Archive for 2008 November

Richard Halsey: Chaparral is Not for Burning

The Los Angeles Times is quite literally not what it used to be.

Just five years ago it employed a thousand or more editors and writers; now it's down to about 600, according to former staffer Kevin Roderick's LA Observed. The daily paper weighs about half, often less, of its older, richer self.

One can only hope that the savings in trees not pulped will someday be made up on the all-powerful electron stream known as the Internet, although early prospects are not encouraging.

Nonetheless, the LA Times is still by far the biggest reporting outlet on the West Coast, and still publishes excellent stories, as it did this week with Joe Mozingo's All He's Saying is Give Brush a Chance, about a naturalist named Richard Halsey and his crusade to save Southern California chaparral.

As the story puts it:

Chaparral, [Halsey] says, does not need to burn to the ground every 30 years
to remain healthy. Just the opposite. Too much fire will eventually
decimate the native flora — some of the most diverse in the nation —
leaving a biological wasteland of invasive weeds.

Many people might not know the difference, viewing chaparral as a brown, dead thicket of thorns and brush.

But with the help of top botanists and fire ecologists, Halsey is on a
campaign to correct the record about California's most widespread,
misunderstood and maligned type of vegetation.

In doing so, he hopes to limit brush clearance plans to the edges of suburbia, away from the backcountry.

I think a big part of the confusion is rooted in a couple of English words that are used as conversational shorthand, but which carry more baggage than speakers may realize. Those words are "supposed to" and "meant to" (as in, chaparral is "supposed to" burn). These words imply predestination, and that concept is backed up by the fact that many species of chaparral, such as manzanita and chamise, require the searing temperatures of fire to open seeds and begin again.

Even worse, biologists have extended this concept into the scientific literature, arguing that plants a few decades old are "senescent" or even "decadent," despite being in perfect health, and capable of living for many decades more. Chaparral is no more predestined to burn after ten or twenty years than redwood trees are predestined to be cut down by loggers after 500 or a 1000 years…it's just worked out that way all too often in California history.

Halsey…likes to point out the absurdity of this ["elderly brush"] theory…by simply calling the plants "senile," as if the manzanita were in
an advanced state of dementia.

Halsey further makes the point by talking of "old growth" chaparral, as in the manzanita picture below. As the story says, he is a "quirky" — that is, unexpectedly open — guy.

Once I saw him speak at a conference of fire managers in his neck of the woods, San Diego. He happened to say that he had been working closely with firefighters, and admired them, and had learned a lot from them. When he took questions, I asked him what he had learned — curious to hear what a naturalist would take away from the difficult and dangerous work of battlng wildland fires.

The question stumped him. He admitted he couldn't think of an example, at least not at that moment. Rarely do you see that kind of honesty in an advocate of any sort. Halsey's institute calls itself the voice of the chaparral. Long may it speak out for California's forgotten lands. 

Old growth manzanita

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Financial Meltdown of 2008: A Crisis or a Correction?

In an article in The Progressive, Ruth Coniff blames consumerism for the financial meltdown:

A front-page story in The New York Times, "To Buy Children's Gifts, Mothers Do Without,"
describes a trend away from shopping responsible for an 18.2 percent
drop in women's clothing sales from a year ago. People are curbing the
Christmas binge, buying less, forgoing gifts, and generally avoiding
the bottomless pit of consumerism that drives our economy.

That might be good for those of us who care to withdraw voluntarily
from the rat race at the mall. Buy Nothing Day also happens to be the
Friday after Thanksgiving–a day of nonshopping organized to spread the
word that, as Adbusters ––puts
it, "There’s only one way to avoid the collapse of this human
experiment of ours on Planet Earth: we have to consume less."

But it is also a sign of the dire shape of our economy. Here is the conundrum of the financial meltdown: we are all living in a world fueled by unsustainable spending.

But this implies that the consumer created the bubble. And that if consumers went a little crazy again, as they did today in a stampede at a certain Wal-Mart, the economy could get "back on track."

Simple question: Is that true?

Wasn't the ability of the consumer to overspend fueled in large part by an unsustainable growth in real estate value, that convinced him he could safely use the house as an ATM? And wasn't that growth in turn fueled by the so-called securitization of mortgage-backed bonds, essentially, which in turn were based on the underlying belief that housing prices could not fall? 

The consumer is the pawn in this game, it seems to me, and the players were the math wizards who thought they knew it all. A better essay in Adbusters by ecological economist Herman Daly called The Crisis memorably explains the true difference between a real economy and a paper economy: 

After winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry, Frederick Soddy decided he
could do greater good for humanity by turning his talents to economics,
a field he felt lacked a connection to biophysical reality. In his 1926
book Wealth, Virtual Wealth and Debt: The Solution of the Economic Paradox,
(a book that presaged the market crash of 1929), Soddy pointed out the
fundamental difference between real wealth – buildings, machinery, oil,
pigs – and virtual wealth, in the form of money and debt.

Soddy wrote that real wealth was subject to the inescapable entropy
law of thermodynamics and would rot, rust, or wear out with age, while
money and debt – as accounting devices invented by humans – were
subject only to the laws of mathematics…

The problem that we’re seeing in the US has
arisen because the amount of real wealth is not a sufficient lien to
guarantee the staggering outstanding debt which has exploded as a
result of banks’ ability to create money, loans given out on shaky
assets and the US government’s deficit,
which has been stoked by financing the war and recent tax cuts. All of
these factors are exacerbated by the compounding mechanism on debt.

Further complicating the picture, Robert Schiller discusses how the financial meltdown of 2008 is primarily a "behaviorial economics" problem. He thinks we as a society were much too confident about our economy over the last eight years — along the lines of his earlier book Irrational Exuberance — and now we're paying the price. Call it a crisis, as he does at one point, or call it a correction, as he does at another point. Either way, like the Great Depression, he thinks that it may last for years.

Hmmm. Time to start growing vegetables?

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Bush Irrelevant, World Leaders Agree

Back in September 2002, in a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations as part of his laborious effort to justify the invasion of Iraq, George Bush asked:

Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its
founding, or will it be irrelevant?

Now the wheel has turned, and the man who was once the most powerful leader in the world cannot even get a handshake from his peers. Take a look: The video is stark evidence of the man's utter irrelevance. He can't even look Angela Merkel in the eye. "It's kind of sad," CNN said.

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We all have many blessings to be thankful for. For myself, family and friends most of all, But today I am going to be thankful for the rain we had over the last couple of days, which has made our property on the creek rich with the smell of the leaves and the land…oaky, damp, and great for sleep, sweet sleep.

[pic from Tampen]


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Nothing is More Conservative

In l990, Gary Snyder dedicated a new library at UC Davis with a magnificent speech, perhaps the single most eloquent “environmental” speech I’ve ever heard or read. 

In it he gave us the library as a watershed, of things and thoughts, and found its commonality with the land on which it stands.

It’s called “The Forest in the Library.”

It’s worth some remembering. (It’s not available on-line, as far as I can Google, but it can be found in a book called “A Place in Space,” which can be had through the astoundingly wonderful abebooks site for a mere $4.00 plus shipping.)

Here’s the first of a couple of quotes:

In the old and original spirit of dedications, and in honor of the life of buildings, I want to invoke the many presences that are here – not invisible, just rarely seen – whose goodwill towards this projects certain can be hoped for. We are right on the territory of the old Patwin village of Putah-toi, which was a large, settled, and affluent community whose memories went back several thousand years. May the deeply conservative spirit of the Native Californians, and their love for lore and rituals that preserve it, welcome this structure to a long and useful life. May the even older presences here – the valley oaks and in particular the great oak within the courtyard (bemused as it may be by the recent changes), the Swaninson’s hawks that soar past the top of Sproul Hall, the burrowing owls, and Putah Creek itself (reduced as it is for the moment)—lend their support to this current human effort of a university and a library. May the trees that were sacrificed for this expansion be justified by the good work that should come forth. We devoutly hope that this large enterprise will serve the welfare of watersheds, owls, trees, and, of course, human beings.

Yes…this is the best expression of a long-standing conviction that has been growing in me, despite my inability to express it clearly.

Let me put it boldly:

Noting is more conservative than wanting to save the earth, the air, the woods, the water, and the world they create together.

Am I making any sense?

Here’s how I put it to the social conservatives at Rod Dreher’s/Dallas Morning News/Crunchy Con/Beliefnet site. I don’t think they like me over there but I believe in my heart and soul that trying to save the earth is deeply conservative and keep trying to convince them, and this process seems to help me gather my thoughts.

On the table is the question: What should social conservatives do about Obama?

I called for:

…a conservatism not just of sexual mores, but also of money, blood, and
earth. Meaning — no foreign adventures, a Federal budget that is not
all things to all people, including corporations, and a recognition
that our civilization depends on the natural capital of the planet.

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Experts Agree on Rain Forecast: It’ll Be Dry. Or Not.

If you talk to the National Weather Service, they will tell you (link) that we're in an "ENSO-neutral" condition, and for that reason they're unwilling to predict the upcoming rain season in our region.

But according to this typically excellent story from Rob Krier at the San Diego Union-Tribune, many forecasters who spoke at a winter forecasting seminar last weekend suspect that despite normal sea surface temperatures in the Pacific today, we will have a dry winter in our region. Krier explains:

One of the key factors that long-range forecasters watch, sea-surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean, is not providing much of a clue this year. When those waters are abnormally warm, a condition known as El Niño, Southern California tends to get a very wet winter. When the waters are much cooler than normal, a La Niña occurs, and the region is generally dry.

This fall, the water temperatures in the Pacific have been very close to normal. Under such "neutral" conditions, the forecasters look at other factors but usually have a more difficult time predicting precipitation patterns. The Climate Prediction Center in Maryland has basically punted, forecasting an equal chance of a wet, dry or normal winter in Southern California.

The Climate Prediction Center explains their logic, or tries to, in their inimitably eye-glazing way:

majority of the SST forecasts indicate a continuation of ENSO-neutral
conditions (-0.5°C to 0.5°C in the Niño-3.4 region) into the first half
of 2009 (Fig. 5).
Several dynamical models suggest the development of a La Niña during
Northern Hemisphere Winter 2008-09. This outcome becomes more likely if
the current Madden-Julian Oscillation were to stall in a location that favors enhanced
low-level easterlies and increased upwelling in the east-central and
eastern Pacific. However, it is rare for La Niña to develop late in the
year. Therefore, based on current atmospheric and oceanic conditions
and recent trends, ENSO-neutral conditions are expected to continue
into early 2009.

Huh? They write that badly and still couldn't even reference the models?

This is why we need reporters. Krier reports that Klaus Wolter, a climate research at NOAA, predicted "a more bleak picture for Southern California. He believes that the atmosphere is dialing up a weak La Niña and that other forces will contribute to a drier-than-normal winter."

Meanwhile a little rain is expected this evening, and more tomorrow. The call is for "a slug of moisture" that will move "directly over L.A. and Ventura County." Yay!

Below see an infrared image of the incoming clouds and moisture from the NWS:


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Your Fine: $101 Million. Payable: Forever

Steven Emory Butcher, the man who while burning trash, set off the longest-burning wildfire in recorded California history, was sentenced Monday to 45 months in Federal prison and fined $101 million.

Butcher is not just homeless but mentally ill. It's easy to mock the absurdity of the fine,  but in a typically excellent Slate piece (here), Christopher Beam explains the logic.

How's a guy who sleeps in a tent supposed to pay $101 million?

He isn't. Instead, he's expected to pay a tiny bit every month until he
dies. The man, Steven Emory Butcher, currently receives $1,000 a month
in Supplemental Security Income, which is basically welfare for the
elderly, disabled, or blind. The federal court ordered that Butcher
would pay $25 to Los Padres National Forest four times a year while in
prison, and then $50 a month once he's released. No one expects him to
deliver the entire $101 million—even a spokesman for the prosecutor
acknowledged that the odds of Butcher paying it off were "extremely
slim"—but they do expect him to pay what he can.

It's possible to sympathize with a mentally ill man and yet still want to see him punished for the Day Fire, which burned for weeks on its way from I-5 to Ojai, consuming vast expanses of forest and chaparral on its way. (Not to mention the chaos and desperation of evacuations for yours truly and his family.) It's a shame for all of us, but I can't feel too sorry for Butcher, especially since he was fined for setting two fires in the forest within three years.

So why fine him so much? It's the law. A federal judge is required by statute
to make a defendant pay restitution when there's property damage
incurred, even if he doesn't have the money. The amount of the
restitution depends not on how much the criminal can afford to pay, but
how much property the victim lost, as determined by the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
For example, the 2006 fire set by Butcher cost Los Padres National
Forest more than $59 million in damages, plus fire suppression costs,
according to an assessment by the U.S. Forest Service.

Los Padres will not soon forget the Day Fire. It probably wishes it could forget Steven Emory Butcher. [pic from Fire Lookout via Flickr]


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From Asher Durand, courtesy of the New York Historical Society, which has put up what looks like an astounding show of drawings called Drawn By New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings.

As Christy Weir, Mayor of Ventura, CA., likes to say…"There's nothing greener than a tree."


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How You Feel When You Think of the Climate

As the ever-quotable Tom Friedman of the New York Times points out, Bush has left Obama with two ginormous deficits; one economic, the other related to climate. In an interview, Friedman said:

We basically did nothing for eight years, and in fairness to Bush we
didn't do much in the eight years previous, either, to mitigate climate
change. The tragedy is that we've got two deficits to overcome. We need
people to care about both of those deficits.

True. And it's tough just to pay attention. For those interested in this issue, I highly recommend an aggregation site called The Daily Climate, which does an excellent job of assembling the top twelve or so stories about climate every day, under categories such as "Solutions," "Consequences," "Causes," and so forth. It's a good site, and it's free…but it's not easy to face with your morning coffee.

Speaking of mornings…here's another way to look at the issue. The election was a dream, but now we wake up again to the chaos around us. Courtesy of the hard-working, gifted, and generous Steve Brodner of The New Yorker, among many other publications. 

Find more at his drawger page, here.

Wake Up Call sm

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Tea Fire Burns Through Westmont College into Montecito

A fire started yesterday afternoon in Santa Barbara has already burned through Westmont College down into Montecito, consuming between 80-100 homes. Initial news reports are fragmentary but not reassuring, and the pictures are alarming. Here's a first-hand account from Ray Ford, of the Santa Barbara Independent, and a picture from a resident, Justin Fox, who lives just two miles south of the fire.

Power is out in much of the area; the Fire Department is urging residents to use as little water as possible…and a Santa Ana wind condition is expected today through Saturday in our area.


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