Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Are we really getting greener?

Today’s SF Chronicle has an interesting article on the growth of the so-called "green economy," or the sales of items considered to be environmentally friendly (rather broadly defined).

Some of this is no doubt due to a cultural shift. But some of it is, I'm sorry to say, just more clever marketing on behalf of companies whose products are no more "green" than they used to be.

Some of this green spending is also bound to be driven by government incentives designed to encourage such behavior. It would be interesting to analyze trends in spending and see how they correlate to local, state and federal incentives (rebates on energy-efficient applicances, allowing hybrid vehicles to use HOV lanes, etc.).

Unfortunately this apparent greening trend is not reflected in increases in charitable giving to environmental groups. The American Association of Fundraising Counsel estimates that only about 3% of total charitable gifts go to environmental or wildlife organizations. That slice of the pie appears to be holding steady – not increasing.

If the so-called boom in the so-called green economy really reflects a cultural shift, I'd expect to see a boom in green giving, too. We'll keep working on it.


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Helping nature in underserved communities

I sit on the Environmental Advisory Committee for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Our local water district is very different from most districts, who view their mission as getting as much water as possible no matter the consequence, and placing development over flood planning and environmental protection. Our water district has come a long way. The County passed a "Clean Safe Creeks" parcel tax measure to finance environmental improvements, and lately our advisory committee has been helping design guidelines for spending that money.

One criterion emphasized supporting environmental improvements in underserved areas, which would often be poor communities of color with a creek area full of trash, barriers to fish passage, and non-native weeds. I supported the criterion but noted it was given little weight compared to other criteria. I moved that it be made one of the most important criteria for determining which projects received funding, and my motion had unanimous support.

I think improving access to natural areas for communities of color, and improving the quality of those natural areas, are important work opportunities for groups like CGF.


Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Rank the danger

So which is more likely to kill you:

Hike alone for an hour at dusk in mountain lion territory;

Take an evening drive for an hour; or

Sit in front of television for an hour, eating a half-pint of ice cream?

I'm not completely certain on first and second place, but my best guess is first place goes to the ice cream, second place goes to the evening drive, and fiftieth place to hiking in mountain lion territory.

Backing up this argument requires some math. Usually, the equation, lawyer + math = ugly sight, but I think I can handle this one. According to this website, the automobile death rate in the US is 1.5 deaths per 100 million miles. If the hour-long evening drive covers 30 miles, my computer says the death risk is one in 2.2 million.

So what's the risk of dying from mountain lions on an hour-long hike? I don't know, but we can be sure it is far less than one in 2 million. There are 35 million people in California. If one-tenth of them hiked one hour each year, that would be 3.5 million hours annually. Six people have been killed by lions in California since 1890. This lawyer's math says that driving is a lot more dangerous.

When people are reading Palo Alto Weekly and deciding whether to change their behavior because of lions, please don't switch from relatively safe hiking in lion territory to relatively dangerous things like driving or packing on the calories and fat from ice cream.


Monday, October 11, 2004

Economic disaster: environmental aspects of surviving a housing bubble

(The following is a "thought-piece" originally intended to be part of an article in the forthcoming newsletter, but we decided it didn't quite fit. We hope it's an interesting read here. More good stuff to come in the Fall 2004 newsletter...


No one has difficulty identifying a speculative financial bubble – with hindsight. Dot-com businesses and Japanese real estate were valued not for their actual worth but for the belief that others would consistently pay more for the same thing. In each case, the sky-high prices had to collapse. Identifying a bubble before it bursts is much harder. Economic experts are split over whether the constant rise in real estate values in the Bay Area or elsewhere constitute a speculative bubble. Not being economic experts, we cannot make any firm conclusions except that it is possible that a housing bubble exists, and that we should be prepared for the possibility that real estate prices could collapse.

Imagine a drastic scenario - what would a fifty-percent collapse in housing prices do the environment and to our work in the Bay Area? As to the environment, the price collapse would certainly reduce much of the pressure to build sprawling hillside housing, pressure that results from the tremendous profits developers can make at current prices. On the other hand, we can expect developers to argue that environmental regulations that were affordable for high-priced markets are no longer affordable, and should therefore be dropped. We should oppose any effort to allow permanent sprawl on the basis of a temporary drop in prices.

While the environment may not be harmed, our own work in protecting the environment could be drastically affected by a collapse in housing prices. As a local nonprofit, we depend on local donors, who in turn fund us based on their own financial situations. If people see the market value of their homes cut in half, they will feel much less able to give generously. A widespread collapse in housing prices could even trigger a recession, further constricting financial donations. This situation will require tremendous effort by environmental organizations and by their supporters to make their way through the financial difficulties, and continue to do their work.

Preparation and improvisation combine to form the basis of any response to disasters. Preparing for this and other disasters, is part of the work we will continue to do in order to protect the environment.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Bicycling to sports complex gets you expelled

A recent study shows that suburban sprawl creates a car-dependent lifestyle pattern that fosters chronic diseases.

Unfortunately, then, San Jose is promoting sprawl with with its recent proposed sports complex, located on a road so dangerous that children are forbidden under threat of expulsion from walking or bicycling to the athletic fields. The complex is a prelude to tearing out the remaining agriculture and replacing working farms with subdivisions.

Our comment letter on the project is here.

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Breaking news: San Jose upholds ban on trapping coyotes

It's fun to get a news item out before the news media does, and here it is: San Jose failed to pass an "urgency ordinance" that would allow trapping coyotes in part of Almaden Valley. As an "emergency" measure that skips the normal process, it needed 8 of the 11 City Council members to support it, and got only 7.

The Merc has background information here (posted before tonight's vote).

While I attended the meeting, I didn't speak or take a position. I don't think the situation in that area has been handled well, and exterminating the coyotes is not a good idea for the long term. However, the curiosity and lack of fear shown by these particular coyotes (assuming residents are not exaggerating) is disturbing. I couldn't possibly see CGF supporting the trapping, but I wasn't certain enough about safety to move from neutrality to a position opposing the measure.

The council members had to make a decision though. The politically-easy choice was to support trapping, so I respect Council members Reed, Campos, Williams, and Lezotte for opposing the measure. No disrespect intended to the other seven council members, who could be voting based on principles, not on politics.


Should better surveillance mean lower penalties?

In an interesting blog by security expert Bruce Schneier, he argues that technology's increasing ability to detect legal violations has its downside. Calling it "Bigger Brother", he cites the example of Baltimore using aerial maps and computer software to detect code violations such as rooftop decks built without permits. Schneier argues that because technology makes detection easier than before, stiff penalties for environmental violations are not necessary as deterrents for violations that used to be hard to detect.

Is he right? Should we reduce penalties for environmental violations here in the Bay Area?

If penalties were based exclusively on their deterrent value, then he would be right. But penalties for environmental violations also reflect harm done to society. They may also be insufficiently deterring because setting them at a level that truly stops misbehavior would be seen as unjust. No one advocates capital punishment for constructing buildings without a permit. Finally, just because new technology exists somewhere doesn't mean that people are using it. I would love for Santa Clara County to do some overflights of large scale developments, but I don't expect that to happen anytime soon.

Penalties for environmental violations are set for reasons that have little to do with their optimal deterrent value, so being able to detect the violations more easily does not automatically mean penalties should be lowered. I don't read Schneier as saying they automatically should be either, but big environmental violators will think differently.