News posts from JTE's Archive

Oil company profits. Larger than the promises made in spam email, and more obscene.

Monday, August 4th, 2008

Just a little reminder, here. ExxonMobil is reporting that it made $11.68 billion in profits in just the second quarter of the year alone. Royal Dutch Shell was just a few million dollars behind. In case those numbers are hard to grasp, this is more than the annual GDP (adjusted for purchasing parity)* in 2007 for each of the worlds 54 poorest countries, according to World Bank calculations. Is is more than the combined annual GDP (adjusted) of the poorest 16 countries in the world. These 16 countries have a combined population of nearly 8 million people. In other words, ExxonMobil’s quarterly profits (profits, not revenue) are equivalent to more than $1,470 per person for the combined population of the world’s poorest 16 countries. What would $1,470 do for these people? What would it do for you? What will it do for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, and other supporters of welfare for the oil corporations? (There actually is an answer to that last question.)

P.S. How long before all this money trickles down? A lot of unemployed people would probably like to know (8.8 million, to be aproximately exact). Speaking of unemployment, don’t forget that the official rate ignores people who want a job but are not officially part of the “labor force,” because they haven’t looked for a job recently (for example, because they’ve concluded that there are no jobs available). Adding those 5.2 million additional people gives an unemployment rate of 9%. And if you also add in all the people who want full time work but can only find part time work, that’s another 5.7 million people being partly left out of the productive economy, for an overall un- and under-employment rate of 12.7%. Jeepers.

* Note: adjusting for “purchasing power parity” means taking into account the fact that in one country it will cost less, in dollars, to achieve the same standard of living as in another. For example, food might be much cheaper, on average, in one country than another. So even though the people in the first country might have a lower income in raw GDP terms, the usefulness of that GDP is higher, relative to the situation in the second, more expensive, country. So adjusting for PPP makes the comparisons more meaningful and realistic, though admittedly adjusting for PPP is not a precise science by any means. Also note that this adjustment usually will reduce the numerical disparity between poorer and richer countries (since the same living standard is generally less expensive to achieve in poorer countries—which is why ex-pats from Europe and America can so easily afford to hire maids, gardeners, and cooks when living in poor parts of the world, while someone back in the home country could never afford such luxuries on the same salary). In other words, if I had used non-adjusted numbers, the comparison between ExxonMobil and the poor countries of the world would have looked even more extreme.

[Here are my calculations: exxonprofit-vs-poor.xls ]

[Photo by Lindsey Spirit]

Help with a recipe

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

We recently received an email question regarding the following recipe from Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning. Now that the harvest season is nearing (we just got our first green beans out of our garden three days ago!) I thought others might find the exchange useful.

Here’s the recipe as it appears in the book:

Green Bean Halves with Coarse Salt

Green beans
Coarse salt (1 cup per 2 lbs. of beans)
A bowl
Canning jars and lids

Break the beans in half, and put them in a bowl with salt. Leave them to marinate for three days, stirring occasionally.

Next, put the beans into canning jars (used rubber seals are okay). Fill the jars to the top and seal them. Do not transfer any liquid from the bottom of the bowl to the jars, nor should you remove any salt from the beans as you pack them in.

These beans will keep for three years. To use them, rinse the beans under the tap, before parboiling in a large quantity of water. Rinse the beans once again under the tap, and then finish cooking them.

Maurice Valle, Neufchâtel-en-Bray

* * *


I spoke with you earlier today in regards to the book, Keeping Food Fresh [the former title of the book]. I had some questions and you said I should just email them and you would contact the author for me on these. So here they are from page 126 in the book.

1. The beans always are far too salty to eat and washing numerous times does not help, would using only 1/2 cup of salt be the solution?

2. Is it wrong to be using real salt, that is granulated and not coarse? Would rock salt work better?

3. Should the bowl be covered while it is marinating?

4. Should all of the salt be added on top of the beans or is it better to layer the salt as you put the beans in the bowl?

Dear Mr. H.,

As this book consists of recipes collected from readers of a newsletter in France, we are unable to contact the person who wrote that recipe to get clarification in response to your questions. However, here are some thoughts of my own that might help–but I have not tried this recipe myself, so I am only offering these responses as possibilities, not “facts” discovered through direct experience. In other words, take my answers “with a grain of salt.”

Because of the size of the grains, there is much more physical salt in 1 cup of granulated salt than in 1 cup of coarse salt. If you have been using granulated, certainly switch to coarse. This will make a big difference in the amount of salt absorbed by the green beans.

After putting the beans and salt into the bowl, you should mix them around and then remix them a few times over the course of the three-day marinating process. This ensures that all the beans have an equal opportunity to become salted. I don’t know if it is necessary to cover the beans while they marinate in the salt.

You say that no amount of rinsing the beans takes away enough salt to make them palatable–but are you also parboiling them as the recipe recommends? Rinsing the beans will only remove the salt that remains sticking to the outside, but will not remove salt that has absorbed into the interior of the beans. Boiling, on the other hand, will extract much of that salt. Note that the recipe recommends, first: rinsing the beans, second: par-boiling them in a large quantity of water, third: rinsing them again, fourth: finish cooking them in fresh water.

Between switching to coarse salt and boiling the beans, I expect that your final, cooked beans will be much less salty than you are currently experiencing. Please let me know if this still doesn’t work! (And if it does, I’d love to know that as well.)

Video: make an all-natural fruit fly trap

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

I don’t know about you, but warm summer days at my house means fruit flies galore. When they start really getting out of hand, I make a few of these easy traps to hold the population down.

Unlike the commercial fruit fly traps out there, this involves no plastic that needs to be thrown away and when you’re done, you can pour the “trap” into your compost heap. Enjoy!

A rundown of the what and why:

Why apple cider vinegar? It smells like rotting fruit, so the flies think they’ve hit the mother load.

Why water? Just to dilute the vinegar and save money.  You can make the trap with only vinegar, but a half-and-half mix also does the trick, so you get a working volume with less store-purchased ingredients.

Why dish soap? I’m not entirely sure about this, but my best guess is that it reduces the surface tension on the water, and so the flies can’t land on it and then jump off it. They land, but then sink more easily. Also/or perhaps the soap clogs up their breathing holes.

Why regular, mainstream dish soap and not au natural soap? Again, I’m not sure. My guess is that the Dawn I used in the video is more concentrated, but that maybe the Seventh Generation would have worked if I used more–but I have sometimes had a problem where I used too much soap and those traps didn’t work very well, so it’s a balancing act. It could also be that the Dawn has a different and more fruit-fly-friendly odor. This is pure speculation.

I definitely encourage you to experiment and see what works best–and then to post your results here!

Thinking about newfangled cars

Monday, July 14th, 2008

As Americans in their role as consumers embark on a massive shift in preferences regarding automobiles, and as entrepreneurs proffer some pretty neat technological advances, yet and still…Consider this. In 2006 (year of most recent data I could find on the Department of Transportation website), 134,836,165,000 gallons of gasoline were burned by cars, motorcycles, and light trucks on US roads. This was what it took to power the 135,399,945 automobiles, 6,678,958 motorcycles, and 107,943,782 light trucks (pickups/Vans/SUVs) we all own. (And leaves out the buses and big trucks and all the diesel they burn.) All told, and excluding Puerto Rico (no offense intended), 2,784,085,000,000 miles [PDF] of driving were done with all that fuel. (This mileage sum excludes buses and big trucks, I think.)

That’s an average of 539 gallons of gasoline for each auto, motorcycle, or light truck over the year. And it’s an average of 20.6 miles per gallon.

If we could magically convert the entire US automobile, motorcycle, and light truck fleet into vehicles getting 100 mpg, but our driving habits remained the same, we would still consume approximately 27,840,850,000 gallons of gasoline. This is very nearly the same amount of gasoline that was consumed on US roadways in 1947 [large PDF file]. Recall that even by that point in time, we were burning enough fossil fuels to have put us on the global warming track.

Anyone for a bike?

Photo courtesy of Madaise.

Annals of eco-living trivia: air-conditioners vs. fans

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

A coworker wondered aloud the other day something along the lines of: “If I am using five fans in my house, would I be better off (in terms of electricity consumption) using one window-unit air-conditioner?” I took it as a challenge to figure that out.

First I went home and plugged my two box fans into my handy-dandy Kill-a-Watt to see how much juice they draw. One fan from Lakewood draws about 48/60/80 watts (depending if at low/medium/high speed) and the other, a Lasko, draws about 78/105/130 watts. The second one does seem to move a little bit more air, so their overall efficiency is probably more similar than the strict difference in electric usage suggests. For purposes of this thought experiment, I’ll say that a fan uses the average of these two samples: 63 watts at low speed, 82.5 watts at medium speed, or 105 watts at high speed.

I then looked up the Energy Star listings for room air-conditioners. The top rated (in terms of energy efficiency) small unit (at 6,000 btus capacity) is the Haier ESAD4066 Paragon Eco-Conditioner, which draws about 500 watts for cooling. The top rated medium capacity unit (10,400 btus) is the Friedrich SS10L10 QuietMaster Programmable, which draws about 867 watts for cooling. I don’t know the industry well enough to say for sure, but the wording on their technical spec pages regarding energy consumption leads me to believe that each unit draws additional wattage to run the fans.

But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a second and assume that those are the total wattage draws for the full function of the A/C units. That means that the Haier Paragon, which can cool a room up to about 250 square feet in size, uses as much juice as 5 fans running at high speed. The Friedrich QuietMaster, which can cool a room up to about 475 square feet in size, uses a little bit more juice than 8 fans running at high speed.

Conclusion: the fans look to win out, since, with five or more fans, you can provide cooling comfort to people in more than one room, and cool more square footage of space than you can with these most-efficient air conditioners. Not a shocker, but still good to know.

Photo courtesy of Katie Dureault.

Debating eco-restrictions on drilling for oil

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

BusinessWeek has a brief debate between Bill “environmentalists are to blame” Bartmann and Frances “don’t you wish, you lame industry shill” Beinecke regarding whether environmental restrictions are playing a significant role in current high oil prices.

Beinecke does a pretty good job of deflating Bartmann’s hot air, though space constraints prevent her from really taking apart all his so-called arguments. At the same time, she gives a rosy-glasses gloss to the alternatives she suggests in place of opening up public land to a total petroleum rampage.

Bartmann’s most astonishing rhetorical jab is this:

So as you walk to work in the dark (assuming you still have a job), don’t forget to thank well-meaning but short-sighted environmentalists who put ideology ahead of practicality and basic economics.

Environmentalists with a short-sighted point of view here? Preserving swaths of the Earth’s land and sea from industrial despoilation for all time is short-sighted? Saving the planet from a climate catastrophe that won’t be fully in effect for another 50 years at the soonest is his idea of short-sighted, while Dick “burning buckets of oil for fun and profit is not negotiable” Cheney is taking the long view? Ha, that’s rich!

As for Beinecke, while she’s right that there are approximately one-point-six bajillion better ways to address the energy crisis besides drilling in ANWR and other protected areas, the notion that the transformation of our auto fleet to high-efficiency vehicles and the conversion of our urban-suburban infrastructure to reduce driving habits is something that can be achieved in a short time is laughable. She doesn’t say that these moves will be quick, but by contrasting them with her retort to Bartmann that “So we could ruin the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge forever to get savings of a mere 3¢ to 4¢ per gallon—in five years,” she more or less implies that plug-in hybrid cars and expanded commuter rail, etc., can give us much relief at the gas pump as soon or sooner. I know she doesn’t believe that’s the case, so it would have been nice for her to word her presentation more clearly. The challenges we face are real and will not be solved in the short term.

And that’s why long-term environmental thinking is so important, contra Bartmann. If conservative and “free-market” godhead Ronald Reagan hadn’t scrapped America’s efforts at energy efficiency and renewable energy research back in 1981, we’d be sitting one heck of a lot prettier today.

Courting Climate Failure

Saturday, June 21st, 2008

Kudos to U.S. Rep Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and his cosponsors for Doggett’s newly introduced “Climate MATTERS Act.” Their bill is in many ways an improvement over the Lieberman-Warner bill that recently failed in the Senate. That failure was a good thing in the long run for both environmental and political reasons made clear by Peter Barnes. Alas, the same might need saying for Doggett’s bill. In the summary on Informed Comment, a few items stand out:

o The Climate MATTERS Act emissions cap will reduce emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

o While excluding agriculture, forestry and small businesses from the emissions cap, this bill also provides incentives for these sectors to reduce their emissions.

First, the target reduction is likely insufficient, and second, excluding huge swaths of the economy means that it is effectively impossible to reach even that inadequate target.

Friends, consider the situation. We are experiencing global warming, and the warming has already reached a level which is causing measurable harm to human society and to much of life throughout the planet. Human use of fossil fuels and clearing of forests was already causing an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide as early as the year 1800. By 1925, the accumulation of added carbon dioxide had begun to induce a recognizable warming trend in the average global surface temperature.

Source data PDF

This upward trend in global temperature had begun when atmospheric carbon was only at about 305 parts per million. The count today is now roughly 385, and increasing each year at a faster and faster rate.

Annual (not cumulative) carbon emissions from burning of fossil fuels, cement manufacture, and gas flaring (but excluding clearing of forests and disturbance of soils) in 1925—the year we see the upward trend in temperature begin—was 975 million metric tons. In 1990, it was 6,196 million metric tons.

That means that global warming measurably began when annual emissions had only reached 15.7 percent of the level in 1990. And that relatively low level of annual emissions in 1925, along with the many years of lower annual emissions that had preceded it, had already been enough to create cumulative emissions capable of triggering global warming. The cumulative count only rises and rises since that time and on into the future.

And yet most people have latched on to the idea that our target emissions rate for the year 2050 should be merely 80 percent below the level in 1990. Remember, that means that in every year between 1990 and 2050 our carbon emissions have been and will continue to be higher than that target—and that that target level is itself above the level at which global warming measurably began.

Now maybe people promoting this target are keeping their fingers crossed that the target—while itself insufficient—will spur enough economic and energy reform, and the development of enough new technology, that we will actually do better and will surpass the target by 2050. Entirely possible; but keep in mind the other possibilities. Most of those concerned about global warming are probably preferring Barack Obama over John McCain, but let’s beware of getting too swept up in his campaign theme of Hope. Hope is a good thing when it inspires action. But hope that displaces or undermines action, hope that is married to timid action, that kind of hope is a curse. For yourself and for your political activism, make sure you are conscious of just which form of hope you are cultivating.

So to be entirely clear, if we are to have a chance, just a measly little chance, of maintaining a climate that doesn’t starve us through droughts, drown us through floods, smash us through tornadoes and hurricanes, sicken us through increased disease transmission, and damn us through all the inevitable social strife that accompanies these crises—if we want to have that chance, we have to do better than reduce our collective carbon emissions. We have to drop them so much that the atmospheric concentration begins to fall; we have to drop them so much that the cumulative emissions trend actually starts to bend down rather than merely flatten out (as will happen with even the strongest policies yet offered by our government).

You can start by reducing your personal emissions, but personal goodness won’t get us there. This is as much about power as it is about carbon. If we, collectively, can’t generate the political power to shift all of society in the negative-carbon direction, all our individual do-good efforts will fail. Hervé Kempf has it right when he says that

the ecological crisis and the social crisis [of growing economic inequality and the associated undermining of democratic institutions] are two faces of the same disaster. And this disaster is implemented by a system of power that has no other objective than to maintain the privileges of the ruling classes.

photo courtesy of azrainman

Not so fast, Mr. Sachs

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Jeffrey Sachs, a big name economist and wannabe do-gooder (his recent book is The End of Poverty) is now apparently pushing for wider adoption of genetically modified foodstuffs, says BusinessWeek’s Green Business blog.

I spoke with Jeffrey Sachs, the director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and one of the leading public voices on global poverty. He’s a backer of genetically modified seeds, and is especially keen on drought-tolerance technology that Monsanto and others have in their research pipelines. He’s worked with Monsanto on projects in Malawi and is excited by the potential for biotech to help poor farmers. “I think there are clearly some really great possibilities – so far unproven – but with high potential,” Sachs says. “Not only is drought one of the great killers and big source of crises, but it’s only going to get worse.”

Sachs is definitely aware of the controversy that tends to swirl around Monsanto – as the market and technological leader in biotech seeds, it’s most often associated with criticism about the safety and efficacy of GMOs…

…Monsanto’s drawn criticism for aggressively suing farmers who violate the terms of the technology agreements. Sachs is quite aware of the company’s rep doesn’t foresee such an aggressive posture being applied to Africa. “I frankly don’t believe they’re going to fool around on this,” Sachs says. “I’m quite convinced they want to find a way to do this – but not as their moneymaker. They need to be aware of handling this with a lot of sensitivity.”

“The crisis in food is so real, and so urgent,” Sachs says, and drought will only become worse owing to the effects of climate change. “For anybody to rule this out from the start would be reckless.”

The guy surely means well, though why he’d trust Monsanto so easily… I was going to say “I don’t know,” but I think I do know. Sachs seems to have a penchant for naive utopianism. That’s why he thought so-called “shock therapy” for Russia would be such a great thing in transitioning the Soviet economy to a private, more-or-less free-market economy; instead, a following decade of mass unemployment resulted in a significant drop in life expectancy and the resurgence of authoritarian government.

With inflation at double-digit rates per month as a result of printing, macroeconomic stabilization was enacted to curb this trend. Stabilization, also called structural adjustment, is a harsh austerity regime (tight monetary policy and fiscal policy) for the economy in which the government seeks to control inflation. Under the stabilization program, the government let most prices float, raised interest rates to record highs, raised heavy new taxes, sharply cut back on government subsidies to industry and construction, and made massive cuts in state welfare spending. These policies caused widespread hardship as many state enterprises found themselves without orders or financing. A deep credit crunch shut down many industries and brought about a protracted depression…

The transition to market economies in many post-communist societies of the former Soviet Union and other former eastern bloc countries in Europe has a produced a “demographic collapse,” a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme has found. Among the most serious findings is a four year drop in life expectancy among Russian men since 1980, from 62 years to 58…

While the Russian birth-rate is comparable to that of other European countries, its population is declining at a much greater rate due to abnormally higher death rate (especially among working-age males due to poverty, abuse of alcohol and other substances, disease, stress, and other afflictions)…

None of this was surprising to those with other than rose-colored glasses on. From the very start, clearer analysis was available but was not heeded, to the grave (pun not quite intended but fitting) detriment of tens or hundreds of millions of people.

(May 12, 1992) The International Monetary Fund and the U.S. government are undermining their own aims of promoting a market economy and a democratic government in Russia and in the other republics by imposing as a condition for aid dogmatic directions for shock therapy – or what has been termed “shock without therapy” – requiring sharply increased prices as a first step, together with only a slow growth in income and a large reduction in budget deficits.

Why are these shock therapy prescriptions doctrinaire, misguided and self-defeating?


So all in all, Jeffrey Sachs’ track record leaves something to be desired. That he has come out vocally in support of GMOs, even while acknowledging the legitimacy of some concerns, only adds to the stockpile of reasons to distrust Monstanto and its compatriots in the privatization of living beings. Since GMOs continue to be forced down our throats, literally and figuratively, we’ll probably learn the truth the hard way, and maybe Sachs will be redeemed, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

(Photo via Greenpeace)

Video: The monkey-wrenching begins

Monday, June 16th, 2008

I can neither confirm nor deny my personal opinion on the matter—I’ll report and let you decide, to coin a phrase. After decades of letter writing and bumper stickering and wringing of hands, some of those concerned about global warming have organized to act decisively to prevent the burning of fossil fuels.

Coal train ambushed near power station in climate change protest

Climate change campaigners halted a coal train yesterday outside Drax, Britain’s biggest power station, and shovelled its contents on to the only line into the plant.

More than 20 tonnes of coal blocked the tracks as protesters strung ropes between the train and the girders of a river bridge as police watched from a distance. More than 30 protesters swarmed aboard the 21-wagon freight service. Hidden in banks of cow parsley beside the line to Drax, North Yorkshire they struck at 8am after watching two empty trains arrive to collect ash in the previous two hours.


Okay, so contrary to my original assertion, I will reveal some opinion. I’d rather that the news reports were of the implementation of a cap-and-dividend program. But a little activism to stir up the pot? Agitate the status quo? The risk is some sort of public opinion backlash, and it’s a real risk. (For some examples from a non-random sample, see these comments on the hardcore rightwing FreeRepublic blog.) But alongside that risk is the possible payoff of politicians spurred to more action than would have happened otherwise, of corporate leaders moved to do a little bit of the right thing. We’ll just have to see.

[Update: the BBC has amateur video footage from the action.]

(Photo from Daily Mail)

First, praise all the lawyers

Monday, June 16th, 2008

We’ve all heard the phrase “First, kill all the lawyers” a million times, and I’m willing to bet that nearly every time you’ve heard it, it was stated as a positive assertion. Inspired by two bits of news, here’s a brief rejoinder in favor of this most-despised profession.

To begin, a history lesson. Where’d the phrase come from? The full version originated with William Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Part 2), in which a sidekick to mercenary rebel leader Jack Cade is egging Cade on as Cade makes exaggerated promises of the utopia to come when the rebellion overthrows the King:

. . .

Be brave, then; for your captain is brave, and vows
reformation. There shall be in England seven
halfpenny loaves sold for a penny: the three-hooped
pot; shall have ten hoops and I will make it felony
to drink small beer: all the realm shall be in
common; and in Cheapside shall my palfrey go to
grass: and when I am king, as king I will be,–

God save your majesty!

I thank you, good people: there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Nay, that I mean to do. . . .

(Act IV, Scene II)

So in the original context, the killing of the lawyers was (albeit sarcastically) suggested as part of the way that an army of mercenary traitors would consolidate power after defeating the King. Why would it be important to clear the streets of lawyers?

Well, here are two examples why those who prefer to gain power through force of arms would just as soon live in a world without lawyers. First was yesterday’s wonderful news that the Supreme Court has upheld Habeas Corpus, specifically in regard to the prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. If Shakespeare were writing the scene above today, Cade would be our own President Bush and Dick would be our own Dick Cheney. (Shades of Nostradamus, that Shakespeare hit that detail on the head!)

(The distressing aspect of the news was just how close a call it was: a 5-to-4 decision, yikes! Remember, it was duly appointed and Senate approved Supreme Court justices who gave us the Dred Scott decision. The Bush/Cheney march towards Unitary Executive power is today’s potential new slavery; there’s no reason to trust the Supreme Court to stem the tide, even if the tide was stemmed a little yesterday.)

So let’s take a moment to thank the lawyers for this one tactical victory in the struggle to maintain, or rather regain, a dose of Constitutional sanity (the ones on the side of democracy and decency, at least, like our friends at the Center for Constitutional Rights).

Second comes today’s latest news from Pakistan, where crowds of lawyers, mostly, are in the streets protesting to protect what fragile shreds of democratic governance exist in their country. This is dangerous work, undoubtedly exposing these lawyers to potential punishment by military dictators who’d just as soon do as Dick suggests.

So next time you’re tempted to chuckle when someone chimes in with “let’s kill all the lawyers,” pause to remember that a lot of those lawyers are covering your Constitutional ass, helping to prevent the government from locking you up and throwing away the key whether in the name of the War on Terror or the War to Protect Corporate Profits.

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