by Tyler Cowen
on July 26, 2011 at 12:27 pm
1. Bob Dylan’s satellite radio theme hour to return.
2. New uses for old soda bottles. And looming peak dirt?
3. Really fast urban evolution of animals.
4. Nudging the poor to consume more medical services: is time more important than money?
5. Clarin profile of me, and interview, from Argentina.
6. Milky Way over kilns.
7. Long reply from Pinto on GSEs.
2. Permaculture: discuss. It’s not that capitalism ignores these problems, it is that they haven’t created markets there yet.
#2: Soda Bottle Skylights: Wait till it rains? How snugly can a soda bottle fit?
Probably just as snugly as a normal skylight (didn’t you see them sealing around the bottles with caulk?)
Looming dirt crisis – Granthams model suggests that capitalistic NPV calculation is inherently ignoring resource depletion. But it doesn’t. If people recognise that dirt is going to be scarce, even if it is not currently scarce, people will be willing to invest in dirt conservation in the hope of a future profit when dirt does become scarce. In fact this sort of problem is much more likely in a socialist or statist type system, where there is a lack of price feedback to managers. They are then much more incentivised to favour the short term over the long term, since they won’t pay the price of any long term failure, but get the benefits of near term success.
PeaceCorps has a project using soda bottles (and trash filled into the bottle) as a basis for sturdy walls and substitute for concrete. (Chicken wire and light framing around the bottles, and then concrete around it, instead of a wall entirely of concrete: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/How-to-Turn-8000-Plastic-Bottles-Into-a-Building.html , think it started in Guatemala.)
With glass bottles, they can be left empty:
on peak dirt
1. We know where the dirt from the Mississippi basin is if we need it. It is in the gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans and can be dredged.
2. Biochar means dirt can be made on a short time scale. One problem though if you make biochar too fast you deplete the c02 in the air.
Before the fall of the USSR, it was at least conceivable to argue that socialism was a better preserver of nature than capitalism. Now?
As for the particulars of “peak soil”, my immediate response is one word: Hydroponics. My more detailed response is two words: Soil Manufacture. There is a natural process by which rock, any rock, is transformed into soil. Furthermore, this process is already quite well understood. Accelerating this process is not hugely different than accelerating waste decomposition (which, hint, hint, produces VERY high fertilizer as a side effect).
Therefore, as is always the case with these jokers, the final, detailed, technical response is one word: yawn.
I was confused by #2 saying soil depletion is an example of “the tragedy of the commons”. Soil is owned here, it is not part of a commons. What they are really complaining about is the human tendency to discount the future.
Interesting interview. How do you keep up that much reading? Thanks for the cultural element as I once expressed to you in LA..
With Peak Dirt it sounds like we’ve reached the Peak of the “Peak X” business.
The enumerated “reserves” are what we’re confident of being able to extract after having barely scratched the surface of the first kilometer of the earth’s crust. The earth goes down over a hundred kilometers in most places before you hit lava. What’s more, the lava itself also has plenty of phosphorous and potassium — that’s why a good dusting of volcanic ash is is great (in subsequent years) for agriculture. The concentration of phosphorous or potassium doesn’t decrease as we go down. And mining productivity continues to grow substantially faster than population, which in a few decades won’t be growing in most places at all. We are digging far faster than Malthus’ flagging crawl is chasing us.
Grantham shows off his rhetorical skills with this gem: potassium and phosphorous “cannot be made. They are basic elements.”, trying to leave the reader with the impression that we are destroying them without replacing them. Short of very expensive nuclear reactions, one can neither create nor destroy potassium or phosphorous. There are, however, hundreds of millions of times more atoms of these two elements available in the earth below us than we’ve ever used up here. They’ve already been made inside the sun that preceded our own. So the only good reason for recycling them would be environmental (bringing more to the surface increases the productivity of plant life in general, which some people think is bad), not availability.
“There’s plenty of room at the bottom,” to repurpose Feynman’s famous quote about the great potentials of another industry for future growth.
#2 fer cryin’ out loud, that problem was solved 200 years ago on sailing ships… it’s called a “deck prism”, and it’s a piece of glass which is flat on top, shaped at different angles on the bottom, and lets light into the dark holds of ships. As you might guess, it’s considerablly more leakproof and longer-lasting than soda bottles.
Those, by the way, will not last 5 years. Soda bottles degrade rapidly in sunlight. I know because I spend lots of time walking the beaches of the Bahamas, where their brittle remains litter the high-tide wrack.
Earnest young world-savers really ought to learn from the past!
i think the point is to use something readily available i.e. cheap
even if it lasts 6 months its okay.
my point is perhaps they did learn from the past
I would have translated “The Great Stagnation” into Argentinian Spanish as follows:
“El Gran Pedo”
“Peak Dirt” is what happens when environmentalists, organic food hobbyists, and geomorphologists who don’t like talking to the locals, start noticing that when you plow the elevation of soil tends to decrease. Somehow the whole issue of we are running out of water back fored on them by creating the monstrosity of the US Bureau of Reclamation putting huge ugly and environmentally destructive dams everywhere. So a new bogeyman had to be found to rub our faces in our scientific hubris.
This is proved by the obsession with demonizing “corporate” agriculture and extolling of small family farms. beyond the top couple of feet the depth of soil makes absolutely no difference to agriculture productivity and the key determinant of long term soil erosion is how quickly the bedrock decomposes into soil. In the first world areas of thin soils are no longer plowed for agriculture and have either been retired from production or reconverted to pasturage. In the developing world this continues to be a problem but is much more an economic issue as eventually these low yield areas will either be improved by much more intensive industrial agriculture or abandoned altogether with a net increase in food production.
I’m an academic geologist who lives in a famously well watered but “eroding” farming region and I have read whole books on this and sat through way too many seminars with this sort of doom mongering, and yet when I actually talk to the soil people in the Ag department and look at actual farms I can see that in the US and Canada our agriculture extension service is doing a fine job of addressing this and that all the parts of the dust bowl are doing fantastic as long as the water holds out.
Tks for the link to Pinto’s response. In support thereof, note that Gretchenm Morgenson posted this today on Quora.com:
“The main source of Countrywide’s woes was Mr. Mozilo’s drive to maintain the company’s status as No. 1 mortgage lender in the nation. As other lenders [in Pinto’s narrative, Fannie and Freddie] lowered their underwriting standards and handed out questionable mortgages like water, Countrywide had to follow suit to maintain its status.”
#4: it’s not just poor people. I’m solidly upper-middle-class and I chafe at the time cost of health care infinitely more than the money cost. My primary care co-pay is something like $25. How often do I go? Never.
The $25 is a pittance, the cost of two days’ decent lunch. But I have to make a phone call to set up an appointment, and then leave work for an hour or more at some inconvenient time, and spend half an hour waiting for 2 minutes of a doctor’s time, ugh I can’t even stand thinking about it. If I could make an appointment online, and get seen after 5pm, and not spend 10x as much time waiting as speaking with the doctor, I would gladly pay $100 per visit, maybe more.
At the risk of being a spammer, it’s possible that you are in the service area of my employer: http://www.whiteglove.com. We send nurse practitioners to you.
#2 Sea salt is 1.1% potassium and phosphorus can be found in concentrations of over to 4% in some ocean sediments. There is also plenty of both elements in rocks that currently aren’t considered economical to mine. The cost of these these fertilizers might increase, and that is a cause for some concern, but we are not about to run out.
Poor people don’t worry about time.
And a society that doesn’t worry about it’s peoples’ time will be poor.
#4 is nonsensical. While going from $1-$3 is indeed a marginal trippling of the user cost, it clearly does not represent the true cost of the heavily subsidized end product. The only valid conclusion is the marginal cost (including time, transportation and inconvenience) for each trip is significanly larger than $3.
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