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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Environmentalism Extrema

I mentioned on Sunday that most environmentalists aren't calling for a reduction in the human population.  Some, however, are!  Others have messaged me saying they indirectly support human population reduction through better availability of contraceptive methods and education.  I've also heard the argument made that voluntary population control could help stabilize the economies of extremely depressed regions in Africa.  I guess it's worth keeping in mind that a reduction in per capita consumption only really has an effect if the population is fairly stable or declining.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement has a very interesting stance.  From their website:
"Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as we become less dense."
Everyone likes to discuss 'carbon footprint', but perhaps 'carbon legacy' is just as important: if my six-person family severely limits its use of natural resources but still consumes more overall than a three-person family with a much higher per capita usage, who is 'more green'?

If I drive a Prius 30 miles to work every day and my coworker drives his old gas-guzzler but lives only 5 miles away, who is doing more to conserve?

Can you really claim to be an 'environmentalist' if you live in a climate where you need to heat your living space five months out of the year?

Should conservation be measured on a 'per-lighbulb' basis, or is it really only a relevant concept when it is considered in terms of all of the decisions an individual makes, including what they buy, what they eat, where they live and work... even how much they reproduce?


(thanks to Kyle for the link, Ben for the 'legacy' concept, and Mr. Somers for a really good point)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Environmentalist's Dilemma

The environmentalism movement has an image problem.

At first glance, it's difficult to see how this is possible.  Environmentalists, at the most basic level, are simply interested in finding and implementing steady-state solutions for humanity's mass and energy balances.  They want to protect the planet's natural biological diversity, and preserve natural environments and ecosystems for the enjoyment, use, and contemplation of future generations of our own species.

When many people think 'environmentalist', a number of images come to mind.  Let's take an analytical approach to analyze some of these images (so if you're not a Rational, stop reading here).

"Environmentalists think *insert endangered species* are more important than people"

Ecologically-speaking, humans are the top of the food chain, the highest of the high predators.  Granted, a lion could certainly do a number on you if you come across one, unarmed, in the savanna... but humans for the most part live in hives (cities, suburbs) where we kill and eat as we please.  Many high predators act as a check and balance on the population of the species they prey on (think foxes and rabbits); we have gone so far as to domesticate and raise our own prey, and when we do come in contact with wild populations that are tasty and easy to catch, we have a very long history of wiping them out completely.  We chop down forests and replace them with monocultured fields of turfgrass, corn and wheat; we destroy habitats that are overflowing with biological diversity, and only pidgins, rats, cockroaches, and housecats remain.  We have no stabilizing purpose in the biospheres we inhabit.

Take, for instance, the Pacific Yew (the original source of the anticancer agent Taxol), or pretty much any other native tree or plant: at the very bottom of the food chain, they provide food and shelter to countless other organisms.  From a biological perspective, plants are absolutely critical for regulating the global carbon redox balance (carbon dioxide vs. reduced carbon).  Humans, at the very top, serve no critical ecological functions.  If you were to wipe out a species of plant, or insect, or fungus, it would almost certainly cause major environmental destabilization; wipe out humans, and the result would be a net STABILIZING effect.

There are many, many humans - probably around seven billion at this point - and it would be next to impossible to wipe them all out.  Tigers, on the other hand?  ~2,000 in the wild.  (One tiger = 3.5 million humans?)

So, if you want to pick things apart rationally: humans ARE quite the invasive species, and global ecology would only really benefit from a reduction in their population.  This doesn't jive very well with the "god put us on this planet to kill, eat, and pillage whatever we want" mentality that the majority of Americans seem to embrace, so the source of anti-environmentalism animosity is not too hard to find.

The thing is, 99.99% of environmentalists are NOT advocating doing anything to reduce the human population (which would probably be the most straightforward, surefire solution...) - they're only saying that we need to reduce our per-capita rate of consumption of natural resources to limit the destabilizing effects that we have.

Disagree?  Open-fire below.

Tomorrow: "Environmentalists are against progress and technology"
This Week: "Environmentalists don't care about jobs or the economy"
Later: "Redox Balances, Global Warming, and The History of The World"
           "Environmentalism: what is it really protecting?"

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Perfect Pasta

Getting pasta 'just right' takes patience and practice.

It helps to start with the best possible ingredients. White, tasteless, bleached-to-death pasta, a horrible holdover from the days of Wonder Bread and the 'faux-wood-and-gold' style, is no longer the only option: many companies are now offering whole-wheat and multigrain pastas that offer superior taste and nutrition.

White, Wheat, and 7-Grain pastas. Data from and Ronzoni Healthy Harvest

While all products made from wheat flour will have the same glycemic index, whole grains include the bran component, which contains additional dietary fiber and B-vitamins.

Strangely, whole grain products tend to be more expensive than their bran-removed, bleached counterparts... I would think that whole grain products would involve fewer processing steps and therefore end up cheaper. It may be related to economies of scale - the typical American still prefers the bleached, tasteless stuff for a few cents cheaper per pound.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Unshod (Day Two)

Went for a jog in my new shoes again today to loosen up some stiff muscles.  The weather has been absolutely beautiful this week, which reminds me... "can I go back to California yet?"

Some sources suggest that unnatural form, and not solely heel-striking, is to blame for many running maladies.  This seems likely, though I would still argue that overzealous, running-shoe-enabled heel-striking is one of the most common sins.

The root of the problem seems to be 'unnatural running' and the modern equipment that enables it - the overpadded shoes, the asphalt and concrete, treadmills, perfectly flat and uniform tracks.

Asphalt and concrete have extraordinarily high elastic moduli, though it could be argued that we've been running on a variety of similarly-rigid surfaces for a very long time.

Treadmill junkies and track runners are blowing knees and ankles every quarter-mile on REAL surfaces, and how is it at all surprising?  All of that oversupported, flat, uniform, rigid, endless straight-line running does nothing to condition the stabilizing muscles that are absolutely necessary for robust real-world running.  Treadmill running makes you really good at treadmill running, and that's about it.

A good analogy would be the typical gym rat - comically oversized muscles, obscene single-rep maximum loads... but when placed in an environment with REAL resistance (jiu jitsu, for instance), they just don't measure up.  Time after time, I was surprised by how easy it was to overpower (not just outmaneuver) these types.  The reason is the same: picking up and setting down a heavy object, over and over again, makes you you really good at picking up and setting down that heavy object.  If that's your goal, that's fine, but useful power comes from realistic training.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Unshod (Day One)

"Heel-toe, heel-toe," like they say it in phys-ed, is fine for walking... but humans were never designed to run this way.  The unnatural heel-striking gait favored by many joggers and runners transfers far too much energy to the knee, resulting in a host of joint maladies.

To confirm this statement, try running "heel-toe" barefoot on a hard surface - the result is quite painful.  The only reason people tend to run this way is because it is encouraged by the running shoes that we wear, the vast majority of which feature extreme amounts of heel cushioning.

'Running shoes' were invented in the 1970's by corporations eager to cash in on the jogging craze.  Most are designed to protect the wearer from damage caused by bad running form, which in turn encourages bad form and leads to long-term injury.  Running shoes also restrict the natural movement of the ankle, foot, and toes.

Humans had been running a long time when the 70's came around.  Since the dawn of the species, we have been running barefoot or wearing moccasins or sandals which protect the feet from cuts and abrasions but do not offer any padding.  Running this way encourages proper form that reduces the impact of the motion, strengthening stabilizing muscles in the toes, foot, ankle, and calves, and lessening eccentric loading of the knee.

I've hated shoes, running shoes especially, since I first wore them for baseball, basketball, and soccer in elementary school.  Summers spent barefoot are a fond memory.  I regularly mountain bike in flip-flops or light sandals, but there is a price to be paid - rocks and branches can be very sharp and unforgiving.  

Enter a new type of shoe: Vibram FiveFingers

The best description would probably be 'foot glove'.  This shoe is little more than a sole coupled with a snug-fitting leather or synthetic foot covering.  The toes each have their own 'compartment', like with a toe-sock, and are free to move independently.  They are typically worn without socks.

Walking in them feels just like going barefoot, minus the hazards of sharp rocks and broken glass (and apparently bizarre parasites, if you live in the right places).  Biking in them is a similarly pleasant experience.

Now here's the real project:

I have never been much for running because of the stress it puts on the knee, which has given me problems since 6th grade.  I went on my first run in these shoes last night, covering about 3.5 miles of grass, dirt, gravel, and asphalt.  The sensation of running is fantastic - I can actually feel the surfaces underneath me as I traverse them.  While it's much too early to tell how I will fair in the long-term, the shoes are definitely doing their job: my toes, feet, ankles, and calves are quite sore in unexpected places.

I will keep track of my progress with the aim of giving a final recommendation in a few months.  Thanks to Kyle for telling me about these shoes back in August, and finally convincing me to try them out!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Smell That?

The return of the earthy scents is one of my favorite parts of the transition from winter back into spring.  Of all of the flavors, the scent of rain is the most unmistakable.

One of the primary contributors to this distincitive smell is the bicyclic organic compound shown here, geosmin.  According to Wikipedia, it is produced by a number of soil bacteria such as the Actinomycetes (which also have a variety of biotechnological uses), and is also responsible for the earthy taste of beets and bottom-dwelling freshwater fish.  The human nose can detect geosmin at vanishingly low parts-per-trillion concentrations.

Ahhh... the sweet smell of microbial metabolic biochemistry.