January 19, 2006

Take That? Take Back (e-Waste)!

ComputersTrue to its state motto, dirigo, Maine is leading the nation in electronic waste management. Yesterday a law went into effect that requires TV and computer monitor manufacturers to take responsibility for the proper disposal of their products.

TVs and monitors need to be recycled because they contain toxic lead and mercury. But only a few states have e-waste programs where those who profit from the products also pay the disposal costs. In California, consumers pay a small fee at the time of purchase to help defray the cost of recycling later. In Maryland, manufacturers pay a fixed annual fee into a recycling trust fund.

While these are great starts, I suspect that neither of these programs covers the full costs of disposal. Maine's law is great because it places the full cost where it belongs: on makers and users of the product, instead of on general taxpayers. In this way it also creates powerful incentives  (read: market economics) for manufacturers to build products that use less toxic materials in the first place and that are easier to recycle at the end of their life.

Here in Cascadia e-waste producer responsibility is still in the works. British Columbia (pdf) intends to have a program in place by mid 2007. Washington has two bills in the current legislative session. And Oregon (pdf) had a bill in 2005 to charge consumers a fee up front, although the bill died in session. Stay tuned to find out what happens with e-waste recycling in the Northwest.

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January 18, 2006

A Loonie Comparison

LoonieCanada's economy is hot:

The economy is on a roll, the stock market is soaring, jobs are plentiful, borrowing costs are low, consumer spending is strong and real estate is booming.

That's from a bizarre editorial in today's Vancouver Sun; an editorial that goes on to argue that Canada's--and especially BC's--recent boom is a chimera. The piece rightly points out some troubling counter trends, such as strong GDP growth coupled with anemic income growth for workers. But some of the article's assertions are quite plainly wrong--or at least misleading enough that it's tough to buy the anti-tax message the editorial is peddling.

Among the claims that don't add up:

In 1981, Canadian incomes were more than 80 per cent of American incomes. That figure has dropped to 67 per cent. In other words, our standard of living is now a third lower than that of our neighbours.

To be sure, if those figures are right, that's a worrisome trend for Canadians. But that's not at all the same as saying that Canadian standards of living are a third lower than Americans. Direct international income comparisons can be all but meaningless--like a business looking only at revenues but not at expenditures. To name just two of many items that chip away at Americans' income: health care and education are far, far less expensive in Canada. And in the US those the cost of those essential goods are drastically outstripping inflation. There's probably some North American disparity in the standard of living, but it's almost certainly not a third.

The editorial continues:

While additional spending on social services like health care and eduction are things Canadians desire, they are certainly not getting their money's worth.

Really?

The best single indicator of health outcomes, life expectancy, puts Canada in the top 5 countries in the world. And if BC were its own nation, it would rank second behind only Japan. By contrast, the United States ranks 19th, just behind Barbados. (Other measures put Canada at 8th best and the US at 29th.)

Similarly, international comparisons put Canadian education as among the very best in the world, often in the top 3. Where's the US? Way, way behind.

I'm not saying that the editorial's claims are entirely without merit. There may be reason to be concerned about Canada's economic growth. Rising income inequality, for instance, may point to problems. But the editorial's fawning over light taxation in the US should be taken with a grain of salt.

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January 13, 2006

Prince(ss) of Tides

Since last Friday, I’m proud to announce, the venerable Cascadian news website Tidepool has been a project of NEW. Yep, we’ve completed a friendly takeover!

Since 1997, Tidepool has been highlighting the most significant news that’s shaping Cascadia. Every morning, Tidepool’s editors scan dozens of news sites and assemble the stories that will actually matter in Cascadia a few years hence—the slow news (pdf). It’s an essential service, and it’s one that thousands of Cascadians use every day.

Tidepool was seeking a new home, and its service is a natural complement for this blog and NEW’s other analyses of key trends in Cascadia. So both organizations are excited about the transfer. We think it’ll lead to big improvements all the way around—in the news digest, in the blog, and in our website.

Tidepool has long been a community asset—something kept healthy through the active support of its thousands of readers. This new phase in Tidepool’s development won’t change that fact; to the contrary, NEW will soon introduce more ways to participate in Tidepool’s evolution. If you’re not already a member of that community, please join by signing up for a free subscription.

For more information on NEW’s ownership—really, stewardship—of Tidepool, read this letter to its subscribers.

And meet the new NEW editor of Tidepool: Princess of Tides Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck.

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January 05, 2006

Babies Not Having Babies

Some more good, or at least interesting, news for 2004:  teen birth rates in Cascadia hit an all-time low. There were just under 27 live births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19, according to final data for the year.  That's probably not just the lowest rate in recent history, but the lowest since humans first inhabited this place.

Teenpreg19702004 (Just to be clear: we spend a lot of our time comparing trends in BC, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho -- the main political jurisdictions whose rivers flow through the temperate rainforests on the Pacific Northwest coast.  For short, we call the region "Cascadia."  End of public service announcement.)

Teen births throughout the region have fallen by about 57 percent since 1970.  But they've fallen unevenly, as the chart shows.  In the Northwest states, teen pregnancy rates are about half of what they were in 1970.  In British Columbia, however, teen pregnancies fell by an astonishing four-fifths over the same period.  Or, said differently -- teen birthrates in BC and the Northwest states used to be quite comparable.  Now, the teen birthrate is more than three times as high in the Northwest US as in BC.

As with many social and environmental trends, BC more and more looks like, well, it's in a different country than Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.  Gasoline consumption, sprawl, health, teen births -- on these measures and many others, BC substantially outperforms the Northwest states; and on many of them BC's lead just keeps getting bigger.  I'm not sure what this means; perhaps nothing. But it may also be a sign that the politics and cultures of these neighbors are gradually diverging.

Regardless, given the similarities in climate, language, and history between the two halves of Cascadia, the differences between BC and the US Northwest demonstrate--fairly convincingly it seems to me--that minor differences in policy and outlook can gradually add up to huge differences in outcomes.

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December 29, 2005

Make Room!

The good ship Cascadia has another 227,000 passengers.

The US Census Bureau has issued population estimates for the states, which allow us to give an updated Cascadian population tally. As of July 1, 2005, the region – counting British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington – had 15.6 million people. (Adding western Montana, southeast Alaska, and northwestern California pushes that figure up by another million or so, but running the county-by-county figures takes more time than I’ve got at the moment.)

The (four main jurisdictions of the) region added 227,000 inhabitants over the preceding 12 months. That's about the number that live in greater Olympia, Washinton. And it's a 1.5 percent increase, the largest since 1997.

Total_pop_1

The resurgence stemmed from rising domestic migration into the region. Natural increase (births minus deaths) remained stable at around 70,000 per year, as did international migration at around 50,000 per year. (International migration is hard to tally reliably at present. As the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey comes online, we’ll be able to track it better.)

The extra 227,000 Cascadians, especially the adult migrants, bring new resource consumption, pollution, and traffic as they arrive. But just to be unpredictable today, let me point out that they also bring new talents, productivity, and resources with them.

One dimension of in-migration that’s little noted is the way that growing populations allow more-rapid transformation of metropolitan areas. Cities that don’t have growing populations do not have many opportunities to build complete, compact communities, filling in their urban form. And compact communities can actually reduce resource consumption among their residents. It’s conceivable, in fact, that adding population--if it goes into the right kinds of smart-growth neighborhoods--might lead to such large per-person reductions in resource consumption that the aggregate total remains unchanged or even diminishes.

So migration brings big challenges (about which there’s more here) but it also brings opportunities.

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December 28, 2005

Population Puzzler: Unwanted Pregnancies and Abortion Trends

Last week, the National Center for Health Statistics issued the results of a survey revealing that the share of American births that resulted from unwanted pregnancies increased from 9 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2002. (Seattle Times reports here.)

That’s bad news. It’s also puzzling.

It’s bad news because babies conceived by accident, when mothers do not want to have a child (or another child), tend to have what social scientists call “adverse outcomes,” as discussed here. They’re more likely to have bad prenatal care, die in infancy, fare poorly in school, and suffer violence at the hands of their caregivers.

It’s puzzling because so many reproductive trends have improved since 1995. Pregnancy rates overall have fallen, as shown in this chart for Oregon . . .

Preg_or_1
. . . especially among teens, as shown in these charts for Oregon . . . 

Or_teen

. . . and Washington.

Wa_teen

Birth rates overall have fallen. Access to emergency contraceptives has expanded dramatically, as has insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives.

All of these positive trends would make you expect that the share of births that result from unwanted pregnancies has also declined. But the opposite has happened, at least in the United States overall.

The trend is less contradictory within Cascadia. Washington has the best data on unwanted births over time, and they show hardly any change—or hardly any change that’s greater than the margin of error. At best, there's been a tiny decrease in unwanted births.

Wa_unwanted

Still, you’d expect that drops in pregnancies and births would lead to equally dramatic declines in unwanted pregnancies. You’d think, in fact, that improving pregnancy prevention would show itself first and foremost in a declining share of pregnancies that are unwanted. Instead, everything is shrinking dramatically except the “unwanted” percentage!

What’s going on here?

I don’t know.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) in New York is reportedly in the midst of an analysis of this puzzler, and I hope they’ll figure it out. In the meantime, let me underline my ignorance by explaining why the obvious answers are probably wrong or, at least, inadequate.

Pro-choice advocates argue that the survey results are a sure sign of deteriorating access to abortion services, which is plausible. In Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, the number of abortion providers is lower now than it was two decades ago. In 1981, there were more than 160 abortion providers in these states; by 2001, there were fewer than 100, according to AGI.

And the next chart, comparing the share of pregnancies ending in abortion (excluding miscarriages) in British Columbia and Washington, lends further plausibility to the theory. In British Columbia, where abortion providers have not decreased in number to the same degree, abortion has grown as a share of all pregnancies. In Washington, it's shrunk.

Abortions

Harassment and intimidation from extremists explains some of the drop in abortion providers, but economic consolidation has also contributed. Abortion services have become a specialized medical subdiscipline, concentrated in the hands of fewer providers who are, in general, very good at what they do. First-trimester surgical abortion, therefore, may now be safer and less expensive, in inflation-adjusted terms, than ever before. Convenient, nearby access to safe abortion services does not extend to small-town residents in the inland parts of Cascadia, but most women who want an abortion can get one, by traveling to a city--the same place they have to go for many other surgical procedures.

Anti-abortion advocates have a different exlanation for the rise in unwanted births. They suggest that Americans are demonstrating, in the words of an official at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a “pro-life shift.” American women may be exercising their freedom to choose by electing to have fewer abortions. This explanation also has some plausibility. Abortion rates are lower in more-conservative states such as Idaho than in more-liberal states such as Oregon and Washington. Maybe a cultural change is making the whole country more like Idaho. (And maybe the Washington-BC divergence in the chart above is explained not by changing access to abortion but by changing social values.)

Maybe, but I'm dubious. For one thing, British Columbia has the same anti-abortion movements, the same media influences, and the same medical technology (such as ultrasounds that make fetuses seem like babies sooner) as Washington. But abortion trends have diverged.

For another, if the United States were experiencing such a shift, the recent survey should have found not only that “unwanted” pregnancies but also that “mistimed” pregnancies were being carried to term more often. In fact, if a “pro-life shift” were the cause, one would expect a more dramatic increase in the share of births that resulted from merely mistimed (or “too soon”) pregnancies, rather than from pregnancies that were truly never wanted at all. Women who found themselves pregnant a few years before they intended to be (and were swayed by anti-abortion arguments) would almost certainly be the first to forgo abortions, not the smaller number of women who found themselves pregnant despite their wish never to have a child (again). Wouldn’t the easy cases by “shifted” before the hard ones?

The Center found no such shift.

Between the Center’s 1995 survey (careful, enormous pdf) and its 2002 survey (careful, even larger pdf), in subset after subset of American women (young, old, married, cohabiting, Hispanic, white, first-time mothers, third-time mothers, etc.), there’s a marked increased in the share of births that women report as having resulted from unwanted pregnancies. There’s no comparable change for births that result from the far-more-numerous mistimed pregnancies.

(Oh--and just to muddy the waters futher--the same reasoning also counters the suggestion that a paucity of abortion providers explains the rise in unwanted births. If barriers to getting abortions were the problem, it would presumably afflict the more-ambivalent mothers of "mistimed" births even more than it afflicted women with unwanted pregnancies.)

This unwanted-mistimed patter is so unusual that I wonder, did some wording change in the survey skew the response? (The survey report claims the wording was identical.) Did 9/11/2001 shift women’s attitude retroactively, making them less sanguine about childbearing, and less positive about their births? (Seems unlikely, given that the survey was taken many months later and that it covered a five year period.) Did the Center’s statisticians just make a mistake?

And even if there is some statistical fluke explaining this national survey, why isn’t the Washington state “unwanted” number (and it’s similarly static “mistimed” number) dropping with the pregnancy rate?

My own partly formed suspicion centers on the fewer than 10 percent of sexually active women (and their partners) who do not regularly use contraception and therefore account for about half of all mistimed and unwanted pregnancies. If everyone but them is getting better at prevention, their pregnancies may loom larger in national and state statistics. (There are flaws with this theory, too, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment.)

Anyone else care to theorize?

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December 23, 2005

A Gift for the Reindeer Too

A federal judge has halted snowmobile grooming in the recovery area for the Selkirk caribou--the only reindeer to still visit the continental United States. [Coverage in the Olympian and the Coeur d'Alene-area Daily Bee.] The ruling is dead right: snowmobiles are one of the primary threats to the Selkirk herd, which need undisturbed winter habitat. Snowmobiles are still allowed, even under the new injunction, but the absence of groomed tracks will substantially decrease their numbers.

Given that 1) the caribou are often considered the most endangered large mammal in North America; 2) pretty much everyone agrees that snowmobiling is inimical to their survival; and 3) their designated recovery area is a small and remote parcel of mountainous northeast Washington and northern Idaho, the only question I'm left wondering is: why is any snowmobiling at all allowed in their so-called "recovery area"?

And for readers taking note, this is the third good news post here today. Must be the season...

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December 22, 2005

A Grizzly Discussion

A few days ago, I posted on Raincoast's buyout of guide-outfitter hunting rights in coastal BC. The upshot is that I questioned whether the buyout was the wisest possible use of conservation dollars and postulated that conservation investments can benefit from rigorous accounting. As blog posts are wont to do, it circulated around the web where it attracted a variety of feedback--thoughtful rebuttals and inquiries, incoherent ranting, and a fairly vicious attack penned by Chris Genovali, the executive director of Raincoast.

So in response to some of the criticisms--many of which were both thoughtful and thought-provoking--I've decided to post here a response to Genovali. I'm hoping today's post can serve as a useful contribution to a reasoned debate about an issue than many of us care about deeply--species protection. Here goes (gulp)...

Chris,

I must confess that I’m baffled by the venom in your response. A plain reading of my article reveals that--far from being “an opportunistic hit piece”--it was a set of musings and questions about the merits of Raincoast’s buyouts and the larger question of which conservation strategies are most effective at protecting biodiversity. (I encourage readers to take a look at my original article and decide for themselves.)

As a lifelong advocate for wildlands and species protection I’m thrilled by much of what Raincoast has accomplished in BC. But I’m disappointed that Raincoast’s good work is marred by an inability to brook even mild questioning. It is, I believe, worth pointing out that the ecological implications of hunting, even big game hunting, are complex. Personally, I find the trophy hunting of predators abhorrent, but that alone doesn’t mean that, on the whole, it is bad for biodiversity. In fact, the totality of the ecosystem implications of hunting are far from clear and are a subject of ongoing debate among wildlife biologists.

My main objective with the article, a point that I fear may have been overlooked, was to suggest that conservation decisions can benefit from rigorous accounting practices. That is, we need to consider costs and benefits, leverage points, and opportunity costs. Conservationists may have additional ethical issues in mind—the rights of indigenous peoples, trails and access for users, and concerns about hunting, just to name a very few—but these issues ought to be treated separately from the essential question: how can we protect native biodiversity most effectively and efficiently?

In the original post on NEW’s Cascadia Scorecard Weblog, and in its re-publication on The Tyee, I invited information from readers that would prove to me the wisdom of Raincoast’s actions. Your article in response provides some (along with an unfortunate amount of embittered name calling).

For example, it’s clearly germane—as you pointed out—that Horejsi et al. concluded that coastal grizzly populations are depressed and that sport hunting is contributing to the decline. But I remain unclear about why it matters, from a purely conservation perspective, whether guide-outfitter hunting resembles a search and destroy mission. A good conservation accounting would demonstrate that guide-outfitter hunting is especially damaging to grizzly populations in a way that other activities are not—such as hunting by BC residents, clearcut logging, road-building, and even ecotourism. At the least, a solid case could perhaps be made that these other threats cannot be addressed with the resources at hand, and so guide-outfitter rights are the best available buy. I would like to hear that case and be convinced that the buyouts were directed primarily at conservation and not simply at alleviating a practice that some (myself included) find disturbing (that is, trophy hunting).

It’s also relevant that trophy hunting can have ecological implications that ripple beyond the individual animal killed, as Chris Darimont, the conservation biologist you cite, points out. This is a meaningful strike against trophy hunting and, while it is not the only consideration, it is precisely the sort of evidence that is worth weighing in the balance.

I admit, however, to being perplexed by carnivore expert Paul Paquet’s argument, which you quote at length. For one thing, I never suggested that the “only” way to conserve large carnivores is to allow trophy hunting. Instead, I pointed out that trophy hunting has perversely beneficial effects in some contexts. As another example, I  was recently fortunate to visit the world’s leading cheetah conservation center in South Africa. While interviewing their staff biologists I was surprised to learn that a large contingent of experts who have devoted themselves to protecting cheetahs actually support trophy hunting—on the grounds that not hunting cheetahs is actually worse for the animals in the long run. They were willing to take a hard look at the conservation realities and conduct a genuine accounting of the costs and benefits of limited hunting. Perhaps Raincoast has conducted such an analysis. If so, sharing it would help me, and many others, to understand the rationale for your strategy.

Finally, the overall strategy seems confused. If the point of buying the guide-outfitter rights is truly to protect native biodiversity, then the payoff seems small for such an expensive investment. As I understand it, because the buyout includes only certain guide-outfitter rights (not the less expensive rights for BC residents) it prevents the killing of a fairly small number of grizzlies per year and, if I’m not mistaken, the kill rate has been even lower in recent years.

Still willing to be convinced,

Eric de Place

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December 14, 2005

Cascadia's Sword of Damocles

TsunamiOne of the wonderful things about living in Cascadia is the sense that the earth beneath our feet is very much alive. This is a land of volcanoes, hotsprings, and earthquakes--a place where geology is no distant abstraction. Even the region's name, Cascadia, is shared with a large subduction zone in the north Pacific where one continental shelf is sliding beneath another.

Yet in spite of everything, and apart from a few expensive seismic retrofits and construction projects, we Cascadians are pretty glib about our potentially catastrophic footing. But we can live in tranquil ignorance no longer: a fascinating new book blends history and geography to tell the story of a tsunami that struck Japan in 1700. The cause? A huge earthquake in Cascadia--estimated between a magnitude 8.7 and 9.2--that sent floods rippling across the Pacific. 

We're all too familiar with the horrifying effects of big earthquakes--the Southeast Asian tsunami and the recent earthquake in Pakistan. But what would happen if a similar sized quake struck again in Cascadia? And what lessons can we learn from the history of the Northwest before it was inhabited by Europeans? Well, I've just now cracked the cover but I'm about to find out. And if you're looking for a Christmas gift for a geeky naturalist type, check out The Orphan Tsunami of 1700.

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December 12, 2005

Toxic Whales

BBC News reports that orcas are the most toxic-contaminated mammals in the Arctic. Fat samples recently taken from killer whales in a Norwegian fjord revealed startlingly high levels of pesticides, PCBs, and flame retardants.

Whales in the Arctic may be somewhat more susceptible because toxics often concentrate in the polar regions, but the Norwegian whales are a reminder that the southern resident orcas of Cascadia are also sickened by high levels of toxics. And unlike their Arctic brethren, the whales of BC and Washington are next door neighbors to millions of people and our heavy industry. All those increasingly banned and phased-out flame retardants persist in the environment where they can continue to poison both people and wildlife.

As we begin to plan for protecting the southern residents under the Endangered Species Act, perhaps we should consider testing the southern residents for toxics in a systematic way. The last time one of the southern residents was tested for PCBs (a dead whale that had washed ashore) it registered perhaps the highest levels of contamination ever measured in a killer whale--so high that the machines had to be re-calibrated. Not only would tests help us prioritize the most critical threats to orcas, but their levels of contamination may give us clues about how vigilant we ought to be about toxic-laden consumer products.

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