures are indeed rising what steps we can take towards stopping it? How effective these steps can be?
I do not have the expertise to answer these questions and am seeking the answers myself. There are however many fine sources out there which can give answers to these question. Two of them that I found recently are Real Climate and Climate Science. Real Climate actually has a couple of posts regarding the novel [1 , 2 , 3]. These blogs are by scientist in the field, who (I believe) know much more about the issue than Crichton does.

BUT, in my opinion there is another very very important question that I ask myself and to you.
IS global warming and the FEAR of a doomsday the only reason for us to care about the environment? Is fear the only motivating factor behind going green?
I believe the answer to that is "NO". I consider myself as someone who cares about the environment. I believe that we should act to change our lifestyle, consumption patterns and philosophy such that environment we live in and ecosystems of which we are a part, are taken care of and sustained. BUT I don't think my desire to do so is motivated by a fear of a global warming doomsday.

Imagine whole populations of China, India and Africa consuming resources at the rate at which the average American consumes. The energy demand will be gigantic and our current means of supplying such a demand are inadequate. Even if we could supply so much energy through conventional means it would cause huge and irreversible damage to vast ecosystems across the globe. What effects will such a damage have on the world? Will we be able to live with such a damage? Will these effects be necessarily harmful? Will they cause a doomsday?

Even if we don't know the answers to these questions, wouldn't it be wise to looks for ways which don't cause the damage in first place? Doesn't it make sense to look for long-term, sustainable alternatives? Doesn't it make sense to find solutions which won't cause large irreversible harm to the environment? I believe it does. The reason it makes sense is because it gives us (and by us I mean ALL of us - humans, plants, animals... everyone) a hope for future.

Crichton however, doesn't believe in that resource crunch stuff.
"I think for anyone to believe in impending resource scarcity, after two hundred years of such false alarms, is kind of weird."
..he says in his author's message.

I think if we invest in alternative technologies and sustainable practices, there is a very good chance that we will indeed never have a resource crunch. But for that to happen, action is necessary on our part. There may be groups out there who are putting up billboards saying: "REPENT! global warming is coming". Their hearts may be in the right place, but I don't think selling fear is helpful. I think all those out there who are taking concrete steps towards cleaner-greener alternatives are messengers of hope. They are people motivated by hope not fear! I hope to be one of them.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Blogging Evolving

I was just going through some of the first posts on my own blog. So much has changed about this blog since I started blogging in February this year. Observing the process of evolution of my own blog and also observing myself change as a blogger is fascinating.

A lot of things have changed in the technical sense. I played with different templates and finally settled on this one (mainly because it has a lot of room for future change). I started tagging my posts with technorati tags. I can now monitor the traffic and see what people are reading on my blog. Speaking of technical stuff, there are some things I wish blogger should have. So here is my wish list:
  • Categories: Blogger should definitely introduce categories. It helps organize posts much better. I checked out a couple of hacks which say it can be done. But I didn't like the round about way of doing it.
  • Comment posting: I like blog conversations. I like to respond to comments by posting a comment myself. But I wish there was a way to do this without having to visit my own posts. I wish I could post comments (as replies to comments by others) the way I post... posts! If Blogger introduces something like that it would be cool. I know that there is a comment moderation thing now but that's no good (at least for me!).
  • Feed: Blogger should definitely update the default atom feed. I have started using feedburner but the feed validator says the original feed is an older version. Not that it is causing a great problem, but since this is a 'wish' list...
  • A blogroll: Currently I am using blogrolling, but it would be great if blogger has an inbuilt blogroll and link roll.
Many things have changed in subtle ways too. I feel my style of writing is slowly changing and evolving too. I want to use my blog as a tool to organize my thoughts. When I get interested in an issue I go out and read about it and learn more about it. This generates a lot of ideas in my head. I want to use my blog as a meeting place for my ideas.

I am going to try and experiment with this. I am going to pick issues that interest me and write posts on them. I already go and read about things that interest me. Writing about them will add another layer to this process. It will help me connect things into a coherent picture.

Well... just a quick look back and now going forward again.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Proud (Foster) Parents

... of a baby elephant. She's on TV!
Lualeni with the Keeper

Here is a photo of Lualeni with her keeper. For more photos click here.

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust [::] runs a nursery and a fostering program for orphaned elephant babies in Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. We fostered a little baby elephant, Lualeni, as a gift to my wife on her birthday this year. Lualeni was only 4 months old when she was found abandoned and wandering alone, rejected by other herds. Her mother was probably a victim of poaching. Lualeni, who is now 7 months old, found a new home with the family of orphan elephants being cared for by the trust.

The BBC featured the work of the trust in their documentary "Elephant Diaries", [website | watch trailer] which followed the progress of these elephants over the course of a year, documenting their steps back into the wild.

A clip [watch it here] from the documentary, which features our little baby Lualeni has now been nominated for best TV moments for the year 2005. It is about a football (soccer) game that these elephants play to bond with each other. It's really amazing. Please vote for this clip here (look under clips for the months July & August '05). The documentary will also be shown on Animal Planet in March 2006 as a 90 minute program. (more details)

While little Lualeni is happy with her friends, enjoying her daily forays for feeding and mud-baths, we are happy and proud to see her do just that! I am sure she is gonna grow up and be a matriarch of a big herd!
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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Update! Update!

:: The IIPM story and the 'blog war' that followed gets more coverage in mainstream media and it is now producing some sensible results.
  • Mark Glaser of Online Journalism Review[OJR] has a detailed article in which my post about the string on institutes associated with IIPM gets a mention.
  • Business Standard has an article by Kanika Dutta.
  • The New York Times[NYT] carried the IIPM story [same story also on CNET news here] in its Technology section.
  • CNBC-TV18 ran a story in India which stated that IIPM didn't have permission from the University Grants Commission [UGC] to offer BBA and MBA degrees. This story brought IIPM under the UGC scanner [read details here]. AICTE too has issued a notice to IIPM. The blog noise has finally created some real action and hopefully IIPM will learn a lesson and clean up its act.
[More about IIPM story in the media here, here and here.]

:: Meanwhile here in the US, the Starbucks challenge awards were announced and version 2.0 of the challenge has been launched. At PennState I learned today that Higher Grounds cafe in the HUB serves shade grown, organic, fair trade certified, Seattle's Best coffee everyday.

:: The Carnival of the Greens is now on [read details about submitting entries here]. A lot of carnivals are going on around the blogosphere currently. Some interesting ones from the Indian Blogosphere are Bharateeya blog mela and SCIAN melt. Do check them out.

:: Over the weekend I saw a piece of standup comedy by an amazing desi comedian, Russell Peters. Check it out online (you may need a hi-speed connection for this). This guy is hilarious! Haven't laughed so much in a long time.

:: Finished reading State of Fear and will post about it soon. It made me think a lot about nature, environmental movement and whole host of other issues. For a while after reading the book I was definitely in a state of confusion about these things. Hopefully as I try to gather my thoughts and build my opinion about it, the confusion will reduce and clarity will emerge. In the meantime here's a funny post from Arzan's blog.

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