Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ideas worth spreading

Thanks to a post by John Hodgman, I was introduced yesterday to TED (which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) is an organization that focuses on finding new, inspiring, cutting edge ideas in science, business, the arts and the global issues facing our world, as well as technology, entertainment and design and once found spreading those ideas freely as widely as possible. So there are many videos on this site, that are free for download. This is a great resource for educators.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Specific ideas for change

Lester R. Brown's Plan B 3.0 lives up to its name; it is a detailed plan (complete with budgets) on how to transform our world's economies and societies so that they will be both environmentally and socially sustainable. The genius of the plan developed by Brown and the scientists at the Earth Policy Institute is that it relies solely on what is already technologically possible today and what is economically feasible. Brown argues that the changes proposed in Plan B 3.0 are necessary to slow (and reverse) population growth, end poverty and hunger, and protect the resources and ecosystems on which modern, civilization depends. He acknowledges that Plan B is not necessary what is politically acceptable.

Trained as an economist, Brown realistically assess how much each of the proposals would cost, and how those costs can be covered. Most proposals pay for themselves over time (e.g., energy savings), can be paid for by reducing subsidies on destructive behaviors (like existing subsidies for virgin timber, coal production, and oil production), or are equivalent in cost to more destructive investments that they would replace (e.g., wind power for coal fired electricity generation, especially when direct and indirect costs of coal mining are taking into consideration).

Two chapters of particular interest to readers of Blue Island Almanack are Chapter 11 Raising Energy Efficiency and Chapter 12 Turning to Renewable Energy. The entire chapters are available on-line, and down loadable in pdf format. Excel files with links to all the major data sources for the chapters is also available for those who like to play with the numbers themselves.

In Chapter 11, Brown argues that it is technically possible and economically feasible to completely offset increases in energy demand between now and 2020 with improvements in energy efficiency. He lays out the major areas -- lighting, appliances, buildings (both new and renovated), transportation, manufacturing and re-manufacturing, materials use, and lifestyles -- in which energy efficiency can be improved given existing technology and knowledge. Everything he proposes is something that is already in use somewhere in the world, and has already demonstrated the capacity to reduce energy use. Brown provides dozens of specific examples from countries, cities, and corporations around the world who are already using these techniques and technologies for energy and cost savings.

In Chapter 12, makes a compelling case that we are technologically capable of increasing the contribution of renewables (wind, rooftop solar, solar electric plants, solar thermal, geothermal, biomass, and hydro-power) by nearly 600 percent between now and 2020. Combined with efficiency gains (outlined in Chapter 11), continued use of nuclear power (at the same level as presently -- about 15 percent of the world's power), Brown argues that the use of hydrocarbons (coal, oil and gas) could be nearly eliminated. Brown acknowledges that
"The Plan B goals for developing renewable sources of energy by 2020 that are laid out in this chapter are based not on what is conventionally believed to be politically feasible, but on what we think is needed to prevent irreversible climate change."
Moreover, Brown demonstrates that these proposals are technically possible, by providing example after example of specific existing, successful projects around the world. For example, already in China 40 million rooftop solar water heaters have been installed, and there are 2,000 Chinese companies manufacturing solar rooftop units, at a purchase cost of the equivalent of $200 installed. Many remote villages in China that still do not have electricity, now have hot water readily available. The city of Beijing along, already has plans to increase its 124 million square meters of rooftop solar collectors to 300 million by 2020.

Brown makes an excellent case that transforming out energy economy away from hydrocarbons through energy efficiency and sustainable, renewable power sources is technologically possible. The only question is whether or not we have the political will to do so. There in lies the rub.

Politics in Kentucky demonstrate how difficult the political battle can be. Just yesterday (Wed. May 21, 2008), the Lexington Herald-Leader commented ("State Can't Afford Coal Propaganda") upon the decision by Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear to divert "$400,000 from tax coffers into public education efforts by Kentucky coal industry groups." This comes at a time when sharp cuts are being made in the vast state programs, including higher education, and the state is failing to fully fund retirement programs and other future commitments. The coal-education money is going to foundations run by the Kentucky Coal Association and two smaller coal associations in Eastern and Western Kentucky. The editorial view of the Lexington Herald Leader: "some of the information the associations have put out -- including gushing, unequivocal praise for mountaintop-removal mining -- is more propaganda than objective fact."

Let's face it, coal is still King in Kentucky, and it will take strong external political clout -- such as national legislation banning new coal-fired plant construction, and serious carbon taxes -- to bring sanity and renewable energy to Kentucky.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Open Letter to Barack Obama

Please do not write off eastern Kentucky and the rest of central Appalachia. There have been two excellent pieces in the last few days, by West Virginian dawnt on the daily kos and by Dee Davis of Whitesburg, KY on about the need for Obama to include central Appalachia in any campaign for the presidency. Both writers explain why it is a huge mistake to write off this region of the nation. Appalachians can be won over. We just have to be asked -- in person -- for our support.

Appalachians are the last American ethnic group that it is socially acceptable to negatively stereotype. While I'm not suggesting that no basis exists for some of the stereotypes, the stereotypes blind people (inside and outside the region) to the reality of the rich human tapestry here.

Folks living here in Appalachian include affluent business owners, educated professionals, solid middle class white collar workers, technical and health care workers, hard working skilled blue collar workers, dedicated factory workers, minimum wage workers who scramble to make ends meet for their families, retired folks on social security, and poor folks on SSI and temporarily on welfare. Yes, the percentage of elderly, disabled, and poor are higher here than suburban America, but they are not the majority.

We may live in "hollers," and the red-lining practices of banks may make manufactured housing ("trailers") easier to obtain than "built" houses, but folks here lavish care on their homes as much (or maybe more) than folks anywhere. [All photos are of homes in my "holler" in Hemphill].

People in Appalachia care about the same issues as other Americans: Health care, the economy (jobs and prices), the war in Iraq, the environment. In fact, I would argue that each of these issues is even more important to us here, since there are fewer jobs that provide health insurance, lower median incomes mean that economic uncertainties hit harder, a higher percentage of our young people are likely to enlist, and the nasty consequences of strip mining have immediate impacts on us here.

One of the most damaging stereotypes that has been brought up in this election is of Appalachians as racist. Sure there are racist folks here, as there are in Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., Eugene, Oregon, etc. But there are also African Americans who live and work peacefully along side whites in Appalachia. There may not be many African Americans in eastern Kentucky, but there also aren't any ghettos in eastern Kentucky. In Letcher County, there are black teachers, administrators, sanitation workers, surgeons, ministers, housewives, coal miners, secretaries, and many other occupations.

Moreover, being a lower income region, a very higher percentage of the physicians in this region are from the middle east and the Indian subcontinent (and many of whom are Muslim and Hindu). A brief perusal of the physicians listed in this region includes names like Ahmed, Alam, Alchureiqi, Ali, Ambalavanan, Appakondu, Bajwa, Chandarana, Chandrasheker, Chaturvedi, Garimella, Guindi, Gutti, Ghazal, Khater, Khouzam, Mehrpouyan, Mohmand, Narola, Pampati, Paliwal, Podapati, Quddus-Roopani, Rahman, Sahay, Singh, Abubakar Tidal, Valavalkar, Yalamanchi. These are highly respected members of the professional community. For example, folks around these parts swear by Dr. Tidal. I can't even begin to count the number of times in the past 12 years, that one of my students has said started a sentence with "Dr. Tidal says..." Until I did this little search for this post, I had no idea that Dr. Tidal wasn't an native born American of European descent.

I believe that most folks in Appalachia would welcome Barack Obama if he'd just take the time and come and visit with us face-to-face. We like to judge people as individuals, on their character, but we're folks who want to make those judgments in person. We need to see and talk to folks to decide whether or not we trust them. We don't like to depend on media images or stereotypes.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

language, grammar and meaning

My husband, John (also a sociologist), was quite disturbed recently when he heard several conservative commentators/politicians use the phrase "Democrat Party." He thought that the speakers were merely ignorant of proper grammar. "Democrat" is a noun, and should not be used to modify another noun "party" - nouns are modified by adjectives such as "Democratic."

I explained to him that, while the phrase might be grammatically incorrect, that the speakers were making the statement not out of ignorance but rather from a deliberate decision to denigrate the Democratic Party. I don't think he quite believed me, until I found the Wikipedia entry on "Democrat Party(phrase)." However, even I was surprised to discover how long a political history the phrase has. The first recorded use goes back to 1890, but it became a commonly used epithet by Republicans in the 1930's and 1940's. Harold Stassen made the derogatory nature of the label clear in a 1940 statement in which he argued that because of the prevalence of political machines in larger urban areas such as Chicago and New Jersey, the party no longer deserved to be called "democratic."

Grammar, like vocabulary, is not static, but evolves over time, to meet the needs of a living culture. The use of phrases like "Democrat Party" serve a political purpose, and in using them, people contribute to changes in the language as well as subtly affecting perceptions of their listeners.

A different example of changing grammatical usage, the phrase "well paying job." Today one finds that references "well paying jobs" and "well-paying jobs" (226,000 Google entries) some what outnumber references to "good paying jobs" (169,000 entries). Thirty to forty years ago, the reverse was true, and "good paying" was more likely to be heard.

Searching the Internet one finds that arguments for the grammatical correctness of both phrases. The arguments vary. "Good" is an adjective, while in some instances "well" is an adjective also, "well" is more often an adverb. The word paying is a "present participle," a word that can act either as a verb (he is paying her a salary) or as an adjective (a paying job as opposed to one without pay).

Grammar books say that adjectives modify nouns only, while adverbs modify adjectives, adverbs, and verbs. That would suggest that "well paying" is more grammatically correct than "good paying." However, there some that argue that both "good" and "paying" modify "job" (as in "good job" and "paying job" and so both should be adjectives.

There seems to be little difference in the types of websites that use these phrases, both are found on University websites, both are found in newspapers and magazine articles, both are found on websites of organizations and government agencies.

Microsoft, in the Word grammar checker has taken a neutral position: "well-paying," "well paying," "good-paying," and "good paying" are pass inspection by the grammar checker. But that may not be saying much. The grammar checker did not flag "This is a good paid job. " Although it did flag "This job is paid good" as ungrammatical.

The point, there appears to be no agreed upon, clear grammatical reason for choosing "well paying" versus "good paying," but current social conventions appear to slightly prefer "well paying," while the phrase "good paying" was more commonly used in the past.

Language and its grammar is a living, breathing, changing entity.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

unintended consequences

I've started by summer vacation off by reading Lester R. Brown's Plan B 3.0: Mobilization to Save Civilization. [This book is available free on-line in its entirety, with the bonus of Excel data tables at I've read the earlier edition (Plan B 2.0). I think this is a must read for anyone who wants to think seriously about how societies must change to deal with the scourges of over-population, poverty and environmental degradation world wide. Having read only three chapters today, I can already see many things worth comment and discussion in this blog and Blue Island Almanack.

Tonight, I want use a quote from the book to point to a common problem with any kind of social change -- unintended consequences. Social systems, especially when one gets to the level of nations and world civilizations, are very complex. Even very small changes in one part of a social system can have significant consequences throughout the entire system; not all of which can be anticipated. Even when they can be anticipated by some, calls for caution are not always heeded.

Brown writes about the very real problem of over-population. The human population of earth, now more than 6 billion, and growing, has by many calculations already exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth's biosphere. (See Meadows, Randers and Meadows Limits to Growth 2004 and Mathis Wackernagel 2002 study published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences). Bringing population growth under control is certainly necessary for preserving civilization.

Brown writes about an intrinsic benefit of rapid reduction in birth rate:
…[help] countries that want to slow their population growth to do so quickly. This brings with it what economists call the demographic bonus. When countries move quickly to smaller families, growth in the number of young dependents—those who need nurturing and educating—declines relative to the number of working adults. In this situation, productivity surges, savings and investment climb, and economic growth accelerates.

Japan, which cut its population growth in half between 1951 and 1958, was one of the first countries to benefit from the demographic bonus….This effect lasts for only a few decades, but it is usually enough to launch a country into the modern era.
( pages 149-150)

While the "demographic bonus" is real, and has the consequences described above, it is disingenuous not to also acknowledge the unintended consequences and problems produced by rapid reduction of birthrate 50 years later.

Japan is one of the best examples of the unintended consequences. Japan epitomizes the future problems that will be faced by all nations that make this demographic shift, especially those that make it quickly. This is the problem of a rapidly aging population, where those over 65 are becoming a larger and larger percentage of the Japanese population. The burden of caring for and paying for the needs of an aging population is becoming apparent throughout the developed nations, but it is particular acute in Japan, because that nation's demographic transition was so sudden, so abrupt. The flip side of having a smaller number of young dependents compared to the working adult population, in the decades immediately following the demographic transition, is inexorably followed fifty years later by having a much larger number of elderly dependents compared to the working population.

One could argue that a rapid decline in birthrates and demographic shift provides the potential for 50 years of economic growth that will make dealing with a large elderly population easier. But it is necessary for people invoking the need for a decline in birth rates to acknowledge the future consequences of these changes. Nation's making significant demographic transitions need to have full knowledge of the long term consequences and begin planning for those now.