Archive for June, 2010

“the impossible takes a little longer”

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

When I was in the Navy back in WW2 the Navy Seabees had a motto: “the difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.” My wife, on the other hand was in the Marines. They had a different motto: “if it absolutely, positively, has to be destroyed tomorrow, call in the Marines.”

Environmentalists today could take heart from both. Call in the Marines to help destroy that hole in the ocean floor that is leaking so much oil into the Gulf. (Actually some experts really are advising explosives.) The Seabees impossible dream could give heart to the folks trying to clean up the oil from beaches, wetlands and ocean.

I claimed in my blog a few weeks ago that the oil leak was not the end of the world and some readers were incensed. I stand by that statement even though the disaster doesn’t look any better today than it did a month and a half ago. As an article in the NY Times pointed out last week, however, it was not by a long shot the “worst environmental disaster” in U.S. history.

The famous Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1886, for instance, killed 2,200 people and destroyed many millions (billions in today’s currency) of dollars worth of property. Like the BP spill it was caused by human negligence. An aging dam with neglected  maintenance collapsed. The “dust bowl” of the 1930s destroyed millions of acres of farm land in the Great Plains states, cost hundreds of thousands of people their homes and livelihood and sent into the atmosphere dense clouds of red dust that so darkened the air in Washington DC and New York City you could not see across their streets. That was before depositing all that good Plains soil into the Atlantic Ocean. And then there was the wholesale destruction of forests when the 19th century lumber companies cut the top off Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Consider also the English point of view on current leak. Piers McBride, retired journalist and News reader in England wrote: “11 people killed on an oil rig leased by British Company BP resulting in four presidential visits, a $2.60 billion clean up and the establishment of a $20 billion compensation fund inside two months. 15,000+ people killed in an accident at Bhopal plant owned by American company Union Carbide resulting in no presidential visits, no clean up and $470 million compensation after 25 years.”

All of these earlier environmental disasters were caused, like the present one, by human error and often human greed as well. Some, like the denuding of the primeval forests were even done deliberately, as the present BP disaster (or for that matter the Union Carbide one) was not. None of them brought permanent long term damage that could not be repaired.

Still another example of environmental destruction is Europe during the Second World War. That war brought near total destruction to hundreds of large cities like Berlin, Nuremburg, London and Rotterdam and 20 million or so human casualties. Amazingly enough hard-working, creative people found ways to put it all back together after the war, and in a remarkably short time. I’m betting the same thing will be true of the Gulf damage. I worry, though, that long-term political and social damage may end up a worse problem.

The Gulf tragedy is giving new fuel to doomsday prophets who use it to buttress their claims still once again that (1) the world is running out of resources (especially oil); (2) the world is severely overpopulated; and (3) pollution is getting worse all the time. The more they preach these dogmas, the more popular their solutions become. That is, that we need to rein in our corporations, drastically change our life styles and become ever more “green.” If we don’t make these changes soon our very civilization will collapse in a miasma of oil sludge.

I answer, nonsense. Far too few people realize that most scientists today (not necessarily the ones that get the most publicity) say that all three of these claims are simply not true.

One of the experts we interviewed for some of our filmstrip and later our video programs was the late economist from the University of Maryland, Julian Simon. His lifetime work on Resources, Population and Pollution issues were often not well received in establishment circles in the 20th century. That is putting it mildly. A high-profile  biologist at the Smithsonian Institute, Thomas Lovejoy, bristled when I brought up his name in a question at an interview. He got red in the face and snapped back, “Criticisms from somebody like Julian Simon are utterly trivial. I mean the man does not understand biology at all. He is the guy who says you can do it with mirrors.”

On the other hand Simon had supporters at prestigious places like the independent non-partisan institute Resources for the Future. And since his death in 2001 he has gained increasing credibility.

Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, environmentalist, “man of the left” and Greenpeace supporter, had the standard liberal opinion of Simon’s work when he first heard of it in a visit to California. He had read that Simon suggested the world was better off environmentally today than ever before. He had read that Simon claimed that resources were more plentiful and were likely to become even more plentiful in coming decades. Simon also claimed that pollution was decreasing and would likely decrease still more in coming decades. And finally Simon claimed that populations were stabilizing and in many places would decline in coming decades, and in any case overpopulation was not a serious world problem.

Lomborg didn’t believe a word of it. He thought Simon must be a crank. Or crazy. Certainly not a scientist.

But Lomborg did think it would be an interesting challenge for him and his students to check up on the Simon’s arguments and the data he used to support them. His expectation was that the check-up would show clearly how misled and unscientific Julian Simon was. After months of careful study he and his students in Denmark were stunned. They found that most of the time Simon was quite accurate. His well-documented data did show pretty conclusively that the world is not running out of resources, the world is not becoming more polluted and that the world is not overpopulated.

Eventually Lomborg published his findings in a meticulously documented book THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

That isn’t the end of the story. Some furious environmentalists in Denmark demanded a retraction. In an effort to refute the book’s claims they brought a complaint about Lomborg to the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). The committee sided with the environmentalists, proclaiming in good bureaucratic prose, “objectively speaking, the publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty.”

However a few months later Lomborg and his book were vindicated by a higher-level Danish government commission, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Among a long list of criticisms, the ministry reported that “the DCSD has not documented where Dr. Lomborg has allegedly been biased in his choice of data and in his argumentation, and … the ruling is completely void of argumentation for why the DCSD finds that the complainants are right in their criticisms of his working methods. It is not sufficient that the criticisms of a researchers’ working methods exist; the DCSD must consider the criticisms and take a position on whether or not they are justified, and why.”

As Ronald Bailey argued in Reason magazine, “only economic growth will allow, for example, the 800 million people who are still malnourished to get the food they need. But will they get it? Not if the anti-Westerners win out. As THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST makes clear, those who hate modern industrialized societies—whether they are Islamic radicals or radical environmentalists, threaten the hopes of the poor and imperil the natural world as well.”

Maybe Jeanne Kirkpatrick had the last word when she reviewed a book that was also pro-Simon, The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong. “Ben Wattenberg’s new book is a compelling reminder that we must learn to bear the truth about our society, no matter how pleasant it may be.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. I realize that many educators, perhaps most, do not agree with some of these opinions. I am old enough now to not care whether I preach to the choir or make money by following the politically correct crowd. I really feel it is time educators and their students hear some contrarian views. You can experience some of these by exposing yourself and your students to my latest program RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE. (See above.) Go for it and remember “the impossible takes a little longer.”

“you’ve got to be a football hero … “

Sunday, June 20th, 2010

I am writing this on Father’s Day. It is also the summer solstice at 8:48 pm. I have lived through quite a few solstices and Father’s Days  and I am feeling nostalgic.

When I was in high school (a long time ago) there was a popular song that summarized one my bigger worries. The song began “you’ve got to be a football hero to get along with a beautiful girl.”

Even today I remember how much I wanted to be a football hero. Or for that matter any kind of sports hero. Alas, in my large high school I was good in academics but mediocre in sports. I was just not talented enough or tough enough to make any of the varsity teams.

My two sons did better. Both were varsity basketball and soccer players and I was proud. I was also proud of quite a few of my nieces and nephews who were outstanding athletes in school and in college. One played quarterback in a California Bowl game and was voted the most valuable player.

All of this personal confession has relevance to my comments two weeks ago about the differences between liberals, progressives and conservatives. Progressives, I claimed, tended to stress equal results and liberals equal opportunities. Conservatives tend to think we should think twice before making radical changes in systems that work pretty well. I went on to point out that “in sports, minorities (especially African-Americans), have opened up achievement gaps every bit as wide in their favor as the academic ones where they lag behind. No one seems to be alarmed about this sports gap, why make so much about the academic test gap?”

The truth is that for most young people (and their parents and friends and fans) sports are, if anything, as important if not more important than academics. Still another truth is that the qualities that lead to success in sports – work ethic, perseverance, ability to work together in a common cause, courage, competitive drive, social skills, natural grace and ease – are just as important in life after school, if not more so, than success in academic subjects (especially as it is poorly measured by achievement tests).

In my humble opinion the best thing to do about any and all so-called “achievement gaps,” between any definable groups is–ignore it. Forget about it. Live with it. Make sure politically and practically that you provide opportunity for all individuals but as for results, let the chips fall where they may. So I can’t throw a football as well as Brett Favre. And I can’t hit a baseball like Willie Mays. And I can’t jump as well as Michael Jordan. And maybe I never had the toughness, perseverance and work ethic that made some of these athletes along with the lowliest second stringer on the high school football team successful in sports and in life. So what? You can probably get along with a beautiful girl anyway. I did.

In my recent News I did endorse the progressive point of view on health care. I think now that may have been premature. I do think that we are a wealthy enough society to assure everyone good health care just as we promise roads, sanitation services, police and fire services, etc. How to do that is still up for argument. An article in the NY Times last week as well as a thoughtful response from a reader leads me to rethink however my unqualified endorsement of some health care reform reforms.

Last week, for instance, the NY Times reported that the latest twist in progressive health care circles is to not just pay for prescription drugs but to pay people to take them. According to Pam Belluck, the NY Times reporter, “one-third to one-half of all patients do not take medication as prescribed, and up to one-quarter never fill prescriptions at all.”

Some doctors, pharmaceutical companies, health-care providers and social workers are trying a new experiment. Paying people to take their medicine! From $10 to $100 a day! Part of the rationale I suppose is that we want equal results as well as equal opportunity. The promoters also claim it will save money in the long run because these same people who do not presently take their medicine end up in the hospital or nursing home and since taxpayers will have to pay that bill too, better to bribe them to take their medicine now than pay more to save their lives later.

The Times reporter claims that “experts” vouch for the one-third, one-half, one-quarter statistics. I am suspicious. Who are these experts and what evidence do they have for such big numbers?

Aside from that and aside from the question of the government becoming the ultimate nanny, comes the question how far are we prepared to go to assure equal outcomes? Do we want to pay people to wear their helmets when riding motorcycles or fasten their seat belts in cars on the grounds that if they have an accident we will have to pay for their hospital and burial bills? Do we want to pay students to do their homework in high school on the grounds that we will have to support them with welfare if they don’t graduate? Do we want to pay people to recycle their newspapers and plastic cups on the grounds that if they don’t we will lose forest acreage and contribute to climate change? Do we want to pay people to buy hybrid automobiles on the grounds that doing so will help conserve oil? Do we want to pay people to exercise in gyms, swimming pools and health clubs on the grounds that it will save money in the end by preventing heart attacks later? Where do you draw the line? Or do you?

A Hawkhill News item the week before last about health care reform brought a thoughtful critique from retired psychologist Larry Larrabee who has an original take on these questions. He had long experience running a mental health clinic in Wisconsin.

“I agree [that in health care], a definite change is needed, both the basic costs are frequently ridiculous and, although accessibility (in my opinion) is not a major problem, care should be more affordable for everyone  …  I feel that until tort reform occurs in health care, we are dealing with a problem that absolutely cannot be afforded by ANY country. A recent study by a prestigious university found that among diagnostic tests ordered by cardiologists, 75% had been ordered solely to protect the doc from a malpractice suit and the doc saw absolutely no other justification for his order. The study surveyed several hundred cardiologists in the US and provided anonymity to obtain the honest reporting by the cardiologists. When the left says malpractice costs do not drive up health care cost, they are simply referring to awards, settlements and premiums. The far, far greater cost is the cost of defensive medicine done by all practitioners, including myself.

“The other part I am uncomfortable with is that the government will essentially be running the program (certainly later if not initially) much like it does Medicare. The Left cites the lower cost of the Social Security Administration managing Medicare as compared to private health insurance carriers. Again, this is a major error. That lower cost is based on the SSA cost of operation as a percentage of the entire SSA budget with many costs for Medicare generally folded into the overall budget. … when you make the adjustments, the average private administration cost is 30% less than the public administrative cost!

“The answer, to me, is to drastically correct the tort boondoggle and then to set up a system very much like the Medicare Prescription program that very clearly allows for private companies, with government supplements, competing on the Part D premiums and doing so while each company offers several alternative plans. AARP, of course, trashed the Part D program since it is quite left leaning but, in fact, Part D works very well, thank you.

“I think that if we do have a national health insurance of some kind, the premiums should be graduated based on annual income (as in gross, unadjusted, federal. income tax records of the preceding year) or establish very high deductibles, based again on income, with some relatively large deductibles (say $1000 to $2000 per year or illness for the lower income group and as much as $40,000 or $50,000 for upper income groups). High deductibles are an excellent way to reduce cost as all corporations know.”

I realize that none of these questions are easy nor are the answers obvious. Let me know what your opinion is.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. You already know my pitch. Please look to our web site for more information and insight on science/society issues like the ones addressed in these blogs. Our big sale is over but we have dramatically reduced regular prices on all of our programs for the 2010/2011 school year.

For health care issues see: DISEASE AND HEALTH. For progressive, liberal and conservative points of view on other science/society issues see: SCIENCE AND SOCIETY: GLOBAL ISSUES OF THE 21ST CENTURY, CAPITALISM AND DEMOCRACY, DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY and RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE.

BP. sympathy, blame and planning

Sunday, June 13th, 2010

June 14, 2010

Some readers were incensed by my comments in last week’s News about the Gulf Oil Spill.

Dennis Conroy, retired USAID executive in California, wrote: “Your Hawkhill News of June 7 was incredulous and disgusting. No mention of the eleven men who died.  No concern for the tens of thousands of fishermen, shrimpers and other watermen with no job and the loss of their way of life. And no pity for those who depend on tourism along the coast for a living. The impact on the gulf and on these people and sea life will be felt for years.”

Robert Baxter, a Canadian librarian and teacher, wrote: “So, according to you, we can forgive the disaster, as well as other similar types of environmental pollution (Alberta Tar Sands, for one) and wars over oil in the Middle East because we don’t want to live like they did in the Middle Ages. Is that supposed to be some kind of an argument, justification or comparison? … Please stop sending me these messages, and remove me from your list of contacts. Thank you. Have a nice day.”

On the other hand I did get some compliments.

Pete Cerar, real estate agent in Dayton, Ohio wrote: “Right on Bill. By stopping drilling we depend more on foreign oil which has to be shipped to us. The spills from tankers far out weigh the spills from oil rigs by about 10 times. Again, we do things for the wrong reasons.”

And Kerry Swift, university administrator in South Africa wrote: “Well spoken Sir! There is, of course, another side to this whole debacle which has been picked up by the Spectator (UK not US version). In a recent editorial they find the constant harping on BP as ‘British Petroleum’ with heavy emphasis on the ‘British’ distasteful as it is being done to deflect responsibility away from those U.S. players, like the company that built the defective platform and in a much broader sense the US consumer’s insatiable demand for oil for lifestyle wants rather than human needs. The Spectator points out that BP has been a global player for many years and its British roots are lost in the distant past. It suggests that the Federal Government should also take the rap for this disaster. It is a kind of U.S. jingoism that is making the Brits really mad and which damages the ’special relationship’. I think it is also showing up Obama in a poor light but that’s a personal view! I never really liked the Chicago activist’s mafia moving in on the White House anyway. As you say, it’s not as if BP planned this horror show!”

I replied to critics Conroy and Baxter that I have a lot of sympathy for all of the people harmed by the Oil Spill (including BP employees, shareholders and customers). Sympathy is cheap. Planning for the future is more difficult. BP promises (we’ll see if they live up to the promises) to pay for all legitimate claims from families of the men killed in the explosion, of fishermen, shrimpers, tourist losses and any other people harmed by the spill. They are also paying right now to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for ships, equipment and workers to clean up the beaches, keep oil out of the marshes, and in general mitigate as best they can the environmental damages to the ecosystem of the Gulf and the Gulf states.

BP has the major liability for this tragedy. They are accepting the responsibility. Our federal government has responsibility too, but so far it has not distinguished itself. The governor of Louisiana, the state most affected, has begged the feds to respond more promptly to his calls for more equipment, more workers, and more help in building berms to contain the oil and keep it off the beaches and marshes. I understand that many high-tech ships from other countries that have special gear to help in oil clean-up operations are ready to help but apparently they cannot be used because of a 1920s law in the U.S. that forbids foreign ships from working in U.S. waters. This Jones Act was waived by Bush in the Katrina disaster, but presumably because of his ties to unions, Obama lets these ships remain idle. Bush was excoriated unmercifully for his supposed tardiness in responding to the Katrina hurricane damage. Obama’s response to this tragedy has, if anything, been slower and less effective.

More important than sympathy or blame or even cleaning up as best we can, is the future of oil and gas exploration in this country. That was my main point last week and I repeat it this week. My example of medieval life in the castle may have been a bit of a stretch, but I really think many people today do not understand the desperate importance of fossil fuel energy and material in our world-wide modern civilization. Not only do we depend on fossil fuels for transportation, electricity, agriculture and other energy-rich activities, they are also the base for our modern material culture from medicines to shampoo, from computers to furniture, from books to condos, iPads and baseball mitts.

Some of us older folks remember the bitter anger and the long gas lines in Jimmy Carter’s days. Those times will be a picnic compared to the future time when gas will sell for thirty dollars a gallon, our factories come to a screeching halt because they can’t get enough electricity, food quadruples in price because fertilizer becomes too expensive and unemployment hits 50% rather than 10%. Recycling, eating organic, biking to work or driving a Prius might help. But not much.

Even on a less apocalyptic note if we continue to support moratoriums on drilling in the gulf and Alaska, the immediate result will be increased imports from unfriendly nations, more support for terrorists, and risks of tanker spills worse than risks of new oil spills from drilling. The other immediate and inevitable result will be the removal of drilling rigs that presently supply a third of the crude oil produced domestically and with the removal the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Many of them permanently. This will be even more of a disaster for the Gulf States and a huge increase in the already bloated unemployment rolls. To compound all this damage I just heard last week that the administration falsely claimed that a scientific panel endorsed the moratorium. Falsification of a scientific report like that is inexcusable.

Just about everyone including me is in favor of developing alternative energy sources as fast as possible. But not everyone seems to realize how long it will take for any alternative to fossil fuels to make a substantial difference. As I said in my blog, the most optimistic forecasts I have seen from experts would be two or three decades. Twenty or thirty years! That’s a long time to be unemployed. What are we going to do in the meantime? All the invective and criminal prosecution in the world against BP (and other oil-companies) is not going to help. But it might make things worse.

Let me hear from you.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. Again I urge you to consider some of our own Hawkhill programs that address different aspects of these very real national problems that in one way or another all involved the crossroads of science and society. Even if you do not want to buy the complete video or DVD programs, you might want to read the scripts (at no cost) that are also published on our web site.

Relevant programs to this discussion are: Energy and Society, Ecosystems, Toxic Wastes, Ecosystem Cycles, Resources Populations and Climate Change and Capitalism and Democracy.

Apocalypse now

Sunday, June 6th, 2010

The environmental tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico is ongoing and sad. To listen to some pundits you would think it was the end of the world. It’s not.

More important, many of these pundits are using the tragedy to advance an ongoing hate-oil-companies, anti-free-market agenda that could result in environmental tragedies far worse then the Gulf oil spill. Rather than spending so much time and energy on finding someone to blame I think we should concentrate on cleaning up the mess as best we can and getting on with the job of finding new sources of energy to power our 21st century world.

By new sources of energy I do mean solar, nuclear, fusion, hydro, geothermal, whatever. But I also mean new fossil fuel discoveries including domestic sources of oil and natural gas. And yes, all of these fossil fuel quests will no doubt mean more “drill-baby-drill.”

If you want to consider what everyday life would be like without oil and gas (and without free-market capitalism) you should read: AD 1000: Living on the Brink of Apocalypse (Harper & Row, 1988) by Richard Erdoes. In those feudal “green” pre-industrial, pre-fossil fuels and pre-capitalist days, if you were rich enough to live in a castle (99% percent of the people were not) here is what life would be like without oil and gas.

“Lords might be powerful, but they were seldom comfortable. The castle’s heart was the great dining hall, its floor covered with straw or rushes. Bones and scraps from the long trestle table were simply thrown upon the floor and eagerly snapped up by the ever-present snarling dogs, who generously supplied fleas to both high and lowborn. Whenever the rushes began to stink of rotting scraps and dog droppings and so ‘full of vermin that they seemed to move by themselves,’ they were thrown out and replaced by fresh ones, on special occasions by sweet-smelling grasses.

“The typical castle was dark and dank. Windows were mere slits covered by parchment or small slabs of horn, as glass panes had not yet come into use. Rooms were consequently very drafty, and rheumatism was the common lot of the suffering tenants. In winter, people either fried by roasting their backsides at the fire or shivered if at a distance from the chimney place. Smoke, soot, and cinders found their way into inflamed eyes. Castles were insufficiently lighted by torches or pine slivers dipped in resin. Only the richest barons and prelates could afford candles. It was no wonder poets waxed ecstatic singing of the coming spring and the fading winter.

“People relieved themselves wherever and whenever they could, and crude scatological jokes were part of the table talk. Furnishings were spare. The residents’ few possessions were kept in a chest, sometimes covered with a pillow, which also served as a seat. Tables often were just boards laid over trestles. Long benches seated the guests, and always there was a special high seat for the lord and master at the head of the table.”

Besides the discomforts, if you were really lucky (and really rich) you might live to be as old as 40. But not without suffering and recovering slowly from nasty diseases like smallpox, bubonic plague, typhoid, cholera and pneumonia that killed your brothers, sisters, children and parents many years before.

Instead of piling on we should be thanking BP, Exxon-Mobil, Shell and the other giant oil companies and their hundreds of thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers for their difficult and almost-all-of-the-time successful work in bringing this precious fuel up from the depths of sea and land to support our civilization. And when inevitable freak accidents happen rather then threatening them with criminal prosecution we should at a minimum be sparing with criticism and condemnation. BP did not do this on purpose. They have taken responsibility and are doing their best to minimize the damage. How many can say as much?

To repeat the obvious, our civilization desperately needs oil and gas to survive and it will need more oil and gas for quite a few decades to come before new and cleaner sources of energy can be discovered, marketed and adopted by any significant portion of humankind. Banning drilling (or crippling it with still more bureaucratic regulations) in the Gulf, in Alaska or in the continental U.S. and Canada will not be helpful. All it will do is increase our dependence on oil from places like Nigeria, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Besides exporting our cash and pollution risks to these not very friendly countries, we will be forced to depend on shipments in ever larger tankers where the risks of disastrous spills will be as great, probably greater, than the risks of drilling in deep water.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. If you want to know more about the change from feudal zero-sum economies and societies see our program THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, CAPITALISM AND THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.  Or the new releases RESOURCES, POPULATIONS AND CLIMATE CHANGE and ENERGY AND SOCIETY.