April 27, 2014

The Koch Attack on Solar Energy

The Editorial Board of the New York Times today published a rather misleading piece about moves to tax solar panels, which already commonly enjoy an exemption from property taxation. Property taxes are egregiously regressive and tend to punish homeowners for positive changes to their property, but favoring only the improvements made by one industry suggests cynical manipulation, not an interest in general reform. And indeed, that is not what the editorial is interested in.
For the last few months, the Kochs and other big polluters have been spending heavily to fight incentives for renewable energy, which have been adopted by most states. They particularly dislike state laws that allow homeowners with solar panels to sell power they don’t need back to electric utilities. So they’ve been pushing legislatures to impose a surtax on this increasingly popular practice, hoping to make installing solar panels on houses less attractive.
Whatever the intention driving the Kochs might be, there are a number of aspects to these battles that are ignored in this editorial. Like the targeted tax exemptions to favor one industry group, “incentives for renewable energy” are shamelessly biased. If the goal were truly to reduce carbon emissions or pollution, then that would be the stated requirement. Instead, these laws specify only the theoretical means, usually limited to wind and solar, not allowing hydro, and often specifying in-state generation. Furthermore, they make no provisions for monitoring the results on emissions. In effect, they simply tell utilities which suppliers they can and can not buy from without regard to actual effect. Indeed, one of the changes being fought by the wind industry in Ohio is to simply remove those purchasing directives from the renewables and efficiency standards, i.e., to let the utilities, not industry lobbyists, determine how best to achieve the goals.

As for net-metering, it is far from the equal exchange implied in the editorial. While homeowners get to install solar panels on the cheap by using the grid as a battery, net-metering laws generally require utilities to pay a hefty premium for taking the overflow. So not only are solar panel owners relying on a grid they no longer pay for, utilities have to pay them handsomely for dumping their excess production. Hence the logic of a tax on solar panels: to help pay for the grid that they continue to use.

Demonizing the Koch brothers, “big polluters”, and “big carbon” in these discussions is no more acceptable than the demonizing of all things Obama that the editorial decries about “Koch Carbon” ads. Nor is automatically defending all things Obama. In fact, Ken Lay of Enron, with the help of George W. Bush, essentially created the modern wind industry as a heavily subsidized darling of environmentalists. (Bush was keynote speaker at the 2010 American Wind Energy Association conference.)
The coal producers’ motivation is clear: They see solar and wind energy as a long-term threat to their businesses. ... Renewables are good for economic as well as environmental reasons, as most states know. (More than 143,000 now work in the solar industry.)
Coal isn’t even a part of Koch Industries activities. Piping natural gas, however, is, and in terms of actual electricity production, natural gas is the fastest growing source, driven in large part by the need for generators that can react quickly enough to the highly fluctuating production of wind. (Ironically, if it did not have to contend with wind, natural gas generators could be built to be almost twice as efficient.)

Nor is coal threatened by solar and wind. It is the increase of natural gas that has reduced coal’s share of electricity generation. Because it takes several hours for a large coal plant to start up, it can not shut down as solar and especially wind production rises, because that production will fall again, usually unpredictably. That means coal must still be burned even while not producing electricity. Furthermore, world demand for (cheap) electricity is only increasing, and U.S. coal is increasingly exported to those markets.

The only threat to coal profits would be enforcement of environment and labor laws, but fighting for that would recognize that even so-called progressives are indeed users of coal, which is hard to nuance in a simple-minded fund-raising appeal or media event.

As for jobs, the solar and wind lobbies count every ancillarily involved contract as a job. The lawyer who draws up leases, the consultant who adapts the boilerplate environmental review, the concrete company that pours foundations, the lunch truck that hits a construction site on its rounds — these are all counted as “jobs in solar and wind”, even though they all existed before and will continue to exist after.

(According to Wikipedia, Koch Industries employs 50,000 people in the U.S. and 20,000 in other countries. Is that a justification per se for anything?)
That line might appeal to Tea Partiers, but it’s deliberately misleading. This campaign is really about the profits of Koch Carbon and the utilities, which to its organizers is much more important than clean air and the consequences of climate change.
Again, this editorial might appeal to Obama apologists and corporate-allied environmentalists, but it does so by being deliberately misleading.

wind power, wind energy, wind turbines, wind farms, environment, environmentalism, human rights, ecoanarchism

April 18, 2014

Grass-Fed Beef Won’t Save the Planet

George Wuerthner, January 22, 2010


Researcher Nathan Pelletier of Nova Scotia has found that GHG emissions are 50 percent higher from grass-fed than from feedlot cows.

One of the major consequences of having cattle roaming the range is soil compaction. Soil compaction reduces water penetration, creating more run-off and erosion. Because water cannot percolate into the soil easily, soil compaction from cattle creates more arid conditions — a significant problem in the already arid West, but also an issue in the East since the soils are often moister for a longer period of time. Moist soils are more easily compacted. Soil compaction also reduces the space in the top active layer of soil where most soil microbes live, reducing soil fertility.

There are far more ecological problems I could list for grass-fed beef, but suffice to say cattle production of any kind is not environmentally friendly.

The further irony of grass-fed beef is that consumption of beef products is not healthy despite claims to the contrary. There may be less fat in grass-fed beef, but the differences are not significant enough to warrant the claim that beef consumption is “healthy.” There is a huge body of literature about the contribution of red meat to major health problems including breast, colon, stomach, bladder, and prostate cancer. The other dietary related malady is the strong link between red meat consumption and heart disease.

Another health claim is that grass-fed beef has more omega-3 fats, which are considered important for lowering health attack risks. However, the different between grain-fed and grass-fed is so small as to be insignificant, not to mention there are many other non-beef sources for this: Walnuts, beans, flax seeds, winter squash, and olive oil are only some of the foods that provide concentrated sources of omega-3 fats. Arguing that eating grass-fed beef is necessary or healthier grain-fed beef is like claiming it is better to smoke a filtered cigarette instead of a non-filtered one.

environment, environmentalism, animal rights, vegetarianism, veganism

Important new molecule in the biology of dementia

Anthony L. Komaroff, NEJM Journal Watch, April 8, 2014

Two molecules — β-amyloid and tau — are important in the biology of Alzheimer disease. Yet, high concentrations of them, either alone or together, do not seem to be sufficient to cause the disease.

In a study in the March 27 issue of Nature (http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13163), researchers evaluated the molecules produced in the brains of older people with preserved cognitive function or with dementia and identified a candidate molecule called REST, which is important in embryonic brain development. The production of REST is silenced after embryonic development is completed, but is turned back on in aging brains. The researchers discovered that production continues in healthy older people with preserved cognition — but switches off in people with mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer disease, or one of several other dementing diseases. REST deficiency was most striking in areas that are most affected in Alzheimer disease. Experiments showed that REST protects neurons from the toxic effects of β-amyloid and oxidative stress and protects against apoptosis (which is programmed cell death). Deleting the gene for REST in mice led to age-related neurodegeneration.

The REST molecule might protect the brain against age-related degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer disease. This molecule now becomes an important focus in understanding the underlying biology of dementia, as well as a target for therapeutics. Not all new and exciting putative disease-related molecules stand the test of time, but many experts are betting that this one will.

[[[[ ]]]]

REST and stress resistance in ageing and Alzheimer’s disease

Tao Lu, Liviu Aron, Joseph Zullo, Ying Pan, Haeyoung Kim, Yiwen Chen, Tun-Hsiang Yang, Hyun-Min Kim, Derek Drake, X. Shirley Liu, David A. Bennett, Monica P. Colaiácovo & Bruce A. Yankner

Nature 507, 448–454 (27 March 2014) doi:10.1038/nature13163


Human neurons are functional over an entire lifetime, yet the mechanisms that preserve function and protect against neurodegeneration during ageing are unknown. Here we show that induction of the repressor element 1-silencing transcription factor (REST; also known as neuron-restrictive silencer factor, NRSF) is a universal feature of normal ageing in human cortical and hippocampal neurons. REST is lost, however, in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Chromatin immunoprecipitation with deep sequencing and expression analysis show that REST represses genes that promote cell death and Alzheimer’s disease pathology, and induces the expression of stress response genes. Moreover, REST potently protects neurons from oxidative stress and amyloid β-protein toxicity, and conditional deletion of REST in the mouse brain leads to age-related neurodegeneration. A functional orthologue of REST, Caenorhabditis elegans SPR-4, also protects against oxidative stress and amyloid β-protein toxicity. During normal ageing, REST is induced in part by cell non-autonomous Wnt signalling. However, in Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies, REST is lost from the nucleus and appears in autophagosomes together with pathological misfolded proteins. Finally, REST levels during ageing are closely correlated with cognitive preservation and longevity. Thus, the activation state of REST may distinguish neuroprotection from neurodegeneration in the ageing brain.

April 9, 2014

The Wall, by Marlen Haushofer (1968)

I had washed my hair, and it now floated, light and bushy, around my head. The rainwater had made it soft and smooth. Looking in the mirror I cut it short so that it just covered my ears, and I contemplated my tanned face under its sun-bleached cap of hair. It looked very strange, thin, with slight hollows in the cheeks. Its lips had grown narrower, and I felt this strange face was marked by a secret need. As there were no human beings left alive to love this face it struck me as quite superfluous. It was naked and pathetic, and I was ashamed of it and wanted nothing to do with it. My animals were fond of my familiar smell, my voice and my movements. I could easily cast off my face; it was needed no longer. At this thought a feeling of emptiness rose up in me, which I had to get rid of at any price. I looked for some kind of work to do, and told myself that in my situation it was childish to mourn a face, but the tormenting sense that I had lost something important would not be driven away.

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I have always been fond of animals, in the slight and superficial way in which city people feel drawn to them. When they were suddenly all I had, everything changed. There are said to have been prisoners who have tamed rats, spiders and flies and begun to love them. I think they acted in accordance with their situation. The barriers between animal and human come down very easily. We belong to a single great family, and if we are lonely and unhappy we gladly accept the friendship of our distant relations. They suffer as we do if pain is inflicted on them, and like myself they need food, warmth and a little tenderness.

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But if time exists only in my head, and I’m the last human being, it will end with my death. The thought cheers me. I may be in a position to murder time. The big net will tear and fall, with its sad contents, into oblivion. I’m owed some gratitude, but no one after my death will know I murdered time. Really these thoughts are quite meaningless. Things happen, and, like millions of people before me, I look for a meaning in them, because my vanity will not allow me to admit that the whole meaning of an event lies in the event itself. If I casually step on a beetle, it will not see this event, tragic for the beetle, as a mysterious concatenation of universal significance. The beetle was beneath my foot at the moment when my foot fell; a sense of well-being in the daylight, a short, shrill pain and then nothing. But we’re condemned to chase after a meaning that cannot exist. I don’t know whether I will ever come to terms with that knowledge. It’s difficult to shake off an ancient, deep-rooted megalomania. I pity animals, and I pity people, because they’re thrown into this life without being consulted. Maybe people are more deserving of pity, because they have just enough intelligence to resist the natural course of things. It has made them wicked and desperate, and not very lovable. All the same, life could have been lived differently. There is no impulse more rational than love. It makes life more bearable for the lover and the loved one. We should have recognized in time that this was our only chance, our only hope for a better life. For an endless army of the dead, mankind’s only chance has vanished for ever. I keep thinking about that. I can’t understand why we had to take the wrong path. I only know it’s too late.

(translated by Shaun Whiteside)