Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Peter Gleick and “The New McCarthyism”

There is a wonderful post by Dr. Peter Gleick in his blog City Lights which I highly recommend. The subject, generally, is the use of fear mongering to destroy civil and rational discourse.


Dr. Gleick suggests that we need to filter out the fear mongers. I believe that the challenge posed by individuals like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the other pundits who spew vitriol into our public discourse is not in how we shut them down, but rather how we make them irrelevant.

We live in a country that treasures free speech. But when we have a right to a thing, it means someone else has the obligation to provide it to us. Your right to free speech is my obligation to let you speak, no matter how much I disagree with what you have to say. And that is a good thing. Both history and the modern world are replete with examples of countries and societies that don’t have a right to free speech. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in such a country.

So, given that we can’t – and shouldn’t – shut them up, how do we combat fear mongers? The answer is, of course, education. It is a truism that fear is bred from ignorance. The current healthcare debate provides the easiest example – death panels. Former Governor Palin stated publically that the healthcare reform plan being considered by Congress contained a provision wherein people would be denied healthcare by a panel of bureaucrats based on their “level of productivity in society.” Palin famously labeled these panels “death panels” causing an enormous public uproar. Because, let’s face it, few congressman much less their constituents had actually read the various reform proposals floating around Congress. Anyone who has knows that there was no actual basis in fact for her statement. (For an analysis of the issue see here.)

Ignorance creates the opening for the less scrupulous, and those who are less concerned with accuracy, to stir the pot. Science is particularly vulnerable to fear mongering because many scientific disciplines are complex and beyond the experience of the average person. This makes people vulnerable to fear mongers. And it is a vulnerability that is exploited ruthlessly by politicians and pundits of every stripe.

Thus it is critically important that the scientific community not only expand the boundaries of human knowledge and understanding, but also that they bring the rest of us along on the journey. Scientists, particularly in America, must become better at making their knowledge and discoveries accessible to the public.

Let the fear and hate mongers rant. And an educated public will meet their fear and hate with the only response it deserves – laughter (I happen to think Glenn Beck is hilarious).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A “Complete Solution” to California’s Water Problem?

A group of Republican state Senators from California held a new conference wherein they stressed the importance of water to California’s economy and the need for “a complete solution to this complex problem.” (Thanks to Aquafornia for catching this.)

I applaud the sentiment. But I question whether their conviction is actually strong enough to take the kinds of steps necessary to create a “complete” long term solution.

There is less water today, and will likely be less water tomorrow, than the people of California have enjoyed in the past. But the problem is not really the “people” in the sense that we have a growing population. Rather the problem is agriculture. Both the types of livestock and crops we raise, and where we raise them. The Economist has an excellent article that discusses this issue which you can find here.

So…what does a “complete” long term solution look like for California? I see two roads we can go down.

In the first instance, we can look to government regulations to increase efficiencies in how we use water. But we’re not talking about low flow toilets or waterless urinals here. Long term water stability would require some serious regulations, particularly of the agricultural sector. This basically amounts to an end to agriculture as we know it. One can already imagine the howls from Republicans and other small government advocates – and they would have a point.

On the other hand we can commoditize water. Some economists, and the Economist, have suggested exactly that. Price water at its actual value and you will encourage farmers to grow crops appropriate to the local climate and water supply. But many people oppose commoditizing water for fear that the price increases will fall on personal water use and create enormous hardship for the poor. They have a point as well, though I think the greater danger of commoditizing water is the risk of speculation. Look here for an example of how commodity markets can be manipulated. And this too means an end to agriculture as we know it.

Neither solution is going to be popular with farmers.

In the end it comes down to a simple reality – less water. We can drain natural reserves like the Sacramento Delta. We can pump our underground aquifers dry. But while these activities may let us carry on, business as usual, for a few more years or even decades, they are ultimately self-defeating. We need those natural reserves and aquifers to keep the water cycle moving. Destroying them now for relatively short term gain only makes the ultimate accounting that much worse. An ultimate accounting that also means an end to agriculture as we know it.

So, do California’s politicians have the fortitude to really put together a “complete solution to this complex problem”? I sure hope so.

But I’m not holding my breath.

Pharmaceuticals In Our Water

There is an interesting article over at Greenbiz.com about the Green Pharma Summit, a meeting of pharmaceutical industry personnel involved with sustainability issues. One of the issues discussed at the meeting was the problem of pharmaceutical residues found in the water supply. This is an issue I have written about before. I agree with Mr. McGrath, the author of the article, that it is only a matter of time before this issue gains traction with legislators and regulators.

Check it out.