Best Practices for Sustainable Tree Planting

Tree planting is a good thing, right?  After all, trees hold the soil, provide shade, valuable food for wildlife, absorb carbon dioxide and clean the air by breaking down various pollutants.  They can provide windbreaks which can lower heating bills, and their leaf litter enriches the soil.

Unfortunately, the answer is not that straightforward.  Trees unsuitable for local conditions may die or fail to thrive, resulting in the wasted energy, effort, and money required to plant the tree.  And some trees can damage ecosystems and/or become pests.  For example, the Ailanthus altissima tree, native to China and Taiwan, was imported to the U.S. as a street tree but quickly became a pest in urban areas, where it often grows up against buildings.  Similarly, the Norway maple, native to Europe, was widely planted as a landscaping tree in North America, and has invaded forests, where it inhibits the growth of native understory plants, and can cause soil loss because of the bare soil under the tree.

A young Ailanthus tree against concrete and wood

The Ailanthus altissima tree often becomes a pest in cities by seeding prolifically and growing up against buildings.

But is native enough?  And what is native?  The Colorado blue spruce is native to North America, but it is widely planted far outside its native range, such as on the east coast.  For trees with large ranges, the question becomes even more complex.  A sugar maple from Missouri is not going to be adapted to the same growing conditions as a sugar maple from Maine.

This post aims to thoroughly address these nuances by outlining a simple set of principles that can be followed in order to achieve the best results from tree planting. These principles are universal, in the sense that they can be applied by homeowners planting individual trees, large institutions that plant trees on a regular basis, and by large-scale tree planting efforts.

Best Practices for Tree Planting:

I have ranked these best practices in the order of relative importance.  The order is based on the premise of the first priority being to do no harm, the second priority being to not waste resources by planting trees that will not thrive, and the third priority to have the greatest positive impact or results (both in terms of ecological and human impacts) from the tree planting.

The details of how and why are described below.  These are general rules; they have exceptions and must be treated with flexibility. The points above function as a table-of-contents; you can use the links to navigate within this page.

Plant Only Native Trees:

Native trees have two advantages: they avoid the problems with invasive non-native plants, and they are well-adapted to local conditions.  Two examples of problems caused by non-native plants were given above.  Some of the potential problems caused by non-native plants are that (a) some are not eaten by native insects (b) some produce chemicals which inhibit the growth of native plants (called allelopathy) (c) some can alter water use and nutrient cycling (explained below) in ways that negatively impact native plants. (d) non-native plants can act as carriers for diseases; an example would be the Chestnut blight which was brought to North America on Chinese chestnuts.  The basic idea is that if we are to do no harm to ecosystems, we must plant only native plants.

Being adapted to local conditions can be subtle as it can depend on rare events.  Some trees grow very well in the climate of southern Florida, but grow tall and have weak roots, because they are native to areas that are never subject to hurricanes.  These trees can be broken off or ripped right out of the ground in a hurricane–which can be disasterous if they are planted near buildings.  Similarly, some plants may do well in a typical year but may die or be subject to pest infestations in an unusually dry year or unusually cold, snowy, or icy winter.  These issues are particularly important in continental climates where extreme anomalous (hot, dry, wet, or cold) years occur with some regularity if you look on a large time scale.

Osage orange tree with orange bark, looking up into the canopy

The Osage orange, Maclura pomifera, illustrates the complexity of the notion "native". Since humans have inhabited North America, this tree has been restricted to a small area of Oklahoma and Texas. There is evidence, however, that it once had a much broader range, and it is able to grow well far outside its native range. One theory is that its fruit was distributed by large mammals which went extinct after humans colonized the continent.

Just what constitutes native?  The potential for ecological damage resulting from an invasive species is greatest when plants are imported over large geographical barriers (such as Asia to North America), but some damage can be caused by more local imports–such as across the Rocky Mountains–especially when the genetic uniqueness of previously separated species becomes lost through hybridization.  Since this post is about best practices, the best practice is to interpret “native” as locally as possible–which we explore more our last point about local seed stock.  But it’s also important to keep an open mind for special cases like the Osage orange, pictured above, or the Gingko (a tree, Chinese in origin, common in cultivation, but possibly extinct in the wild).  As with any rule, we must interpret the best practice of using native plants with flexibility, looking at it on a case-by-case basis.

Consider the effects of the tree on the surrounding environment and ecology:

Trees are very large living organisms.  Even a single medium-sized tree can have a considerable effect on the ecology of the surrounding area.  Trees create a microclimate, moderating the temperature and humidity under them, and creating niches for other plants and animals.  This section explores some of the main factors to consider when thinking about how the tree impacts its environment.

Direct (Mechanical) Impacts of the Tree’s Growth: When planting trees in an urban area or near buildings, consider the size and shape of the tree, the nature of its root system, and the degree to which it drops limbs.  Some trees, such as the silver maple, grow well in cities but are a poor choice to plant near buildings because they naturally grow with multiple trunks, and drop limbs frequently.  Some trees have aggressive root systems that can heave sidewalks or crack building foundations.  Surface roots can also make it hard to garden near the tree.  One last structural consideration worth mentioning is that trees, particularly evergreens with dense foliage, act as windbreaks, which can be used to lower winter heating bills, and can also protect gardens against drying winds in arid areas.

Sycamore tree, view looking up into the canopy

The American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, is a beautiful tree with striking, mottled bark. It is fast-growing, long-lived, and wide at the base, with many surface roots. When planted in cities, its roots will heave sidewalks as it quickly fills out narrow strips between the sidewalk and street.

Water: Trees use a lot of water, and their water use varies greatly by species.  Some trees, such as willows, which naturally grow in wetlands, have a very high water requirement.  High water use can be an advantage if you plant the tree in an area that has problems with localized flooding–the tree can soak up some of the excess water–but this same quality can be undesirable if you plant too many such trees around a pond that you wish to enjoy, and cause the pond to dry up.  Some trees, such as the sugar maple, engage in a process called hydraulic lift, using a deep tap root to draw water from lower levels in the water table and deposit it in the soil closer to the surface [Source].  This can help ecosystems and gardens alike by naturally “watering” the plants under the tree, keeping them healthy during periods without rain.

Light: Trees also vary highly in the degree to which they cast shade.  Some trees, such as willows, pine, walnut, or locusts, let a lot of light through, enabling many plants to grow beneath them.  At the other end of the spectrum, trees like beech, hemlock, and sugar maple let very little light through.  Deciduous trees can be useful for passive solar heating and cooling in temperate climates, as they provide shade during the summer but let light through in the winter.

Fire: Fire ecology is also worth considering.  Trees like pitch pine are adapted to areas that burn regularly, and to a degree, encourage these areas to burn regularly through dropping a lot of dry, flammable material.  While this can be good for the local ecosystem, it can be dangerous when such trees are planted around human habitation in fire-prone areas.  On the other hand, trees that are not well-adapted to fire can also pose a fire risk.  For example, Eucalyptus trees are frequently planted in southern California, an area drier than their natural habitat, but these trees drop large quantities of bark and leaf litter with a high oil content, and pose a significant fire risk in this region.

Flaming grill in a park under a grove of dry Eucalyptus trees

Chollas Reservoir Park, San Diego. Eucalyptus trees are prone to burning in the dry climate of Southern California. With such careless plantings such as this grove of Eucalyptus planted in an area where open flames are not only allowed but encouraged, it is no wonder these areas are prone to destructive fires.

Nutrients & Needle / Leaf Litter: Another important factor to consider is a tree’s use of nutrients.  Some trees, including alders and most legumes, are nitrogen fixers, enabling them to take atmospheric nitrogen and turn it into a form that plants can utilize.  These trees provide a natural fertilizer, and thus make an outstanding choice of tree for poor soils, and also around the edges of gardens and agricultural fields where nitrogen is in high demand.  The litter (needles or leaves) dropped by plants varies hugely in its nutrient composition.  Pine, spruce, and fir trees tend to drop needles which are acidic and break down slowly…this can make it hard to grow certain types of plants under them.  On the other hand, juniper (including eastern red cedar) has the opposite effect, drawing calcium up from lower in the soil and depositing it on the surface when it drops needles, making the soil less acidic.  Even among trees with high nutrient requirements, the nitrogen content of leaves varies hugely.  Leaves with more nitrogen tend to be less acidic and break down more quickly.  In general, the thicker, tougher leaves have less nitrogen and break down slower, but it is best to look up each species on a case-by-case basis if you are considering planting it.

Eastern red cedars growing on disturbed ground

Eastern red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, has the effect of adding calcium and nutrients to the top layers of soil. It is a good plant to speed the development of poor soil and disturbed ground into more fertile ground.


Choose trees adapted to the local conditions of your site:

This common-sense rule seems to go without saying, but you might be surprised how infrequently it is followed.  In modern American society, people often adopt a mechanical approach to tree planting–purchasing a tree and installing it with the (idiotic) idea that it will just grow on its own.  In reality, there are many factors that influence how well a tree does.  Some important factors to consider are:

Sun / shade tolerance: some trees require full sun to thrive, others grow well in partial shade and a few (such as eastern hemlock) even in deep shade.  Similarly, not all trees do well in sun–hemlocks in particular often do poorly if planted in an exposed location.

Pollution tolerance: trees vary considerably in their tolerance to pollution (including both air and water pollution) and general urban conditions.

Nutrient / soil requirements: some trees tolerate poorly drained soils; some actually prefer damp soils, whereas others demand well-drained soils.  Fewer trees, however, can thrive in poor, sandy soils.

Use single species (non-hybridized) trees grown from seed, taken from healthy local populations:

Many trees can be cloned and hybridized.  Whether or not trees are hybridized, they are often developed into named cultivars which are then cloned.  With few exceptions, when you see a named cultivar of a tree or plant for sale in a nursery, it is a cloned cultivar.  Often, these cultivars have been selected for various desirable horticultural qualities, such as leaf color, fall color, or flower size or color.  In some cases, sterile (seedless) varieties of trees have been developed.

Pink and dark red beech trees with two blue evengreens in the foreground

These cultivars of (European) beech and a few other tree species have been selected for their unusual color, including red and variegated leaves, creating on one tree a pink appearance when viewed from a distance. Such cultivars have been bred for appearance, not ecological value or adaptability.

These cultivars have less ecological value than their wild counterparts.  Cultivars have been selected for growing in nursery and garden/landscaping conditions, not in the wild. Except in the special case of programs designed to preserve genetic diversity (such as the American Chestnut Foundation‘s efforts to reintroduce the American Chestnut), cultivars generally have less genetic diversity than wild trees.  Sterile or seedless cultivars are particularly lacking in value, since seeds provide food for wildlife, and also, seeds enable a tree to reproduce, allowing its genetic material to become part of a healthy, sustainable population.  Even when the genome of a particular cultivar is a good representative of a healthy population, each clone has an identical genetic code and thus a group of such trees has little or no genetic diversity.  This lack of genetic diversity is the largest reason to avoid planting cloned trees.

What is the value of diversity? A healthy population of trees has a significant amount of genetic diversity, which allows the trees to adapt to pests, diseases, and changing conditions.  As an example, when Dutch Elm Disease struck, it virtually eliminated a major component of the forests (not to mention streets and parks) of eastern North America.  But due to genetic diversity in the population of elms, some trees were more resistant to the disease than others, which enabled people to develop resistant varieties of elm.  Now these varieties are being reintroduced.

American chestnut sapling

A blight-resistant American chestnut sapling; these trees have been carefully bred by the American chestnut foundation, combining disease-resistant trees with trees from original local populations, so as to preserve the local adaptations and genetic diversity of populations of this species in different regions.

In our world, with global climate change and other rapid human-induced changes to the environment (including pollutants, land use, and introduction of new non-native species), it is of utmost importance that we maintain healthy populations of native trees, as these trees are the cornerstones of many ecosystems.  In many regions of the world, an overwhelming majority of total land is used by humans–between cities and towns, suburbs, and agriculture–and many of these areas have numerous trees in them.  If we maintain a healthy population in areas used by humans, these trees will seed back into nearby wild ecosystems, thus contributing to the genetic diversity of these populations.  We can thus enable land that is used by human to have ecological value for maintaining healthy populations of native plants.

The best practice is to thus grow trees from seed (not from cuttings or other cloning methods) from a local seed stock–local to the area in which the tree is going to be planted.  Unfortunately, many nurseries do not follow this practice–instead they offer only mass-produced trees, sometimes cloned, sometimes taken from populations far way.  But when purchasing a suitable tree is not an option, the best choice can be achieved “for free”, by letting a tree seed itself naturally, or by transplanting a tree from a nearby area where one came up from seed.  Trees will tend to come up in areas where they are best adapted to grow–if you identify and research the tree and find it is suitable for your tree-planting needs, it is probably best to leave the tree rather than to pull it out and replace it with one you purchased.  Not only is this approach a best practice as outlined, but it can save money and time.  You can even create a suitable substrate (well-drained soil, exposed gravely soil, etc., depending on what tree you wish to grow) to encourage certain types of trees to come up in a location of your choice.  Work with nature rather than against it!

How can you help?

  • When you buy trees, ask questions about the origin of the tree.  Do not buy cloned trees or cultivars, and do not buy a tree unless you know that they have been grown from seed from local, healthy populations.  If you are unable to locate a suitable tree for purchase, consider growing a tree from seed yourself.  Often, the best trees to plant are trees will come up from seed naturally in the area where you want to plant the tree. This solution is both sustainable and inexpensive.
  • Begin learning about your local native trees and local ecology now, so that when you need to make decisions about tree planting later, you will be well-informed without having to do extensive research.  Being able to identify trees will also enable you to utilize trees that come up naturally rather than being reliant on purchasing trees.
  • If you work for a nursery or tree farm, increase your offerings of native trees grown from seed from healthy, local populations, and phase out your use of cloned cultivars and non-native plants.  Draw attention to these issues in order to gain a competitive advantage over nurseries who lag behind in these sustainable practices.
  • If you work for an institution or government in a decision-making capacity, consider enacting policies to encourage or require best practices regarding sustainable tree planting.
  • Give me feedback on how you think this guide could be improved, and consider passing it on to people you know who may be making decisions about tree planting in the near future.
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Herbicide (Roundup) Use by the City of Newark, Delaware

The City of Newark, Delaware:

I want to preface this post by saying that I love my city government here in Newark, Delaware.  One of the factors in my choosing to move back to this town was the way that I liked the direction that the city is moving in, and I have felt consistently well-represented by elected officials.  The city is doing many things to promote sustainability.  The city passed a law requiring that any modifications to property in the city must be done so as to not increase runoff from the property.  Also, the city has been promoting walkability through the encouraging of mixed-use buildings, and has been transforming the formerly sparsely laid-out Elkton Road into a more compact, walkable, Main-street-like commercial district.

Storefronts along a brick sidewalk

The City of Newark has been encouraging pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development like this new building on Main St.

The City of Newark is making do with very few resources–especially considering that they were recently hit with a $38 million lawsuit.  This amount is roughly equal to the city’s 2010 annual operating budget [PDF], which is currently running a $1.5M surplus, in spite of raising taxes less than they had anticipated  — impressive in these tight economic times.  Although I’m disappointed with the city’s actions that led to the lawsuit, I think that overall the city is an example of an efficiently-run local government.

Herbicide Use in Phillips Park and the City of Newark:

I birdwatch regularly in Phillips park and along the James F. Hall Trail, a bicycle- and pedestrian-path in the city.  Parts of this path have a gravel area along the edge for runners:

Gravel along the side of a paved pedestrian & bicycle path

A stretch of the James F. Hall Trail with gravel along the side

When walking on this path a few days ago, I noticed that some herbicide had been sprayed in the gravel area.  This immediately concerned me as I regularly see children playing on this path, people running barefoot, and dogs poking their noses in places along this path.  I had seen evidence of herbicide use before–in the form of dead plants with no other explanation of why they had died–but in this case I clearly saw that something had been sprayed on the plants.  Concerned, I called the city and wrote a letter to the head of the parks and recreation department.

My Personal Views on Herbicide Use:

My personal views on synthetic herbicides is that they are generally pollutants, and should be used with great restraint and caution, only when absolutely necessary.  Synthetic herbicides can have negative impacts on human health as well as on ecosystems.  I also think that until proven conclusively by a consensus of independent scientific research that the herbicide is safe, it should be assumed that they may not be safe.  I do not trust the marketing and safety information published by companies that sell or have an interest in promoting herbicides, since these companies have a potential conflict of interest that could hinder them from providing unbiased information.  Rather, I think that in evaluating the safety of pesticides, one must rely on independent scientific studies whose results have been published in reputable peer-reviewed journals.

My own personal experience is that herbicides are unnecessary.  I have never used any herbicides in my garden and in any other context.  I have found old-fashioned mechanical control methods (pulling weeds, trimming with mechanical clippers and edgers, and mowing) to be more than adequate to keep weeds in check.  When mechanical control is too time-consuming, I’ve found that one can avoid herbicide use by adjusting your idea of what you want to control.  Leaving certain areas of a garden to grow naturally not only can reduce the amount of work, but it can provide peripheral benefits.  Many weeds have uses as food, and those that are not eaten by humans are often eaten by a number of insects, birds, and other animals.  Also, if you’re not growing anything useful in the area, letting it grow wild provides habitat for birds and predatory insects which will keep pests in the rest of your garden under control.  Vegetation can also provides a buffer zone between gardens.  Most insects are highly specialized in what plants they eat, and thus pest infestations can quickly spread through a monoculture of one type of plant.  But when a wild area with a diversity of plants separates two gardens, pests are slower to spread from one area to the other.

I think a large portion of the herbicide use in Phillips Park and along the James F. Hall trail is completely unnecessary.  The picture here demonstrates such superfluous use:

Herbicide sprayed on plants growing in mulch; highlighted with red circles

Herbicide was sprayed in Phillips Park on plants growing in the mulch at the base of trees.

This herbicide usage strikes me as unnecessary.  There’s nothing growing in this mulch–from an ecological perspective it’s wasted space.  Grasses and non-woody plants could be allowed to grow wild in this bed.  Tree saplings could be pulled by hand in no more time than it takes to apply herbicides.  Allowing the bed to fill out naturally would provide greater ecological value.  And I honestly don’t think most people would notice if the bed were allowed to become overgrown–it might even look more visually attractive, as the park contains many beautiful wildflowers that bloom at various times of year.  Perhaps black raspberries would come up wild here, and could serve as edible landscaping.

The City’s Response to My Letter:

The city of Newark, as it always does, responded very promptly to my request for more information.  The Parks Superintendent wrote me a direct reply:

When spraying for weeds we only use Roundup with blue marker dye. Roundup is a safe weed control chemical that in fact is used by some organic gardeners. The targeted plant absorbs the Roundup thru the stomata of the leaves and the material is translocated down to the roots. Once in the roots the chemical kills the root structure. What chemical is not absorbed within the first 6 to 8 hours then breaks down and within the next 12 hours totally disappears from the environment. Roundup is used by many homeowners and can be purchased over the counter. Roundup also has a spreader/sticker mixed in so it cannot be easily washed off should it rain after application. If you have any other questions please feel free to call me on my cell.

One thing in this email I immediately took issue with.  The statement that roundup is used by “organic gardeners”.  While organic gardening has many definitions and there is a degree to which there are disputes about what constitutes “organic gardening”, the fundamental basis of organic gardening is that it refrains from the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers–and instead relies on naturally-occurring methods of weed and pest control.  The way I see it (and I anticipate that virtually all organic gardeners would agree with me on this point) is that if you use roundup or any other synthetic herbicide or pesticide, you are not practicing organic gardening.

But that is an aside…I’m not interested in technicalities of whether or not the city is using “organic” practices–I’m interested in sustainability.  What I care about is whether or not the pesticide use is a best practice, whether its use is truly necessary, and whether it has unintended negative consequences.

My Skepticism of the Claims of Roundup’s Safety:

Monsanto, the company marketing Roundup, has an established track record of overstating the safety and understating the environmental impacts of its products, including Roundup.  The statements in the email I received sent up some red flags to me–especially given that Monsanto has been twice convicted for false advertising in association with Roundup, both times for claiming that it is safer than it is. [Source-1996 NY State Conviction, Source-2009 France Conviction]

The statement that roundup is legal and used by many homeowners is irrelevant: it would be a logical fallacy to conclude that this says anything about its safety just because it is legal and widely used.  For example, many people smoke, and smoking is legal, but it is well-known that it is harmful to your health and the health of those around you.

Also, the claim that “What chemical is not absorbed within the first 6 to 8 hours then breaks down and within the next 12 hours totally disappears from the environment.” sounds too good to be true.  I quickly located an old (1989) study that documented that glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup, can actually persist in the soil for over 2 years, and one of its metabolites can persist for longer. [Source]

My Research on Roundup:

First I want to note that researching the safety and environmental impacts of Roundup are more complex than just researching that of the active ingredient.

Graphical Representation of Glyphosate Molecule

The glyphosate molecule--glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, but is only one of many chemicals in Roundup that have been found to have negative impacts on human health and the environment.

Roundup is a blend of a number of synthetic chemicals; the active ingredient is glyphosate, but the blend also contains other chemicals, including ones called adjuvants which increase the effects of the glyphosate.  Much of the research claiming that Roundup is relatively safe or has minimal impacts seems to be based on incorrectly citing studies that study glyphosate alone.  I found a recent (2009) study in a toxicology journal that established that the total formulation of Roundup is toxic to human embryos and other human cells, and that this effect is not due to glyphosate but rather, due to the adjuvants in Roundup.  Two of these adjuvants were found to be harmful to humans, and were found to be even more harmful when combined with glyphosate.  The authors concluded that “…the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death around residual levels to be expected, especially in food and feed derived from R formulation-treated crops.” [Source]

Perhaps more concerning, it is not certain exactly what is in Roundup.  I also learned about a recent controversy in France: an environmental group and an organic farmer have accused Monsanto of placing a different formulation on the market from the formulation that was cleared by regulatory agencies.  The organization conducted its own scientific tests and found an ingredient that was not registered in the mixture that was authorized, and that they claim is known to induce cell mutations in the presence of glyphosate. [Source in French]

Effects on Amphibians:

Furthermore, I also found evidence of negative effects on amphibians.  While glyphosate has a relatively low toxicity to mammals and birds, the roundup formulation as a whole is known to be highly toxic to amphibians such as frogs.  One study found it killed a large percentage of tadpoles and aquatic frogs even when at a lower concentration than would be expected to reach in nature; it killed an even higher percentage of terrestrial frogs.  The article also remarked, following a similar trend to what I found above, that the chemical culprit was not glyphosate, but rather, was the surfactant polyethoxylated tallowamine, considered by Monsanto to be an “inert” or “inactive” ingredient.  [Source]  Since frogs and toads naturally live in this area, I think this is solid reason to be extremely cautious with the use of this chemical in this area.

Stream in a park

Phillips park contains this stream as well as an extensive wetland area.

Phillips park also contains a stream and extensive wetland area.  I regularly observe multiple species of frogs and toads in the park, and I am pretty sure that some of these species breed in the wetlands in the park, as I regularly hear their mating calls.

Call to Action:

On the basis of the information I found, I am calling on the city of Newark to:

  • Reduce their use of Roundup on all city property, using it only in the cases where it is absolutely necessary and no safer, realistic alternative exists.
  • In considering the use of future herbicides or other chemicals, seek out products whose exact formulation is known, and where the exact formulation has been established to be safe for humans and ecosystems by multiple independent scientific studies.
  • Maintain city property without herbicides wherever possible.  Consider leaving more areas unmaintained, and maintain the remaining areas through mowing, trimming, and mechanical weeding.  This is based on the premise that it is better for us to adjust our sense of aesthetics to the most sustainable practice, rather than to sacrifice sustainability for aesthetic considerations.
  • If the city still finds these alternatives too expensive or time-consuming, the city could solicit volunteers to maintain their property mechanically.  I know that I would certainly volunteer my time to weed or trim flower beds if I knew it could contribute to reducing or eliminating the use of herbicides.

What can you do?

  • Comment on this post or let me know by some other means, if you live, work, or have an interest in the city of Newark and want to encourage the city to reduce their use of herbicides.
  • If you do not live in or near Newark, consider exploring these issues wherever you do live.  If you find a municipality that has successfully reduced or eliminated their use of herbicides, please contact me so we can use this municipality as a positive example and perhaps learn from how they achieved this goal.
  • Give feedback on the “Call to Action” — how could we modify or improve it to make it more ambitious or more realistic?

This is only the first stage of action.  I am planning to put together a petition to let the city know that people care about this issue, but I want to get feedback and build a consensus about what we are advocating for, before putting together anything of this sort.  Thank you!

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Why GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is a Poor Measure of Wealth and Prosperity

The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of economic activity for a country as a whole.  GDP, and related figures like per capita GDP or inflation-adjusted GDP, are frequently referenced in economics and news sources, especially in the context of development economics, and especially in news sources discussing economic downturns or booms.  GDP is so dominant that the general term “growth” is usually implicitly assumed to mean growth of GDP.

Economics, contrary to popular belief, is not the study of money or financial systems per se, but rather, the study of resource use and distribution in human society.  Definitions of economics, including those in most mainstream economics textbooks, emphasize economics as the study of the choices people and groups of people make, particularly in contexts involving scarce resources.

If economics is to retain its place in academia and society as a legitimate social science, the economic discourse needs to stay true to its broader definition, and needs to encompass the study of all resource distribution, not just that included in the money economy.  This blog post will provide a compelling argument that GDP is not only a poor measure of wealth and prosperity–but in fact, that it is not even a measure of wealth and prosperity at all.  And, as such, the equating of GDP with wealth and prosperity by economists is not only wrong (and has negative impacts on society through its influences on policy), but also serves to discredit the field of economics by studying only the money economy and not the distribution of resources as a whole.

What does GDP measure and what does it not measure?

There are many different ways to calculate or measure GDP, but they essentially measure the same thing.  This exposition of GDP is necessarily an oversimplification, but I believe that it captures the essence of the concept (to economists reading this, if you have suggestions of how to make this section more accurate, let me know).  The simplest way of understanding GDP is as the total of all production (both goods and services) in an economy that is associated with transactions in which money changes hands.

Except in certain organized business barter transactions which are counted as income for individuals or corporations, GDP generally does not include transactions in which no money changes hands.  The following table helps to illustrate what is and is not included in GDP.

GDP Includes: GDP Does Not Include:
Farmers producing & selling crops (even if the crops later rot or spoil–so long as they are sold) People growing food in their own garden, for their own consumption, gifts, or donation to charity
Buying a meal at a restaurant (regardless of whether or not you eat it) (excluding ingredient cost) Preparing a similar meal at home
Hiring a babysitter or paying a daycare center for child care Caring for your own children or those of a friend or relative free of charge
Hiring a contractor or skilled tradesperson to do repairs or improvements on your home (excluding supplies) Working on your house yourself, or doing similar work for a friend as a favor
Buying a new suit (regardless of whether or not you ever wear it) Giving a used suit to a friend, or donating it to charity, instead of throwing it out

It is also worth noting how GDP counts goods or services when they are sold and resold.  Shipping and storage of goods are almost always counted in GDP, as these are considered services that are produced.  So a product that is sold directly to the end user, at the point of production, will result in less of a contribution to GDP than a product which is produced, shipped, stored in a warehouse, and shipped again to the same end user for the same price plus shipping costs.  Also worth noting, a new product that is resold at progressively higher prices will result in a greater contribution to GDP than the same good which is only sold once at the lower price.

Already, we see a disconnect between what economics is supposed to study (the distribution and use of resources), and what GDP measures (the amount of money changing hands in association with sale and purchase of new goods or services).  But there is another, deeper shortcoming with GDP that is easily illustrated by looking at what happens to GDP in the case of a car accident.

The Example of a Car Accident:

Let us look at what happens to GDP when a gruesome car accident, like the one pictured below, happens:

A Car With Severe Damage from an AccidentIt is likely that people are seriously injured in an accident of this scale.  In these cases, an ambulance would come and take people to a local hospital, where they might be given medical attention.  Suppose both cars are totalled.  Between health insurance, car insurance, out of pocket expenses, a lot of money changes hands–and unless the cars are junkers and the injuries superficial, the amount of money is probably on the order of several tens of thousands of dollars, possibly more if the injuries are severe.  If someone hires a lawyer and sues, even more money is likely to change hands.  Also, public or government services (and thus taxpayer funds) are probably involved in the emergency response, further adding to the total cost.

This cost is not theoretical.  A 2008 report put out by AAA (the American Automobile Association) estimated the annual cost of car accidents in the U.S. as $164.2 billion dollars.  This is a substantial amount of money–to put it in perspective, it is over 1.2% of the current U.S. National Debt [Source], and about 1.1% the amount of 2008 GDP in the U.S. [Source]  Now, here’s the kicker:

Most of this money is included in GDP. The main exception would be if the people purchase used cars as replacements.  But the medical care, any car repair work, and new cars purchased, and any legal fees, is all included in GDP.  Furthermore, the incremental rate by which everyone’s insurance premiums go up to pay for this accident results in more payments to insurance companies, which is also included in GDP.  The net effect of the accident is to produce a substantial increase in GDP.  Most alarmingly, the more destructive the accident, the greater the increase in GDP.

The net effect on society and on people’s lives is that resources have been destroyed or used up–the cars, the resources of emergency response personnel, the medical resources used to treat the people involved in the crash, and the quality of life (and possibly work productivity) lost while these people recover from their injuries.  This highlights the ultimate failing of GDP: GDP does not measure the destruction or loss of wealth or resources.

One More Piece of Evidence that GDP is Not an Indicator of Wealth & Prosperity:

Especially in an area like macroeconomics, I think it is always valuable to look at something from different perspectives.  So far, we’ve been talking about the individual contributions to GDP from various small incidents and economic activities.  What does the picture look like when we look at the GDP of a country as a whole?

I think one of the most compelling points about GDP is that countries with higher per-capita GDP do not necessarily have a higher quality of life.  Wikipedia has a useful list of countries by per capita GDP (in U.S. $), which has three different sources (IMF, World Bank, and CIA Factbook).  Depending on the source, Sudan’s per capita GDP is between $2,380 and $2,201.  Compare to Eritrea, whose GDP is listed as $624-$700.  If GDP is even a crude measure of prosperity, then since Sudan’s GDP is over 3 times as high as Eritrea, the Sudan should be much better off.  Public health data suggests the opposite.  Their HIV prevalence rate is similar [Source], but Sudan has about twice the rate of infant mortality rate [Source], and life expectancy in Sudan is lower by more than 10 years [Source].  The genocide and violence in Sudan is another issue; although Eritrea has had its share of violence and strife, the magnitude of violence there does not approach that in the Sudan.

This was just one example; perusing other figures show similar results, even among wealthier countries.  For example, the U.S. has an embarassingly high infant mortality rate, 46th worldwide, placing it below Cuba, even though it ranks 6th or 8th in per capita GDP.  One of the reasons that GDP fails to correlate tightly with public health measures is that per-capita GDP is an average, and thus does not capture distribution of wealth.  In the U.S., the infant mortality rate is high because the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few; the contributions to high infant mortality come from poor subsets of the population living at an economic level comparable to that in many developing countries.

A quick summary of some of the shortcomings of GDP:

  • GDP only counts activity that happens inside the money economy.  Many of the most important types of economic activity (including food production, education, raising children, even transportation) happen both inside and outside the money economy, and these are not included in GDP.
  • GDP aggregates figures based on price, not value.  Sales of the same goods or services at a higher price contribute more to GDP, even though they contribute equally to the wealth available in a country.
  • GDP measures only production, and does not measure the destruction, loss, or using up, or squandering of wealth or resources.  GDP is thus measuring only “half the equation” (less than half when considering the first point above) when it comes to what is affecting the total amount of wealth in a country.
  • Per-capita GDP measures only average prosperity and does not address disparities in wealth, income, and resource distribution.

Considering these shortcomings, the practice of equating wealth or prosperity with GDP is completely indefensible.  Wealth, loosely speaking, is the total of all resources belonging to a country, individual, group, or region.  Using common sense, we can say that a change in wealth is equal to the amount of wealth being created and the amount being destroyed or used up.  Using this concept as a starting point, we can make a simple equation for the true nature of wealth:

Change in Wealth = GDP + (Production of Wealth Not Included in GDP) – (Destruction and Loss of Wealth) +/- (Flow of Wealth due to Imports & Exports)

How big are each of these terms?  I don’t know…but depending on how you value them, they could be huge.  Many of them probably cannot be easily quantified with a dollar value.  But the lesson is the same…GDP does not measure wealth.  It is not even a crude measure of wealth.  GDP is only one of several factors determining the rate of change of wealth within society, and it is not necessarily the biggest factor.

What happens when you focus on Raising / Maximizing GDP?

The answer is simple: GDP increases, often at the expense of other things (the other terms in the equation above).  The net effect is a miserable failure from a sustainability perspective.  Look at U.S. society and you see a compelling example of the failure of this policy.  The U.S. economic policy in recent years, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, has been a focus on growth of GDP as an indicator of economic health.  The effects of this policy are inescapable, in virtually every aspect of our society:

  • Compared to past generations, both parents are more likely to work full-time, and people work longer hours, leaving less time for spending time with family–instead things like childcare have moved into the money economy.
  • The retail sector of our economy is focused on reselling goods through multiple layers of distribution at progressively higher prices.  The emphasis is on the price, not the value, and the highest profits exist for the people who are able to sell the cheapest goods at the highest markup.
  • Our economy is based on continually buying new things rather than buying high-quality goods and properly maintaining and repairing them.  Repair industries have suffered greatly–the dominant practice is to throw out and replace anything that breaks or wears out.
  • Transportation and shipping of goods has become a huge part of our economy.  Rather than goods being produced locally, we import a huge amount of things from overseas, including China, and even within the U.S., we are less likely to purchase locally-produced goods and purchase things from local stores.  Even our food supply has become based on shipping things from overseas.
  • Our society remains stuck trying to prevent or fix environmental problems through a regulatory approach.  Rather than people having natural incentives to preserve and protect the environment, the incentives are for people to exploit or use up as many natural resources as possible, in order to generate profit.  Corporations are thus constantly fighting for as lax regulations as possible, and finding ways to evade existing laws.

Is this the way it needs to be?  Not at all.  Can you imagine a society which has none of these problems?  I can.  I believe that we can achieve such a society–and can do so quickly, within significantly less than a person’s lifetime.  Furthermore, we must do so quickly, as the society we are living in is completely unsustainable in every sense of the word.

People often tell me that Americans are short-sighted.  I don’t believe this.  I think that we’ve just been given the wrong incentives.  Most Americans, liberal and conservative, care deeply about future generations. It simply does not make sense to me that people don’t care or don’t think in the long-term.  Most people I know do–but I think that most people I know are also operating within social and systems that produce incentives for short-term thinking.

People live paycheck-to-paycheck because they’re in debt and need to make a series of monthly payments on loans.  They got in debt because everything in our society makes it easy to get and stay in debt and hard to stay out of debt.  People make short-sighted decisions in their jobs because their jobs are structured to create incentives for this behavior.  CEO’s are fired if they don’t deliver consistent quarterly profits–they’re not judged by their commitment to long-term prosperity of their company.  And many people work long hours because their jobs require them to do so, and they’re afraid that they’ll get fired if they don’t.  High unemployment makes people even more strongly locked into this type of work life.  And people make choices in their daily lives to buy products that are made in ways that are damaging to the environment, not because they don’t care about the environment, but because these goods are cheaper and more widely available.

Why is our society structured this way?  Because we have designed our economy this way. All the problems given as examples above are examples of things that boost GDP without creating real wealth.  These problems are an inevitable result of a public policy and culture and philosophy in our society which focuses on growth of GDP as an economic goal.

The beauty is that if we let go of this (inane) goal, we are freed.  All these problems disappear.  They won’t vanish overnight, but if we can agree to abandon the idea of growth of GDP as a goal and set as a goal the prosperity of all people, they will disappear without us having to struggle so hard, because we will have removed the main incentive holding them in place.

What can you do?

  • Make a commitment right now to working to create wealth and build prosperity for all people, and recognize that growth of GDP is often at odds with this goal.  Make life decisions accordingly.
  • Buy only what you need, and be price-conscious when you shop.
  • Buy high-quality goods and take care of the things that you buy so that they last longer.
  • Donate or give away things rather than throwing them out, assuming they are still in good condition.
  • Reduce your expenditures and your need for money so that you can work less in the money economy during your life, spending more time doing productive things not included in GDP like spending time with friends and family, volunteering, gardening, cooking, working on your home, sewing, and being involved in your local community.
  • Pick role models and ideals by focusing on intelligent use of resources and a long-term outlook, rather than conspicuous consumption and and a high-income, high-spending lifestyle.
  • Support businesses and individuals committed to quality and wise use of resources.
  • Support local businesses and buy locally-produced goods, especially food, to whatever degree possible.
  • For those who engage in political or economic discourse, whenever anyone talking about GDP or growth (usually meaning growth of GDP) implicitly or explicitly states that increasing GDP or growth is a good thing, call them out on the fallacy of their viewpoint.  Suggest that they focus directly on quality of life issues rather than numerical economic measures.  If a dollar value measurement is to be used, insist that a measure be used that includes the value of production not included in GDP, and subtracts the value of goods destroyed–and thus focuses on measuring wealth rather than a particularly narrow view of production in the money economy.
  • If you are an economist, work to develop better indicators that address the points here, and conduct and publish work critical of GDP.  Focus your criticism on economists who remain wedded to the outdated notion of GDP, and show your support for economists working towards better measures of wealth and prosperity.
  • If you work in government, media, or influence policy in any way, make sure to act based on promoting actual prosperity, not growth of GDP.  Ask yourself the question about every policy–how does this affect the actual wealth in society–and act accordingly.
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The “Ground Zero Mosque”: What is the true motivation behind this debate?

Park 51, formerly proposed as Cordoba House, has been dubbed by opponents as the “Ground Zero Mosque” due to its proximity to the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  Park 51 is located on Park Place, a few blocks north of the ground zero site.  I have been getting into extensive discussions about this controversy over the past few days, which motivated me to write this post.  I think that the way in which Americans approach this issue is critical because our actions and words send a strong message to the world, a message that will be heard both by terrorists and by peaceful members not only of Islam but of all religions.  The way America handles this debate may have profound and lasting impacts.

A Few Key Background Facts:

A few often-omitted facts in the discussion are that the building is already being used for Muslim worship (See ABC News Fact Check: Islam Already Lives Near Ground Zero) and that another mosque, Masjid Manhattan, founded in 1970, is located less than a mile from ground zero, also has Islamic classes at a location 2 blocks from Park Place, and 4 blocks from ground zero.  The history of Islam in the neighborhood around ground zero clearly predates not only the 9/11 attacks, but even the construction of the World Trade Center, the first building of which was completed in 1972.

Polls about the “ground zero mosque”:

There are several polls circulating in the news, claiming that a majority of Americans oppose the building of this Islamic center, but the way in which the polls have been worded has been criticized.  As an example, consider the following two questions:

  1. A group of Muslims wishes to build a mosque and Islamic community center near the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  Would you support or oppose such actions?
  2. A group of moderate Muslims who condemn terrorism have worshipped in a privately-owned building near the site of the World Trade Center since before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The building they currently worship in was damaged in the 9/11 attacks and is now mostly vacant.  The group of Muslims wishes to rebuild the building to create a new worship space and an Islamic Community Center, both of which would be open to the public, including non-Muslims.  Do you support or suppose such actions?

How do you think most Americans would answer the first question?  What about the second?  Which question do you think was closest to what was asked in the poll?

Constitutionally Protected Freedom of Religion and Peaceful Assembly:

An American FlagOne other key piece of information here is that the proposed Islamic center is on private property, and there are no legal grounds on which to oppose the mosque without bringing into question the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, which is one of the oldest and most fundamental aspects of the values underpinning American democracy.  Here is the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Source: Bill of Rights, U.S. National Archives & Records Administration.

Opponents of the mosque, when presented with this excerpt from the constitution, often acknowledge that people have a right to build a mosque or Islamic center, but that they are personally opposed to the mosque and think it is bad taste or sends a bad message.  Why do they think it sends a bad message?

What is behind the opposition and protest?

At the core of the opposition to this Islamic center seems to be the idea that building an Islamic center near ground zero is offensive or disrespectful to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks because the attacks were carried out in the name of Islam.

Green Crescent and Star

The star and crescent is one of the most widely recognized symbols of Islam.

But the Muslims behind the Park 51 project had no agency in, no involvement in, and no connection whatsoever to the 9/11 attacks.  By opposing their mosque and Islamic center, opponents are identifying them as members of the same group–Islam–as Islamic terrorists.  Is this a correct identification?

Identifying extremists as “legitimate” members of the broader religion they claim membership in:

What if someone were to identify peaceful Christians with the violent actions of a white supremacist group like the KKK, or anti-abortionists who murder doctors, as both of these groups identify themselves as part of Christianity.  I am Christian, and the actions of these groups go against the very core of my beliefs–Jesus’ commandment to love all people.  I do not see these people as Christians, only as violent, hateful extremists who have chosen to label themselves with the same name as my faith.  Yet I am completely powerless over these groups’ actions–anyone can choose to identify publicly as Christian, adopt some Christian practices superficially, and commit whatever horrible atrocities they choose to–people even twist around Bible verses to support their violence and hate–and I can’t do anything about it.

It is thus unfair (and I would say disrespectful and offensive–certainly very bad taste) to lump me, or all Christians, in with the same group as these violent and hateful extremists.  And for this same reason, it is completely unfair, offensive, disrespectful, bad taste, and I would even say wrong to be opposed to this “ground zero mosque” because doing so identifies all Muslims with Muslim extremists.  If you do not make this identification, the mosque would not be offensive but, rather, would carry a strongly positive message; the connection of “Islam” would be in name only, and the deep issue (violence vs. peace) would be completely separate.  The mosque would be a monument to peace and thus would be respectful to and supportive of the victims and their families.

Making the identification between Islamic terrorists and Islam as a whole is wrong on many levels:

  • It takes power away from peaceful Muslims, many of whom are American citizens, and who did not do anything wrong and had no agency in the terrorist attacks.
  • It is stereotyping of the worst kind – identifying non-violent members of a group with violent members, without even examining these people or their views individually or giving them a chance to show the world what they stand for.
  • It encourages discrimination and even hate crimes against peaceful Muslims – because people react so strongly to the violence of the 9/11 attacks, identifying innocent Muslims with the terrorists makes these people likely to be the victim of discrimination and hate crimes.  In 2005 the New York Times published an article Reported hate crimes against Muslims rise in U.S., demonstrating that this is a real problem and outlining how since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims across the U.S. have faced violence, threats, and even profiling by police.
  • It gives extremists and terrorists too much power – by opposing the ground zero mosque we have enabled the terrorists to give all Muslims, including peaceful ones in the U.S., a bad name.  It has also made the terrorists succeed at their mission: promoting fear and terror.

What message does opposition to the mosque send to the world?

The Christian Science Monitor has published an article: Could opposition to Ground Zero mosque bolster the thing opponents fear? which argues compellingly that opposition to the mosque could actually fuel extremism because it sends the message that Americans are reacting negatively not to violence or terrorism, but to the idea of Islam itself.

What message do we want to send?

We want to send the message that the U.S. supports freedom of religion, and respects all peaceful forms of religious practice and worship, including Islam.  We want to send the message that we do not believe violence to be a legitimate expression of any sort of religious faith, and that violent extremists are not true representatives of the religion they identify with.  And we want to send the message that we are strong, and that even horrible acts of violence cannot shake our commitment to freedom of religion and our respect for all peaceful forms of religion.

What can you do?

  • Always make a clear distinction between Islam as a whole and extremist Islamic terrorist groups, in your thoughts, words, and actions; do not make any statement or take any action that implicitly identifies Islamic terrorists as part of the legitimate religion of Islam as a whole.
  • Check basic facts in a controversial case like this “ground zero mosque”, before jumping to conclusions–especially when polling is involved.  After doing your research, let people know about key facts, such as the fact that the building is already being used for Muslim worship, that the building is on private property, that the Muslims in this particular community are moderate and have no connection or relationship to the 9/11 attacks, and that Islam has a long and rich history in the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Talk to your friends about this controversy and let them know that you believe that this mosque and Islamic center can be interpreted as respectful to the victims of 9/11, and send a strong positive message both to peaceful Islam and to Islamic terrorists that the U.S. cannot be driven to crumble by violent opposition, and that we stand for peace and freedom.
  • Learn more about Islam before making generalized statements about it; read about Islam, and if you have the opportunity, get to know some Muslims and ask them about their faith.  Become aware of the diversity of viewpoints and beliefs within Islam so that you can grow past stereotypes you may hold.  It is easy to demonize an alien culture that you have no contact with, but bridging cultural gaps and looking at people from different cultures as human beings ultimately makes it easy for us all to overcome violence and live peacefully and in harmony with each other.
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Setting your Thermostat for Air Conditioning in Hot Weather

Here in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, the temperature has been getting up into the high 90’s (Fahrenheit) in recent days, and the forecast is calling for 2 to 3 days with highs at or above 100 here in Delaware.  What is the best way to set your thermostat for air conditioning when the weather is this hot outside?  In this post I will demonstrate that setting the thermostat higher in hotter weather will not only save energy and money (which is obvious), but is also better for your health and enjoyment of life.

To illustrate why this is true, I will start by sharing an amusing story about Texans.

Texans and Air Conditioning:

I grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which has humid summers with occasional hot spells up into the upper 90’s.  But these hot spells are not the norm.  The climate overall is quite temperate, and it is common for people, like me, to grow up without air conditioning.  During these few hottest days of summer, we slow down, avoid heavy exertion during the heat of the day and stay indoors or in the shade, drinking cool drinks and maybe using a fan.

Star in a Round Dome of a Ceiling

The star in the dome of the capitol building in Austin, Texas.

Texans pride themselves on being bold and courageous.  One summer, I took a vacation to Austin, Texas, which, at the time, was the farthest south I had ever been.  The sun was much brighter, and the days were hot, all in the 90’s.  But I was shocked to find that Texans were wimps about the heat.  They complained that it was too hot out even early in the day, when it was still in the 80’s, and when it was dry heat.  Why were these “tough” Texans such cowards about the heat?  Because they all were used to having air conditioning virtually everywhere.  They had never learned to adapt, and never allowed their bodies to adapt to the heat either.

The Human Body Adapts to Heat & Cold:

The human body, like most biological systems, has a remarkable ability to adapt to different conditions.  Humans have lived for thousands of years in virtually all parts of the globe, from tropical rainforests to the driest deserts to frigid polar areas and everything in between.  People who work outdoors in the deep south do not complain when faced with a modestly warm, 85 degree day in the mid-Atlantic, the same way someone from Alaska, Maine, or Minnesota doesn’t complain when the temperature drops below 20 degrees.  But in order to allow yourself to adapt, you need to actually expose yourself to the weather.  If you set your thermostat to 68 degrees in the summer and stay indoors most of the time, when you step outside into 85 degree weather, it’ll feel like a sauna.  If your thermostat had been set at 80 instead, you’d walk outside and it would feel a little bit warm.

Remember to stay adequately hydrated:

It is very important in hot weather to drink enough water, and if you are sweating a lot, to replenish your electrolytes by eating something that naturally contains some sodium and potassium.  Dehydration is the main health risk associated with very hot weather; imbalance of electrolytes is less common but is still an issue in very hot weather.

Adapting your behavior to the heat:

In addition to your body adapting on its own, there are easy ways to make the heat more tolerable.  People in the northern U.S. often make fun of southerners because they walk so slowly, but slowing down is one of the best ways to keep cool.  Drinking cool drinks, and wearing light, loose-fitting clothing that breathes well (like cotton or linen).

The best way to set your thermostat is relative to the outdoor temperature, not at a fixed temperature:

When it is 90 outside, try setting the thermostat at 80 or higher.  If it’s 95-100, try setting the thermostat at 85 or higher.  If you use a window unit without a temperature gauge, you can still use the suggestion below of inching the setting cooler gradually.

Hand Setting Thermostat at 82 degrees

82 feels cool when it's in the 90's outdoors.

Turn your A/C off when you leave your house or apartment, and close the blinds to keep the sun from heating up the interior.  When you return, if it’s too hot, inch the temperature down 1 or 2 degrees at a time until you feel comfortable.  This allows you to keep the temperature as high as possible.  You may be surprised at how much a difference of as little as 2 degrees Fahrenheit makes: air conditioning also dries out the air, so if you are coming in from a humid outdoor environment, the same temperature in an air-conditioned interior will feel much cooler.

Setting the thermostat very low (68 or 72 as some people do) in the hottest weather is not only costly and wasteful of energy, but it also is hard on your body and will keep you from appreciating the outdoors during hot weather.  Like the Texans described above, you risk becoming a wimp about the hot weather.  If instead you pick a more moderate temperature, you will not only be conserving energy (and saving money) but you will feel less of an adjustment when you go outdoors in the summer–and you will be more ready to appreciate outdoor activities, whether you do them in the heat of the day or during the cooler periods in the morning or evening.

What can you do?

  • Spend some time outdoors in the hottest weather (staying adequately hydrated!), to allow yourself to adapt to the heat.  You may find that the more time you spend in the heat, the less cool you need it to be indoors in order to feel comfortable.
  • Try experimenting with inching your thermostat or A/C settings down gradually from whatever interior temperature you are starting with, instead of just setting it at a cold, fixed level.  You may be pleased both with your savings on the electric bill, and your increased ability to enjoy the outdoors during hot weather.
  • If you are in charge of an office environment, consider setting the thermostat higher on the hottest days; make the dress code allow options for weather-appropriate clothing (shorts, skirts, sandals, short sleeves) on these days even if you require less casual attire on other days.  Let people know ahead of time what the interior temperature will be so they can plan accordingly.  If you are not in charge of the thermostat or dress code, voice your opinion to those who are in charge, and let them know that you would appreciate a more moderate indoor temperature in the interest of health and sustainability.
  • If stores, classrooms, or other indoor public spaces are too cold, let people in charge know, and encourage them to set the temperature to a more moderate level in the hottest weather.
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Sustainability: Building a Consensus between Liberals & Conservatives

Typically, in America, environmentalism is seen as a “liberal” issue.  Public perception, especially among liberals, is that liberals care about the environment more than conservatives, and that the solution to environmental problems lies in historically liberal approaches to politics and problem-solving.

However, this couldn’t be farther from the truth.  There are many ways in which conservative ideals and approaches can be used to preserve, protect, and restore the earth’s ecosystems.  The term “Conservative” even has the same root as the word “Conserve”.  Conservatism, at its essence, is an ideology based on resisting change, and, at times, moving back towards an earlier state of things.  Conservatism also emphasizes tradition, family, and community.

In many respects, western civilization, particularly the United States, has become less sustainable in recent years, as our society has changed in ways that has destroyed community, weakened family life, and increased our negative impact on the environment.  I want to start by presenting skeptics with two powerful concrete examples of how conservatism and sustainability can go hand-in-hand.

Traditionalists and the Natural Foods Movement:

Environmentalists, including many self-identified liberals, in working to conserve resources, and to protect and restore the Earth’s ecosystems, are actually embodying the very essence of conservatism.  Many supposedly novel concepts like organic agriculture and local foods simply represent a move back towards the way agriculture was practiced by humans for thousands of years.  Pictured below is the Central Market in Lancaster, PA.  Such markets, integral in supplying people with fresh, local foods, were once common and widespread.  Lancaster’s market is one of the few that has persisted through the years, and it persisted in large part because Lancaster county residents are so strongly resistant to change–while other communities idly allowed their markets to be replaced by modern supermarkets, people in Lancaster kept shopping at this market and worked through organizations like the Friends of Central Market to keep it vibrant.

Ornate Red Brick Tower in a Small City

The Central Market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

If you enter this market, you will find a number of stands run by Amish and Mennonites selling fresh produce, baked goods, and even quilts.  It is no surprise that the Amish, a group which has been among the staunchest resistors of change in many respects, are leaders in the organic agriculture and natural foods movement.  Millers Natural Foods, an Amish-run store in Bird in Hand, PA, was selling a number of natural products years before most people had ever heard of supermarket chains like Whole Foods.  The Amish, living a strongly religious, family-centered, and community-centered lifestyle that is among the most conservative of any in the U.S., are not only leaders in the natural foods movement, but have also staunchly resisted the use of automobiles, one of the largest contributors to resource use, pollution, and community fragmentation in the U.S.  The Amish are a bold example of conservatism strongly allied to sustainability.

Hunting and Conservation:

Another example of conservation coming from a place that liberals often wouldn’t want to admit is conservation of land driven by hunters.  Hunters, who span a broad range of political views, have a tendency to be more strongly represented among conservatives, and yet hunters are one of the major driving forces behind the conservation movement in the U.S., including the National Wildlife Refuge System and many state and local refuges.  The U.S.’s National Wildlife Refuge System, according to their website, currently contains 150 million acres of land, almost twice the 84.6 million acres managed by the National Park Service (Source).

Many more such lands are preserved through state agencies.  Pictured below is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  This area is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which manages over 1.4 million acres of game land:

Partly frozen lake in winter, with thousands of snow geese and tundra swans

Middle Creek WMA in Lancaster County, PA is one of many nature preserves that have been created in large part due to the conservation efforts of hunters.

Serious hunters develop an intimate understanding of ecological relationships, understanding the importance of large, undisturbed tracts of habitat and sustainable hunting practices, both of which protect game populations.  These large, intact natural areas have immense ecological value, both for creating clean air and water, for protecting biodiversity, and as every hunter and fisher knows, creating sustainable reserves of meat and fish that is healthy, without the negative environmental impacts of factory farming.

Drawbacks to Liberalism’s Approach to Environmentalism:

Not only do conservatives have something major to offer to the environmentalist movement, there are a lot of ways in which liberalism’s historical approaches are limited in their ability to protect the environment.  In the United States, Liberalism has been closely tied to a regulatory and spending-based approach to problem-solving.  This approach involves the creation of laws, usually at the federal level, which are enforced by large, complex bureaucracies, many of which have their counterparts at the state level.  An example would be the US EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).  The problem with this approach is that it avoids the root of the problem, and it is often costly and complex, increasing the size of government and the need for taxes.

In the U.S., most environmental destruction and degradation happens as a result of economic incentives, which reward people for decisions that destroy  the environment for personal profit.  The regulatory approach, in the eyes of those critical of it, is like sitting next to a pile of gold with a gun and hoping that you keep anyone from taking any of it.  It’s just a matter of time before someone either sneaks up unnoticed and steals some, or comes along with a bigger gun.  (As often happens in the U.S., metaphorically, when big corporations like BP use their massive wealth to influence the political process to convince regulators like the EPA to turn the other way.)  The way out of this mess is to remove the gold–changing the economic incentives, many of which are created, conservatives would point out, by government spending.

Conservatives, especially Libertarian-leaning conservatives that constitute much of the base of the Republican party in the United States, prefer a different approach.  Conservatives generally want small government and more local control.  They also believe in working through creation of simple, natural economic incentives, rather than regulation, whenever possible.  Rather than create new laws and restrictions, enforced by bureaucracies, they would rather start by paring down the bad aspects of government and eliminating expenditures that create the wrong incentives.

An Example of a Conservative Approach of Promoting Sustainability by Reducing Expenditures: Targeting Agricultural Subsidies:

A good place to start working towards sustainability from a conservative / small government perspective would be elimination or intelligent reduction of agricultural subsidies in the U.S.  Agricultural subsidies in the U.S. currently create incentives for large-scale commercial farms (factory farms) whose farming practices are damaging to the environment and which produce food that is less healthy than fresh food grown by small, local farms.  The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank that liberals would be quick to brand as anti-environmentalism, advocates for a complete removal of such subsidies in their 2007 article Plowing Farm Subsidies Under.  I did some of my own research and also found compelling reasons to support such a change.  The following chart shows how heavily U.S. Agricultural payments are skewed towards supporting factory farms:

Pie Chart of Government Payments to Farms: 62% commercial, 19% residence farms, 19% intermediateThis chart is from the ERS/USDA Website’s page on Farms Receiving Government Payments, which has more detailed information for those curious.  Of the around $10.3 billion in 2008 payments (an amount roughly equal to the EPA’s annual budget), 62% of the payments went to commercial farms, with only 19% reaching rural residence farms (and this figure does not take into account abuses such as large corporations setting up sham corporations as subsidiaries, with a resident owner, to qualify as residence farms).  In addition, only 30% of all rural residence farms received payments, whereas 70% of commercial farms did.  These payments clearly support commercial agriculture more than small farmers.

Our price fixing of various commodities also has devastating human rights and environmental consequences in the third world.  An article originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Why U.S. Farm Subsidies are Bad for the World, argued that U.S. agricultural subsidies create poverty in developing countries.

We Could Find More Examples:

This issue is just one example: there are many types of government expenditures at the federal, state and even local levels which create bad incentives and have negative impacts on sustainability.  Conservatives have an excellent point that it would be prudent, especially when our government is already running a large deficit, to first eliminate expenditures that are having negative environmental impacts, before creating new ones in an attempt to solve environmental problems.

Another example is careless use of highway funding in ways that harm sustainability: Federal highway funding totalled over $40 billion in 2008, and the way these funds are used is closely tied to car and truck use, a major factor in sustainability.  Another expenditure which conservatives have often been resistant to touch, but which is a huge portion of federal spending and can have negative impacts on sustainability, is military spending.  Even though conservatives are generally supporters of a strong military, liberals might find them more cooperative about working towards intelligent paring down of military spending with an eye toward sustainability, if it were presented as an alternative to achieving sustainability through increased regulation and size of government.

Let’s Establish a Consensus between Liberals and Conservatives: We All Care About Sustainability:

The constant fighting between liberals and conservatives in America on environmental issues wastes a lot of energy.  There is a degree to which liberals’ unfair characterization of conservatives as anti-environment has created a form of self-fulfilling prophecy: rather than fight back, conservatives have let liberals own environmentalism, something that in reality should be embraced by all of us.

The bottom line is that each and every American, and indeed, each and every human being in this world, wants clean air and water, and wants a healthy, thriving natural environment that can support us in future generations.  We all want safe, affordable food, free of toxins, and produced in a way that is not damaging to the environment or to current or future generations in any way.  We all care about sustainability. Let us all agree on this.

Clear lake and sky with green trees on the side

Parvin State Park, New Jersey, June 2009

There are legitimate disagreements between the ideology of liberals and conservatives, and these differences run deep and cannot be glossed over.  But let us keep at the forefront of our mind that we are disagreeing on details…we agree on where we want to get.  We just are having a healthy debate about the best way to get there.  Ultimately, the best laws and government are created when we engage in debate and synthesize opposing views to take the best from each side.  With this in mind, we can reach better environmental solutions and attain sustainability more quickly and more easily than if either party were able to implement their views unopposed.

What can you do?

  • Regardless of what your political views are, make a commitment to work towards sustainability in all aspects of your life.
  • If you identify as liberal, talk to your conservative acquaintances and ask them about their ideas for solutions to environmental problems.  Listen, do not argue; you might learn something.  Respect differences in viewpoints and ideology, and emphasize to yourself and to others that it is possible for conservatives to disagree with liberal ideology but still be strongly environmentalist.
  • If you identify as conservative, call liberals out when they tell you that you do not care about the environment, just because you do not agree with the particular approach or plan that they suggest.  Emphasize that you both agree with a common goals and vision of a clean environment, but have very different ideas about how to best realize that vision.  When presented with something you disagree with, think about alternative plans and ideas that you can present that fit with your conservative ideology but work towards achieving these goals, so that you have a positive, constructive suggestion to counter each point you disagree with.
  • If you are a moderate, independent, or someone who falls outside the normal bounds of the liberal – conservative spectrum, help liberals and conservatives to reach a consensus on caring about sustainability, contribute your own novel ideas to the debate, and help us all hash out the details of how to get where we all want to be.
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Black Raspberries and Japanese Wineberries

This post is about two delicious types of fruit, both of which grow wild in my yard here in Delaware.  One of them, the black raspberry, is native to the eastern United States.  The other, the Japanese wineberry, is a non-native, naturalized plant that is invasive in some areas, displacing native vegetation and reducing biodiversity.

This post will give a little basic background on these two species of raspberries, including a few tips and tricks of how to identify them, how to grow them effectively, and how to control Japanese Wineberries when they are invasive.

Black Raspberries:

The black raspberry is native only to North America.  The plant is broken into two closely related species, Rubus occidentalis, found in the east, and Rubus leucodermis, found in the west. Although black raspberries are black in color and look superficially like blackberries, they are more closely related to red raspberries, and only more distantly related to blackberries.

Black raspberry plants are easily identified by their bluish-white stems.  The plants tend to have three leaflets, and the stems are quite thorny (hence the name raspberry).

Black Raspberry Plant with Leaves and Ripe and Unripe RaspberriesBlack raspberries are native to much of North America.  Black raspberries are high in anthocynanins, chemicals present in many berries.  Anthocyanins have received attention for their antioxidant activity and potential health benefits.

Distinguishing Blackberries from Black Raspberries:

The fruit of black raspberries are easily distinguished from blackberries by the fact that on blackberries, the stem comes off and remains attached to the berry, after picking, whereas when picking all raspberries, the stem remains on the plant and the berry comes off with an empty cup where the stem was.  Blackberry plants also tend to have different looking leaves–many species of blackberry have leaves with a set of five leaflets radiating from a single point.  Also, raspberries (black, red, and wineberries) tend to have white undersides to the leaves whereas blackberries tend to have green leaves on both sides.  Blackberry leaves often tend to be a slightly darker green color.

Japanese Wineberries:

Wineberry Plant with Red Fuzzy Stems and Unripe Berries

Wineberry plant a few weeks before berries ripen

The Japanese Wineberry, Rubus phoenicolasius, is a species of raspberry native to China, Japan, and Korea.  This species is very similar to black raspberries in many respects, although the two species are unmistakeable due to dramatic differences in the plants and berries.  Whereas black raspberries have white, thorny stems, wineberries have hairy red stems.  Unlike black raspberries, which mature and ripen out in the open, wineberries remain covered until a few days before they ripen.  The berries are named for the fact that they become the color of red wine when ripe–a very deep purplish red.  Compared to other red raspberries, the berries are firmer and slightly more tangy in flavor.

Red Raspberries:

Although this post isn’t about them, there are also several species of red raspberries, including ones native to North America, Europe, and Asia.  Distinguishing between these species is subtle.  I have less experience with red raspberries, and they do not grow wild in my yard, which is why I have omitted them from this post.

Growing Berries for Food:

Black raspberries ripen earlier than wineberries and the two species dovetail nicely, with wineberries beginning to come ripe just as the black raspberry crop is winding down.  Here in Delaware, black raspberries come ripe around the second week in June, and come in steadily for two weeks.  Wineberries then continue for a few more week.

Black raspberry shoots without berries

First year black raspberry shoots

Both black raspberries and wineberries are biennials, meaning that they have a two-year life cycle.  During the first year, the plants put up tall, straight shoots, which eventually fall over and touch the ground.  The tip of the shoot then grows into a new plant, and the old shoot becomes woody.  After the winter, the old shoot puts out some leaves (but little new shrubby growth), flowers, and fruits, and the new plant becomes a new first-year shoot.  In this manner, raspberries spread both by seed, and vegetatively.  Under the right conditions, raspberries will reproduce prolifically by both means.  However, keep in mind that raspberries take several years to get established and reach full productivity: the largest harvest from them will not come for a number of years after you have initially planted them.

Raspberries require little care when grown in their native habitat under the right condition.  Both species grow best in partial sun on edges between yards or grassland and forest, or in open woods or a partly-shaded yard.  Rather than planting raspberries in an exposed area in a garden (which exposes them to pests and make them harder to maintain), it’s best to plant them in a marginal area that you don’t want to put as much effort into maintaining.  The perfect place to plant them is around the edge of a yard, near a fence or hedge.  You can also plant them on disturbed ground on property that is not maintained.  I harvest a rich crop of raspberries every year, and I have never watered or fertilized them, not even with compost.  The only care I give them is to occasionally cut back vines and shrubs which are crowding them out, but even this is usually unnecessary–they are aggressive plants which can hold their own against just about anything else.

Controlling Invasive Wineberries:

Wineberries are invasive in many areas.  They can form dense thickets which shut out native plants, and for this reason, many people want to control them.  However, it is important to use the principle: do no harm.  Some people advocate usage of chemical herbicides to control wineberries and other invasive plants: I strongly recommend against this practice, as it is both unnecessary and has the potential to cause more harm than the invasive species cause to begin with.

I have found wineberries very easy to control by replacing them with black raspberries.  The two species are very closely related, have very close requirements, and can even easily co-exist in the same area (great for you if you harvest them).  Once black raspberries have been established, a few hours of pruning the wineberries back every couple weeks during the summer will quickly allow the black raspberries to achieve dominance.  You can then choose to eliminate the wineberries or leave enough to enjoy harvesting them yourself.

Do not use electric or gas-powered trimmers.  This is a brute-force attempt that kills all vegetation.  It will not control the wineberries because they will aggressively resprout and may even dominate after cutting.  Such trimmers are also energy intensive, and unsustainable.  If you live in a residential neighborhood, they are noisy and create a public nuisance.  Instead, take a simple pair of mechanical pruning shears or clippers and selectively cut the stems manually.  Look at what you are cutting, and only cut what you want to get rid of:

Hand cutting a wineberry stem with clippers

Wineberry stems are easy to identify and cut

If you wish to eventually eliminate the wineberries, cut the stems back to the ground.  If you wish only to increase the yield of black raspberries relative to wineberries, cut the stems back only partway, or only cut some stems.  Leave the cut stems to decompose on the ground.  Wineberries are aggressive growers that resprout readily, but they are easy to cut and will eventually die out if they are being cut back to the ground several times a summer.  Since you are cutting them selectively, they will be shaded out by the other plants around them–when you cut back the wineberries, the other plants will expand to fill the gaps, shading out the wineberries.

This practice requires minimal effort, uses only the energy of your own body, and causes minimal disturbance to the ecosystem.  It also uses other plants to shut out the plants you are trying to control.  It is ultimately much more effective than brute-force attempts like those involving chemicals, or power mowers, edgers, or trimmers.  This technique is useful for controlling many types of invasive plants, not just wineberries.

What can you do?

  • If you live in North America, consider growing black raspberries.  If you live in China, Japan, or Korea, consider growing wineberries.
  • If wineberries or another edible raspberry are invasive in your area, consider harvesting them.  They’re tasty, nutritious, and each berry you eat is one more berry that won’t help the spread of an invasive plant.
  • Learn to identify different types of berries and watch when they come ripe in your area, so that you can plan when to harvest them, and so that you can make decisions that lead towards the protection of native plants and the control of invasives.
  • If you desire to control invasive plants such as the wineberry, first plant an appropriate, aggressive native plant (like a black raspberry), and then follow the simple mechanical control regime recommended here, using mechanical pruning shears to selectively prune back the plants you are trying to control.  Avoid the use of chemicals and energy intensive electric- or gas-powered trimmers.
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