Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Climate change is just a game

Climate change is a huge environmental problem. After over a decade of being continuously reminded of it, a statement like that becomes a platitude. But what we don’t often hear is that climate change and the solution to it is a social dilemma that requires people and countries that think individualistically – which got them into this mess in the first place – to trust and cooperate with each other. This can be a tall order. With the help of a branch of science called game theory, we can get a better grasp of these behind the scenes climate change issues.

Game theory was originally developed during the Cold War as a way of developing strategies in situations where the outcome is based on both you and your opponent’s decisions. Because it’s not always possible to know what an opponent is going to do, the first game theorists developed scenarios they called games and asked themselves what the most rational way to proceed would be if they were in their opponent’s shoes.

A modern day example of this is the battle for consumers between Coke and Pepsi. If they both companies set the same high price, they split the number of consumers and collect sizeable profits. If Coke one day decided it could make more money by setting its price lower than Pepsi’s, thus attracting Pepsi drinkers, Pepsi would quickly lower its prices also and both companies would find themselves making less money than before. Game theorists study, in this instance, what pricing strategies each company should take to help maximize profits. Though a large number of these games exists, two are especially important when discussing climate change.

The origin of the climate change problem can be explained by a game called the tragedy of the commons. Proposed by Garrett Hardin in 1968, it explores the harmful dynamic that can develop when individuals benefit from a public good while spreading the costs to all other users. The quintessential example, used by Hardin himself, is that of a public pasture.

Imagine you are a shepherd grazing your flock on the public pastures surrounding your village along with a number of other shepherds. One day you have an epiphany: If you bought one more sheep, you would get the full benefit of owning that additional sheep and the cost of raising it, the grass it would eat, would be split between you and all other shepherds in the village because grass eaten by your new sheep cannot be eaten by another. Having realized this, you decide to get another sheep. Then another. And another. After a while, the other shepherds catch on to your logic and start adding their own sheep until there are too many sheep for the pasture and it becomes unproductive equally devastating all shepherds. Getting more sheep made so much sense, what happened?

The problem, like climate change, is not the decision or the motives of the individual, it is the collection of decisions made by all individuals. From the point of view of each shepherd, getting more sheep always makes more sense because the benefit outweighs the cost. The problem is that all shepherds are bound to think this way and the pasture cannot support and unlimited number of sheep

Driving your car, in this instance, is similar to buying more sheep. Every time someone drives from point A to point B they get obtain the full benefit of that trip while the cost, greenhouse gas emissions, is released into the atmosphere and shared by everyone in the form of climate change. That’s why it’s easy to think, “I’m just one person,” because your benefit seems so much larger than your cost. We need to remind ourselves that if millions of people are also thinking the same thing, as with the shepherds, the costs quickly get out of hand.

Why, then, is it so hard to fight climate change? Can we not all realize our collective predicament and work together? Cooperation is not as easy as it may seem. It can lead to the second climate change game, the snowdrift game.

Imagine – this shouldn’t be too hard for Canadians – that you are driving in a snowstorm until you arrive at a snowdrift across the road. You inspect the snowdrift and find no way around it while also noticing that there is someone else stuck on the other side of the snowdrift driving in the opposite direction. Each of you can choose to shovel or not creating three possible scenarios. In the first, both people shovel sharing the cost. In the second, one person shovels, accruing the entire cost while the other person benefits from the other’s work. The last scenario, where no one shovels, leaves both people trapped on their side of the snowdrift.

To see how this applies to climate change, imagine a much simplified world with two countries: A and B. In the first scenario, both countries reduce emissions and avoid or minimize climate change. In the second, one country reduces emissions, lessening the impact of climate, and both countries benefit. The last scenario where both countries are unwilling to reduce emissions finds both facing intense climate change.

Most countries would like to be in the first scenario but are simultaneously afraid to find they are the duped party in the second. This leaves countries in the third scenario because they can’t find a way to trust that the other will share the costs of reducing emissions.

This is where a third party has to step in to instill that trust. In the real world case, this came in the form of the Kyoto Protocol. It guaranteed a certain amount of trust between countries because it only came into effect when enough countries to represent 55% of global emissions ratified it. This was meant to eliminate, as much as possible, countries ‘sitting in their cars’ and waiting for other countries to ‘dig out the snowdrift’. Of course, the United States infamously did so, refusing to ratify the Protocol because other developing countries, most notably China, India and Brazil, were also ‘sitting in their cars’. Regardless of its overall efficacy, the Kyoto Protocol managed to instill a little bit of trust between countries…for a little while anyway.

While climate change continues to be a highly politicized and polarizing issue, it is important to realize that ideological differences aren’t the only problem. There are also real social dilemmas underlying both the cause and the resolution of climate change. Cooperation is going to be the only way out of this snowdrift.

Seen in the September 17, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A recipe for dialog

This month’s issue of Harper’s magazine greeted me with an unexpected but welcome surprise. The title, “News from Nowhere”, was both unassuming and undisclosing, in true Harper’s style, so my delight came from the byline, “Iceland’s Polite Dystopia”. In a feverish rush to finish my thesis, the only music that I can focus with is the entire repertoire of Iceland’s only non-Bjork musical celebrity: Sigur Ros. Having bathed in the landscape painted by their music daily and nearly non-stop, I felt somewhat indebted to the country that produced such melodious musicians.

I read through Rebecca Solnit’s article intently relishing a country that is so perfectly human in its strengths and faults. Iceland has the world’s highest per-capita book sales – one citizen remarked that “here the garbageman has read Cicero” – and it seems to feed a national identity that instills strong principles with the ferocity of their Viking ancestors. Yet, they are remarkably unlike their ancestors in their inability to voice or otherwise communicate their displeasure with the state of affairs for fear of being ‘preachy’. And it’s not as though the opportunity doesn’t present itself as citizens can actually make an appointment with the president or simply chat up the prime minister at the supermarket.

Their predicament struck me as entirely complementary to the political climate we weather in Canada. Complementary, not in that word’s usual sense of completion but in its chromatic sense of two colours that, when united, make a neutral colour. Where Icelanders fail at discourse for want of being preachy, we fail in relying exclusively on that quality. This election cycle is a case in point. Politicians speak much more like a member of the clergy than a member of the people. Similar to the unidirectional nature of the message the clergyman passes on to his parishioners, politicians don’t seem as inspired by the people as they seem to tell the people what they want for them. Just as saying nothing isolates people, as the Icelanders do, telling people something is just as isolating. Dialog is accomplished through a sharing of ideas in the absence of force. If we could combine the passive, receptive nature of Icelanders with the sometimes overly-vocal yet passionate nature of Canadians we could have something as bright and as non-threatening as the mixture of blue and yellow light: white.

Forest Pharmacy

A discussion of herbal medicine and supplements can be a dangerous minefield to cross. People tend to entrench themselves either on the side of “real” medicine where human ingenuity is the driving force behind pharmaceutical innovation, or with those that view human-manufactured drugs with cynicism seeing natural products, unspoiled by human alteration, as the main avenue to maintaining health.

As is nearly always the case when people are neatly divided into two camps, reality lies somewhere in the middle and our local forests are an example of this. Though rife with plants with medicinal qualities, not all plants of Eastern Townships are directly edible and require transformation in a laboratory to enhance their effectiveness and avoid toxic reactions and unwelcome side-effects. There is no need to go thumbing through a medical textbook to convince yourself of this; a short, guided hike can demonstrate both that medicine is often times a wonderful combination of natural diversity and human ingenuity and that tropical forests are not the only places that contain exciting medicine. With the right knowledge, a hike in the Townships can be just as much like foraging through a pharmacy as it is a walk in the woods.

Mary Poppins would be delighted with the first forest medicine we’ll explore as it comes with a spoonful of sugar. It’s difficult to hike in the Townships without crossing paths with blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, currants, cherries, strawberries or the stray, abandoned apple orchard. Aside from the fact that they all make delicious pies, these fruits also contain a compound called quercetin giving them colour and many potential health benefits. By blocking histamines, it can provide allergy relief to sufferers and it has anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce swelling for those with arthritis. It’s also an antioxidant which means it can lower the level of “bad” cholesterol in your blood and protect your DNA from damage caused by free-radicals. It can even be used in treating more serious illnesses like cancerous skin and prostate tumours. More recently, it has demonstrated the ability to reduce mice’s susceptibility to the flu though whether it will have this same property in humans is yet to be determined. Much of the benefit of quercetin can be obtained directly from nature without transformation. However, fruits only contain quercetin in small amounts so for it to have any effect you need more than a couple berries; a regular diet of these fruits as well as vegetables high in quercetin (red onions, parsley, olives) can help reap its benefits.

The Canadian Yew is an example of medicinal plant you won’t want to enjoy directly from nature. Though its bright red fruit is the only non-toxic part of this sprawling, evergreen shrub (caution: the seed inside the fruit is toxic which I is why I just steer clear of eating any part of it) it is the bark that contains the medicine. Its bark contains paclitaxel which is extracted and used as a treatment that inhibits the growth of ovarian and breast cancers cells. Originally, paclitaxel was harvested from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree but the amount of bark it took to make the drug were prohibitive so now it is simply synthesized in a laboratory from a more common compound found in the needles.

Another medicinal bark is that of the willow tree which is the source of an anti-inflammatory that can also reduce fevers. In use for millennia, the “father of medicine” himself, Hippocrates, described the effects of the bark in the 5th century BC. What he was observing was the effects of salicylic acid, which is only a short chemical reaction away from aspirin. Salicylic acid has similar medicinal properties to aspirin but causes more digestive upset which is the reason we use the over the counter version instead. Aspirin itself, developed in the late 19th century, was derived from another common plant to the Townships: meadowsweet. A relative of the rose with small white or pink flowers, it contains methyl salicylate, another precursor of aspirin. Contrary to the willow tree, the entire meadowsweet plant can be used for medicinal purposes but its high potency makes this plant risky to use. If you have a headache, you’re better off getting your aspirin from the pharmacy rather than from this plant.

Although we think of vineyards more as source of wine than of medicine grapes – both the wild river bank grape abundant in the Townships or its cultivated cousin – are a healthy source of antioxidants, quercetin and, most notably, resveratrol. It can lengthen the life of certain organisms including yeast, worms, a short lived species of fish and even mice causing wine and resveratrol to make headlines. Unfortunately, by the time you’ve had enough wine for it to have effect, you would have a failing liver to worry about.

Incase I got your hopes up with the life-lengthening potential of resveratrol and now you’re feeling a little blue, try some St-John’s Wort. This little yellow flower has been shown to be just as effective as commercial antidepressants for treating mild to moderate depression with fewer side effects. Trials on patients with major depression, however, have come up empty handed.

From just a few examples we can see that certain natural compounds need no processing (quercetin and St. John’s Wort) while the natural compounds contained in others must be extracted or altered to avoid either toxic reactions or unpleasant side-effects (paclitaxen and aspirin). Other drugs, like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are not based on naturally occurring compounds and are the products of pure ingenuity.

It is clear that effective medicine is not found solely in nature or the lab. In fact, many successful drugs are the product of teamwork between the diversity of nature and the ingenuity of people. In some cases, like St. John’s Wort for depression, the natural product can be just as effective as its pharmaceutical rival but in other cases, pharmaceuticals may be more effective. When faced with this problem, I defer to an old platitude: go with what works. In my case, it’s whatever will get me back on the hiking trails fastest.

Seen in the September 10, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Catch me listening to Car Talk

I have a new favourite radio show and, in all honesty, my realization of the strength of my break with the past has left me reeling. If you were to tell me in 2003 that in five years I would find myself putting aside time every Saturday morning to listen to Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, for one hour of call-in car repair radio on Car Talk, I’d have a hard time believing you. My skepticism would be based more on your claim of time travel, but I digress.

Car Talk is neither your run of the mill call-in or car repair show. The diversity of listeners it attracts rivals the tropical rainforest both in quantity and in distinctiveness. Just this past weekend there was a guy calling in saying he was a long time listener but, his main skill set being music, he new nothing about cars. Long-time listener? Excuse my simplemindedness but to listen to a call-in radio show about cars, don’t you have to not just like cars, but have some idea of how to fix them? The guy was a musician! I mean, I don’t mind gardening but I consider the gardening show on CBC just short of torture. Shouldn’t an alto-sax aficionado be listening to John Coltrane on Bose earphones that cost more than my weekly paycheck? Surfing over to their Facebook page, I discover that they have 12,175 fans and that, don’t forget, is only within the demographic that actually uses Facebook which I’d estimate to be only a fraction of their entire listening base. But even within that demographic, they still manage to have more fans than indie favourites Broken Social Scene or Chromeo. Taken at face value, that still means that more people feel the urge to make public their love affair with Click and Clack than two bands I’d consider famous. What’s happening here?

Truthfully, I’m not sure. I don’t even have a car to fix. I hadn’t even been interested in cars at all before. And, believe me, there are many things I find more pleasant than the call-in format for a radio show. The Tappet brothers, with their almost hyperbolic Boston accents have managed to breath life into a subject that I wasn’t even aware possessed the apparatus to blow into and they’ve been doing it for over 20 years! Is it their self-depricating charm or their almost House M.D.-esque ability to diagnose car troubles based simply on a caller’s questionable ability to imitate odd sounds made by their car over a poor phone connection on national radio? Whatever it is, I want to find out because I have my own discipline to breathe life into.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Farming greener grass gives greater returns

Brome Fair is a time for going big whether we’re talking about hot dogs, horsepower or wild rides. Yet, despite all the new, big distractions, this year it was the size of the cattle, an ever-present participant in the fair, that impressed me most. It’s not that the cattle were that much bigger this year, I just finally appreciated how big a cow is. And being big, of course, requires eating a lot and creating a lot of waste. The continuously bustling of wheelbarrows bringing hay in and cow paddies out reminded me of a farmer I’d read about in Virginia who shirked some old agricultural traditions in favour of some new ones which permitted him to greatly reduce the number of “wheelbarrows” of food coming into the farm and all but eliminate the number of “wheelbarrows” leaving the farm. His name is Joel Salatin.

Joel Salatin has taken the old saying, “in order to catch a fish, you have to think like a fish,” to a new extreme. He thinks like a cow, a chicken, a pig, a rabbits, a turkey but above all he thinks like grass which is why, despite the fact that Salatin produces 30,000 dozen eggs, 10,000 broilers, 100 head of cattle, 250 hogs, 800 turkeys, and 600 rabbits, he considers himself, above all, a grass farmer.

Salatin’s farm, elegantly depicted in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book The Ominvore’s Dilemma, is a jigsaw puzzle of landscape proportions where the centerpiece is the grass or the “salad bar” as Salatin himself likes to put it. Using an ingenious system comprised of some electric fencing hooked up to a car battery he creates a paddock, up to 5 acres in area, for his cattle. After one day of grazing he quickly ushers them onto the next paddock leaving behind cow paddies and a hoof mark rutted terrain. Two or three days later, and the timing is important, he brings in a vehicle he affectionately calls the Eggmobile. In that delay, grubs and fly larvae, favourite foods of chickens, have grown fat and juicy but have not yet hatched. The chickens then do three jobs in one, reducing the number of pests on the farm by eating the larvae, spreading the cow paddies over the paddock and leaving behind their own natural fertilizer which is rich in nitrogen, a limiting nutrient for the grass and the soil. The cows themselves increase the nitrogen in the soil as well by grazing the taller grass species leaving more light for shorter species like red clover which put nitrogen into the soil. Their hoof marks can also capture rain water creating a perfect microsite for the growth of grass. This makes the grass on Polyface Farms grow in blazes. In fact, while other farmers in his area are averaging 70 cow days per acre (one ‘cow day’ being the average amount of grass a cow will eat in one day), Polyface farms is averaging nearly 400 cow days per acre. This means Salatin’s 100 acre pastureland is equivalent to almost 600 acres of average land. That’s similar to getting nearly six farms for the price of one.

The interdependent nature of his farm means that nothing goes to waste. The output of one system is the input into another reducing his reliance on external inputs such as fossil fuels and corn and grain. The money he saves means that on every dollar of food he sells only eight cents goes to paying for inputs into the farm allowing him to earn over 250,000 US$ a year.

Granted he sells his product at a price above that of what you’d pay at the grocery store, something he’s been criticized for, but he believes this is the true cost of food.

“…with our food, all of the costs are figured into the price. Society is not bearing the cost of water pollution, of antibiotic resistance, of food-borne illnesses, of crop subsidies, of subsidized oil and water – of all the hidden costs to the environment and the taxpayer that make cheap food seem cheap,” he explains to Pollan. “Frankly, any city person who doesn't think I deserve a white-collar salary as a farmer doesn't deserve my special food.”

No one can fault Salatin for being soft-spoken but he not only talks the talk of his self proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmental capitalist” politics, he walks the walk. Well, more like his animals walk the walk. Salatin’s philosophy is that the animals should do the work instead of tractors. Simple put, farmers should bring the animals to the food, not bring food from 1,000 miles away to the animals. After all, as Allan Nation, one of Salatin’s mentors, writes in The Stockman Grass Farmer, “all agriculture is at its heart capturing free solar energy…the most efficient was is for you to send and animal out to gather this free solar food.”

The cow-chicken symbiosis is only the beginning of the interrelationships on the farm and every time you think there can’t be another little wrinkle to the apparent perfection of Salatin’s master plan, there is.

Another example of Salatin’s ingenuity is the barn in which he keeps the cows in the winter. Rather than remove the manure, Salatin puts straw, wood chips and corn on top. As the winter wears on and the manure mixture builds up, the cows bedding lifts off the ground up to three feet by the end. The mixture creates anaerobic compost that gives off heat and keeps the cows warm. Once the cows are let out to pasture, the pigs are turned loose in the barn where they dig with feverish delight to find all the half-fermented corn buried within, aerating the compost in the process so it can be spread back on the pasture.

Salatin’s convictions stretch beyond the border of his farm. He refuses to ship his meat. If you want to sample his meat, you have to drive down to the Shenandoah Valley to get it. Fortunately for him, he’s built up a strong clientele who are willing to do just that and among them you’ll find a variety of people from local families to haute-cuisine chefs who claim that his eggs can make a dessert like no other. If you do decide to make the trip down, you can always take a peek around on the farm as well as he operates on a strict open door policy.

I must admit that though I consider myself a realist environmentalist, I find few, if any flaws in Salatin’s jigsaw puzzle of a farm where all the pieces fit unnervingly well together. Nevertheless, Salatin himself doesn’t claim to have all the answers as he admits that his farm cannot necessarily be carbon copied into a new location. In a 2000 interview in Smithsonian he suggests farmers should, “try a little ‘landscape painting’,” and that, “there’s plenty of room to experiment.” This, he believes, is how to reduce the number of “wheelbarrows” going in and the number of “wheelbarrows” going out.

If you wish to here Joel Salatin himself speak about his farm, go to:

Seen in the September 3, 2008 issue of the Brome County News

Monday, September 8, 2008

Blue-green algae: more than just a pest at the beach

The next time there is a beach closure due to blue-green algae, municipalities could put a positive spin on it with a sign that reads: BEACH CLOSED DUE TO LIVING FOSSIL ON DISPLAY. It won’t make up for a missed day at the beach but it will remind people that blue-green algae aren’t just a pest, they’re a part of natural history.

Blue-green algae (a misleading name as they are more closely related to bacteria than algae which is why they are also referred to as cyanobacteria) are often referred to as the ultimate ‘living fossil’. A living fossil is a species that does not look appreciably different from prehistoric fossils we find of them. Colonies of blue-green algae have been preserved in fossils called stromatolites over billions of years. In fact, some of the earliest known fossils dating back three and a half billion years look remarkably like the blue-green algae that we see today (though there is some controversy surrounding these oldest fossils as some scientist claim they were not made by biological processes but rather by physical ones). Nonetheless, the form we see blue-green algae in today is similar to the way it was when life was just getting a foothold on earth – with one important difference: the majority of blue-green algae today has the ability to produce oxygen. This is an important development for life on earth.

Three and half billion years ago, the earth was a very different place. Volcanoes were much more active, the sun was one third dimmer, and the atmosphere was mostly nitrogen and carbon dioxide. There was little to no oxygen in the atmosphere at that time. The absence of oxygen didn’t prevent life, but it did limit its complexity. At that point in history, life existed only as one celled organisms that had limited ways of producing energy. Some of them did it by harnessing chemical reactions or the natural heat of the earth and others, such as the early blue-green algae, combined the sun’s energy with hydrogen or sulphur to produce energy. Some time around 2.7 billion years ago, blue-green algae evolved the ability to perform photosynthesis, like plants do today, using carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen. Because the atmosphere was so rich in carbon dioxide and the earth was rich in other important nutrients like phosphorus, these blue-green algae were extremely successful to the point where, over the course of a half billion years, they changed the composition of the atmosphere making carbon dioxide relatively rare and oxygen abundant. This event was the first in a series that allowed the evolution of the plants and animals that we recognize today.

Their tenacity over three and a half billion years of earth’s history can be equated with their ability to find a way to survive under nearly any set of circumstances. They can be found in the harshest environments on the face of the earth including the driest part of the driest desert on earth, a place that without any rain or fog, the Atacama Desert in Chile. It manages to survive there by living off the water that salty rocks naturally draw from the humidity in the air. In this part of the Atacama, no other forms of life are supported.

Their hardiness makes them good candidates to supply food for inhabitants of space travelers of the future. The moon contains nutrients required for life but it is bound up tightly in the soil. When researchers added blue-green algae to simulated lunar soil and added light and water, they found that it was able secrete acid and unlock the nutrients from the soil. Humans staying on the moon for long periods of time would therefore not have to bring the nutrients or soil to grow their own food. Some have even speculated that under certain conditions, blue-green algae could survive on Mars.

Blue-green algae can also be used to solve problems here on earth. Currently, the efficacy of using agricultural crops such as corn for biofuels is being debated because of the large amount of energy that needs to be put into growing the crops and processing the fuel. There is potential to produce biofuels from blue-green algae. Their natural energy producing systems can be altered to produce alternative fuels such as hydrogen or ethanol directly without any processing.

While they remain pests at the beach, it is clear they are more than just pests at the beach. They transformed the atmosphere and started the ball of life really rolling. I’m not suggesting we tolerate toxic blooms. Though they are a natural phenomenon, it is human activities, such as agricultural runoff, that has exacerbated a natural problem. I’m suggesting we appreciate the bigger context in which these problems arise. We should realize that blue-green algae share more in common with us than we think. Which other two species do you know of that can change the composition of the atmosphere and has the ability to survive under such extreme conditions?

So next time you’re upset because the blue-green algae blooms have closed the beach, take a deep breath and remember where the oxygen you’re breathing in comes from.

Seen in the August 27, 2008 issue of the Brome County News