Bike More = Live Longer

This guy has it figured out.

Since we are on the subject of health, I can’t resist adding that my health care reinvention would include a lot more cycling. Because a new study reconfirms the blindingly obvious: biking reduces obesity and cardiac disease (along with pollution), and saves money:

A study published in the scientific journalEnvironmental Health Perspectives shows that swapping your car for short trips and replacing them with mass transit and active transport provides major health benefits. The study will be presented to the American Public Health Association in Washington, D.C. $3.8 billion per year are saved in avoided mortality and reduced health care costs for obesity and heart disease by replacing half of the short journeys with bicycle trips during the warmest six months of the year.

The researchers calculated that an estimated $7 billion including 1,100 lives from improved air quality and increased physical fitness can be saved each year by applying these measures.

But would cycling a lot more be too “European,” too?

The Absurdity Of Our Health Care System In One Graphic

This chart comes from an op-ed by Zeke Emanuel, one of a handful of people everyone should listen to when it comes to reinventing our failed health care system. Emanuel argues that we can spend less on health care without compromising health outcomes, and here is his key point:

The truth is, the United States is not getting 20 or 30 percent better health care or results than other countries. While there are peaks of greatness, especially at some of America’s leading academic health centers and in integrated health care plans, the quality is uneven. And quality is a problem that affects all of us, rich and poor. Almost no matter how we measure it — whether by life expectancy or by survival for specific diseases like asthma, heart disease or some cancers; by the rate of medical errors; or simply by satisfaction with health services — the United States is actually doing worse than a number of countries, like France and Germany, that spend considerably less.

About half of all the health care dollars spent comes from the U.S. government. Which means that if we simply got over our hangups about “European” social programs and adopted the health care system of, say, France, we could have universal health care in the United States with no increase in the amount of money the Federal government is already contributing. And get better health outcomes.

The fact that we don’t is all you need to know about how ossified and absurd our thinking is on health care, and how the lobbies for the status quo have corrupted Congress and are stealing us blind.

The Costs Of Car Commuting

Serendipity: on the day Washingtonian posts my article arguing for using variable congestion fees to reduce traffic, Treehugger posts a great graphic on what car commuting really costs.

One of the reasons people hate the idea of paying congestion fees is that they are often pretty bad at calculating what traffic really costs them. But time is money, as they say, so congestion fees are offset by the time savings you gain. Plus, the revenue can be invested in transit improvements and options that are currently paid for with a gas tax. Think about it.

Anyhow, if you really want to save money, this graphic really drives home the key point: try to live near your work! The Suburban Dream is very expensive.

Is Washington DC Doomed To Perpetual Traffic Hell?

I mainly ride my bike and try to ignore that question. But when Washingtonian magazine called me up and asked me if I wanted write an article about traffic, I think I surprised them a bit by saying: “Absolutely.”

The reason is that Washington’s horrific traffic is a classic example of a problem that everyone wants to confront, that has a rational solution, and yet politics and poorly calculated, perceived self-interest make that solution very unlikely. Just my sort of story, in other words, and I took the opportunity to explain just how bad things will get, and why the solution (if we are rational; I know, I’m crazy) makes all sorts of sense.

Washington drivers spend more than twice the national average time in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Aerial Photograph by Cameron Davidson for the Washingtonian

Here’s the intro (and you can read the whole thing here):

Last August, a 911 operator took a desperate early-morning call. A man, on the way to Washington Hospital Center with his pregnant daughter, was trapped on DC’s New York Avenue by a complete traffic lockup following a fatal collision between a tractor-trailer and a dirt bike. “My daughter is having a baby!” the man shouted. The operator tried in vain to direct the gridlocked minivan to a fire station. By the time emergency crews reached the vehicle, working their way through the obstacle course of idled cars, the baby had been born in the passenger seat.

Mother and newborn daughter turned out to be fine. But surviving the great roulette wheel that’s set spinning every day by the Washington traffic Fates can be a soul-sapping experience for anyone. With painful frequency, drivers are cast into the First Circle of Hell, which is where those who have committed the sin of hoping they’ll journey uncontested spend what seems like an eternity. It can happen for no discernible reason. It can happen when someone texting clips another car. It can happen when there’s an act of God, such as last year’s Snowmageddon or August’s “just reminding you the East Coast has tectonic plates, too” earthquake.

The reason is simple: There are way too many cars on the roads. There are a zillion unsurprising reasons this is true—a growing population, too many car commuters (64 percent of them solo), too many jobs located where workers don’t live (more people in Virginia and Maryland commute to work in another county than residents of any other place in the country), a lack of long-range planning and coordination among the local governments involved, and inadequate transit options, to name just a few. Or, as Dorn McGrath Jr.—professor emeritus of geography and urban and regional planning at George Washington University and a longtime denizen of the area’s transportation planning wars—sums it up: “It is pure foolishness aggravated by governmental fragmentation and, occasionally, political indifference.”

As a result, Washington has been elevated to a dubious status: a regular presence at the top of national traffic-congestion rankings. Telling drivers this is like telling a person standing in a downpour that weather statistics indicate the area is prone to rain. But the ugly numbers are worth a quick review.

In September, Washington topped the charts—yep, numero uno—in the 2011 Texas Transportation Institute Urban Mobility Report. The data showed that the average Washington driver loses 74 hours a year to traffic congestion (in 1982, Washingtonians were delayed only 20 hours a year). That’s almost two work weeks vaporized behind the wheel, a waste that costs us an average of almost $1,500 a year in fuel and lost earnings potential. It also means that the time we spend in bumper-to-bumper conditions is more than twice the national average. Those whiny Los Angeles drivers who always think they have it the worst? They lose a mere 64 hours a year to traffic delays.

Cold Fusion: It’s Baaaackk

Scientists have been chasing this Holy Grail for decades. Here is the latest claim of success:

Italian physicist and inventor Andrea Rossi has conducted a public demonstration of his “cold fusion” machine, the E-Cat, at the University of Bologna, showing that a small amount of input energy drives an unexplained reaction between atoms of hydrogen and nickel that leads to a large outpouring of energy, more than 10 times what was put in.

The first seemingly successful cold fusion experiment was reported two decades ago, but the process has forever been met with heavy skepticism. It’s a seemingly impossible process in which two types of atoms, typically a light element and a heavier metal, seem to fuse together, releasing pure heat that can be converted into electricity. The process is an attractive energy solution for two reasons: Unlike in nuclear fission, the reaction doesn’t give off dangerous radiation. Unlike the fusion processes that take place in the sun, cold fusion doesn’t require extremely high temperatures.

Naturally, there is a lot of skepticism, as there should be. But whether it is cold fusion, or some other fantastical and revolutionary method to generate energy, this is the sort of unexpected, unpredicted, game-changer that we should all hope for. Because the energy equation powering humanity right now isn’t working out very well.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman has a nice column today on how steady advances in solar power could transform our energy future–particularly if the coal and natural gas industries had to include the costs of environmental and health damage in their prices (course all the lobbyists employed by those industries are spending plenty of money to make sure that is exactly what DOESN’T happen).

Sanctuaries Kinda Sorta Protect Sharks

Hammerhead (with fins)

But not really. At least that’s what we might conclude from what’s been going on at Colombia’s Malpelo wildlife sanctuary. According to this report:

Colombian environmental authorities have reported a huge shark massacre in the Malpelo wildlife sanctuary in Colombia‘s Pacific waters, where as many as 2,000 hammerhead, Galápagos and silky sharks may have been slaughtered for their fins.

Sandra Bessudo, the Colombian president’s top adviser on environmental issues, said a team of divers who were studying sharks in the region reported the mass killing in the waters surrounding the rock-island known as Malpelo, some 500 kilometres from the mainland.

“I received a report, which is really unbelievable, from one of the divers who came from Russia to observe the large concentrations of sharks in Malpelo. They saw a large number of fishing trawlers entering the zone illegally,” Bessudo said. The divers counted a total of 10 fishing boats, which all were flying the Costa Rican flag.

“When the divers dove, they started finding a large number of animals without their fins. They didn’t see any alive,” she said. One of the divers provided a video that shows the finless bodies of dead sharks on the ocean floor.

Calculating an average of 200 sharks per boat, “our estimates are that as many as 2,000 sharks may have been killed,” Bessudo said.

Seeing dead, finless sharks littering the ocean floor has got to be a sight that no diver will ever forget. Not very encouraging. But when shark fins go for an estimated $125 to $415 per kilogram, it is pretty inevitable.

Tech Silver Bullets (Part 2)

Speaking of whether tech might just be our salvation, here are two quick hits to consider.

One of the iPods creators, Tony Faddell, is developing a thermostat that learns, according to WIRED:

But even before he moved back to the U.S. he was mulling over his next step. Many assumed that the 42-year old technologist would continue his brilliant career in consumer electronics. He might even become a contender to run an existing multi-billion dollar business—in electronics, in mobile, maybe even Apple.

Instead, he told Dani, he was going to build a thermostat.


Fadell explained his concept: Untold tons of carbon were being pumped into the air, with people losing billions of dollars in energy costs, all because there was no easy, automatic way to control the temperature. But what if you could apply all the skills and brilliance of Silicon Valley to produce a thermostat that was smart, thrifty and so delightful that saving energy was as much fun as shuffling an iTunes playlist?…[snip]

…Today comes the payoff, when Tony Fadell’s company introduces the Nest Learning Thermostat. It is available for preorder at Best Buy and, and will ship in November. Units are already streaming from assembly lines in the Chinese factories that churn out advanced digital gadgets.

The Nest is the iPod of thermostats. A simple loop of brushed stainless steel encases a chassis of reflective polymer, which encircles a crisp color digital display. Artificial intelligence figures out when to turn down the heat and when to jack up the air conditioning, so that you don’t waste money and perturb the ozone when no one is home, or when you’re asleep upstairs. You can communicate with the Nest from your smartphone, tablet or web browser.

Sexier than an iPod?

Never thought I’d get excited about a thermostat, but we are in crazy times. And if you want to hear some really crazy, yet oddly inspiring and hopeful, visions for how technology can start saving the world instead of destroying it, I urge you to sit back and listen to Justin Hall-Tipping:

Electric Car = Personal Power Station?

Humanity may not have developed a lot of wisdom about how to live in harmony with the earth, but we sure have developed a lot of smart technology. And given all the global trend lines (climate change, resource depletion, pollution) the ever-expanding (encroaching?) human experiment has set in motion, and the inability for politics or culture to slow or reverse them, you have to pray that technology, somehow, will help bail us out.

Here’s the sort of tech that feeds that hope: the potential for electric cars to store and feed power back into the grid when needed (and, most important when it comes to human behavior, make the owner money).

This story explains how it all works, and it sounds pretty promising (though, of course, car manufacturers are resisting):

For 15 years, [Willett] Kempton, who directs the University of Delaware’s Center for Carbon-Free Power Integration, has pushed the idea that fleets of electric vehicles — rather than being another big draw on the electric grid — could provide valuable backup power on demand to utilities. This would reduce the need for costly new generating plants, and help ensure a reliable supply of electricity.

Utilities pay each other billions of dollars a year for such backup power through wholesale electricity markets, and Kempton believes that a hefty slice of that pie could be paid to electric-vehicle owners instead. Some industry analysts agree that the approach, known as “vehicle-to-grid,” could take off; a December 2010 report from the business research firm Global Data conservatively projected a global market for vehicle-to-grid that would pay $2.3 billion to electric vehicle owners by 2012 — and $40 billion by 2020.

Kempton, according to the story, earns $300 a month with his car, a Scion xB, which makes me want to re-think my car ownership.

Cars did an awful lot to help create our mess. This is a perfect example of how technology can be transformative.

Here’s a bit more on the idea, from DiscoveryNetworks:

Shark Holocaust In Pictures And Video

Shark finning is the most egregious example I know of the way in which human cultural preferences and profit-seeking can devastate the natural world. Some 73 million sharks a year are killed by fishermen who are after fins to put into…soup bowls. It is the modern equivalent of the way in which the North American buffalo was slaughtered to the edge of extinction in the 19th century.

The Pew Environment Group, which has been fighting shark finning with determination and energy, just published a series of photos, featuring Taiwan, to throw some light on the brutality and scale of the practice.

Ten months after releasing a landmark report revealing the planet’s top 20 shark-fishing catchers, the Pew Environment Group is expressing concern about new images and video taken in Taiwan that detail the expansive and unregulated nature of shark fishing globally. The depictions show fins and body parts of biologically vulnerable shark species, such as scalloped hammerhead and oceanic whitetip, being readied for market.

“These images present a snapshot of the immense scale of shark-fishing operations and show the devastation resulting from the lack of science-based management of sharks, “said Matt Rand, director of global shark conservation at the Pew Environment Group. “Unfortunately, since there are no limits on the number of these animals that can be killed in the open ocean, this activity can continue unabated.”

The report by Pew and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network, listed Taiwan as having the fourth-largest number of reported shark catches in the world after Indonesia, India, and Spain. Those four account for more than 35 percent of total global landings.

Here are a few of the photos (full slideshow can be found here):

Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group
Photo Credit: Shawn Heinrichs for the Pew Environment Group

And here is a video Pew produced:

Yes, it’s shocking and it would be nice if that would somehow translate into a global aversion to slicing up sharks for shark fin soup. Yes, there has been slow progress toward banning shark fin soup outside Asia. Yes, in response to these pictures Taiwan has announced it will ban the practice of shark finning next year (though it will allow shark fishermen to land sharks with fins, and slice ’em off ashore). Yes, Pew is calling for more action, all of which makes sense:

To address the overfishing of sharks, governments should immediately:

  • Establish shark sanctuaries, just as the Marshall IslandsPalau, the MaldivesHonduras, the Bahamas and Tokelau have done, where the animals are fully protected from exploitation.
  • End fishing of sharks for which science-based management plans are not in place or for those that are threatened or near threatened with extinction.
  • Devise and implement an effective national plan of action for the conservation and management of sharks.
  • Eliminate shark bycatch, the accidental catch of a species during targeted fishing for other species.

But the reality is that, as long as we subscribe to economic theories and a capitalist approach that prices goods according to the cost of production, but excludes external costs like the impact on the environment, most of human commerce will continue to trash the planet and its species. So rally for the sharks, but, more important, rally for the idea of pricing goods in way that includes the environmental costs, and raises prices to reduce demand to sustainable levels.

That is the revolution that would change everything.

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The Cruelest Show(s) On Earth

There has been a growing awareness over the past decade that circuses do not treat animals well. But this Mother Jones takedown of Ringling Bros. (and its corporate owner, Feld Entertainment), and the sad, tortured life of its elephants, will still make your stomach turn.

Elephants, like the orcas I have been writing about (here, and here), are highly intelligent and social animals. It’s hard to see how the experience of captivity can be anything other than stressful, and, ultimately, cruel. Here’s what Mother Jones discovered:

Feld Entertainment portrays its population of some 50 endangered Asian elephants as “pampered performers” who “are trained through positive reinforcement, a system of repetition and reward that encourages an animal to show off its innate athletic abilities.” But a yearlong Mother Jones investigation shows that Ringling elephants spend most of their long lives either in chains or on trains, under constant threat of the bullhook, or ankus—the menacing tool used to control elephants. They are lame from balancing their 8,000-pound frames on tiny tubs and from being confined in cramped spaces, sometimes for days at a time. They are afflicted with tuberculosis and herpes, potentially deadly diseases rare in the wild and linked to captivity. Barack, a calf born on the eve of the president’s inauguration, had to leave the tour in February for emergency treatment of herpes—the second time in a year. Since Kenny’s death, 3 more of the 23 baby elephants born in Ringling’s vaunted breeding program have died, all under disturbing circumstances that weren’t fully revealed to the public.

Despite years of denials, Kenneth Feld has now admitted under oath that his trainers routinely “correct” elephants by hitting them with bullhooks, whipping them, and on occasion using electric prods. He even admitted to witnessing it.

One key theme of the story, which echoes what goes on with regulation of the marine mammal industry, is the failure of the USDA to adequately oversee and enforce laws meant to protect animals. That sort of regulatory capture is depressingly common across many industries these days. But there is a simple solution that doesn’t rely on careerist, angling-for-a-high-paying-industry-job, bureaucrats: stop going to circuses and parks that use captive animals to entertain you. It’s your dollars that drive the profit. No dollars. No profit. No industry.

Here’s what you don’t see at the circus:

UPDATE: Well, this is interesting. A bill to ban the use of wild animals in circuses is being introduced in Congress:

The Traveling Exotic Animal Protection Act (TEAPA) is a historic first for the U.S., and this Bill, which has attracted bipartisan support and been sponsored by Congressman Jim Moran (D-Va), aims to restrict the use of exotic and wild animals in traveling circuses, effectively bringing to an end the random cruelty and neglect associated with circuses of this nature. It is the first bill to comprehensively tackle the use of all wild animals in US circuses ever to be launched in the U.S.

I guess Moran has never been to a marine park. In any case, there’s a long way from introduction to passage in both the House and Senate. Anyone betting this one will get through? Thought so. More here.

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