Month: January 2007

Do Voluntary Environmental Programs Work?

Through the most excellent Environmental Valuation & Cost-Benefit News blog comes notice of a book that answers a question that’s been on my mind off and on.

Environmental Valuation & Cost-Benefit News – Post details: Reality Check: The Nature and Performance of Voluntary Environmental Programs in the United States, Europe, and Japan

Despite a growing theoretical literature trying to explain how and why voluntary programs might be effective, there is limited empirical evidence on their success or the situations most conducive to the approaches. Even less is known about their cost-effectiveness.

The book’s called Reality Check (and long byline) and at $40 is too expensive for a look see! But here’s a teaser:

The central goals of Reality Check are understanding outcomes and the relationship between outcomes and design. Most of the programs it studies have positive results, but they are small compared with business-as-usual trends and the impact of other forces–such as higher energy prices. Importantly, potential gains may be quickly exhausted as the “low-hanging fruit” is picked up by voluntary programs. By including in-depth analyses by experts from the U.S., Europe, and Japan, the book advances scholarship and provides practical information for the future design of voluntary programs to stakeholders and policymakers on all sides of the Atlantic and Pacific.

So, the answer is no, I guess. Voluntary programs catch the bulk of changes that can be carried out easily anyway and may have been part of the company plans. They also make for good Company PR. The greater the threat of regulation and good enforcement, I guess, the more power you have to set up a good voluntary program. But if it is all carrot and no stick, who knows…

For an example of what a voluntary program looks like, here’s Climate Wise from the EPA.

Colonialism, Pharmaceutical style

Legal wrangle puts India’s generic drugs at risk – health – 29 January 2007 – New Scientist

Tens of thousands of people being treated for AIDS will suffer if Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis succeeds in changing India’s patent law, the humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres warned on Monday. Novartis is challenging a specific provision of India’s patent law that, if overturned, would see patents being granted far more widely, heavily restricting the availability of affordable generic medicines, MSF says.

In 2000, antiretroviral (ARV) treatment cost was estimated at $10,000 per patient annually. But the availability of generic drugs produced mainly in India, allowed costs to plummet to about $70 per patient per year, Mwangi adds.

You’ve got to love the friendly multinational arguing to make extra billions while people die. But I don’t think any Indian judge will overthrow Indian patent law. And there is a national interest  exemption built into most patent statutes, per the TRIPs agreements.

Arabic Strains of Islam hitting Kerala?

This can’t be great for Kerala, and something to keep an eye on.

Austere version of Islam finding a home in India – Los Angeles Times

The change came several years ago for Maryam Arrakal. Her husband brought a black, all-covering abaya back to this steamy, subtropical town from the desert sands of Saudi Arabia. It contrasted starkly with the pastel saris she normally wore. But in the 12 years that her husband, Kunchava, had been running a Saudi fabric shop, he had become detached from this melting pot of Muslims, Hindus and Christians, and more drawn to the Saudis’ strict version of Islam.

In general, a well written article. The combination of all the new money, influence and free time (when you come back “home”, you’re rich, you don’t have to work for a living) could be diverted to other things, but religion always seems to win out!

Kerala’s elders often boasted that Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a smattering of smaller religious groups were Indians first. Religious identity took a back seat to class interests. The Communist Party and the conservative Indian National Congress dominated elections.

This is the first time I have ever heard the Congress party being described as conservative. The author tries too hard to fit Indian politics into American clothes, and fails. The Congress is a left leaning market socialist party, if anything. Kerala’s politics are so far to the left of American politics that there is really no frame of reference.

“Muslims themselves are worried by the rise of the militant Islamic organizations,” said Ajai Mangat, Calicut correspondent for the Malayalam Manorama, the province’s largest daily newspaper. “If they become more powerful, the Hindu nationalists become more powerful.”

This is not the first time India has faced religious challenges, it won’t be the last time. I have faith in the giant melting pot to slowly rough the edges away. There will be tension, lives will be lost, as always, but life for the majority of Indians/Keralites will go on.

The Open Access "Debate"

Open access is a phrase used to describe the publishing of peer reviewed research in journals/websites which do not charge subscription fees. Since a bulk of published scientific literature  in the US arises directly from government, i.e. taxpayer funding, the public has already paid for this research. So, this is a debate in the sense that global warming is a debate, and yet another depressing indication of the plutocracy-protectionary principle!

Science & Technology at Scientific Open Access to Science Under Attack — Advocates of open access to scientific research may find themselves under fire from high-profile public relations flaks and high-powered lobbying groups.

The Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers hired Eric Dezenhall, head of Dezenhall Resources, a PR firm that specializes in “high stakes communications and marketplace defense,” to address some of its members this past summer and potentially craft a media strategy.

Yes, go ahead, use the same publicist types that brought you the “CO2 is life” campaign. If you read the article fully, you’ll see that these publicists suggest a simple message:

“it’s hard to fight an adversary that manages to be both elusive and in possession of a better message: Free information.” Finally, Dezenhall suggests joining forces with think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and National Consumers League in an attempt to persuade key players of the potential risks of unfiltered access. “Paint a picture of what the world would look like without peer-reviewed articles,” he adds.

Yes, of course, open access journals are not peer reviewed, cigarettes are not addictive, CO2 is life, 1+1=3 (just checking!)

I am ashamed to call myself a member of the egregious American Chemical Society, which is part of this lobbying effort along with Elsevier and Wiley.

Let’s review who’s getting paid for publishing their work with one of these wonderful journals

  1. The authors:
  2. The peer reviewers
  3. The editors of the Journal
  4. The people who own the journal
  5. The shareholders of Wiley and Elsevier

The divisions could not be more clearly drawn. The people who produce the work, and the people who check the work for scientific accuracy, readability, appropriateness and suitability don’t get paid, the man does!

For an alternative, check out the workings of PLOS.

I hope the whole current system dies a swift and painless death.

Colonialism: Environmental Edition

Does put recycling in context…

Independent Online Edition > Environment

Regardless of how carefully you separate your waste, there is a good chance a disposal firm will dump it all in together with other kinds of plastic trash and ship it to the developing world to be dealt with by a family of migrant workers earning a pittance. They will deal with the salad-bar container, the pistachio ice-cream container and the superfluous bag for carrots in your shopping basket in a variety of different ways – it may be recycled, it may become landfill or it may simply be burnt. Whatever happens, it is generally not a priority for the waste disposal company. Britain dumps around two million tonnes of waste in China every year, everything from plastic mineral water bottles to shopping bags and other forms of superfluous packaging from some of the country’s biggest supermarkets.

Same for India as well. The article says that all of this “recycling” is illegal. But how do you hide 200,000 tonnes of plastic waste?

Read the whole article, it is tragic. Some highlights:

So too are the many and varied health complaints suffered by the local population, who risk multiple skin ailments and exposure to potent carcinogens as they touch the contaminated materials. Poisonous chemical effluents stream into their water supply, turning it black or lurid red, and studies by Greenpeace show that acid rain is the norm in this region. Children are prone to fevers and coughs. Their skin is often disfigured by the toxic plastic waste they have to process.

A report by the University of Shantou on the town of Guiyu, another Guangdong recycling hub, showed that more than 80 per cent of local children suffer from lead poisoning.

Church State Separation in India

Meant to blog about this on Wednesday, but it’s been that kind of week!

Debate in India: Is Rule on Yoga Constitutional? – New York Times

At issue is a measure by the Hindu nationalist-led government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, that required public school students to practice the sun salutation and recite certain chants in Sanskrit during a statewide function on Thursday. The state government, controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., said that it complied with a central government policy to encourage yoga in schools and that it was inspired by a recent visit from a popular Hindu spiritual leader. Muslim and Christian groups in the state took issue not so much with the yoga exercise, but with the chants, which they said were essentially Hindu and in worship of the sun. They argued in court on Wednesday that it violated the Indian constitutional provision to separate religion and state.

The courts did the right thing. Yoga in India is definitely associated with being Hindu, and Sanskrit as well. There has been a growing tendency among right wing Hindu organizations to conflate Hindu and Indian (they do mean the same thing, after all). I would recommend any number of essays from Amartya Sen, especially those from the Argumentative Indian for a definitive takedown of this pernicious movement. The one-line answer is that India over the last 2000+ years has been influenced by so many religions and regions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, China, Arabia, Persia, Europe) that it is a foolish to ascribe any one identity to this country.

Whether yoga is religious practice is, like everything in this country, a matter of debate. Some people note that its recitations sometimes invoke Hindu gods, but others argue that its physical exercises have nothing to do with Hindu ritual. It is hardly uncommon for non-Hindus to practice yoga

And a lot of Hindus celebrate Christmas by going to the temple, funny how that works, and funny how nobody’s making them do it. The issue here was always imposition by the state and choice.

Yoga is wonderful and very good for you, and with a little care, can easily be delinked from its religious affiliations. Maybe this program can be done right, if the government is actually interested in getting it right.

What can the U.S learn from homeopathy?

Homeopathy was all around me growing up in India, so I read this article with interest as it jogged many memories of visiting the family homeopath with my parents.

Faith Healing with Homeopathy — In These Times

Homeopathy rests on three unproven tenets: First, “Like treats like.” Because arsenic causes shortness of breath, for example, homeopaths prescribe its “spirit” to treat diseases such as asthma. Second, the arsenic or other active ingredient is diluted in water and then that dilution is diluted again and so on, dozens of times, guaranteeing—for better and worse—that even if the dose has no therapeutic value, it does no harm. And third, the potion is shaken vigorously so that it retains a “memory” of the allegedly curative ingredient, a spirit-like essence that revives the body’s “vital force.”

Fooey, the description of the science is hilariously pseudoscientific, but homeopathy is no laughing matter in India. It is estimated to be a Rs. 250 Crore (that is 2.5 billion rupees or about $58 million) industry as of 2002-2003.  I do not think this includes doctors and clinics. This website lists 158 colleges in India offering the  valid (it is like an MD!) degree of Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery, or BHMS. My parents swear by it, most of my family living in India has either visited, or regularly visit one. It is hugely popular for hepatitis and liver disease, more so than conventional medicine in India.

What’s the deal? Why is it so popular? I think Terry Allen is on the right track, this sentence here, buried in the middle, hits the nail on the head…

Part of the effect comes from the ritual of consultation with a practitioner who treats the patient like a person rather than a body part on an assembly line.

Allen does not quite grasp the significance of this sentence and tracks away into placebo effects and evil pharma. But here’s the deal: A lot of Indians (who can afford $4-$5 consultation fee) visit their homeopath every month. When I tagged along with my parents, we would go on a Sunday afternoon at 2 PM to this homeopath’s office, which was a wing of his house (a big house, I might add!). It was a relaxed and leisurely time, he spent 10-15 minutes with each of us (yes, my parents made me!) talking about the previous month, what we were up to, how stressed we’d been, how our ailments from the previous month were doing, had we noticed any changes to our health over the month, etc. We would be interrupted occasionally by his little kid, or his assistant relaying a message from his wife, it was as far removed from a doctor’s visit as possible. And yes, he would take your blood pressure, run simple blood tests, etc. At the end of it, he would give you little sugar pills/sugar coated powder formulations to take home. The formulations were individually dosed, it was all categorized and labeled for you.

This is like having a mini physical every month. Surely, just the act of talking to someone made you feel better, the act of ritually opening up little packets of “medicine” and following detailed instructions for 5 days helped, surely the homely and relaxing atmosphere of visiting a family friend helped, I don’t know.

Metrics? both my parents occasionally had their hypertension treated with homeopathy. This worked as long as they were borderline, and simple stress management would get the numbers down. This doctor was/is very good at stress management because he talked calmly, yet firmly, he would listen and tease their little everyday stressors out of them and that was probably good for a 10 point reduction. But I remember the homeopath sending mom off to a doctor for a more conventional treatment regimen as soon as she hit 160.

It never ever worked for me because I was way too sceptical to buy into the process, so I would not listen, or relax enough to talk. I would take my pills, but it would make absolutely no difference whatsoever. Of course, he was trying to treat me for severe sinus related issues probably brought on by pollution, and by sleepless nights spent on a beach looking for turtles!

I am sure that for every good homeopath, there were two bad ones who just handed out pills of sugar. But my parents’ homeopath was, and continues to be part Dr. Phil, part candyman, part cheerleader!

Homeopathy probably “works” because it makes people take the time to think about their life and what’s ailing them. It’s a lesson that American primary care providers could do well to learn.

The U.S Emperor's new edict on regulation

Wow, plutocracy-protectionary principle alert.

Chemical & Engineering News: Latest News – Changing The Rules On Regulations

A new directive from President George W. Bush to federal agencies adds layers of bureaucracy to the process of issuing regulations and gives the White House greater control over agencies’ rules. Critics say the directive, issued Jan. 18, will slow down regulation. They say it also shifts regulatory priorities, which were set by Congress in federal laws, away from protection of health and environment to economic rationales. Some industry groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, praise the directive. “It’s the first truly significant attempt by an Administration to hold federal bureaucrats to account and insist they act with discretion when imposing new and expensive burdens on businesses and consumers,” says William Kovacs, the chamber’s vice president of environment, energy, and regulatory affairs. Under the new directive, agencies can regulate only when they can demonstrate to the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB) that the free market is not producing the desired results of the rule, such as health protection. To show that a new rule is warranted, agencies must identify what economists call “market failures”—such as when an industrial sector with unfettered pollution sells its products more cheaply than it would have had it included the cost of pollution control into the price of its goods.

Sounds reasonable, does it not! All the good buzzwords thrown in there, “Cost-Benefit Analysis”, “Market Failure”, etc. But note that the burden of proof is on the regulating body to come up with a clearcut “proof” before passing regulation.

In addition, the directive requires each agency to have a presidentially appointed “regulatory policy officer.” The agency cannot begin work on a new rule—even one required by Congress through a law—until it gets a green light from its regulatory policy officer or unless the head of the agency gives approval.

The Emperor gets to appoint a viceroy to police the agency to ensure that no such regulation will get passed.

Note the modus operandi:

  1. Appoint lackey to head agency
  2. Appoint viceroy to oversee regulation
  3. Rewrite rules to increase power of executive over legislative
  4. Shift burden of proof away from the regulated to the regulators
  5. Slash budgets so regulating agencies cannot do the work adequately
  6. Hound competent employees out of the agency
  7. Routinely bash said agency as an example of “big government”. Repeat steps 4-7 as often as necessary to ensure “success”

Banana republic, indeed.

Obligatory Sea Turtle News o' the day

green turtle underwaterSince this is the Olive Ridley blog (hint, it is a sea turtle), I do write occasionally about sea turtles. this is a random bit of sea turtle news out of Texas, and it is a feel good story…

Sea Turtles Rescued From Chilly Waters – New York Times

At least three dozen juvenile sea turtles have been rescued from an arctic blast that caused the water temperature in an arm of the Gulf of Mexico to fall 18 degrees in 48 hours. The turtles, which are cold-blooded, were left comatose by the rapid temperature drop this week in the shallow bay where they feed. Animal rescuers feared that the cold would kill the turtles or make them so sluggish that they would be vulnerable to sharks.

The nice thing about sea turtle conservation is that they are good looking beasts, harmless and very accessible. Anyone who summers on the coast of North Carolina, for instance, can see at least a cordoned off area marked as a sea turtle nests. And they’re encouraged to keep watch for hatching, keep any eye on the nest, watch out for nesting turtles, etc. U.S sea turtle conservation has a long, and fairly successful history.

Here’s more on the green turtle.

Photo’s courtesy of NOAA’s fisheries website.