Tsunami Delivery

We all know how much stuff humanity has. And when a tsunami hits alot of it floats away. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is acting as a conveyor belt for an enormous tide of man-made junk that is headed from Japan to either fetch up on California beaches, or dwell for eternity in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I guess it is a good sign (of growing awareness that stuff matters) that the New York Times editorial board is alarmed, saying:

Scientists at the International Pacific Research Center, based at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu, created a computer model to predict where the debris would go. Their animation shows a cloud looping across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii, out to the West Coast and back to Hawaii. They say it may make its first landfall this winter in Midway Island, then in Hawaii in 2012, and the West Coast in 2013. In September, a Russian ship sailing to Vladivostok spotted a fishing boat marked “Fukushima,” a TV, a refrigerator and other trash, validating the predictions.

But awareness is really only the first step toward actually doing anything about all the stuff we think we need (the second should be a progressive consumption tax). In the meantime, it will keep piling up across the natural world.

Here’s what the animation model–a real life disaster movie–looks like.

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Big Bomba

Speaking of nuclear weapons, and how anachronistic they are, we have just passed the 50th anniversary of the most powerful nuke ever exploded: the Soviet Union’s 58-megaton, “Big Ivan,” hydrogen bomb. It was tested off Nova Zemlya on Oct. 30, 1961, and its force was equal to TEN times the power of all the bombs dropped during World War II, including the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” nuclear bombs the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That humanity, no matter what the circumstances or context, was toying with a bomb that powerful, says a lot about how we let history and politics get away from us.

Lots more here. And in case you need a visual…

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Salmon–ella

Salmon farm in the archipelago of Finland
Image via Wikipedia

Salmon farming has always had that Sorcerer’s Apprentice, if-you-play-with-Mother-Nature-no-good-will-come-of-it, feel. And now that fish farms are suspected of spreading lethal infectious salmon anemia to wild salmon off the coast of British Columbia there are calls to move salmon farms inland (where they would likely impact the inland ecosystem), or simply ban them altogether.

Beyond the inevitable environmental impact industrial fish farming is bound to have, no matter where it exists, salmon farming is also extraordinarily inefficient. Daniel Pauly, a fisheries biologist at the University of British Columbia, laid it out for the NYT’s Green blog:

“Aquaculture of carnivores is hopeless and extremely wasteful,” said Dr. Pauly, who supports such a ban. The farmed fish are fed with species that people could consume, he said, so it ends up contributing to human demand for the wild stocks of other species.

For every pound of salmon produced, five pounds of wild fish are needed, usually in the form of anchovies, sardines, or mackerel. “It’s like feeding tigers a ton of livestock to get tiger meat,” says Alex Muñoz Wilson, the vice president in Chile for the nonprofit ocean conservation group Oceana.

Many of these feed fish are species that people could eat, Mr. Muñoz said. A decade ago in Chile, the annual mackerel catch was around four million tons, he said. Today, only about 200,000 tons are harvested annually, he said, although the salmon farms are only partly responsible.

“I think in the long run, salmon aquaculture creates more problems than benefits,” Mr. Muñoz said.

Salmon is a food fetishist’s fish (yes, it tastes great and is good for you), and humans are either depleting wild stocks, or threatening them with industrial farming practices, to gorge on it. It’s a perfect example of a cultural habit whose true costs are not paid by consumers. And an example of how human desires and industry relentlessly impact and overwhelm ecosystems around the globe. But, hey, who cares? We gotta eat salmon.

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Greed And Leverage Live…

WASHINGTON - JUNE 07:  Jon Corzine, chairman a...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

…in the story of MF Global. And if you want to understand what happened, all you need to do is read this Felix Salmon post.

“A more accurate story would be to say that MF Global got involved in a complex liquidity-management trade, and that it didn’t have risk managers with the power or ability to cap the trade before it got too big.”

There’s lots more on the details of the trade and the supreme hubris of Jon Corzine, which was unchecked by regulation, risk managers, or a Board Of Directors.

But that’s the story of modern finance, isn’t it? And if you thought the story had changed since 2008, well I guess now is the time you should head on down to Zuccotti Park and join Occupy Wall Street.

UPDATE: The New York Times’ Joe Nocera also strips the hide from Corzine’s withering carcass in a column today. For example:

When I read MF Global Finance’s second-quarter results, though, what popped out at me was its compensation expenses: 64 percent of revenues went to compensation. In any industry but Wall Street, that would be obscene. Indeed, in a talk he gave at Princeton last year, Corzine said that he’d been “arguing about compensation sins of Wall Street” for decades. Not enough to actually do anything about it, though, once he was back in charge of a firm.

Then there’s Corzine’s own compensation. When he walked in the door, he negotiated a salary of $1.5 million. (Incredibly, MF Global Holdings paid a $400,000 fee to Corzine’s lawyers.) He also received a signing bonus of $1.5 million, and $11 million in stock options.

But here’s the kicker. Like many executives — on Wall Street and off — Corzine’s agreement also covered his eventual departure. If he left MF Global because, say, it was sold, his $11 million in stock options would immediately vest, and he would get a $12.1 million golden parachute. Of course, the MF Global proxy statement doesn’t call it a golden parachute. It calls the payment “severance.”

Read the whole thing for the full deja vu all over again experience. And if you truly want to do something about it, Rootstrikers is an excellent place to start. Here’s what they are about:

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Things Fall Apart

William Butler Yeats, Irish poet
Image via Wikipedia

This is a poem for our times, and it comes from a time of similar turmoil and uncertainty: William Butler Yeats in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution.

Here is the backstory, but read the poem first so the words are free of historical context.

THE SECOND COMING

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

What do you think? What rough beast, its hour come round at last, is about to be born?

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How Many Nukes Can A Nuke-State Need?

On Sunday, the New York Times coughed up an editorial that is hard to argue with. It said that in the post-Cold War era we do not need thousands of nuclear weapons, and urged cuts so the money could be spent elsewhere:

Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup. The Obama administration, in an attempt to mollify Congressional Republicans, has also committed to modernizing an already hugely expensive complex of nuclear labs and production facilities. Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. It should not be spending so much to do it, especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs.

Calling for this sort of practical thinking about nuclear weapons touches on a bigger issue: the United States remains in the throes of a Cold War mentality that elevates military power high above its practical benefits. Consider the trillions of dollars spent on the military over the past two decades, consider the wars and interventions we are so quick to throw our military power into, and ask whether we are better off having invested the money that way, or whether we would be better off having invested that money in education, infrastructure and energy technology.

The future will be won, and America will lead or fail in the 21st century, based on making the most of investing the limited resources we have. Military power is the wrong tool for the wrong battle. The 20th century was dominated by military balances. The 21st century will be dominated by economic and environmental balances. We need to be smarter, better educated, and more productive. So our cowboy love of military power, our stubborn obeisance to the military-industrial lobby, is a key mindset that has to be changed. I’m not arguing for no military power. I’m arguing for a lot less military power, based on a hard-nosed, cost-benefit approach to deciding where we should spend money.

A good example of a movement–referenced in the NYT editorial– that is calling for exactly this sort of radical change, is Global Zero, which is making the case for eliminating nuclear weapons. It’s not just some crazy liberal fantasy. Global Zero has the support of George Schultz, James Baker and a battalion of retired military officers. Thankfully, though, they have chosen Naomi Watts and Valerie Plame Wilson to help make the case:

Reinventing our nuclear doctrine is just one part of reinventing our national security strategy to address economic competition and climate change, among other challenges. But it would be a great start.

Meatless

The Humane Society makes the (video) case for Meatless Monday.

Actually, they make the case for meatless Monday-Sunday–otherwise known as vegetarianism. Lots of people feel helpless when it comes to the scale of environmental destruction humans are inflicting on the planet. I always tell them the simplest, most powerful, thing they can do right away is stop eating meat. Not only is industrial beef (and chicken, and pork) farming killing the planet, it’s killing you.

Quitting meat cold-turkey (sorry) isn’t that easy, if only because meat is so ingrained in our food culture. So it’s hard to think of what else to eat, and we crave fat. But it’s easy in this sense: you will feel a lot better, and you will lose weight. AND you will be doing something meaningful for the planet. AND for our health care costs.

But while I think it’s okay, if you want to, to eat some meat on occasion, and that any cutbacks you can make are a good thing, I think asking Americans to go without meat just one day a week is a pretty lame target. Yes, I am sure that a single meat-free day a week is all the Humane Society figures they can ask meat-addled Americans to aspire to. But as noted earlier, these times call for radical, not incremental, solutions. And Meatless Monday just isn’t very radical. So let’s aim for Meatless, full stop, instead.

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Whale Wars-Again

Last year, the Japanese whaling fleet, harassed constantly by the Sea Shepherds, went home early, and without killing as many whales as they had planned. Many people took that as a good sign for the future. Apparently, not. The Japanese whaling fleet is gearing up for another Southern Ocean season, and the Japanese government is planning to spend $10 million to send an escort vessel to help fend off Paul Watson and the Steve Irwin. So the stage is set for more confrontation.

The Japanese are saying that they need to continue their “research” whaling in order to make it possible to resume commercial whaling in the future, despite widespread condemnation from countries in the region. The economics of whaling just don’t add up, so it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that cultural stubbornness, and narcissistic preoccupations with the importance of human “face,” is driving the ongoing whale slaughter, rather than any concept or morality, or even economic rationality. The result is sure to help Whale Wars score great ratings. And while I am all in favor of Watson and his team doing everything they can to stop the whale killing, and appreciate the public awareness Whale Wars delivers, I wonder how much of the profits Animal Planet puts into whale conservation.