2009 - %3, November

Wasted: 40 Percent of Food

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 5:19 PM PST

Americans, obviously, are eating more than ever before. A new study suggests we're also throwing away more than ever before. About 50 percent more per person since 1974.

According to the new calculations, food waste contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in the form of methane and CO2 from decomposing food. In the US, it also accounts for:

  • More than one-quarter of total freshwater use
  • Some 300 million barrels of oil a year (~4 percent of total American oil consumption)

Until now, studies of food waste have depended on interviews with consumers and inspections of garbage. Neither is particularly accurate.

In this study, researchers analyzed the amount of food consumed by tracking average body weight in the US from 1974 to 2003. They assumed that exercise levels hadn't changed in that period (an admittedly conservative approach). They compared these data with estimates of the total food available in the US as reported by the USDA to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.

The difference between calories available and calories consumed (what the researchers call the missing mass of American food) equals food wasted. Here's how it breaks down per person per day in 2003:

  • 3750 calories available
  • 2300 consumed
  • 1450 wasted

That's 39 percent of the American food supply that is never consumed by human beings. Multiply the individual waste by 300 million Americans and you get enough to feed the people of the Philippines.

The 39-percent estimate significantly exceeds the 27-percent estimate of the USDA, based on consumer and producer interviews.

The new study is out of the Laboratory of Biological Modeling, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, in Maryland. The paper is open access at PLoS ONE.

A little something to chew on as we head to Copenhagen.
 

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The Inevitability of Afghanistan

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 3:14 PM PST

Like me, Fred Kaplan is glad he's not president right now.  Why?  Because he can't figure out what he thinks we ought to do in Afghanistan:

As with confronting most messes in life, the initial impulse is to flee. But if we simply pulled out, it's a near-certain bet that the Taliban would march into Kabul, and most other Afghan towns they'd care to, in a matter of weeks....Another problem with withdrawing is that it would signal, correctly or not, a huge victory for anti-American forces generally. If we left Afghanistan to the Taliban (and, by extension, al-Qaida), especially after such a prolonged commitment (at least rhetorically), what other embattled people would trust the United States (or the other putative allies in this war) to come in and protect them from insurgents? None, and they could hardly be blamed.

....I am uncomfortable making this case for two reasons. First, it's reminiscent of the bankrupt rationales, involving "credibility" and the "domino theory," for staying in Vietnam long after that war was widely viewed as a horrible mistake. But Afghanistan is different. The Taliban are not the Viet Cong, and Osama Bin Laden is not Ho Chi Minh; there is no case, this time, that the enemy has a just claim to power. And the stakes are much higher: Communists ruling South Vietnam was never a serious threat to our security;1 al-Qaida controlling a huge swath of South Asia is.

The second reason I'm uncomfortable about even saying this is that the argument can, and almost certainly will, be used to justify staying in Afghanistan if it turns out that this war is futile, too. It's easy to hear the generals saying, a year from now, "Three more brigades should do the trick, Mr. President" and "If we pull out now, Mr. President, our credibility will be severely compromised."

It's pretty hard to see how this ends well.  But I think what it demonstrates most strongly is the fantastic political nightmare involved in ever pulling out of a war that hasn't been decisively won.  Vietnam is the big-ticket example here, of course, but there are better ones.  Take Somalia.  After the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, conservatives demanded that Bill Clinton pull out immediately.  Not another American life was worth risking for a barren patch of dirt on the Horn of Africa.  Clinton refused, insisting that we "finish the work we set out to do," and kept troops in country for another six months before withdrawing in an orderly way.

And what happened?  Conservatives turned around and immediately started building up a mythology that Clinton had lacked spine and immediately ran for the exits at the first sign of trouble.  Just like a Democrat to be so weak-kneed!  What's more, it's now received wisdom on the right that it was this panicky withdrawal that first convinced Muslim fanatics that America was weak and could be attacked with impunity.  In the end, Clinton took a hit for withdrawal even though he was the one who insisted on not cutting and running.

If that's what happens to a Democratic president who played a hawkish role in a small, unimportant war, what would happen to a Democratic president who played a dovish role in a big, important war?  Nothing good.  Pulling out of Afghanistan would have all the actual effects Kaplan talks about, but it would also be a political disaster.

I still plan to wait for Obama's speech tomorrow before I decide if his Afghanistan strategy is smart or not.  But even if it is, it was probably sadly inevitable.  The institutional support for war among the American chattering classes is just too powerful.

1Hoo boy.  That's easy to say now, but at the time it sure seemed every bit as important as al-Qaeda controlling a big chunk of Afghanistan seems to us.

The "Black Jail"

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 3:09 PM PST

One big news item from the weekend was the stories in the Post and the Times about a "black" detention site at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. The stories fill in some details about what's going on at the jail, which previous reporting had suggested is a separate, Special Operations-run interrogation facility that has been kept off-limits to the International Committee of the Red Cross. According to the Post, detainees there have claimed they were "beaten by American guards, photographed naked, deprived of sleep and held in solitary confinement." 

I asked Jonathan Horowitz, a human rights researcher at the Open Society Institute who was quoted in both stories, whether he thought the Times and the Post had upped the pressure on President Barack Obama to address detainee access issues. Yes and no: While "there's a greater willingness to have dialogue on the story than there's been in the past," Horowitz says, he's "yet to see whether that will lead to any tangible results." Horowitz also said that the ICRC and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission should be given access to the site and that allegations of abuse should be investigated. It's not surprising to hear such things from a human rights researcher, but it will be interesting to see if he gets what he wants.

Fight Over Climate Aid Threatens to Derail Copenhagen Talks

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 2:38 PM PST

Less than a week before the Copenhagen climate conference begins, confidential documents reveal that the EU is pushing to use existing aid money, not new funds, to help poorer nations reduce emissions and adapt to climate change—a stance that NGOs say could derail the entire summit.

According to documents obtained by The Guardian, EU negotiators have removed lines from a proposed draft agreement that call for a new climate fund for poor countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The text says the EU "cannot accept" proposed language that would call for climate aid to be "additional to" and "separate from" other development assistance funds.

If climate funds were to come entirely from existing pools of money, that would pose a huge problem for international negotiations. The United Nations has estimated that poor countries need as much as $170 billion per year to adapt to climate change. That's $50 billion more than developed countries spent on aid last year.

Wal-Mart: The Grinch That Stole Thanksgiving

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 12:49 PM PST

Few American spectacles are as grotesque as the one we witness every year on what’s known as “Black Friday.” Before dawn on the morning after Thanksgiving, throngs of shoppers stampede the nation’s retail stores, trying to grab up bargains before somebody else does. Last year, one such feeding frenzy took the life of Jdimytai Damour, the 34-year-old son of Haitian immigrants, who was working as a temporary employee at a Wal-Mart on Long Island. Witnesses said that many members of the crowd kept on shopping after they forced their way through the store’s doors and trampled Damour to death. 

Marlene Lang, writing in Chicago’s Southtown Star, sums up the fallout from this gruesome tragedy:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted an inspection and found that the New York store “fail(ed) to implement reasonable and effective crowd management principles,” including training that was “inadequate” to accommodate the advertised “Blitz Friday” that offered cheap-o electronics for all. OSHA slapped Wal-Mart with a “serious citation” and the maximum fine of $7,000. Uh, no, I’m not missing any zeros. That’s seven thousand dollars. Wal-Mart Stores promised to implement a crowd management plan for its New York stores and went to work consulting with big-event security firms.

Meanwhile, the deceased employee’s family sued for wrongful death, and Wal-Mart put out statements saying Damour had been part of the Wal-Mart family. Touching. The retail supergiant then cut a no-prosecution deal with the district attorney, promising beefed-up Black Friday crowd control along with generous contributions to the community–$1.5 million worth of local generosity and $400,000 in compensation to the victims of the incident.

Wal-Mart never admitted any guilt in Damour’s death. But the chain did cite its devotion to ”customer and associate safety” this year in announcing its novel approach to Black Friday overcrowding: To prevent the dangers posed by throngs of bargain hunters waiting for their stores to open, Wal-Mart would simply never close at all.

So on Thanksgiving 2009, nearly all Wal-Mart stores remained open all day, and all through the night into Black Friday.  Recession-strapped Americans desperate for bargains could leave their dinner tables to spend Thanksgiving Day at Wal-Mart. And if they liked, they could stay there all night, wandering bleary-eyed through the aisles as they waited for special blow-out sales to surface at 5 a.m. on Friday. Wal-Mart workers, of course, had no choice but to join in the fun.  Not that working on holidays is anything new for most employees of this notorious union-busting company, which has faced multiple class-action lawsuits for shorting its workers on wages and discriminating against women, minorities, and people with disabilities.  (You can read about these, and much more, at Wal-Mart Watch.)

Protectionism

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 12:49 PM PST

I think Matt Yglesias makes a pretty good political point here about trade policy:

If you convince people that it’s not possible for monetary authorities to boost employment, and that it’s unwise to use fiscal policy to boost employment, then it starts to look irresponsible for politicians not to use trade restrictions to protect the jobs of people in their state/district. When an economy is near full employment you can say trade makes the pie bigger and people who lose their jobs will get new jobs. But [if] we’re years away from full employment — which both the Fed and the White House seem to think — then getting laid-off is catastrophic.

The Fed is obviously more concerned about inflation than it is about unemployment right now, and Congress likewise seems unwilling to do very much more to help create jobs.  In an environment like that, public pressure for trade restrictions becomes hard to resist.  So if free traders really want to keep protectionist sentiment tamped down, they'd be well advised to start supporting domestic policies that create jobs, bring down unemployment, and reduce the kind of financial fear that drives protectonist sentiment in the first place.

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ClimateGate

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 11:15 AM PST

As near as I can tell, ClimateGate is almost entirely a tempest in a teacup.  Among the stash of emails recently hacked from computers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, one mentioned a "trick" for producing a nice looking graph, but the word "trick" was plainly used in the sense of "technique," not chicanery.  There's nothing questionable there.  Another bunch of emails shows that when scientists are communicating privately they can be as catty and nasty as anyone else.  It's good gossip fodder, but nothing more.  Another set of emails deals with outraged reaction to a particular journal article, but this isn't news.  It was an entirely public incident when it happened a few years ago, and half the board of the journal resigned in protest.  The emailers were determined not to have shoddy science published in peer-reviewed journals, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Then there are some emails about which research should and shouldn't be included in the next IPCC report, which, again, is entirely normal.  Every scientist who worked on the IPCC report surely had opinions about which research was on point and which was shoddy.  Finally, there's the revelation that CRU has destroyed some raw temperature data, but this happened back in the 1980s, before global warming was even on anyone's radar screen, and was obviously motivated by space considerations (they were paper records), not any kind of coverup.  What's more, the raw data is still available from the original sources that provided it to CRU anyway.

Unfortunately, there are also a couple of messages that suggest an effort to destroy emails that might have been subject to a Freedom of Information request.  That's a genuine problem, though it's not clear to me just how big a problem it is.

So on a substantive level, there's really very little to this.  Certainly nothing that changes the actual science of climate change even a little.  The earth is still warming and disaster is still highly likely if we sit around and do nothing.  But George Monbiot thinks we lefties have our heads in the sand if we think that makes any difference:

I have seldom felt so alone. Confronted with crisis, most of the environmentalists I know have gone into denial. The emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, they say, are a storm in a tea cup, no big deal, exaggerated out of all recognition. It is true that climate change deniers have made wild claims which the material can't possibly support (the end of global warming, the death of climate science). But it is also true that the emails are very damaging.

....The crisis has been exacerbated by the university's handling of it, which has been a total trainwreck: a textbook example of how not to respond....When the emails hit the news on Friday morning, the university appeared completely unprepared. There was no statement, no position, no one to interview. Reporters kept being fobbed off while CRU's opponents landed blow upon blow on it. When a journalist I know finally managed to track down Phil Jones, he snapped "no comment" and put down the phone. This response is generally taken by the media to mean "guilty as charged".

....The handling of this crisis suggests that nothing has been learnt by climate scientists in this country from 20 years of assaults on their discipline. They appear to have no idea what they're up against or how to confront it. Their opponents might be scumbags, but their media strategy is exemplary.

It's hard to argue with this.  Climate change skeptics have gotten fantastic mileage out of this affair, but that's only partly because technical explanations of facially damaging statements are never very convincing to the general public.  An even bigger part of the problem is that a lot of the scientists involved haven't even been providing the technical explanations, leaving that up to others who are trying to get a handle on what's going on.  From a PR standpoint, it's been a disaster so far.

For years the CRU has resisted public release of its underlying datasets, partly for the understandable reason that they're tired of dealing with amateurs who comb though raw data looking for ways to pretend that warming isn't really happening, and partly because they don't have the authority to release it all.  Still, science is all about transparency, and annoying or not, the data should be available.  Now it probably will be, and under the worst possible circumstances.  It's going to be rough sledding for the next couple of years against the fever swamp crowd, aided and abetted by the coal industry.  Buckle up.

Hope For Copenhagen?

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 11:00 AM PST

The climate summit that kicks off in Copenhagen next week may turn out to be more eventful than you might expect, thanks to significant promises from the US and China in recent days.

Last week, the White House confirmed that Obama will make a pit stop at the summit and announce that the United States is committing to reducing planet-warming emissions in the neighborhood of 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

The next day, the Chinese government announced a goal of reducing their carbon intensity—the amount of greenhouse gas emitted per unit of gross domestic product—by up to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Since the US and China together are responsible for 40 percent of the world's emissions, these commitments are expected to have a real impact on the negotiations.

SCOTUS: Don't Release Torture Photos

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 10:41 AM PST

Congress already made sure the Obama administration wouldn't have to release photos of detainee abuse, but on Monday, the Supreme Court told the government the same thing: no worries.

A federal appeals court ordered the photos, which the ACLU is seeking under the Freedom of Information Act, released earlier this year. But the Obama administration convinced Congress to pass a law that allows the executive branch to unilaterally withhold any detainee photos it wants to keep secret. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the court earlier this month that he would use the power granted to him by the new law to withhold the photos that are the subject of the ACLU's lawsuit. The high court's decision instructs the appeals court to reconsider its decision in light of the new law and Gates' announcement.

Supporters of releasing the photos shouldn't blame the courts for their continued suppression. Now that Congress has given the Obama administration almost unlimited power to suppress detainee abuse photos, the blame for using that power lies with the president himself. This isn't John Roberts' problem. It's Barack Obama's.

Too Big To Fail

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 10:14 AM PST

The Financial Stability Board (what a great name!) has created a list of the world's top 30 "systemically important" financial institutions — aka banks that are too big to fail.  Citi and BofA make the list; Wells Fargo doesn't.  If you were in charge of Wells, would you be pleased or annoyed?

Via Felix Salmon, who wants to know why there are no American insurers on the list.  Probable answer: AIG has already failed, so they can hardly make the list, and America's other big insurers are mostly purely domestic affairs.  They're the Fed's problem, not the world's.