Thursday, December 20, 2007

Social engineering before geoengineering

The scientists at RealClimate have some very interesting reports from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting. I haven't had time to read through all of them, but one in particular caught my attention (#7 posted by Ray Pierrehumbert ). Pierrehumbert attended a session on geoengineering as a response to global warming.

The specific geoengineering activity the session focused upon was injecting chemicals into the stratosphere that would form sulfate aerosols to block some of the sun's radiation and effect cooling. This is "analogous to the natural effects of volcanoes" as discussed in an earlier RealClimate post "Geo-engineering in vogue...". Several of the papers from the AGU session discussed by Pierrehumbert evaluate the potential effects of such geoengineering, raising a number of scientific concerns, among them:
  • that geoengineered cooling would not be distributed around the earth in the same way that the CO2 warming is distributed (thus while average earth termperatures might be reduced, it the cooling effects would be greatest in the tropics and smallest in the Artic and would not save Artic sea ice, the polar bear, or even the Greenland ice sheet).

  • that a geoengineered atmosphere would be a drier atmosphere, and there would be less rainfall.

Other entries on RealClimate discuss geoengineering, and raise substantial scientific concerns about the effectiveness of geo-engineering as as a primary response to anthropogenic climate change (CO2 climate forcings). Ray Pierrehumbert's conclusion about geo-engineering:

"I continue to think that geoengineering is a big and unfortunate distraction,
but since the cat is out of the bag, it is good that some people are doing the
work to head off rosy and over-optimistic projections of sulfate geoengineering
as a magic bullet that could substitute for the hard but necessary work of
mitigation of CO2 emissions." (Dispatch #7)

I am not able to judge the scientific arguments surrounding geoengineering, which is why I rely on the expertise of acknowledged climate scientists like those who contribute to RealClimate. However, as a sociologist, I am competent to make judgments about the cultural, social, political and economic ramifications of geoengineering. My professional sociological opinion is that discussions of geoengineering [regardless of their grounding in research] distract us from focusing on necessary social changes.

As serious as the climate change issue is (and it is very serious), it is only one of a myriad environmental and economic justice issues that need to be addressed through social, economic and political changes.

I could (if I had endless time, and no need to write 10 more lectures for an on-line course before January 7) discuss dozens of examples of areas that while connected to global warming have many other reasons why change is needed. I will just give a couple of examples, and refer you to several terrific books -- Meadows, Randers, Meadows The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004 and Lester Brown Plan B 2.0 Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, W. W. Norton, 2006.

Example # 1 -- electricity generated by burning coal. As a resident of eastern Kentucky coalfields, I can tell you unequivocally that even if some one were to scientifically demonstrate beyond a doubt tomorrow (ain't going to happen) that CO2 has absolutely nothing to do with global warming, we should still move as quickly as possible to drastically cut our use of coal to generate electricity. Coal mining is an exceptionally destructive extractive activity. It destroys not only "the environment," it destroys people, their lives, health, homes, and families as well.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for coal miners. I live next door to them, I teach their children, and when they become disabled and go to college to find a new way of earning a living I teach former coal miners also. In the twenty-first century, human beings should not have to put themselves in path of life and health endangering work, simply because there is no other alternative for a decent wage in their communities. Underground coal mining is by far the most dangerous occupation in America. As for surface mining, nothing is so destructive to the face of the earth, dislocating all kinds of plant and animal species -- including the human species -- from their homes.

Each time that I have to drive over the pass from Kentucky to Virginia and back again, I look out (in either direction) at what was once uninterrupted forested hills, into what is quickly becoming a nightmare Mars-scape. This is not happening "out there" some where in some isolated wilderness (not that I want it to happen there either). It is happening within feet of people's homes, churches, stores, and businesses. It's causing some water sources to dry up, and others to become raging floods at the slightest rain.

Then there are all the environmental and health consequence of the burning of coal, totally aside from the issue of CO2. There is the acid rain (from the sulfate aerosols) that turns lakes sterile, destroys forests, and eats away at human buildings and vehicles. There's the mercury that enters the atmosphere with every ton of coal burned, to land in water and soil, creating a hazardous legacy for our children and children's children.

The fact that on top of all these other reasons for reducing coal use, there is global warming and all the best science says that humanly produced CO2 (with coal burning be #1 culprit) is responsible for a significant portion of the climate forcing, makes it all the more imperative to reduce reliance on coal for electricity. We need to dramatically reduce our use of energy -- more efficiency, smaller homes, less gadgets. This is technically easy -- far easier than ramping up the use of wind, solar, geo-thermal or wave power to generate electricity -- but socially and economically very hard.

Sure changing light bulbs to energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs will help, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. All the life style habits that we have developed over the last fifty years need to be reversed. We need lives that are simpler and less energy intensive. We need to remove ourselves from the thrall of advertising and consumption. This is not a simple matter of will power. Entire communities, regions, industries depend upon our consumption of electrical energy and the products that use electrical energy. Nonetheless, individuals and families would benefit hugely, in reduced costs and reduced stress (financial and psychological), from making these changes.

Example #2 -- oil in the form of gasoline for powering private vehicular transportation. Again, utterly aside from the roll that burning gasoline plays in producing CO2 and global warming, there are substantial reasons to dramatically rethink and redesign our transportation system.

Let's begin with the finite nature of the supply of oil. Whether the "peak" of oil production has already occurred, is occurring, will occur in the next 10 years, the next 30 years, or even the next 40 years (the most optimistic prediction I've seen comes from the USGS, and it calls for about 30 years), the fact of the matter is that in less than two generations oil production will decline, but unless there are drastic changes in the U.S., China, and many other nations the demand for oil will continue to climb higher and higher.

When supply decreases and demand increases, prices go through the roof (even without considering the geo-political issues like war). I've already discussed the outrageous costs of using private automotive transportation today. These costs will only increase, becoming more and more onerous especially in rural areas like where I currently live, where there are no public transportation alternatives. We have to create those alternatives. It is the only decent thing to do for those who care about people, about the conditions under which they live and work, and the quality of life that they have.

Then there are the geo-political issues about WHERE oil is. I don't care how much posturing our politicians (of whatever party) make about national security, terrorism, democracy, or weapons of mass destruction. We are embroiled in Iraq because it has oil, and some people (who should be struck dumb for this) are talking about attacking Iran -- because it has oil. We've made alliance with Saudi Arabia (one of the most politically repressive nations) because it has oil. Oil may not be the only cause of war and violence, but it is sure one of the big ones. Support the troops, give less money to supporters of terrorism -- use less oil!

Then there are the environmental issues of oil apart from the whole global warming issue -- the ozone and smog produced by millions of gasoline engines charging over urban freeways; the spills from pipelines, tankers, drilling platforms and refineries that pollute water, and kill wildlife.

While there are technical challenges to overcome in transportation, the even bigger obstacles are cultural attitudes, social habits, and economic and political institutions that are all built around the private auto. We have enshrined the auto in this country. The old "Mr. Goodwrench" commercial said "It's not just your car, it's your freedom," and we've bought this nonsense hook-line and sinker.

The level of transformation required involves the location of places of work and shopping, the organization of streets and homes, patterns of residence, education, entertainment, and many, many more. These changes will not only deal with environmental issues, they will deal with human issues. Making public transportation supported by taxes and fares available to all, creating safe ways for walking and biking, and redesigning communities around foot and bike traffic will not only benefit "the environment," they will benefit the health and well-being of people. Road rage will be replaced by cardiovascular fitness.

In sum, discussions of geoengineering to reduce global temperature, even if these plans are not fraught with technical and environmental problems, distract us from focusing on changing the way we live, so that we can all have decent lives, in a healthier, more efficient society.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Costs of Owning a Car?

A regular reader and astute commenter, e.r. dunhill, on Sociological Stew posted a series of responses to the "Politics of the damned?" that I've decided require a follow-up post.

We were discussing what kind of changes might be needed to allow modern societies to survive up-coming climatic shifts, and create modern, livable, sustainable societies. erd sited several writers who "advocate a shift toward producers providing services, not selling products. From a design and material-cycling standpoint, this makes excellent sense. But, it means that the end-consumer does not enjoy the economic benefit of ownership; the consumer simply pays ad infinitum."

I questioning the "economic benefit of ownership," using the automobile as an example, suggesting that owners of automobiles still pay "ad infinitum.," and that the value of the automobile was a use value not an economic value. By this I mean that private auto ownership gives an individual control over their movement and schedule and provides a sense of freedom, but does not provide an economic asset. Nonetheless, erd countered that "economic benefit of owner ship is that the first costs ultimately provide the owner with an asset. At the end of making car payments, the owner still enjoys the benefit of using the car. Moreover, the owner may ultimately recover some portion of that first cost by selling the vehicle."

This got me to thinking, and as often happens when I start thinking I do some research. What does it really cost to own a car? I took my research and made a few simplifying assumptions to come up with the following.

Suppose a man, let’s call him Charlie, bought a 2004 model year Toyota Camry LE 4 door sedan in December 2003, with payments to begin January 1, 2004. The Camry is one of the most popular cars made in the last 20 years so that’s a reasonable choice to make. It’s a reliable car, with decent gas mileage – EPA estimate of 30 miles per gallon.

The manufacturers suggested retail price on Camry in 2004 was between $15,900 and $28,500. So let’s take the median between those two prices, and assume a fairly well “loaded” vehicle at $22,200 original price. Let’s say Charlie put $2,000 down, and financed $20,200 at 6 percent over 60 months – this would be a monthly payment of $405. The total amount Charlie would have paid out on this purchase as of December 1, 2007 would be $2,000 plus $19,440.00 = $ 21,440.00. [Click here to see my spreadsheet for interest calculations and payments].

We’re going to assume that Charlie is a normal driver and averages 1,000 miles a month, or 12,000 miles a year, and 48,000 miles for the four years between Jan 2004 and December 2007. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Energy, the exact average price of regular gasoline for all the months between January 1, 2004 and December 1, 2007 is $2.32 per gallon. [You can calculate it yourself from the DOE's Excel spreadsheet -data series 1]. We’re going to use the EPA estimated miles per gallon of 30 mpg (even though this is probably a significant underestimation because most car owners do not drive their cars at the optimum speeds for the highest gas mileage performance). So the cost of gasoline for the four years from January 2004 through December 2007 is $3,712.00.

Charlie is a good car owner has his car serviced every 3,000 miles. The cost of regular service varies around the country, so I’ve made a simplifying assumption that service every 3,000 miles or 3 months, will cost $30. That’s higher than where I live, but much less than urban areas where most people live – Charlie lives in the greater Boston Metropolitan area [yes, gentle readers "Boston Charlie"]. And, I did not include any higher charges as might be made for the 30,000 mile check. So I’ve allowed $450 for regular servicing over the four year period.

Of course there is also insurance to pay on the automobile. Here I’m going to have to do a little guessing (because I can’t get the Progressive site to work for me, and it would only give me the cost right now). We own a 2005 Chevy Cavalier (a substantially less expensive, and less popular car than the Toyota Camry) and pay $78 a month for full coverage insurance. Since we live in an area that has high insurance rates, I’m going to be very cautious and allot $80 a month of insurance coverage for Charlie’s Camry. That’s $3,840.00 for four years of car insurance.

So the total expenditures of our car owner, after four years of ownership are:

Down payment and payments$21,440.00
Gasoline$ 3,712.00
Maintenance/Service$ 450.00
Insurance$ 3,840.00

Notice, that I have not even bothered to include other important costs of car ownership, such as property taxes, registration and licensing costs, which vary considerably from place to place. Then there are also the costs of bridge and road tolls. So this exercise underestimates the true total cost of car ownership.

Suppose Charlie wishes to sell his car right now (December 2007). He has put $29,442 into the car, and still owes, $3,754.00 on the principle of the loan. The current Blue Book value of the 2004 Toyota Camry LE sedan modestly loaded with 48,000 miles – for sales between two private parties (the best deal) is $12,625 on a 2004 Toyota Camry fairly well “loaded” in good condition. If Charlie is successful in getting the full $12,625, and pays off the remaining loan of $3,754, he will have a “profit” of $8,871 to deduct from the $29,442 that they have paid into the car. The net COST of the car to our owner over the period of four years was: $20,571.

As we said earlier our Charlie lives in the greater Boston area -- let's say the town of Lexington (I choose this because I actually have a friend named Charlie who lives in Lexington, MA), and has access to a well developed public transportation system (one of my personal favorites) -- two bus routes #62 and #76 connect Lexington with the MBTA. The MBTA offers monthly bus passes in a range of prices depending upon location. Although I suspect that our Charlie, in Lexington, could suffice with one of the less expensive passes, for the sake of argument let's say he needs the most expensive pass -- the Outer Express Bus, which costs $129/month, and provides "unlimited travel on Outer Express Bus PLUS all Inner Express Bus, Local Bus, Subway, Inner Harbor Ferry, and Commuter Rail Zone 1A." If Charlie purchased the Outer Express Bus pass, and used it for the majority of his work and pleasure travel, over the course of the same four years he would pay $6,192.

Compare $6,192 to the net COST of car owning of $20,571 for the same period, and you can see that Charlie could easily have afforded to rent a car for a weekend or a week, several times, for vacations, weekend trips, etc. He might even have purchased a "share" in a cooperatively owned vehicle by several individuals that would cost less than the occasional car rental.

It might be that Charlie does not live alone (my actual friend Charlie has a wife and two teenage children). While we would need to consider the costs of public transportation passes for all the members of the family, we also have to recognize that nearly all middle class families have more than one vehicle, with teenagers, perhaps three or more vehicles. I recently saw a statistic (sorry can't remember where) that said for every 100 Americans of driving age there were 102 private vehicles on the road. From a strictly economic standpoint, given the figures discussed here, a family of four would save money, by having one automobile, and several public transportation passes.

erd is probably thinking about now, that I didn't address one of his major points -- that one does finally pay off the car loan, and then has an "asset." In my example, I stopped short of paying off the loan (largely because it was easier to get reliable data on 2004 models). The cost of paying off the loan would be another $ 3,853.90 (plus maintenance, insurance and gasoline for another year). Once the loan is paid off, there is still monthly costs of insurance, gasoline and maintenance. The cost of gasoline is now averaging $3.07 and rising, and not the 2.32 average of the past four years, so that will be a increasing cost. The costs of maintenance will rise as more and more things need to be replaced and repaired. The costs of insurance will likely decline. But all-in-all given the costs we've been discussing the monthly upkeep costs of the automobile will continue to be greater than the costs of the monthly public transportation costs. At the same time, the Blue Book value of that car, an the amount of money Charlie could recoup by selling it, will be declining. The Camry keeps its value better than most cars, but even that will decline in value over time.

"Not every one's from Boston, John" [nod to "1776"], and most Americans do not have such well developed public transportation systems available to them. Given the costs of owning a vehicle, from an economic stand point, most Americans would gain financially if they could exchange the ownership of one family vehicle for higher taxes to support comprehensive public transportation in their area. There is nonetheless a very high resistance to public transportation (and to taxes to support it). My primary point here, is that such resistance is based on psychological, emotional and cultural reasons, not economic reasons. If we were all rational economic actors as most economists mistakenly take us to be, then it would be easy for us to exchange our automobiles for comprehensive, public transportation systems. We do not want cars because they make us economically better off. We want cars because we have been culturally conditioned to equate them with adulthood, freedom, independence, convenience and other emotionally laden concepts. There was a some years ago a series of "Mr. Goodwrench" advertisements on TV, that had a very catchy tune, the refrain to which declared "it's not just a car it's your freedom."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The calvary is coming... declares a new sign by the outpost of the striking Kentucky Nurses Association (KNA) in front of the Whitesburg hospital of Appalachian Regional Healthcare system .

I didn't get to stop and ask who the calvary might be, but this week's article in the Lexington Herald-Leader suggests that the calvary might be "a federal mediator and state officials" who have been instrumental in restarting negotiations between ARH and the KNA.

Six weeks ago when the strike began, ARH took a hardline stand, refusing to continue negotiations and announcing that they would begin immediately to hire permanent replacements for the striking nurses.

This week's article provides another hint about why ARH might be willing to temper their hardline stand and resume the negotiations. The precise numbers are in dispute (depending upon whether you are reading the KNA site, the ARH site, or the Herald-Leader), but approximately 750 registered nurses are involved in the dispute, of which about 600 have refused to cross the picket line. Some 150 to 175 union nurses have violated the picket line and continued to work. ARH has permanently replaced another 125 striking nurse positions.

It's not hard to see that this leaves ARH with at least 450 registered nurse positions that are unfilled. One wonders how ARH ever imagined that they could replace the striking nurses in today's employment market. They acted as if they had not heard there was a nursing shortage. Or perhaps they merely hoped that time, cold, lack of income, and the threat of replacement would soften the KNA resolve.

The real jobs for the twenty-first century!

On Monday this week, my Kentucky Community and Technical College System newsletter carried a story from Inside Higher Education entitled "University Training in the Skilled Trades" by Elizabeth Redden.

West Virginia University recognizing from their own difficulties in hiring skill trades workers (including carpenters, electricians, heating, ventilation and air conditioning mechanics, and plumbers) decided to create their own four year "apprenticeship program [that] pairs each apprentice with a mentor, and includes 1,600 hours of on-the-job training per-year and 145 annual hours of classroom training (to be conducted through a combination of classes at a local technical college, distance education and instruction from West Virginia staff)." Redden points out that West Virginia is hardly alone in this, "the University of Virginia...just celebrated its 25th anniversary for its apprenticeship program in July [2007]."

Many colleges across the country are facing difficulties in recruiting and hiring skilled trades workers, a situation, likely to increase as large numbers of skill workers move into retirement in the next decade.

The key element of the programs that Redden discusses is the apprenticeship. The lack of apprenticeship opportunities is one of the major stumbling bottlenecks in the development of a new generation of skilled workers, as there must be employers willing to employ apprentices and provide appropriate supervision for them over a period of several years.

While most Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges provide training for electricians, plumbers, carpenters, and HVAC workers, only one college in the system -- Jefferson CTC -- has apprenticeship programs and only in carpentry and millwright work. Other KCTCS programs appear to stop short of apprenticeship, providing at most preparation for the journeyman examinations such as in plumbing.

Skilled trades jobs will never be outsourced to India or China. They require workers to be physically present. There will always be a need for carpenters, millwrights, plumbers, electricians, masons and bricklayers, gardeners and landscape specialists, and auto repair workers in the American economy. Yet Kentucky community and technical colleges seem to be more interested in producing exactly the kind of worker whose job will be outsourced -- the digital worker. Certainly every 21st century worker, including or even perhaps especially those in the skilled trades, needs to be technologically savvy and have strong computer skills. But it is a serious mistake to focus on the kinds of technology (e.g., programming) and office (e.g., medical transcript) jobs that are already being outsourced to India.

The allied health professions are a focus of Kentucky community and technical colleges, and appropriately so. Nursing, radiography (unlike radiology), and respiratory therapy cannot be outsourced. These health care workers have to be physically present with the patient, wherever that patient may be.

The skilled trades do not hold the allure and status of allied health professions, but they do promise as good or better job opportunities, and should not be overlooked. More energy needs to be invested in developing business partnerships and apprenticeship opportunities in the skilled trades. Why let universities (like West Virginia and Virginia) take over the historical mission of community and technical colleges? Community colleges in other states (such as Michigan and Wisconsin) have far more extensive apprenticeship programs. KCTCS wants to be the very best community college system in the nation, here's an opportunity!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Politics of the damned?

When I moved to Kentucky the first time (in 1975) I was given a postcard with a humorous poem about life in Kentucky. The final line of the poem is "the politics are the damnedest in Kentucky." During every one of the nearly 19 years that I've lived in this state, I've seen lots of supporting evidence for that statement, but the performance of state representative Jim Gooch (Democrat from Providence, KY) tops the list. In his capacity as chair of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee (!!) Gooch organized a hearing to dispute the idea that the Earth is warming.

Chairman Jim Gooch, D-Providence, a longtime ally of the coal industry, said
he purposefully did not invite anyone who believes in global warming to
"You can only hear that the sky is falling so many times," said
Gooch, whose post makes him the House Democrats' chief environmental strategist.
"We hear it every day from the news media, from the colleges, from
Hollywood." (Lexington Herald-Leader Thurs. Nov. 15, 2007 )

Neither of the two speakers invited were scientists because Rep. Gooch said "It really wasn't my intention to get into so much science today."

I spotted this story in the Herald-Leader while waiting for my car to be serviced. (Thank you, AutoWorks of Whitesburg for always having a current newspaper in the waiting area!). When I got to work, I searched the article out on-line. The most interesting aspect of reading the article on line was perusing the comments posted by readers.

My favorite comment, by Tom Burns was "I believe the large vacant cavity that is
Jim Gooch's skull is a prime location for trapping carbon dioxide."
The sad thing about the comments is that a significant minority of posters applauded Gooch, and echoed the speakers sentiments that the only thing "only thing man made about global warming is the hysteria." A line used in several variations by many of the posters in agreement with Gooch and his invited speakers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Musing about the Future, Part I

I have been doing a lot of thinking and writing about the future. Between lectures for my on-line environmental sociology class, and comments to various blogs (including my own) I've been developing some thoughts about where we are heading, and what we might do about it.

I got started down this road by a post by "Progressive" Forwardly Thinking: New Progressive Politics got me to thinking about the future. The essence of the Forward Thinking post and the document "The Death of Environmentalism" by Shellenberger and Nordhaus, that it links to, is that the political techniques and strategies that produced the environmental legislation of the past in the U.S. are not working, and will not work, to deal with the environmental crisis of global warming. This is a very thoughtful document and provides a good overview of environmental politics for the last 50 years, and some good thoughts on why the political techniques that were so successful in the 1960's and 1970's fail when confronted by climate change issues. ideas presented for future political action are well thought out, and have potential. Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that environmentalists have to stop being a "special interest" and "start framing our proposals around core American values and start seeing our own values as central to what motivates and guides our politics."
It is hard not to agree with everything Shellenberger and Nordhaus have to say. Environmentalists do need to do some visioning for the future. We do need to clarify our values, and work consistently from those values, tying our political efforts to those values. We do need to have a proactive approach, talking about the positives (what are the new industries and new jobs that will be created), rather than the negatives (what jobs and industries will decline). However, even if environmentalists were successful in doing all these things, we would not have the same kinds of success that conservative "values" voters have, for one very simple reason. The value issues of conservatives (pro-family--traditional two parent, husband headed families, anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, prayer in school, Ten Commandments in the Courthouse, smaller government, lower taxes agendas) either have no impact or a positive impact on the profit margin of corporations. These values and the policies they spawn either are irrelevant the operation of a capitalist economy or they support the accumulation of capital. While there are some economic activities that would benefit from an environmental values agenda, environmental values (and other liberal values such as national health care) run strongly counter to the profit interests of the vast majority of existing capitalist businesses that currently exist in this country. One can argue all one wishes that new investment and profit making opportunities will be created (which of course they will be), but those don't exist yet. Those opportunities haven't made anyone any money yet, and the things that are making people money now, are threatened by the changes for which environmentalists are asking. One can also argue that failure to change will cost business more later on than change now will cost, but as I will discuss below that is not convincing argument.

It is too late to prevent climate change. Climate change has already happened, and because the effect of human additions to the atmosphere are cumulative even if we were able to make immediate changes climate change would continue to occur as the result of our past activities. Several experts in the field of climatology have argued that we have about a ten year window (see interview with James Hansen) during which we could limit how much change, and therefore how much damage, occurs, but making significant changes in human affects on the atmosphere. While there is certainly debate over the correctness of this ten year estimate, there is little question that the time to make changes is fairly short. Moreover the changes required are large -- significant reductions in our CO2, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Reductions of this magnitude will require: significant changes in the way we do business, live, work, and travel; political action to change laws and government policies; organizational change; and change in attitudes and values of ordinary people.

Compared to other industrialized nations, the economy of the United States falls to the most extreme end of the capitalist continuum, with the greatest amount of private ownership. Capitalist considerations of profit dominate all sectors of the American economy, including transportation, electricity generation, and other energy areas, while in Europe many of these key sectors have substantial government ownership.

The U. S. political system also differs substantially for other democracies. Most other world democracies have parliamentary systems. G. William Domhoff in his classic Who Rules America? has made a cogent argument for why the American "winner take all" electoral process creates large brokerage political parties that must attempt to appeal to the broadest segment of the population. It is this structure, Domhoff argues that makes the "special interest" process flourish through lobbying and campaign contributions, and makes it difficult (but not impossible as the religious right has demonstrated, see "The Death of Environmentalism" referenced above) for broader values agendas for change to take root.

Parliamentary systems, compared to the U.S. system, are less dependent upon financial contributions to elections, and are less susceptible to the influence of lobbying. In the U. S. monetary contributions are a huge consideration in elections, and even more important in funding permanent lobbying activities. The entrenched power of the businesses, industries and groups with a lot of money at stake: they are willing to spend a lot to avoid change. Groups opposing the concept of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are often funded heavily by energy industries (oil, coal) and transportation industry (automotive).

Profit motive is a major cause of opposition to the idea of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). major industries, as energy, transportation, chemical industries benefit from existing arrangements – there is a lot of profit to be made from continuing business as usual. Costs of
change are very high in some industries and businesses. Some would have to disappear entirely or be scaled back dramatically (e.g. coal mining). Workers in these industries, and their unions when the exist, also join in the opposition to making changes to combat global warming. Proponents for significant change to address AGW correctly point out that many new industries
and new jobs will be created in "green" industries. However, our national experience with
transformation of our economy from industrial sector to service sector over the past 35 years has shown us that any kind of significant change in the economy always result in economic hardship for some and economic opportunity for others. Thus change is understandably feared by many whose livelihood depends upon carbon intensive activities.

Taking the sociological approach which looks at issues of the environment and society holistically, leads us to the awareness that our entire culture and patterns of social life, have been shaped by an economy dependent upon growth and consumption. Our communities, our homes, how we connect to school, work, home, recreation and worship are all shaped to some extent by our capitalistic industrial economy. Moreover the existing structure of inequality and economic opportunity makes it more difficult for some people to change. The location of work places in relationship to housing that working and middle class people can afford, and the lack of public transportation system often leave these classes with few options to reduce the use of private vehicles. Among affluent upper middle class families who could afford $300,000 and up urban condos near their places of work, considerations of the present conditions in central city school systems often inhibit them from moving their families out of the suburbs.

To simply label those who resist dramatic and potentially painful changes in their life style as lazy or ignorant is overly simplistic. To prevent the most extreme climate change, requires changes that are likely to have far reaching, disruptive effects on citizens and businesses of our advanced capitalist countries. Resistance to such change is to be expected. However, if "business as usual" continues, the long term disruptive effects of unabated climate change will be far greater,with more suffering. Getting this message across is hampered by several things.

First, the most devastating effects of climate change will not occur for another 50 to 100 years. Human beings as a species are not long term planners. We do fairly well in planning a year in advance (save those seeds for next spring's planting, put aside those skins for next winter's cold weather). Certainly we have evidence in existing buildings and archaeological finds that shows planning for construction projects that last a lifetime (from pyramids to Gothic cathedrals). There have been many individuals with long range vision, but collectively, human societies have not done well with long range planning. Those human societies that manage to continue to exist for thousands of years in balance with their environment (foragers and horticulturalists) do not engage in long run planning, but rather focus on yearly cycles in ways that have long run benefits.

Our modern society is not organized around long term planning. Capitalist businesses are geared towards the profit of the current or next quarter. Most business plans one year ahead. While farsighted individuals and companies do exist they are not the norm. This is not a failure of individuals, but a failure of structure. Businesses must be concerned about investors. Investors who are constantly making decisions about buying and selling based on current levels of profit and near term returns, not what might be promised for twenty or thirty years down the road.

Political decision-makers also, have a short horizon. Most are geared towards winning the next election. Again, this is not a failure of individuals so much as a structural defect in the political process. Even when a given negative future outcome is well established and relative near term (the disappearance of the social security surplus by 2035) legislators find it difficult to make decisions that will benefit people 30 years in the future, but will cost people in the next year -- especially that will cost people who might well vote against them for the decision.

Second, the uncertainty of predictions for specific consequences in specific places(where will there be more rain and where will there be less rain) have made it easier for people to resist acting. Moreover, there is no question that some regions and some countries may benefit from global warming. During September when the extent of Arctic ice was at its all time measured minimum, the fabled "northwest passage" or water way along the northern coast of Canada was ice free and readily navigable. Both the Canadian government and the Russian government see potential gain in a permanent reduction of Arctic Sea ice. It opens up the possibility of cheaper ocean transport that is far shorter than a trip through the Panama Canal, and it opens up the Arctic Ocean to oil and gas exploitation. Russian submarines have taken advantage of the declining and thinning ice to plant a Russian "flag" beneath the ice at the North Pole, hoping to stake a claim to the rich energy resources that lie beneath the ocean surface. Lack of certainty about who will suffer and who will benefit increases resistance to change.

Third climate change is an international problem. All nations must participate. While the United States is currently the largest producer of greenhouse gases, developing nations like China and India are increasing their emissions contribution at a much faster rate and will soon over take the U.S. in absolute terms. Cooperation between nations is required. Developed nations need to help underdeveloped nations jump to cleaner technologies .Developing nations need to protect forests and they need financial assistance to find economic alternatives. So far international cooperation has been negligible.

This does not mean that we should give up and wash our hands of the whole affair. As I will discuss in another post, another day, even small changes can be important for our future.

Please see Forwardly Thinking for a very thoughtful response to this essay!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What is at stake

The folks at Blogger have compiled a list of exceptional environmental blogs in the wake of the Blog Action Day on the environment. You can see the full list at one of the named blogs The Conscious Earth. Many on the list were already familiar to me, but one that was new to me was Earth Meanders a blog by Dr. Glen Barry a conservation biologist and political ecologist who is eloquent and passionate on the environmental disasters that modern society is creating.

I agree with Barry's assessment of the dire environmental consequences of modern civilizations current economic and social choices. We are indeed going to ecological-hell-in-a-handbasket and taking uncountable species down with us. But is the "earth" dying as a result of our actions, as Barry claims? I think not. Oh, I think we humans are capable of destroying "the earth" -- we have enough nuclear weapons stockpiled, which if strategically placed and detonated all at once might create forces capable of causing the earth to break up and become a new asteroid belt, or destabilize earth's orbit and send us out careening into the sun, or spinning out in to the cold blackness (yeah, I did love Space 1999). But to accomplish that would require a level of international organization and cooperation that humans have never shown any indication we possess.

Let me clarify. The planet Earth and life (any kind of life) on planet earth, is extraordinarily resilient, and has withstood destructive forces far greater than those currently commanded by human societies. The natural destructive forces of the earth are such that no trace exists of the original earth's surface from four and a half billion years ago. The oldest rock identified on the surface of the earth is just under four billion years old, some grains of zircon have been discovered that have been dated to 4.2 to 4.3 billion years ago. Since that time the planet's surface has been made and remade, abducted and subducted, and moved about over and over again. There have been periods of time vastly warmer than our man-made global warming is likely to create in the next few hundred years, and periods of time colder than the last ice age during which humans evolved.

The first evidence of life on earth dates to three and a half to possibly 3.8 billion years ago -- meaning that planet earth existed for nearly billion years before there was life. There may have been life before that, but we have no evidence because no trace of the earth's surface older than 3.9 million years ago exists. The oldest fossils are 3.5 billion years old.

This three and a half billion year record of fossils tells us a story of change and extinction, new species, growth, change and new extinctions. During this incomprehensibly long period of time, continents rose and crashed into each other and were torn apart, by unfathomable tectonic forces. To quote from one of my favorite books (J. D. MacDougall A Short History of Planet Earth, John Wiley and Sons, 1996):
"Throughout the earth's history species and families have arisen, prevailed for a time, and then disappeared. But at times, for reasons not wholly understood, rapid and wholesale destruction of large fractions of the plant and animal kingdoms has occurred. Usually, after these crises, there was a rapid proliferation of new and sometimes quite different species. Such abrupt changes in floral and faunal assemblages are reflected in the fossil record. It is only quite recently that geologists have begun to examine these mass extinctions in terms of periodic catastrophes such as the collision of comets or asteroids with the earth, or dramatic changes in the global climate."
Let us be honest. Planet earth, and life on planet earth are not at stake. Earth is not dying, life will not cease to exist as the result of human action.

What is at stake is human life and human civilization, and the life of species of plant and animal that sustain human ecosystem ecosystems. We can't destroy the earth, and we can't destroy life on earth, but we sure as hell can destroy ourselves and most of the species we rely upon for our lives. Moreover, anthropogenic climate change, pollution and all the other environmental problems spawned by modern society, will first and foremost kill societies long before impacting the presence of the human race. I'm a Jew, so the New Testament is not one of my religious books, but I've been thinking quite a bit about Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which he say "blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth." It occurs to me that this might end up being literally true -- if one defines "meek" as those simple societies where people live in small bands or tribal groups subsisting by foraging or horticulture (farming with hand tools).

Talking about killing Earth, is not only hyperbole, it is counter productive. What we want is to change human behavior, especially the behavior of those who are rich enough and powerful enough to determine the direction of business and industry, and national policy. At a secondary level we want to change the behavior of millions of consumers in affluent, industrial nations. Most people, including those whose behavior need to change, operate most of the time out of self-interest. Talking to them about a dying earth isn't going to change their behavior. Appealing to their altruism for other species is not going to change their behavior. Making poster children of polar bears is not going to change their behavior. But possibly change will occur if we can get the message through to the rich and powerful that the complex society on which their profits depend is at risk (notice that at least some of the oil companies have figured out that the future of profit is in renewables); and the message to the average consumer that the food and beer will disappear from their local grocery shelves, and the gas for their ATV's will be gone, and the nice cushy life they value is endangered.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Urban Water Supplies and Mountain Top Removal

Monday October 15, 2007 is Blog Action Day on the Environment. Bloggers all over the world are all writing and posting today on one issue - the environment. That's a pretty big, and varied topic.

One environmental issue on the minds of millions of people in the U.S. southeast is water. The drought monitor report released Thursday October 11, by NOAA, shows that 59 percent of the contiguous U.S. (the "lower 48") has some degree of drought. Three and a half percent of the contiguous U.S. suffers from "exceptional drought" meaning that the rainfall deficit is greater than ever recorded. The area of exceptional drought spread from my own region of eastern Kentucky southward through most of Tennessee, parts of North Carolina, northern Georgia, and most of Alabama. These exceptional drought conditions are creating severe water shortages for many municipalities within the region, including major metropolitan areas like Atlanta, Georgia and Lexington, Kentucky.

Lexington, Kentucky a city of a quarter-million, sits at the center of a five county Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) includes Bourbon, Clark, Fayette, Jessamine, Scott, and Woodford counties that has a population of nearly a half million. Municipal water for Lexington is drawn from the dammed pools on the Kentucky River, rather than from reservoirs. So Lexington is utterly dependent on the flow of water from Eastern Kentucky where the Kentucky river originates.

The exceptional drought has affected that flow of water in the Kentucky river. The drought owes its existence to a confluence of global climate factors, including global warming, and the La Nina event in the southern Pacific. But something else, closer at hand, and which we have more control over also impacts the flow of water into the Kentucky River -- strip-mining, and especially mountain top removal mining.

Friday October 12 Lexington Herald-Leader had an interesting juxtaposition of two articles on page B6-- one on the water restrictions imposed in Lexington, the other just below it about protests against the valley fills that inevitably accompany mountain top removal mining. I'd like to think that someone in the Lexington-Herald Leader composing room knew what they were doing, and put these stories together on purpose, because they certainly are connected.

Mountain top removal strip-mining, which does exactly what it sounds like, can only occur because of exemptions given to existing laws designed to protect water flows. The twenty year old rules restrict mining near streams, but exemptions have been made to allow "valley fills" of rubble taken off mountain top mine sites that affect seasonal and ephemeral streams. According to the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) surface mining permits from October 2001 to June 2005 affected 367 miles of streams in the Appalachian coalfields.

Mountain top removal strip-mining and "valley fills" affect the amount and flow of water in rivers like the Kentucky and the availability availability of urban water supplies in two ways.

First, mountain top removal like all strip-mining denudes the mountainsides of trees and shrubbery. Even when reclamation is done (often many years after the initial removal of vegetation) the site is compacted and covered with grass, not trees. The loss of forest has dramatic consequences for the flow of water. Forests moderate the effect of heavy rains, acting like sponges that absorb the brunt of the rain, and then slowly release the water over days and even weeks, preventing local flooding and providing long term rises in downstream river flow. Rain flows instantly off the treeless mountainsides and swells creeks and streams creating first flash flooding in the mountains, and then huge "slugs" of water that move downstream all at one time. Only a small portion of such slugs can be captured by dams and urban water systems, the rest passes on downstream.

Second, the "valley fills" of mountain top removal cover existing stream beds and water courses. When rain comes, water rushing off the bald mountain sides finds new channels, which may not lead to the streams that feed the Kentucky River. Rain runoff that should be going to feeding the creeks that feed the streams that feed the river, that supplies the drinking water downstream, end up going off in new directions and creating flooding conditions locally.

Now the U. S. Office of Surface Mining is proposing a permanent change to the rules that would relax the rules regarding mining near bodies of water. The new regulations would allow mining that alters stream flows. Special exemptions would no longer have to be sought.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement will be holding hearings on the rule change October 24, in Hazard, Kentucky, Charleston, West Virginia, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Washington, Pennsylvania. There is the tendency for urban folk to considerr issues like mountain top removal of little relevance to themselves. They don't have to watch the hills around their homes be destroyed, be rocked by daily blasting, or live with the noise and dust of the mining. (Photo shows the mountain top removal strip mine that is within 2500 feet of my home). It is time that residents of the cities downstream from the coalfields, like Lexington, recognize that what happens in the mountains is of crucial importance to them. The future of their water supply is at risk.

For more information about Mountain Top Removal in my area, and links to action sites visit: Mountain Top Removal Page

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Deniers Step Up the Campaign

Got a fascinating piece of mail at work today, inviting me to sign a petition urging "the United States government to reject the global warming agreement that was written in Kyoto, Japan." The petition card further went on to say that "There is no convincing evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, int he foreseeable future , cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate." There's more but I think that's enough for you to get the picture.

The most interesting thing about the petition card, that one is suppose to sign and return if one agrees with the sentiment [which of course I do not], is that it specifically requests the signer to indicated whether they have a B.S., M.S. or Ph.D. degree, and in what field. They are obviously not picky about what field, since the envelop was addressed erroneously to me in the "Communications/Humanities/Fine Arts Division" (I'm in the Social Sciences Division). So they presumably don't care whether their signers are scientists or not.

The thickly stuffed envelop has a cryptic return address of GWPP (which is not explained anywhere in the materials), at a Post Office box in La Jolla, California. In addition to the petition card, the envelop contains a brief note from Frederick Seitz a past president of the National Academy of Sciences. The note appeals to me as a "citizen" who has "the training necessary to evaluate the relevant data and offer sound advice." Remember the senders thought I was faculty in Communications/Humanities/Fine Arts! I am also invited to request more petition cards to share with my colleagues.

More interesting than the note, is the copy of The Wall Street Journal article from 2000 by Arthur B. Robinson and Noah E. Robinson, (Chemists at the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine), and the 12 page, glossy, three-three color reprint of an article from the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, 2007 by both Robinsons and a Willie Soon, replete with many, many charts and graphs.

Like many such pieces there is a certain amount of schizophrenia -- the first chart, of the surface temperature of the Sargasso sea going back to 1000 BCE, purports to demonstrate that there really isn't any global warming. The temperature for 2006 is show as being right at the 3000 year average, with many warmer periods (including the "Medieval Climate Optimum" about 1100 CE). This is right next to a chart that shows that there is global warming in the Arctic, but purports to show that the warming follows the pattern of solar activity and not the pattern of hydrocarbon use (primary source of atmospheric carbon dioxide). [The solar activity hypothesis has recently been undermined by research] The rest of the article progressing the same way jumping between "it's not really warming" claims, to "it is warming, but we're not doing it." I saw nothing in this piece that is not satisfactorily dealt with by global warming science -- see the wonderful summary of arguments and counter arguments at: The Gristmill.

For more about this mailing see: "Oregon Institute of Science and Malarkey" at RealClimate Blog.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Lying about Iran, Lying about America

The Brittanic Blog, has done an admirable job this week of providing a forum in which a diversity of views about Iran and U.S. interests in Iran could be aired. However, the majority of the pieces in this forum, support the view that military engagement with Iran is unwarranted, unneccessary and/or would have disasterous consequences. Pieces by Barbara Slavin, Steven Kinzer, Ervand Abrahamian, and three articles by Scott Ritter (Chief weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission in Iraq) provide very thoughtful reading.

One of the articles in the group, by Mitchell Bard, was riddled with inaccuracies -- most of which are pointed out by various commentors on the piece. In the article Bard made the claim that "Americans are not averse to using force against Iran. Though nonmilitary options are preferred by most, majorities are also starting to favor targeted strikes according to a survey by The Israel Project in September 2006." Given the current American view on Iraq, I found Bard's claim difficult to accept.

On the day the post was made (Monday 10/8/07) the reference to the Israel Project survey included a link -- one presumed -- to the research that supported Bard's contention. I followed the link, and found that the research it pointed to was NOT a survey of American public opinion. It was a survey of 500 "opinion elites," who had a minimum of a college education (and many of whom had post-graduate degrees), and who had a minimum household income of $75,000. Given that the 2006 median income in the United States was $48,201, and that more than two-thirds of American households fall below $75,000, to use this data to state anything at all about "American" opinion is at best disingenuous.

So I posted a comment to the Brittanica Blog, noting the information given above. Within twenty-four hours I received a personal (not automated) e-mail from the moderator of the Brittanica, telling me that he believed that Bard had merely given an incorrect link, and that this would be corrected and he would let me know the outcome. My comment was NOT posted to replies. Today (Wed. 10/10/07), I went back to see if either my comment had been posted or a corrected link had been posted.

What I found was that Bard had "corrected" the link by removing it altogether, and, as might be expected my comment had not appeared. I am left to conclude that Mitchell Bard does not wish for his readers to be able to check his source and discover that he does not have support for his claims about "American opinion." More lies.

I have submitted yet another comment to Brittanica Blog pointing out all this. I shall be surprised if they post this one.
[Fri. 10/12/07 -- to Brittanica Blog's credit my comment did get posted.]

Friday, October 05, 2007

Treatment of Nurses Supports Social Conflict Theory

I have a deep rooted respect for nurses. Three of my father's sisters were nurses. They provided frontier (horseback) nursing services in Appalachia, served as military nurses in World War II, and in civilian hospitals for decades after the war. In my generation on my father's side both of my female cousins became nurses.

Nurses form the first line of defense in our health care system. When we visit the doctor's office a nurse is the first health care practitioner we meet, and often the one that interacts with us the most. When we enter the hospital the majority of our care comes from nurses.

The training for nurses is challenging and demanding. I know because I observe it happening in my own college. Not everyone has the intellectual ability or the emotional stamina to become a nurse.

There is a documented shortage of nurses in this country. One that gets worse with each passing year.

So we have an occupation that provides an extremely important, valuable service (function) for society, which also requires extensive training that not just anyone can do, and there is a demonstrable shortage in this valued occupation. Structural-functional theory in sociology (Davis and Moore "Some Principles of Stratification") would suggest that nursing should be a highly rewarded (both in monetary terms and in a wide range of benefits), and highly regarded occupation. If structural-functional theory were correct, nurses should be able to write their own ticket when it came to pay and working conditions.

Not being a big fan of structural-functional theory, it doesn't surprise me that the theory fails to accurately reflect the real world treatment of nurses.

This week, in the Appalachian region, more than 650 registered nurses in the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System are on strike when their contract ended and negotiations failed to produce a new contract. While pay is an issue in the contract dispute (the offered 2% raise would be entirely swallowed up by increased cost of health insurance and decreases in holiday pay), the nurses greater focus is on the issues of benefits and staffing/work schedules.

The new contract ARH put forward, offered the nurses "flexible" scheduling -- it offered the the choice (!!??) of 10 hour shifts or 12 hour shifts. ARH nurses are required to work overtime, every week. Overtime is a mandatory condition of all ARH nursing positions.

The practical result makes it common for the actual nurses shift to be 15 hours, and 24 hour shifts happen all too often. Not only are nurses stretched thin in overly long shifts, but they are covering greater numbers of patients during those shifts. These conditions are not only draining the nurses, but they compromise the levels of care that are provided. A Lexington Herald-Leader article on the strike provided comments from a number of the striking nurses such as:
Lynn Hall, who has been a nurse at McDowell for 16 years, said she is the only person who works in the hospital's four-bed intensive-care unit.
"I don't even have someone to help answer the phone," she said. "It's just the opposite of the way it should be. A hospital should strive to have nurses with high morale, instead of walking out with tears in your eyes because you couldn't do it all."
The ARH response to all this? They aren't even trying to negotiate. They have already started looking for permanent replacements, while in the short run they bus in nurses from temp agencies. Nothing could make it clearer that the occupational realm is one governed by conflict and power, with the hospital administration holding most of the cards. The nurses recognize, but regret the struggle.
"Still, Hall and the other nurses said they would rather be working than striking.
"We don't want to be here," Tanner said. "We tried not to be here. We just want to negotiate the rest of our contract."
The only hope the nurses have is support from the general public. Unfortunately most people in eastern Kentucky have few choices. For those who do, consider taking your medical business else where, to hospitals and clinics where the nursing staff is treated more fairly and with the respect they deserve.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Shortage of Rheumatologists

In December 2006, just before New Years, my primary care physician ordered up some blood tests for me. I seemed to be in pain all the time, all my joints hurt, and I was exhausted everyday. I'd get home from work at 6:00 PM and just sit in the car for another twenty minutes trying to summon up the energy to walk into the house. Right after New Years she called me with the results. The tests indicated the possibility of rheumatoid arthritis. Since the blood tests for RA are not definitive, I would need to see a rheumatologist for a history and physical exam. That's when I learned that the closest rheumatologist was a 1 hour drive away (the closest!!) and that no matter how far I was willing to drive it would take at least three months before I could get an appointment. In fact, it turned out to be four months. Whenever I talked to anyone about it, I would joke that there must be a shortage of rheumatologists, and that if they knew anyone in medical school they ought to pass on the word.

I finally got my appointment -- in April -- and was diagnosed as being in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis, and began medication. This past week I had my second follow-up visit, and while I was waiting in the waiting room (so aptly named), I picked up a copy of Arthritis Today Magazine put out by the Arthritis Foundation. The issue was only a few months old, and the cover story was "The Rheumatologist Shortage". It was one of those "ah-ha!" moments when I find the data to support one of my gut feelings or pet theories.

The story of the rheumatologist shortage, places in bold relief some of the problems inherent in our patchwork private/public/profit/non-profit medical care system in the United States.

Rheumatology is a specialty whose number of practicianers are steadily declining, and whose number of patients are steadily increasing. According to the article: "Currently, 46 million people have had a doctor tell them they have a form of arthritis, such as osteoarthritis (OA) or RA, or a related condition, such as lupus, gout or fibromyalgia. Within 25 years, as the over-60 population peaks, that number is expected to reach 67 million." On the supply side, the article states: "The ACR [American College of Rheumatology] Workforce Study estimates about half of practicing rheumatologists will retire within just eight years, and that by 2025 there will be a shortage of 2,600 rheumatologists in the U.S."

There have been enormous strides in the development of new medicines for rheumatoid arthritis -- you've probably seen the ads on television for Humira or Enebrel or Remicade. The problem, there are not enough rheumatologists available to get these drugs to the people who need them. It doesn't matter how wonderful the treatments are, if there is no one available qualified to prescribe the treatment.

So why is there this shortage? You'd think with such high demand, there'd be people clamouring to go into the field. There are several interacting causes, discussed in "The Rheumatologist Shortage". After completing medical school, the physician aspiring to the field of rheumatology must spend three years as an internal medicine resident and then another two or three years completing a fellowship in the sub specialty of rheumatology. This is a some what longer period of training that some other specialties, although there are others that are more popular that take more years. The biggest catch is the fellowship requirement. First there has to be a full-time faculty member in that specialty to supervise the fellowship, and with declining numbers of rheumatologists these are harder to find. Second, there has to be funding for the fellowship, funding that pays for the salary and benefits of the fellow -- who after all has to have something to live on while he or she is working. There's a shortage of funding for rheumatology fellowships. Arthritis after all does not have the cachet of some other diseases, and has not attracted as much attention or fund raising.

"According to the 2005-2006 ACR study, 395 fellowships were available, but only 366 were filled." Some of the unfilled fellowship slots remained unfilled because there was no money to pay the fellows. Some remained unfilled for the lack of a qualified supervising faculty member. And some remained unfilled because rheumatology, despite its slightly longer training period, is lower paying that other internal medicine specialties. Annual salaries for rheumatologists are about 60 percent of the salaries of specialists in such fields as gastroenterology and general cardiology. When the average physician is burdened with more than $150,000 of debt for his/her education, significant salary differences can be influential in choosing specialties.

In our current medical care system long-term chronic conditions (which require careful monitoring by a physician, but no surgical procedures or other types of treatments other than medication) receive much lower reimbursements from private insurance companies and federal government programs. When the course of rheumatoid arthritis does require surgical intervention (as it often does) a surgeon (not the rheumatologist) reaps the reward of the higher insurance payout. The perversity of this system is that a good job by a rheumatologists in early diagnosis, careful monitoring and supervised drug therapy can make surgery (and its high cost to insurance companies and government) unnecessary.

The shortage of rheumatologists is merely an inconvenience today, it is likely to become a crisis within twenty years, unless something changes in the funding and availability of fellowships and the relative pay for rheumatology practitioners.

Monday, September 24, 2007


I just ran across an 2006 interview with novelist Philip Roth, mentioned in today's (Sept. 24) New York Times Paper Cuts blog. Check it out for a video of the interview. Roth, in discussing the state of America today says "I've never heard people so despairing." Then goes on to compare this despair to the anger of the Vietnam era.

My take on Roth's statement is that while the anger of the Vietnam era fed a powerful opposition that generated huge political pressure -- enough pressure to bring down a president (LBJ)-- today's despair seems to have frozen us into political impotence. Think of it -- the great majority of Americas wish the war in Iraq to end and the troops to come home, and yet the Democrats with a majority in both houses seem unable to take any action.

Roth's contrast of 1960's/1970's anger with contemporary despair, certainly accurately captures my own contrasting feelings. I think about how I felt during an anti-war march in Cleveland in March 1970, versus how I felt during an anti-war demonstration in Abingdon, Virginia in March 2005 (the second anniversary of the Iraq war) -- not to mention how I feel today more than two years later. The terms anger versus despair definitely fit my emotions for those moments.

As Roth's interview continue, it is clear that his sense of despair comes not only from the war, but from an overall view that the current administration is a "disaster" (Roth's word but one with which I agree).

I think it is this despair of which Roth speaks that overwhelms me these days. There are some roads that we have gone down, as a nation (Iraq), as humanity (global warming), roads that were terrible mistakes; roads from which we must veer away. Yet our leadership seems unable to take even one small step off these doomed paths. Yes, I know that there will be negative consequences and prices to pay for turning aside from our current path. But, the current path ultimately leads off the edge of a bottomless pit, and the price of that plunge will be vastly greater.

Of course, there are those days when I think perhaps we've already gone over the edge of the abyss -- hence the despair.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sea Change for Sailors as Arctic Ice Melts

The video, from the Wall Street Journal shows actual footage of 2005 and 2007 travel. The difference in the amount of ice visible is dramatic.

Going to hell -- in a handbasket

I took a cultural geography course in summer of 1970 at the College of San Mateo. The instructor frequently referred to a book entitled Hell is a Hot Place, as an example of geographical determinism. The title stuck in my head, especially since that summer I was working as a field hand in the commercial chrysanthemum industry, where my days were spent in very hot (and often hellish) greenhouses. My understanding of the "greenhouse effect" is very intimate and personal.

This has been month for revelations from the Arctic. September 19, 2007 the Agence France-Presse (AFP) released news from Greenland, where "The Jakobshavn Glacier, on Greenland's west coast, is melting twice as fast as 10 years ago and advancing toward the sea at 12 kilometres (seven miles) per year, compared with six kilometres (three and a half miles) before." The story along with interviews with researchers from summer 2006, was also featured on the Weather Channel last week. Video of raging rivers of ice melt water pouring into moulins in the ice sheet dramatically drove home the rapidity of change in Greenland.

Increases in the size and rate of ice melt from the Greenland ice sheet have direct consequences for populations in coastal areas (about 60 percent of the world's population lives within 100 kilometers of a shore line). The dramatic increases in ice melt in Greenland in 2006, suggest that estimates by the IPCC for sea rise and shoreline inundation may be far too low, since the report is based on research collected prior to 2006. The media responses to news from Greenland that I saw all showed the same level of dismay and concern about the impact of ice melt on sea level world wide.

The other news, that got more media attention, was the report from National Snow and Ice Data Center University of Colorado at Boulder that the minimal summer ice extent for the Arctic ocean this year (2007), was 1.59 million square miles, compared to 2.05 million square miles in 2005 the previous lowest amount recorded. Before one of you global warming deniers goes ballistic, of course I know that the satellite record only goes back to 1979 -- that how long we've had satellite capability -- it is also known by every climatologist and Arctic scientist who reports on this. However satellite records are not the only thing we have. As reported by "scientists studied observable data for the same period [1953-2006], including shipping logs, aerial photos and satellite images, they discovered the actual figure for ice loss from 1953 until 2006 to be 7.8 percent." Which was more than twice what the climate change models had predicted.

And for pity sakes people, there's a huge difference between barely managing to scrape your boat through ice that constantly rubs against the hull and take 8 months to 3 years to get through the "northwest passage" to having an easily navigable ice free passage that any ordinary cargo ship could handle in routinely in less time than it takes to go through the Panama Canal. No that doesn't exist yet, but its appears from the data and the experience of arctic sailors a whole lot more likely now than any time in the history of written accounts of northwest passage voyages. Check out the YouTube from The Wall Street Journal -- not exactly a bastion of liberalism -- showing an sailors in the northwest passage in 2005 and 2007.

[My first attempt at embedding a YouTube video has not gone well -- so see the post above for the actual video]

I'm not sure which set of reactions to the news is most disturbing: the global warming deniers "ain't true, ain't true" chant, OR the industry/government "goody, goody now we can get the oil and gas" chorus.

The global warming denial approach, such as found on the Newsbusters blog, usually begin by reminding us that the "record" on Arctic ice only goes back to 1979 (see above). They especially like to trot out "Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who successfully navigated the Northwest Passage on August 26, 1905." Never mind that Amundsen required two long stops to "winter over" and only finally broke through the final stretches of the Northwest Passage on August 30, 1906 (more than a year after his self congratulatory telegram to Norway)-- check out the PBS maps and details of the voyage). I was particularly interested in the fact that the Newsbusters blog post criticizing concerns about Arctic ice melting was soundly supported by commenter's adhering to the "young earth" theory of creationism. Sometimes I think one really should judge an idea by who supports it.

On the other hand there is the excitement of Russian and Canadian government over the possibility of being able to safely exploit petroleum and natural gas reserves in an ice free Arctic. "Russia, Norway, Denmark, Canada and the United States are among countries in a race to secure rights to the Arctic that heated up last month when Russia sent two small submarines to plant its national flag under the North Pole. A U.S. study has suggested as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas could be hidden in the area." (Huffington Post)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On being overwhelmed

I have found myself feeling overwhelmed this week.

This is a phrase my husband uses all the time. For what ever reason life, and especially work, always seems to overwhelm him. It is not a feeling, however, that I experience often. I'm one of those people who thrives on having lots of "stuff to do." But this was one of those weeks when the feeling did hit.

The cause of this malaise was not merely time pressures from the confluence of essays to grade, exams to create, lectures to prepare and deliver, meetings to attend, fundraisers for which to bake and organize, Rosh Hashanah services to attend (with the attendant 5 hour round trip) and the ever present household demands of 10 cats, 1 big goofy dog, and one husband. We sociologists like to call these omnipresent demands upon our time role strain (to much to do in one role such as teacher) or role conflict (too much to do from competing roles such as wife/teacher/community member).

What overwhelmed me this week was a heightened sense of all the problems in our society (the U.S. of A.) and our world, of how much effort was required to have even the slightest impact on those problems, the knowledge that I should do much more than I am, and yet cannot imagine how to fit any more into my life. Not just in a sense of time, but in the sense of the emotional investment.

Just staying informed on all the issues I consider important in itself frequently overwhelms me. The need to follow the news and the blogs (where often the real news is found) on such varied concerns as: the war in Iraq and other mid-east issues (like what insanity our administration might get up to in Iran); global warming (with new dire information coming out of Greenland about ice melt); the need for national health care (highlighted for me by the problems of my best friend, retired but not yet 65, in obtaining health insurance); urgent Kentucky issues of economic justice, fair taxation, getting out from under the rule of "king coal"; mountaintop removal (which affects me right where I live); urgent local issues of obtaining minimal levels of services (water, sewer, animal shelters, drug treatment, etc.) all areas in which our rural Letcher county falls way behind not only the nation and the state, but even behind other neighboring Appalachain counties.

At the height of my funk this week, faced with an enormous to do list, I did the only reasonable thing -- procrastinated. I decided to spend some time reading a few of my favorite blogs, beginning with The Influence Machine by e.r. dunhill. I was dismayed to find, that e.r.d. was overwhelmed also -- sufficiently so to decide to resign from blogging for the time being. While deeply saddened by the discontinuation of e.r.d.'s enlightening and fascinating blog, I was chastened by reading his farewell. Compared to e.r.d.'s obligations (job hunt, graduate school, serious community obligations and impending fatherhood) my list of obligations suddenly seemed more manageable both in terms of time and emotional investment.

So e.r.d. "so long and thanks for all the fish."

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What Purpose Do Grades Serve?

What is the purpose or function of grades in college? By extension, what is the purpose of college?

Only those hiding out in a cave in some very remote place, without television, radio, newspaper, or Internet for the last decade have not heard about "grade inflation." Indeed discussion of grade inflation at public colleges and universities has been floating about for more than twenty years. However, in the last five years, concerns about grade inflation have begun to surface at elite institutions.

Princeton University, concerned about grade inflation because between 2001-2004 47 percent of undergraduate grades were A's, issued a policy establishing "a common grading standard" and limiting "the proportion of A grades (including A+, A, and A-) to 35 percent in every undergraduate course." (The Chronicle of Higher Education's News Blog September 18, 2007).

As an academic I have been listening to the discussion about grade inflation for as long it has been occurring. However, it was not until I read the comments to today's Chronicle News Blog that it dawned on me that the debate had far more to do with different views about the purpose of grading, than it had to do with the toughness or strictness of grading standards.

Those people in academia, and in society at large, who express concern about grade inflation, and applaud efforts like Princeton's to reign in the number of A's, view grades as a sorting mechanism by which those who are most meritorious will be separated from those who are less meritorious. Grades are relational attributes. Grades function to determine who will have the opportunity for access to scarce resources (graduate school slots, top positions in corporations, government appointments). Since the number of top positions in society is limited, the number of A's must be limited, so that it is clear who does and who does not deserve access to those top spots. The good instructor is the one who is best able to differentiate the very best and brightest from the rest of the students.

The other camp in academia, and in society, who are less concerned about grade inflation, and who are opposed to the type of quota system employed by Princeton, view grades as a measure of the acquisition of specified knowledge or mastery of subject matter or skills. Grades to this camps are absolute attributes, determined by levels of performance against an objective scale. Grades function to determine who has mastered the knowledge or skills to entered into a particular occupational field or field of study. The number of persons obtaining mastery is not determined by the number of slots available in the occupational world. The good instructor is the one who is can assist the largest number of students to attain mastery.

But don't take my word for it. Here are portions of some comment posts from The Chronicle's News Blog that clearly illustrate my point.

Supporting Princeton's quota:
"If more than 35% of your students are getting A’s, your standards are too low. In a typical class, perhaps 10-15% of students should get A’s. In an exceptional class, that number may double, but it should never be more than one-third of the class. The primary purpose of grades is to separate students out by performance, and that cannot be done if everyone gets the same grade. [emphasis added]" M. Sundermann
"I’d be suspicious of any instructor or class where the 35% level was consistently exceeded. One would like to assume that an “A” at Princeton is different from / better than and “A” at a less prestigious and less costly university. But that assumes professors take the job of evaluation and assessment of undergraduate performance seriously..." Mike L.
Opposing Princeton's quota:
"What a crock. Princeton students peg the meter on their SAT scores, but evidently the quality of instruction there is so substandard that their faculty can only get 35% of these brilliant young scholars up to the A level. As a parent, I’ll send my kids to a university where they will be inspired to perform at their highest level, and will be graded accordingly, where faculty are not required to punish high achievers because of an artificial percentage." Mike A.
"What do students have to say who were told at the beginning of the course what the “standards” were? It’s my suspicion that the standards are not that precise. Therefore, Princeton has decided on norm-based grading—back to the old curve. So much for mastery learning or competency-based education. [emphasis added] I certainly would not recommend this school to anyone." P. DeWitt
The folks on the side that worry about grade inflation, and push for "higher standards" view discussions of mastery and competence with suspicion. As evidenced by this comment:
"I once talked with and Ed School instructor who was giving virtually all of his students a grad [sic] of A or A-. His justification was “If they master the material, they should get the grade.” Out of politeness I didn’t say the obvious: “If almost everyone can meet the standards, then the standards are a joke.” “Mastery learning” or “Competency-based education” is EdSpeak for low expectations. It is no wonder that grades in Ed Schools are typically a joke." Sven
Setting aside for the moment the possibility that the education faculty member of Sven's acquaintance may have indeed had low expectations, it does not seem implausible to me, as it does to Sven, that the overwhelming majority of college students after more than 12 or 13 years of personal experience in the educational system, are capable of mastering an undergraduate course on the educational system. There are some fields of knowledge and instruction that only a small minority of students could reasonably be expected to attain mastery -- advanced mathematics, neurosurgery, art restoration, cabinet making, are a few that come to mind. But others, such as composition, sociology (my own subject), education, religion, office practices, plumbing, are probably masterable by the majority of those with any interest. [Please no offense is meant to the practicianers of any of these fields!]

However, even in those fields where only a minority might achieve mastery, we often find that access limited to an even smaller number. For example, there is substantial evidence to demonstrate that far more people are capable of success in medical school than are allowed into medical school. The sorting and ranking functions of undergraduate education are very important to limiting access to medical education. Of course, limiting access to training, means a limited supply of physicians, which keeps competition under control and the economic benefits of medical practice high.

So what purpose do grades serve? What purpose should grades serve? Should grades be used to sort and rank people with only a specified number of top positions, preparing people to enter a highly unequal society and economic system in which there are a limited number of top positions? Or should grades be used to acknowledge the acquisition of specified levels of knowledge, skill and competency?

At present in U.S. education, how one answers those questions often reflects where one is in the educational system (and the social stratification system). Community and technical college faculty who are preparing people for skilled working class and technical middle class positions tend to emphasize mastery and competence of objectively defined knowledge and skill levels. Faculty at elite private institutions tend to emphasize the sorting and ranking by comparative merit.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Drought in Kentucky

Although not in as bad a shape as Tennessee and Alabama, Kentucky is experiencing its worst drought since the 1930's.

The long period of unusually dry and hot weather is having a dramatic, visual impact on the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The leaves are turning color. The hillsides look more like mid-October than early September. It seems that a frost is not the only form of environmental stress that can produce red and yellow leaves in our forests. An article yesterday in the Lexington Herald-Leader, spoke of some of the effects of the drought in the southeast:
In Alabama, for example, state climatologist John Cristy says that most areas have seen less rain this year than at any time since records started in 1894.

"I've seen oak trees that have died on the ridges, which means this is the worst drought they've experienced," Cristy said.
I first posted about early leaf color change in 2005, when I noted one particular species of tree turning red as early as mid-August. Well this year this species turned red in mid-July.

I'm still trying to get help pinning down the species of my mystery tree. I'm fairly certain I'm looking at something in the horse chesnut or buckeye family -- with five to seven obovate leaves in a fan like cluster. The catch is that the leaves of these trees turn scarlet -- not yellow -- and all the reference books depict bright yellow fall leaves for all of this tree family in my region. I was actually thought for a while thinking they were black tupelos (same leaf shape and red fall color, but the leaves aren't grouped in that tell-tail fan like configuration).

Hijacking the language

David Horowitz, who has made it his life's mission to root out all vestiges of liberalism from American universities, posted an article in today. His attack is focused on the University of California at Santa Cruz, for vioilating the “Standing Orders of the Regents,” (passed in September 2005) which states that "political indoctrination and partisan interest" are outside the purview of college curriculum. Horowitz primary evidence that UC Santa Cruz is in violation of this policy is the following statement: “The UCSC faculty offers courses related to social justice -- including broad structural and social changes and community based organizing...”

Silly me, I thought that "social justice" was one of the most broadly based American concept imaginable, with roots in the Declaration of Independence ["all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness"] and the Constitution of the United States ["We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,"]. Seems to me that both of these documents (specifically the passages above) indicate that the concern of our founding fathers was in justice within our social life, or social justice.

I think David Horowitz's article says far more about the partisan, conservative political agenda that he wishes to promote, than it does about partisan politics as USSC.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

A New York Times article, facetiously titled "To Avoid Divorce, Move to Massachusetts," reveals that politically and socially conservative states such as Kentucky have higher divorce rates than the rest of the nation (10.8 divorces for every 1,000 married people), while liberal states such as Massachusetts have the lowest divorce rates nationally (5.7 divorces per 1,000 married people).

The article makes much of the fact that Massachusetts, with its low divorce rate is a state that has made same sex marriage legal, while Kentucky (in 2004) passed a constitutional amendment to bar not only same sex marriage, but also to bar any form of civil union that was substantially similar to marriage. The article points out that
As researchers have noted, the areas of the country where divorce rates are highest are also frequently the areas where many conservative Christians live.
Then goes on to note that:
Many experts believe the explanation to be more multidimensional, with high divorce rates tied to factors like younger age of marriage, less education and lower socioeconomic status.
As one of those "experts" I concur, that these important social and economic factors, are key to the differences in divorce between Kentucky and Massachusetts. Kentucky has lower education attainment, a lower standard of living, higher levels of poverty, and lower age at marriage than Massachusetts.

The article suggests, through the various experts cited, that the coincidence of conservative Christianity with certain patterns of education, standard of living and age at marriage and divorce rates is a geographical artifact and not a causal factor. However, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, did suggest a plausible causal explanation:
"If your family or religious culture urges you not to have sex before you get married," she said, "then one answer is to get married, and then you're more likely to divorce."
The data cited in the article are consistent with what I've been seeing over the past decade of writing about marriage and the family (textbook chapters), and not at all surprising. However, seeing it presented in this way, gave me a new idea. Perhaps it is the patterns of divorce that are causal in contributing to the rise and popularity of certain religious ideas among the general public.

High divorce rates may not cause people in a region to become conservative Christians, but they may cause conservative Christians in certain areas to latch on to certain political ideas -- such as anti-gay marriage -- as a result of fears about the stability of marriage. Fears that would certainly be more common and make more sense in high divorce regions.

Moreover, it would be to the advantage of those who benefit from the prevailing patterns of inequality, economy and education that people in high divorce areas be discouraged from seeking to change those things to lower divorce rates. Anti-gay marriage amendments don't threaten entrenched patterns of power and privilege the way programs to deal seriously with educational access, unemployment and low income do.