Monday, October 31, 2011

More about Bees

I remain thoroughly fascinated by bees.  I came across this lovely plate on google Reader the other day, and wanted to share it here:

Field book of insects
New York,G.P. Putnam's sons,

Very pretty bit of work, isn't it?   I've been hoping to get a picture of some of the bees/wasps that have built a nest in the rock wall near my driveway.  I haven't managed to get a good enough look at them to identify them well.  They could be a variety of mining or digging bee or ground nesting wasp.  They are on the fuzzy side, but have never been aggressive, are not terribly numerous, and similar in size to a honeybee.  I confess to having been very lax in pruning or pulling a lot of the late flowering Aster weeds in the yard, because I continued to see bees visiting them until it turned cold.  Given the continuing bad news for bees, I've been reluctant to deny the locals a food source, even if it doesn't look like much. 

If you're interested in bees, here are two guides produced by the Forest Service that can provide you with  more info.

And the more rigorous (and narrow) Bumble Bees of the Eastern US:

Sunday, October 30, 2011

SXSW: Finally my Final Thoughts.

My apologies, loyal readers.

Among the varied reasons I rarely travel is that fact that it tends to throw the rest of my life into some disarray.  Missing an entire week of classes and research responsibilities added substantially to that disarray, and the process of catching up.

I have also been turning over the conference, and attempting to figure out what I actually thought of the experience.  Even now, nearly a month after the fact, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

The last day of the conference, I did not attend any of the morning sessions, but took the time to mosey around Austin a bit, and see more of the city.  The final keynote was delivered by Philippe Cousteau Jr., and he did a fine job.  He told a few very good stories about how he arrived on the scene, beginning with the events that turned his grandfather from someone who was first an explorer into an environmentalist. His delivery sagged in a few points, and he dodged a fewer of the tougher questions put to him by the audience, but effectively delivered the core of his message, which lined up well with a lot of what was put forward by many at the conference:  That as a movement, environmentalism has stalled out because of the cultural divide in the US, and that if we wish to make progress, we have to put aside ideology to find common goals, and regain some lost ground.

And it's here that I run aground.  It's not that I disagree, because I don't.  But this is actually an incredibly difficult proposition, for individuals as well as organizations.  The political atmosphere in the US might be termed "ionizing"; even the most neutral proposition will be struck by outside forces and laden with charged political issues.  SXSWEco was full of rhetoric and statements about making common ground, setting aside ideological issues, and being practical... and that is all well and good. But how are we supposed to do this?

This is a strategy that one uses because of a lack of power and leverage.  It requires finding allies within the edifices of power to be effective.  This does not appear to be possible on a great many issues.  Anthropogenic Climate Change is regard as more or less a fact of life by the US military, who plan accordingly, but denied by the majority of hawks in the US government, to the extent of altering or suppressing EPA scientific reports for political ends.   How does one find common ground on issues with this crowd?  Particularly when working with an environmental group may open them up to criticism from within their own ranks?

So I remain torn.  I think that many of the discussion that were had at SXSWEco were useful, and needed to happen.  But the over arching theme of diversifying the message and setting aside ideological positions ultimately lacks practicality and vital substance.

I would consider attending again next year, on the hopes that more practical issues could be addressed (and assuming the costs come down, given that it was far more expensive than an event like ESA).  This might be unlikely to occur, given that SXSW as an organixation tends to focus on ideas and innovation, but implementation is incredibly important, and cannot be ignored in these discussions.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Day Two: Themes

Today has been a day of themes emerging from the apparent randomness of the various talks.
One hopes that this was planned by the organizers, but one never really knows.

The day began a bit late, with the Consuming Better: What Neuroscience Says About a Sustainable Future which echoed some of the sentiments of the keynote from Tuesday.  The primary gist is this:  You cannot expect humans to stop acting like humans.  The only thing you can do is engineer systems that take into account how humans actually behave and make decisions.

And that's an important idea.  Much of the root cause of a lot of the failures in environmental policy thus far have been because we try to push for how people to behave the way they should act, even when that seems to be in direct contradiction with how they do act. Most people simply don't want less. They don't want to live in a low energy society. The previous people who did live in such a society opted to create this one, and people make the transition from an agrarian life style to an urban one at an astonishing rate every day.

Neuroscience is showing us that human brains are not rational devices, but that they are somewhat predictable. Most humans tend towards outcomes that lend them perceived status relative to their peers, even if that means they are worse off, in absolute terms. This means that our brains will fool us: wine we believe to be expensive tastes better than wine we think is cheap.  We engage in conspicuous consumption.

Another interesting fact is that when you provide people with feedback, they shape their behavior to optimize that feedback signal.  Thus we drive a car more efficiently when we can see the mileage instantaneously (the Prius Effect).

If we can manage the energy problem (which is no small feat) and take these things about human nature into consideration, then we can go a long way towards having a more sustainable society.

Day One Part Two (All about Coal and Grass)

So, lunch time here at the conference, just saw a very interesting presentation about how bad people are at consuming less. But!  First I want to update about the end of the day yesterday.

One of the talks I was looking forward to seeing the most was also one of the shortest.
With the provocative title of "No More Coal: The business case of ending an industry", it was presented by Gil Friend, of Natural Logic.  He was apparently prepared to give an hour, but only had fifteen minutes, and so didn't bother with slides, and just read things off his phone.

For all that, his presentation was pretty good, as he clearly knew the material backwards and forwards.

Mr. Friend posited the idea that if we look at the global subsidies for the coal industry, they may amount to something like 200 billion US dollars (there are apparently not good data, so it's a ball park figure).  However, the industry only has a worth of approximately 150 billion US.  Which means that we, as a species, sink 50 billion dollars a year into an industry that ultimately is causing us a lot of problems, and which isn't even economically viable without subsidies.   Thus, he suggests we could do several things.  The most radical is to use that same subsidy money to buy out the mines, and shut them down.  This strikes me as phenomenally unlikely.  Another, potentially more viable option would be to simply end all subsidies, period.  This would do a couple of things:  it would drastically drive up the cost of coal, drive many mines out of business, and potentially level the playing field in the energy sector, giving renewables an opening to grab some market share.

However, and maybe he didn't discuss this because of time issues, it would also have the impact of driving up energy prices.  Many, many parts of the country use coal to generate electricity.  A drastic increase in price or decrease in availability would impact electricity production in ugly ways.  This would have the net effect of reducing consumption, but probably not in a way that would be beneficial to society, at least in the near term.

The next talk was also a fifteen minute number, delivered by Mark Simmons, from the SITES initiative talk.  He recycled some material, particularly about his desire to live in Middle Earth, rather than some ultra urbanized future.  In something of a recurring theme at this convention, he opened by talking about the carbon storage capacity of grasslands (which is only surpassed by wetlands), but then shifted gears to talk about other ecosystem services, and restoration projects.  In particular, he pointed out how much more durable and resistant to drought lawns made up of a mix of local grasses are than imported turf grasses.  He also discussed a restoration project here in Austin, bringing back some of the blackland prairie that has almost disappeared from the Texas landscape.  Perhaps the most interesting part, for me, were the slides showing the superior performance here in Texas of a mix of local grasses to the sedums typically used for green roof installations.  This wasn't too surprising, given some of the green roof literature I've seen, showing that a suite of local species often perform better than the generic sedum mix widely used, but it was nice to see none the less.

It was not, shall we say, a presentation that invoked deep thinking, but showed how relatively simple it can be to address a lot of the issues that we face as an increasingly urban species.

Later this evening, I'll post some updates about today's events, which so far are shaping up to be excellent. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Day One

So, Day One of SXSWEco, in lovely Austin, Texas.  Today was only a half day of content, perhaps to give attendees traveling into the city an opportunity to arrive today and not miss anything.
The first panel I decided to attend was "Living Laboratories: How Landscapes Give Back".  This was put on by some of the organizers of the Sustainable SITES Intiative.

SITES is essentially a LEED certification system for the great outdoors, intended to deal with the fact that most developed landscapes are something of a nightmare, ecologically speaking.  SITES is currently in the pilot phase, with approximately 150 projects scattered throughout the US, and a few in Europe (including Iceland, interesting enough). Based on the results from the pilot projects, the guidelines and scoring system will be revised, and then released for general use.  One of the very interesting things about SITES is the a focus on function and ecosystem services; it's not necessarily about restoring the original landscape, but creating and maintaining one that provides value to the human occupants by being a functional ecosystem.  One can get bonus points by planting natives, but it's not necessary and in a lot of cases, simply won't be practical.  And because landscape architects are involved, you can be certain there will also be an emphasis on aesthetics on most projects.  The main points of the program deal with the green part of the landscape (through a biomass density index, which is similar to leaf area index, but the scale has average values for eco-regions) and water.

The water issues addressed by the certification process are those most familiar to anyone who has worked with surface water in urban areas: controlling and reducing runoff from storm events, improving and protecting water quality, and restoring natural/appropriate stream geomorphology.  There is also a focus on water usage, particularly reducing the use of potable water for irrigation.  This provides a balance to the plant side of the equation, by penalizing for installing more biomass than the site can support without additional water inputs.

Soil was also dealt with briefly in the discussion (as I asked about it).  'Prime farmland' will not eligible for the program, unless it has already been developed or otherwise degraded and is no longer in agricultural use, and it sounded like some sort of soil management plan will need to be put in place along with the management and monitoring plans for the plant community and water components of the landscape.

One thing SITES will not deal with (at least immediately) is animal life.  This, according to Mark Simmons (when asked a challenging landscape ecology question), was because there was simply too much regional complexity for the program to deal with immediately.  Over time he thought it was likely that regionally focused animal habitat components will be developed and integrated into the certification.

Personally, I think SITES is extremely promising, and has potential to really deeply affect the way outdoor spaces are designed and maintained in the future.  We can hope--as Mr. Simmons said on more than one occasion--to at least do things less wrong.

Monday, October 3, 2011


So, I am currently couch surfing in Austin, attending the first SXSW Eco conference.

I will probably post updates relatively frequently, giving my thoughts and impressions of the event.

First, I will say this:  I am pretty sure that I am not the target audience for this event.
The cost of registration was quite high for a three day conference (though it has since been reduced), and likely priced out many academics, especially given that this is the first time this conference has been put on.

The schedule is an interesting mix of participants, with some focus on urban systems, and the business world has a strong presence. We'll see how things go.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bad News: Now in Video Form

Just to expand on the Arctic Ice Minimum issue a little bit:

A pretty nice (if depressing) little summation.

One of the things I think is very peculiar, and that seems to receive infrequent commentary is that the US military has no doubts about climate change issues.  Here we see a Navy scientist discussing an impending ice free Arctic in the summer.  This, of course, has serious strategic consequences for the Navy, and they take it seriously.  It's bizarre to me that one of the most trusted components of the US government could internally take a position different from that of the government at large, and that the public doesn't seem to know, or to care.  Very strange to me.

Of course, the unwillingness of people to accept data for what are ultimately political reasons is strange to me as well, even though it shouldn't be.
We are, after all, only a bunch of irrational, clannish primates.

(tip of the hat to P.Z. Myers for the video)