Energy: Paying Now or Paying Later

Sara Robinson at Orcinus on There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL):

Years ago, bars used to offer a "free lunch" as a way to draw customers. Of course, the drinks in those bars cost twice as much, so the lunches weren’t really "free" at all. Similarly, in complex systems, what looks like the cheapest solution to a problem often turns out to be the most expensive one in the long run. TANSTAAFL is a way of saying, "Don’t expect something for nothing — there’s always a hidden cost somewhere."

Fossil fuels have been a big free lunch, until we found out that there was no "away" with those, either. And now we’re going to get to spend the next 50 years trying to pay for that long lunch. There are a couple lunches that look considerably cheaper right now — biofuels and nukes among them — but anybody who thinks those are going to be free is kidding themselves, too.

Jim Jubak at MSN Money (U.S. economy’s fate in Saudi hands – MSN Money) describes the Saudi stranglehold on the U.S.:

I have bad news for anybody who thinks that this Saudi control over the U.S. and global economies is a brief phase that will end by itself. The decision among oil producers such as Saudi Arabia to shift away from being a mere producer of crude oil to becoming a producer of value-added products made from oil — such as gasoline, fertilizer and plastics — will prolong the economic clout of these countries. Saudi Arabia will go from being the low-cost swing producer of crude oil to being the low-cost dominant producer in gasoline, fertilizer and plastics.

The only thing that changes this game — that redresses the balance between supplier economies and consumer economies — is a change in the price signals that consumer economies send in response to price increases. As long as the response to an increase in the price of oil is an increase in consumption, then oil prices will drift higher at a pace set by the self-interest of oil producers. Those of us who live in the consuming economies will just have to hope that the Saudis and other oil producers efficiently milk consuming countries’ cash-cow economies.

On the other hand, if higher prices lead to less consumption because consumers become permanently more efficient in the ways they use energy, and because consuming economies adopt lasting sources of alternative supply (and don’t abandon them at the next dip in oil prices), then consuming countries have a chance to take back some degree of control over their own economies.

Do we really need alternative sources of energy?

Do we really need to cut back on energy consumption?

Most Biofuels Are NOT Viable for Producing Energy

Adam Fenderson at New Matilda describes why we can’t use corn and wheat for fuel for our cars. Excerpts below. Warning: These facts may cause indigestion.

Link: The Real Green Revolution | EnergyBulletin.net | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse

In searching for a green alternative to fossil fuels, everyone from Willie Nelson to the Governor of California , from prominent environmentalists to General Motors and Monsanto, has promoted ethanol or other biofuels. While it’s true that we desperately need alternatives, biofuels based on industrial agriculture, are in no sense ‘sustainable.’

Post-war technologies made possible the so-called ‘Green Revolution,’ or industrialisation of agriculture. From chemical warfare came the pesticide and herbicide industry, from military vehicles came the technology for improved farm machinery. They proved very effective. Between 1950 and 1984 world grain production increased a remarkable 250 per cent, while farm labour dropped, enabling the rapid rise in human population over the same period.

Unfortunately, the relationship between food and war does not end there.

The rise in agricultural production was particularly suited to grains. Grains are a special type of food. Excluding fossil fuels, they represent some of the most densely packed chemical energy in the natural world. As Richard Manning writes in his essay ‘The Oil We Eat: Following the Food Chain Back to Iraq ’, grains also lend themselves to very destructive farming methods.

Grains are adapted to disaster. In nature, they dominate land only after catastrophic events such as floods. Their short lives are devoted to putting as much energy as possible into their seeds, so that they may spring up first, as pioneer species. In order to grow them, year after year, we turn over the topsoil and spray for weeds to artificially create the conditions of catastrophe they favour.

Every time we plough, it is like a high stakes game of Russian roulette. Plants and soil organisms can (very slowly) create topsoil from the subsoil below. But, truly revitalising fertility on a large scale requires geological assistance in such forms as ash from volcanic eruptions, or rock-crushing glaciers.

A handful of good soil contains more living creatures than there are human beings on the earth. The little we know about these creatures reads like an Alice in Wonderland adventure — amoeba with temporary feet, vampiric protozoa, fungi with elaborate communication systems and symbiotic relationships with trees. When we pour nitrogen-based fertiliser and agricultural poisons onto the soil, or expose it to the sun, we destroy this life.

As the life dies, we lose the humus, the organic component of the topsoil. As it rots it releases methane, becoming a major contributor to global warming. Without the ecosystem services provided by the soil life, the soil is left as nothing more than a dead medium to hold plants upright in. We then have to supply more fertilisers artificially – and the sad cycle continues.

Each year, more and more virgin forested land and fossil fuel energy must be fed into the agricultural system simply to maintain current levels of production. Yet, each year, insects are becoming more resistant to pesticides, water must be pumped from deeper down in the earth, weather conditions are becoming less stable, and less ecosystem services are being provided by soil organisms, without cost. We are facing diminishing returns.

Despite the rapid growth in agricultural production over the past 35 years, per-capita levels of grain production peaked in 1985. Distribution politics aside, it is only this century, however, that the problem has become critical. In every year bar one since 2000, the world has consumed more grains than it has produced . Less than two-months worth of grains are now in storage around the world. Last time stores were this low, in the early 1970s, global wheat and rice prices doubled.

The promise, and perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by our species, is that these destructive forms of agriculture cannot continue. The Green Revolution has increased energy inputs to agriculture to levels around 50 times those of traditional agriculture. Yet energy availability will soon fall. The increasing unavailability (and therefore increasing cost) of oil and gas means that we will need to begin to de-industrialise and re-localise our food systems.

To succeed is to survive – to avoid more widespread hunger, and develop sustainable, healthy food systems. We need great efforts to enable farmers to produce food with less energy and less destruction to their own land, encouraging innovative designs and techniques inspired by permaculture, incorporating traditional systems and modern science, such as keyline ploughing and swale building. We need to produce more food in and around the cities, while changing our relationship to food so we eat it fresh and in season.

We are lucky that one country has been through such a process and survived already: Cuba. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost most of its oil and fertiliser imports virtually overnight. With research, institutions turned over to low energy food production techniques, and organic food production encouraged in the cities, Cubans’ life expectancies and infant mortality rates now rival or better the United States, while using around one eighth of the energy per capita.

via EnergyBulletin.net | Peak Oil News Clearinghouse

More posts about Monsanto:

Are you eating Monsanto’s genetically modified crops?

Monsanto’s Government Ties

Monsanto Backs Off Bio-Wheat

Shining a Light on Agribusiness and It’s Poster Child Monsanto

Monsanto Files Patent for the Pig

Thomas Friedman on Green Cars, Energy, and Terrorism

Thomas Friedman challenges the Bush administration to address several current problems with vision. Excerpts below.

Source: The New York Times

we are in the midst of an energy crisis – but this is not your grandfather’s energy crisis. No, this is something so much bigger, for four reasons.

First, we are in a war against a radical, violent stream of Islam that is fueled and funded by our own energy purchases. We are financing both sides in the war on terrorism: the U.S. Army with our tax dollars, and Islamist charities, madrasas and terrorist organizations through our oil purchases.

Second, the world has gotten flat, and three billion new players from India, China and the former Soviet Union just walked onto the field with their version of the American dream: a house, a car, a toaster and a refrigerator. If we don’t quickly move to renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, we will warm up, smoke up and choke up this planet far faster than at any time in the history of the world. Katrina will look like a day at the beach.

Third, because of the above, green energy-saving technologies and designs – for cars, planes, homes, appliances or office buildings – will be one of the biggest industries of the 21st century. Tell your kids. China is already rushing down this path because it can’t breathe and can’t grow if it doesn’t reduce its energy consumption. Will we dominate the green industry, or will we all be driving cars from China, Japan and Europe?

Finally, if we continue to depend on oil, we are going to undermine the whole democratic trend that was unleashed by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Because oil will remain at $60 a barrel and will fuel the worst regimes in the world – like Iran – to do the worst things for the world. Indeed, this $60-a-barrel boom in the hands of criminal regimes, and just plain criminals, will, if sustained, pose a bigger threat to democracies than communism or Islamism. It will be a black tide that turns back the democratic wave everywhere, including in Iraq.

…George Bush may think he is preserving the American way of life by rejecting a gasoline tax. But if he does not act now – starting with his State of the Union speech – he will be seen as the man who presided over the decline of our way of life. He will be the American president who ignored the Sputniks of our day.

Some oil money is up to no good

Link: USATODAY.com – Some oil money is up to no good.

In case $3-per-gallon gas isn’t depressing enough, consider what your gas money pays for: A bull market in Saudi stocks. Handouts for Fidel Castro. And weapons for anti-American terrorists.

Oil-producing states haven’t seen a windfall like this since the twin price shocks of the 1970s. Persian Gulf countries this year will earn about $291 billion in oil revenue vs. $61 billion in 1998, when oil prices tanked, according to the Institute of International Finance (IIF). For every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, Venezuela, the No. 4 source of U.S. imports, reaps almost an additional $1 billion a year.

In several oil-producing countries, soaring oil prices are complicating U.S. foreign policy or blunting commercial opportunities for American companies. Irans’ mullahs, locked in a standoff with the U.S. over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, are bolstered by an oil-rich economy that the International Monetary Fund says will grow 6% this year and next.

  Biggest exporters
Countries that exported the most crude oil to the USA in June, in thousands of barrels per day:
Country
June 2005
Pct. of total
Canada
1,696
16.1%
Mexico
1,616
15.3%
Saudi Arabia
1,564
14.8%
Venezuela
1,292
12.2%
Nigeria
896
8.5%
Iraq
608
5.8%
Angola
397
3.8%
Algeria
292
2.8%
Ecuador
288
2.7%
United Kingdom
269
2.5%
Total of top 10
8,918
84%
Source: Energy Information Administration

Thanks to surging oil revenue, Mexico is able to delay the politically painful step of opening its oil fields to foreign oil companies, says Roger Tissot, country director for the consultancy PFC Energy.

Of course, not every dollar spent at the pump props up a desert autocrat or funds global terror. Norway, a major producer of North Sea crude, uses its oil export earnings to fund its citizens’ retirement program.

The Persian Gulf oil states are investing about half of their increased oil revenue in the region, spurring luxury hotel construction in places such as Dubai and sending shares on the Saudis’ Tadawul All-Shares index up 79.7% this year.

The other half of the windfall is being funneled into international markets, according to Howard Handy, the IIF’s director for the Middle East and Africa. "We estimate $360 billion to $400 billion will be looking for a home outside the region in 2005 and 2006 combined," he says.

That’s a significant sum, but it is being divided among a greater number of destinations than during previous booms. In the 1970s, most foreign investment by gulf states ended up in U.S. markets, which dominated global investing even more than today. Then-secretary of State Henry Kissinger encouraged Saudi investment so that the most influential member of OPEC would be discouraged from damaging the U.S. economy with future oil embargoes, says Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East studies for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Today, though it’s impossible to track specific figures, the Saudis and other Arab states are placing more of their investments in non-U.S. holdings, including euro-dominated securities that didn’t exist at the time of the first oil price shocks. Riyadh also no longer reflexively steers most major contracts to U.S. firms. In January 2004, for example, the Saudis bypassed Chevron and awarded lucrative natural gas exploration contracts to Russian, Chinese and European companies.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Saudis met U.S. demands by ending government support for Islamic charities linked to terrorism. But individuals in the kingdom continue to send cash to groups that support anti-American terrorists.

"We know wealthy Saudis are funding terror. With higher oil prices, they just have more money to do so," Bronson says.

Soaring oil prices also are causing problems closer to U.S. shores. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez, flush with record oil revenue, is sending subsidized oil shipments to Cuba’s Fidel Castro and increasing military spending. Earlier this month, Venezuela announced a purchase of long-range surveillance radars from China. The U.S. has accused Chavez of funneling arms to leftist rebels in neighboring Colombia, which he denies.

At home, Chavez has lavished oil money on his constituents in Venezuela’s poorest neighborhoods. Through "Mission Mercal," a network of government-run groceries, Chavez provides half-priced food to more than 10 million people.

The social largesse cements the president’s political standing. But economists such as Claudio Loser, former head of the IMF’s Western Hemisphere department, say such spending can’t continue indefinitely. Already, inflation is galloping at 18% annually and is expected to hit 25% next year.

Big oil producers should have learned one lesson from earlier booms: High prices don’t last forever. Oil prices now are around $65 per barrel. But with greater production expected from non-OPEC producers such as Angola, Brazil and Azerbaijan, prices will drop to around $40 per barrel in 2007-08, says Jim Burkhart, director of oil market analysis for Cambridge Energy Research Associates.

That will spell trouble for some oil nations, including Venezuela. "The risk is what happens when oil prices decline and governments have to align their spending with fewer resources," he says.

Despite today’s easy-money atmosphere, there’s no need to envy the oil producers. Many face daunting developmental challenges that have gotten worse since the last oil boom.

Saudi Arabia’s population has exploded from 5.7 million in 1970 to 25 million today. That has driven down per-capita oil export revenue from more than $22,000 in the early 1980s to less than $5,000 today.

"Even with oil at $65 a barrel," says Bronson, "they can’t solve all their economic problems."

via The Kirk Report

Learning From Lance

Thomas L. Friedman discusses America’s reluctance to sacrifice now for a brighter future in Learning From Lance:

I recently spent time in Ireland, which has quietly become the second-richest country in the E.U., first by going through some severe belt-tightening that meant everyone had to sacrifice, then by following that with a plan to upgrade the education of its entire work force, and a strategy to recruit and induce as many global high-tech companies and researchers as possible to locate in Ireland. The Irish have a plan. They are focused. They have mobilized business, labor and government around a common agenda. They are playing offense.

Wouldn’t you think that if you were president, after you’d read the umpteenth story about premier U.S. companies, like Intel and Apple, building their newest factories, and even research facilities, in China, India or Ireland, that you’d summon the top U.S. business leaders to Washington to ask them just one question: "What do we have to do so you will keep your best jobs here? Make me a list and I will not rest until I get it enacted."

And if you were president, and you had just seen more suicide bombs in London, wouldn’t you say to your aides: "We have got to reduce our dependence on Middle East oil. We have to do it for our national security. We have to do it because only if we bring down the price of crude will these countries be forced to reform. And we should want to do it because it is clear that green energy solutions are the wave of the future, and the more quickly we impose a stringent green agenda on ourselves, the more our companies will lead innovation in these technologies."

Instead, we are about to pass an energy bill that, while it does contain some good provisions, will make no real dent in our gasoline consumption, largely because no one wants to demand that Detroit build cars that get much better mileage. We are just feeding Detroit the rope to hang itself. It’s assisted suicide. I thought people went to jail for that?

And if you were president, would you really say to the nation, in the face of the chaos in Iraq, that "if our commanders on the ground say we need more troops, I will send them," but that they had not asked? It is not what the generals are asking you, Mr. President – it is what you are asking them, namely: "What do you need to win?" Because it is clear we are not winning, and we are not winning because we have never made Iraq a secure place where normal politics could emerge.

Oh, well, maybe we have the leaders we deserve. Maybe we just want to admire Lance Armstrong, but not be Lance Armstrong. Too much work. Maybe that’s the wristband we should be wearing: Live wrong. Party on. Pay later.

Heat Wave Rant

During this heat wave, I’d like to jump on one of my favorite pedestals. Today it is 88 degrees at 10:30am in the Atlanta area.

The sun hitting the roof of our home is creating heat that makes the house hotter!

We are paying for electricity at peak rates to cool our home!

What is wrong with the picture?

We should have solar cells on our roof to:

  • Generate electricity for cooling our home.
  • Prevent the sun from heating the roof.

The reasons for this waste of resources are numerous and complex, but there is good news. As energy prices rise, smart entrepreneurs and engineers will create solutions. It’s the American way. And perhaps we will be sending less money to the Middle East, which ultimately supports terrorists.

Marketing a Green Lifestyle

Link: Treehugger: Interview with Seth Godin.

Tom Peters has called global warming a lousy brand. Dave Roberts in Gristmill pointed out that it is a hard sell- too far away and too nebulous, and to those of us suffering through harsh winters in the middle of the continent, what could be wrong about a little warming? What is wrong with our story?

SG: It doesn’t fit the worldview of the very people you’re trying to reach and influence. Most Americans care about a very very short time horizon, and are easily swayed with group pressure on things like patriotism and faith. (Just try to criticize people for spending time and money in church and you’ll see what I mean.) Global warming is vague and distant.

Acid rain is a much more powerful story. Acid = death and rain is omnipresent and supposedly pure and lifegiving. Put them together and you get something that feels tangible and an emergency.

You need to remember that people evolved to be civilized white collar workers only over the last 200 years. That means that deep within us is a time horizon of a week, the desire to hunt and to feed our family and not die this week. Selling something so far away is antithetical to our genes and it’s just not easy enough.

Spray painting baby seals is far more effective a story that talking about running out of gas in 2020.

Much of America identifies Prius drivers with Leonardo, Susan Sarandon and sniveling leftie treehuggers. Should we put a hybrid on the NASCAR track? How do we change the worldview of the majority of America?

SG: There’s no question that a souped up Prius would reach a certain group, but I don’t think that’s the best way to get Prius adoption. The prius tells a story “you’re smart”. There are a group of people that want their car to tell them that they’re smart, and the prius does this.

I think the way we kill the gas guzzlers is to tell the story: SUV = terrorism, SUV = unpatriotic, SUV = dead soldiers. Careful! It would backfire if the story was interpreted that you should get rid of your SUV If you’re a chicken (these colors don’t run!) Instead, the story needs to be based on a simple fact: if we get rid of all the SUVs, America becomes Oil Independent. Oil Independent is an achievable goal that people on both sides of the aisle should grab.

You admit to filling your shopping cart with organic food while writing that it is probably no better (and a lot more expensive) than conventional produce. But I cannot believe that you would pay more if you knew it was a lie. You believe the story or you would not do it. Are you just being provocative? Like discussing organic lard?

SG: What does “believe” mean? I have faith. I have faith that if everyone did it, we’d be better off. I believe that spending the money is patriotic, not selfish. That I don’t want to be a freerider, that I want to cause change. But I also know that the pricing is exorbitant and unfair and it doesn’t go to the farmers, and that there’s no real research that carrot for carrot, it’s worth much extra. So, I have faith and it makes me feel good. But the scientist and accountant in me has a hard time with it.

I would be interested in your thoughts on “the death of environmentalism” published on Changethis.com.

SG: Another provocative title, and another manifesto about storytelling. I believe that there’s no reason at all why environmentalists should be seen as anti-progress. Honda is a terrific example of this—they make efficient cars because it pays off in lots of ways, not just in clean air.

Americans have always admired thriftiness and efficiency. And that’s environmentalism at what it could be. Don’t be a slob, don’t waste. Do great stuff, but neatly.

Treehugger is about living a green lifestyle- a well designed, comfortable and trendy lifestyle that is easy on the environment and does not include tie-dye shirts or Birkenstocks. Our story is that you can live well and in style while making intelligent choices that reduce our impact on the environment. That a smaller better meal is better than a big burger; that a small, well designed prefab is better than a mcmansion; that a Prius is better than a hummer. Quality is better than Quantity. Less is more. How would you spread that brand?

SG: We need to be a lot less fractious, and need to focus on the emotional actions that matter. Getting a new refrigerator should be an act of national security. Ask ten greens what we should spend our money on next, and they’ll give you ten answers. That’s crazy. We need a priority list. The fundamentalists have one.

For example, if we focused all our energy on selling “don’t eat cow”, it might hit critical mass. And if it did, the side effects would be spectacular.

Denial of Global Warming

I’m old enough to remember the tobacco industry campaigning that smoking does not cause cancer. And, sadly enough, they found plenty of scientists who would support that position.

Later a group of heavy industries disavowed any connection between air pollution and acid rain. Now we know that air pollution in the Midwest changed the chemistry of many pristine mountain lakes in the East, so that no fish could live in them.

Does the debate on global warming seem familar?

The great lie in the climate debate is that there is still a debate worth having. Opponents of change insist that the human factors in global warming are not proven and that we must wait until we have hard evidence before taking drastic action, which is as about as silly as saying there are two equally valid views on the issue of whether pedophilia damages children.

What is so destructive about this stance is that it claims equal weight and equal airtime. The ‘balance’ in newspaper reports, especially in the United States, is, in fact, a bias against the truth and weakens the case for immediate action against emissions of C02. And while we hum and haw, trying to persuade reluctant skeptics, the permafrost of the Arctic melts, sea levels inch up and the pH levels of oceans gradually drop because of the carbon that is absorbed from the atmosphere.

The following quote comes from an article in the Daily Telegraph editorial pages last month. It captures perfectly the knuckle-headed entrenchment of the last century: ‘Climate change is an important, perhaps vital, debate, but it remains just that. Warning of disaster has become a global industry, and the livelihoods of thousands of scientists depend on our being sufficiently spooked to keep funding their research. The worry is that many of these researchers have stopped being scientists and become campaigners instead.’

The author pretends to even-handedness, but his real message is that climate change is a scam to keep scientists in work. Yet it is not scientists who are distorting the evidence, but the US oil lobby and a co-operative White House. Last week, Philip Cooney, a White House staffer, was exposed by the New York Times for revising reports on global warming so that they cast doubt on the link between greenhouse gases and rising temperatures. Mr Cooney, who has no scientific training whatsoever, resigned and took a job with Exxon Mobil, which is, incidentally, the company that produces twice the CO<->2 emissions of Norway and is currently facing a consumer boycott in Europe.

Cooney no doubt contributed to the White House’s successful efforts to sandbag Tony Blair’s plan of action to tackle climate change at the G8 summit next month. You have to hand it to the Prime Minister that he accepts the advice of his scientific advisers and has done all he can in Britain’s presidency of the G8 to focus world leaders’ attention on the problem.

Link: Fiddling as the Planet Burns

We Need the Rainforests

Recently I heard an investment analyst on CNBC recommend a company because "they sell soybeans and Brazil is going to clearcut large sections of rainforest to plant soybeans."

Today I read more bad news on Nova Spivack’s blog.

I read the an article today about how Brazil is gradually losing the fight to save the Amazon. The worlds’ rainforests are a global resource — not only are they directly important to the air we all breathe, they also harbor a huge, still untapped, reservoir of species diversity which could be of profound importance to science and future medical and pharma research. The problem is that currently there is no direct benefit to Brazil, or other rainforest nations, for the global use of their rainforest resources.

The key then is to find a way to turn rainforests into economically valuable national resources for countries that maintain them. In other words, rainforests should be to Brazil, what oil is to Saudi Arabia (or actually better, because rainforests, unlike oil, are renewable). Rainforest countries should make more money by keeping their rainforests alive and healthy,  than by chopping them down.

One way to accomplish this would be what I call a "Global Rainforest Tax" (see also) that would be paid pro-rata by all nations annually, to countries that have virgin rainforests. The more virgin rainforest a country maintains, the larger share of the global Rainforest Tax they would garner each year.

While I applaud his cause, I see politicians using the public’s hatred of taxes to get elected and re-elected here in the U.S. But I think anyone running for office who votes for taxing people for benefits that are not immediate, obvious, and local is doomed.

So I’m going to propose a small-is-beautiful, low-tech solution.

We should all eat more Brazil Nuts!

Harvesting Brazil Nuts creates a local economy in the rainforests that is sustainable and generates revenue. Here’s what the Amazon Conservation Association says:

Brazil nut trees occur in natural dense stands, which make the castañales (Brazil nut forests) economically attractive. These areas, of several hundred to a few thousand hectares, are given in concession to local families and/or to larger landholders for the extraction of nuts. Fruits are gathered and opened up in the forest, and nuts are brought up to camps by local harvesters (castañeros), typically a family that lives in the castañal or moves in during the harvesting season.

The harvesters sell the nuts to local shelling factories, which pack and export the product overseas. This extractive activity represents more than half the yearly income for thousands of families in these areas, and so far has politically justified the protection of the Brazil nut areas for extractive purposes only. As such, castañales offer a natural management unit that is remarkably cost-effective for biodiversity conservation. Each castañero typically controls access to some 1,000 hectares of primary forest, areas that will remain protected as long as they are being harvested for nuts.

The people of these cross-boundary areas share a common resource base, a forested ecosystem of global biodiversity significance. Their quest for self-improvement will ultimately determine the fate of these forests. Yet the inhabitants of the region exist in a technical information vacuum with little communication occurring between adjacent countries or between the scientific community and the occupants of the forest and governmental institutions. As a result people must utilize these forests under radically different government policies and without scientifically based management information.

Castañales and the castañeros who work them, remain as isolated frontier entities outside the political, scientific and social mainstream. There is a three-part disconnection – the science that biologists conduct in tropical forests, the national environmental and development policies that affect the fate of these forests, and local forest management regimes still co-exist as unrelated entities. Fortunately however, this situation can be rectified with modest inputs.

The chief barriers are not economic. Harvesting Brazil nuts is a potentially competitive economic alternative to deforestation. Castañales offer one of the few cases where the density of a renewable natural resource other than timber is sufficient to justify the existence of large forested areas against unsustainable uses such as cattle ranching. Rather than economic, the obstacles are informational and policy-related in nature.

Although Brazil nuts represent a cost-effective, economically viable option for protecting tropical forests, their social, economic and ecological importance is poorly appreciated in centers of government. As a result there is weak policy support for castañal-based development and land tenure. Moreover, much remains to be learned about how to best manage castañales for maximal ecological and economic benefit. The economic value of Brazil nuts to local harvesters is important but still insufficient to provide them with their most basic needs. Local harvesters (or producers herein) often have no other option than to destructively exploit other forest resources. A second result is that large areas of forest are not harvested and are therefore not defended from alternative destructive land use practices. Science-based productivity-enhancing management of Brazil nut-rich areas and increased policy support is needed to make the castañal system effective in conserving Amazonian biodiversity. Remarkably almost nothing is known, or has been implemented, regarding the basic biology and management of Brazil nuts, let alone the total renewable-resource base of this ecosystem.

At the risk on increasing the price of one of my favorite snacks, I wish more people would start munching on the healthy and tasty brazil nut. Eating brazil nuts benefits an ecosystem that impacts the whole earth. Here’s what the World Wildlife Fund says:

The Brazil nut tree is part of the delicate web of life in the Amazon. Apart from orchid bees, agoutis, and the Brazil nut harvesters, the life of many other plants and animals is intertwined with this tree. The empty seed pods, for example, fill with rainwater and provide breeding grounds for damselflies, a poison frog, and a toad, all of whom depend on these small ponds on the forest floor. The major threat to the trees — and the myriad of life that relies on them — is forest clearing. Sustainable harvesting of Brazil nuts is therefore a vital way to provide protection of Peru’s forests. So do what the slogan says — eat a Brazil nut and save the Amazon!

Some people have tried to domesticate Brazil nuts by creating farms. But it hasn’t worked as planned, according to the Brazil Nut homepage of the Amazon Conservation Association:

Several Brazil nut plantations have been established in Brazil. Although trees have grown into reproductive age, their production is low, making them economical unprofitable. Why plantations do not produce as wild trees do? This research is investigating several possibilities, including pollination, given that, as it has been suggested, increasing forest disturbance and fires, may be affecting pollinator availability.

For Brazil nuts to be an effective sustainable resource that economically justifies forest protection, nut marketing has to benefit local peoples in a greater degree. The process that follows nut collection is a complex and fascinating one. Nuts go through local dealers, then to peeling and bagging factories, and then to exporting companies. Although profitable, most of the benefits go to the last link of the chain. Communal factories would help to locals to get a better share. This project is involved in supporting grassroot initiatives, and working closely with local peoples. This is another part of the story that this research is focusing as a major goal. Basic research is probing to serve more than the ideal of increasing the biological knowledge, but also having an impact in social as well as in economic aspects. Future work is pointing towards the implementation of forest enrichment plans which will help to keep biodiversity as well as helping rainforest peoples.

Maybe the fact that Brazil nuts are not farmed and are only available from the native rainforests is a blessing. Creating a local economy that can sustain the workers and gives the local governments a reason to protect the forests is a viable plan if some of the questions raised above can be resolved. Maybe an influential investor will see an opportunity to make a difference.

What about Amazon.com? Doesn’t the corporation that uses the name Amazon to to create an image of a huge online store have some incentive to preserve the Amazon River basin? Amazon.com could at least promote Brazil nuts and tell their story.

In the meantime, I recommend that we all eat more Brazil nuts. If you don’t like the taste, buy them and give them to someone who does. Ask your grocery store to stock them. The Amazon may be clearcut for cattle and soybean farming unless a viable economic activity like exporting Brazil nuts intevenes.

Green Homes

Jamais Cascio describes the kind of homes that we need in the hot, humid South. As my nephew James Abrams has pointed out, energy costs in California are proportionately much less — due to the high home prices (and corresponding monthly mortgage payments) — than in the South. Here in the South, we have much less expensive housing but greater annual temperature extremes, with significant heating costs in the winter and high cooling costs in the summer.

Developer Clarum Homes has just completed the "Vista Montana" community in Watsonville, California. Vista Montana has the nation’s largest building-integrated solar electric system in an apartment complex, a 60 kW system projected to produce over 90 megawatt-hours annually. The units were constructed to use 40 percent less energy than would otherwise be typical.

The program includes the installation of tightly sealed ductwork, a high-efficiency heating and ventilation system, and smart glass windows. Hydronic heating units were used to achieve energy efficiency through the combined function of heating both the water and the living space.

Clarum specializes in green residential projects, and its "Enviro-Home" claims at least a 90% reduction in energy costs. Clarum built an all-Enviro-Home community in Watsonville in 2003, and has energy-efficient and solar-power homes in its other developments. The specs do sound good — integrated solar electric, on-demand water heater, super-efficient windows, etc. — and the home designed received the Zero Energy Home (PDF) designation from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Source: WorldChanging: Another World Is Here: Green Homes.