Think Global, Love Local

February 4, 2009

I recently read a to a playful but interesting article from the online magazine Slate arguing that long distance relationships are bad for the planet.   The author coins the term “sex miles” (a play on the term “food miles”) to calculate just how much carbon you emit to see a significant other that lives elsewhere.

I recently commented on a friend’s status on Facebook saying that I didn’t think that the concept of eating local and reducing food miles was necessarily better for the environment or for developing countries (based largely on  studies which have been published by my former colleagues at ODI).  My comments led to an argument with someone I didn’t know (a friend of my friend), who defended the eat local movement vociferously, despite my attempts to show that eating local in London during the winter resulted in an all root vegetable diet.  I know as we used to get a box of local fruit and vegetables delivered every week, but recently cancelled our account as we couldn’t face any more parsnip or swede and were ready to kill for a green bean.

But I think that the case against long distance relationships is more straight forward from a climate change perspective – it’s hard to see an enviromnetal or developmental upside, plus, they’re no fun for the people in them.   I guess the only possible justification would be in expanding the variety of dates available – if your area is filled with the dating equivalent of turnips, it just might be worth diversifying.


Horreur!  The French are starting to make clones of the precious black Périgord truffle!  The Financial Times reported that with the annual harvest of these very pricey fungi down to 40-50 tonnes a year (from 1,000 tons one hundred years ago), the industry is inventing around the problem to try and produce test tube truffles.

With a price tag of up to €1,000 per kilo, it’s strange that the market has not responded sooner with greater provision.   The “truffle king” quoted in the FT article says that young people are not interested in the trade, but if the market works, its hard to believe that something which fetches such exceptional returns does not pull people into the trade.  Especially as the costs of entry are relatively low: if you want to get into this very profitable business all you need is a short introduction to truffles, some woods, and a four-legged friend.  Here you have two options.  As truffles emit a scent similar to that of the hormones of a male pig, you can get yourself a nice (but undoubtedly frustrated) sow to hunt out truffles for you.  Or, if you would prefer to minimise the chances that your helper accidentally eats the truffles, or if you lack suitable pig transport and storage, you can train a dog to do the pig’s work.

The article more generally attributes the lagging production to a decline in French agriculture (no one tell the agricultural lobbyists), and to less suitable growing conditions.  A decline in growth of truffles due to climate change or habitat encroachment seems to me to be a more sensible explination of why the supply is declining than lack of interest, given my faith in economic principles such as competition.  Producing truffles in test tubes might be the only way around this problem.

Of course, you wouldn’t want the test tube truffles to be too successful, otherwise prices will drop dramatically.   Though I suspect that the French, who are experts at applying EU laws enabling geographic indicators of origin (think for example of champagne which by law can only come from Champagne) will find a marketing technique to make sure that the  truffle-sniffing snouts of all connoisseurs are turned up at TTTs (test tube truffles) and favour only organic, wild, and swine-sourced truffles.

Storm Surge

September 14, 2008

Well, the first thing to say is that I am not in Texas this evening, and the reason is pretty obvious from the above picture.  My plane was cancelled.  Houston airport is closed: I10, the major interstate that grants access to the city from other parts of the state, is under water and therefore staff including air traffic control, can’t get to the airport (and if it looks anything like I45, pictured above, it’s going to be a while before it’s reopened).  Thanks to my cousin who is a Texas State Trooper and was able to get into Galveston (where both major bridges that access the island have suffered structural damage), my family also knows that the ground floor of my grandparents house, and the main floor of my aunt and uncles’ house, is sitting under almost 2 feet of water.   They are insured: hurricanes happen, even large devastating ones like this one.  Like the mayor of Galveston said yesterday “The gulf sits here, and at any moment — like today — it can rise up in wrath and overwhelm you.  We’ve lost a lot today. But you know that’s a part of our history.”

You could say that hurricanes run in my family.  At my grandparents’ house in Galveston, Texas, there has always been a hurricane tracking chart hanging on the porch just outside the kitchen.  A big yellow map with the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, you could place little black magnets on it to track where each hurricane was going.  And I remember there being quite a few little magnets on it each summer.  My grandmother was born on Galveston Island, as was my father, and my grandfather lived there almost all of his life.   There are lots of legends about strong hurricanes in their past: where they nailed shut the windows and did, or more frequently didn’t, evacuate.

Happy to report that with Hurricane Ike approaching Galveston even as we speak, my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins are not there.  But Ike is putting a little wrinkle in my travel plans: I’m supposed to fly to Houston on Sunday morning, en route to Austin to visit my parents.  So far the flight is not cancelled, but I suspect there’s a strong chance that I’ll be leaving Monday instead of Sunday. Discussing these travel plans with my father on the phone yesterday, we commented on just how many strong hurricanes seem to be hanging around the Gulf of Mexico this year, and I made an off-hand comment that global climate change was taking its toll.   But this morning I started wondering whether that was really true: were there more hurricanes now than in the past, and if so, was this to do with global warming?

Being the nerdy social scientist that I am, I spent some time downloading hurricane data from 1900 to 2008, and then analysing it.  This data doesn’t say anything in and of itself about the impact of global climate change on hurricanes (because I haven’t looked at what’s causing hurricanes), but there are some interesting trends to note.   From 1900 to 2008, there was an average of just over five classifiable hurricanes (hurricanes are measured on a scale from 1 to 5 based on the strength of their winds, with 5 being the strongest) in the Atlantic ocean.  The year with the most number of hurricanes (a whopping 15) was 2005, the year that Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast of the US.  But years with 10 or more hurricanes are interspersed throughout the data set: 1916, 1933, 1950, 1969 (a stormy year by most metrics), 1995 and 1998.

There have been many more hurricanes from 1950 to 2008 than there were from 1900 to 1950 (352 vs. 223) and those storms have also been stronger: there were 80 category 4 and 5 storms from 1950 to the present, but only 38 from 1900 to 1950.  But this trend has not been consistent: the 1970s and 80s had relatively few strong storms in comparison to either the previous period (the 50s and 60s) or the following period (the 90s and beyond).

The data is inconclusive: there are ways to read increases in the number and strength of hurricanes as globalisation has progressed, and ways to interpret it as a random pattern of hurricane number and strength.  In fact, National Geographic has said the same thing: while there is a plausible reason that global warming would cause more hurricanes (warmer air and water causes more storms), and some new studies have shown increasing strength based on increase in sea temperatures, the great majority of studies “have found no evidence that the number of hurricanes and their northwest Pacific Ocean cousins, typhoons, is increasing because of the rise in global temperatures.”

So there jury is still out as to whether this hurricane is brought to you by global warming.  But it’s sure putting a kink in my globalised life style.