Sunday, November 8, 2015

On guns

First off, I must admit it -- I am a gun nut.

This may come as a surprise to many, many of my friends and colleagues, since I don't work in a field where guns get talked about much, I don't have a political affiliation where being a gun nut is held in high regard, and I don't often even pick up magazines or books anymore that refer to guns.

Contrary to what many may think -- and my birth certificate -- I'm also an 80 year-old man (on the inside), and so set in my ways, and I haven't kept up with all the newfangled gun stuff ("newfangled" probably being any caliber that came out after the .280).  I am especially turned off by the latest fetish with the AR platforms -- maybe because I'm a bit of a gun snob (guns are metal and wood, not a bunch of plastic molding), maybe because I'm concerned about high-capacity magazines, and maybe because I'm turned off by the less-than-subtle racism, rampant indignant victim mentality, and rabid anti-American, pro-Confederacy bluster that all-too often comes along with it.  Also, the .223 is a worthless cartridge for my uses (I don't seal hunt or varmint hunt).

But, I do own a large number of guns.  These include two deer rifles (one bolt-action .270, one lever-action 30-30), five shotguns (two side-by-side double barrels in 12 and 20 gauge, one over/under double barrel 12 gauge, one single-shot 20 gauge, and one pump-action 12 gauge), and one pistol (a single-action .22/.22 magnum).

To my liberal friends, this may be considered a not-so-small arsenal.  To my conservative friends, it is dangerously lacking in anything appropriate for personal defense.  To my gun-snob friends, the cache has no caché (apart from my not-quite-yet-functional 1887 Greener side-by-side, which would be given a slight nod).

Not one of my guns is available for home defense, should the need ever arise (pray God it doesn't).  No, they are all locked in a safe -- unloaded, and separate from the ammunition.  Instead, we have the standard strategically-placed Large Stick, various long knives, and a hatchet I'm sure I could find if I had the time to spring out of bed and dig through the backpacks.  We also have a MagLite (not the mini version, mind you, but the full-on model made so popular by Ben Stiller in "Night at the Museum").

The purpose for my guns is that I hunt with them (except one).  But I would be lying if I didn't say that I really, really like my guns.

To be completely honest, like most kids, I've liked guns ever since the first time I heard about them, and I have no idea when that happened.  All I can say is, from the time I can remember, I was already fascinated by ballistics, the fit and finish of wood to metal, and the various capabilities, provenance and mystique of certain calibers, gauges and models.

This love didn't come from my family.  My Dad only had one gun -- a Winchester model 20 single-shot 20 gauge that kicked like a 12.  He'd hunted some when he was younger, but he wasn't a "hunter".  He was (and remains) a working-class intellectual -- an English major mud-logger -- but the tomes filling his bookshelves are not Ruark nor Capstick.  Hemingway, yes -- but moreso Shakespeare, Faulker, Vonnegut, Merton; treatises on religious philosophy and ethics, and the Great Works.

My interest in guns did come naturally, inextricably linked with my being completely head-over-heels in love with the Outdoors.  We fished all the time, and I ran barefoot through miles of corn fields, ditches and levees.  I read National Geographics, Field & Stream and Outdoor Life cover-to-cover, along with Olaus Murie's "Field Guide to North American Mammal Tracks".  I watched for birds, and we bought a handheld spotlight and drove the empty levees in search of foxes, coyotes, skunks and other marshland denizens.

And I hunted.  And hunted.

I also kept up with gun-tech.  In high school, I did four years of rifle team, and earned my varsity block my Freshman year.  I hung out with a couple of gun nuts, guys with modified Ruger 10/22's, guys shooting 22-250's and Thompson/Center pistols.  I can still make a cop feel comfortable by rambling on about the good points of a .40 cal over a 9mm.  Target practice and shooting clays is fun -- really fun!

But, I am torn today.

Yes, guns are just tools -- and tools have special purposes.  Hammers are really good at nailing; drills are really good at drilling. I think you know where this leads...

I see the horrific impacts of so many guns on streets, amid rampant poverty and powerlessness.  I do not believe that the 2nd Amendment guarantees a right to private ownership of any and every weapon  (else we'd have to allow for nuclear armaments owned by private citizens), so I'm okay with drawing lines (though I don't know where those lines are).  But, I also find myself cheering on the female Peshmerga Kurdish troops and women demonstrating empowered equality on U.N. missions in Africa.  If I'm happy to see women empowered through being armed (and to be honest, in these cases being armed is a vital part of their empowerment), then why not my own sisters here at home?

I know that gun ownership carries with it a tremendous power and responsibility, and, as a leftist, I don't completely trust that power in the hands of government (especially where I see that government failing to protect many poor folks).  As a Christian, however, I see the gun as a crutch and an obstacle to real power and transformation.  I guess I'm torn like Hamlet, only I don't have to deal with it face-to-face like that poor bastard.

I don't have an answer to the violence of our society.  I know fewer people would be harmed, physically, with fewer arms, but I don't see the disarming of American society going so well in reality.  In the meantime, I see the weak preying on the weaker with arms, and I wonder how best we might protect them.

But when it comes to my own guns, it has little to do with ideas of protection.  I enjoy guns like I enjoy knives and cast-iron pans, binoculars and bows. I like to look at the really nice ones, then, when I can afford one, I might pick up one of the cheaper ones.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Muchas Grouse-ias -- opportunities for growing our conservation community

"¿Que quiere decir los pajaros con la plumita en sus cabezas asi?" I held up my finger just above my head.
"Ah! Codornices. I just saw one fifty yardas, atras en los pinos. A big one!"
This year, I only had the chance to hit my favorite spot in the Sierra Nevada for three morning hunts.  I was after a mixed bag of mountain quail, grouse and deer, which meant, for a Sierra hunt: A) I saw dozens of quail, got off a couple of shots; B) heard ghost stories about grouse (okay, I actually saw one this time!); and C) came home empty-handed, but heart-full.
If you've never hunted mountain quail (Oreortyx picta), let me explain.  Hunting mountain quail is just like hunting valley quail, but at on a 50 degree incline covered in scrub brush with three-inch thorns, patches of pine trees between 5 and 200 feet tall, shale and dust.  Mountain quail run about twice as fast as valleys, and fly about three times faster.
It is similar to chukar hunting, except with much more cover, most of it impenetrable, and a bird that won't fly big stretches. 
One positive thing: since they are so extraordinarily successful at surviving, they can regularly be found near fire roads. 
Another good thing about mountain quail is that, in California, their season starts much earlier than valley and Gambel's quail.  Typically, a person can start hunting mountain quail around the opening of the general season for deer in the D zones, and why not? It's not like you are going to get more than one or two. 
Grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus, in this case) is different.  Unless you know a "grouse spot", you are highly unlikely to run across one -- unless you are like me, in which case you will always run across one while deer hunting, often right after you thought you heard a large bear or Sasquatch sneaking up behind you.  They "blow out" with much thunderous beating of wings like upland birds do, which includes occasionally "blowing out" one's underwear in the process.  The season runs for a month, overlapping cruelly with deer season.
But the real reason I've decided to post this article here at my Ethics and the Environment blog (and not Agrarianista) is because of my personal experiences with the folks I ran across on these three hunts.
With three exceptions, every single hunter I met this year in the Sierra (and there were quite a few) were Latino.  Big groups, small groups, individuals -- but mostly, fathers with children.
For years now, I've encouraged the organizations I know (such as Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, CWA, Ducks Unlimited, and Pheasants/Quail Forever) to reach out to more diverse audiences, and ways to do it (local fairs and schools, multi-lingual publications and information, cooperative engagements with environmental justice groups).
Unfortunately, our most active conservation groups have marketed themselves overwhelmingly to more select groups -- mostly older, white men.  Now, being one, myself, I don't have a problem with this group as a target group, but if the North American model of conservation is going to survive, it must grow itself in the minds of Americans.  And, more and more, those minds are diverse politically, socially, geographically, ethnically. 
By "politically" diverse, I'm talking about a real potential to grow hunting in places like California.  Political boundaries are not shaped by political parties, and more often than not, the staunch Democratically-held ethnic groups (when superficially reviewed via election results) also tend to be socially a bit more conservative (in religious affiliation and gun ownership rates, for example).  They overwhelmingly recognize climate change as a tremendous problem to be solved. They also tend to be just one or two generations removed from rural life, where hunting wasn't just accepted, it was enjoyed -- and many, like the gentlemen I met this season, are passing along these traditions to their children.
Sadly, the ridiculous terminology and political reporting about "conservatives" and "liberals" avoid definition, largely because they don't really exist beyond a knee-jerk reaction to the "other".  The nuances of people, lost in this reporting, injures conservation advocacy, since many organizations don't take the time to understand the reality on the ground.
Our conservation groups must embrace America, broaden their base and encourage youth engagement (CWA does a good job of this, by the way, but should expand into more urban schools, too).  They also need to listen to these communities, accept them in with an understanding that their organizations will change and adapt, but also strengthen and pass on their most vital principles to protect our amazing habitats and landscapes, hunting and fishing heritage, and an appreciation for our country's unique role in the world.
I will say that it's been a while since I've dived into this topic, and some of these great organizations may very well have made inroads into more diverse communities. If so, let me know, & I will spread the word. If not, and you are interested in ideas about how to get going, please feel free to contact me.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Yelling into the Hurricane (yes, my 1st blog post in a long time is about California water)

© 2014 Joshua Stark

There is no such thing as California water.

There is water in California, to be sure, from many varied places and of varying degrees of quality.  Los Angeles, for example, sits immediately next to the single largest body of water on the entire Earth -- and reminds me of a line from Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

If you read any op-ed piece or news article, or listen or watch any reports on our drought, you may be forgiven for thinking that there is such a thing as California water.  Alas, it is not so.  Let me explain.
California is blessed with more climates than all other states combined; we have literally dozens of micro-climates, as well, and, it goes without saying (almost) that we have hundreds of watersheds.  This is because our topography and our range of latitude are both extreme.  We have the second longest coastline of any state in the Nation, the highest peak in the Lower 48, the lowest and driest places in the country, and the hottest place on Earth.  California's seasonal precipitation varies from 2.5 inches to to ten and one-half feet (see this great map).

California is also very, very large.  For example:  The drive from Sacramento (considered by many in Los Angeles to be "Northern California") to Crescent City is the same distance as the drive from Sacramento to Los Angeles (if you don't know where Crescent City is, by the way, you legally have to move to Nevada and petition to get back into the State).

Now, consider the same water conversation on the Eastern seaboard:  Do we talk about "East Coast" water as if it is one thing?  Rarely do we consider the environmental, economic and social impacts of any policies in Portland, Maine, on Richmond, Virginia; more to the point, we would never consider pumping water from Portland to Richmond.

In fact, we don't even have language that would begin to encapsulate a conversation around water and watershed impacts between those two completely separated regions of our country.  Nor should we -- it would be absurd.

Of course, our political boundaries make all things possible (or impossible)...

The reality is that this year, each region of California is experiencing a drought.  The ecological impacts of one year of drought are tough, but California's weather is so diverse, and we haven't invested in the research to understand the extraordinarily complex implications of drought on each region.

Instead, we let our political boundaries frame our perception of reality, and when we try to shoehorn that perception into the physical reality of our gigantic State, we are left dumbfounded.  This occurs when we try to understand our impacts on water -- like when we unnaturally store and pump water the length of New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina.

But, instead of putting more resources into understanding the implications of our ecosystem-shifting actions (like pumping water, but also like mandating that people stop using outdoor water), we make a boatload of sweeping assumptions:

We assume that we have California water.

We assume that all water has the same value everywhere.

We assume that water's value is only in its commercial or civic use.

We assume that water is "used" like a product -- consumed and poof! it's gone.

We assume that residential water use is always consumptive and bad, and that radically diminishing its use will have only good impacts.

We assume that we dramatically diminish our consumption of water, overall, when we cut back on residential use.

We assume that California (corporate) Agriculture is a foundation of our economy.

We assume that the Central Valley and Southern California would not survive without "Northern" California water.

All of these are terribly inaccurate assumptions, but the worst of all (in my opinion) is our assumption that all human water users everywhere are exactly the same.

But, just as we live in radically different ecosystems throughout our state, our use of water and the impacts of that use on the landscape radically differ.

I can provide myself as an example.  I live 200 yards from the Sacramento River, on the edge of the California Delta and squarely within a riparian (or wetlands) corridor. 

My ecosystem has evolved with certain features, a relative abundance of water being one of them.  With our fluctuating temperatures (over 100 degrees F in the Summer, down to the high 30's in the Winter) and our wildly divergent seasons (all of our measurable precipitation occurs between October and April), this abundance of water has local impacts such as relative humidity, and its ease of access means that animals haven't adapted to go very far or for very long without taking a drink. 

I have a tiny pond in my back yard.  That pond -- plus a dog who doesn't care -- means a safe place for a drink for many local birds.  I have identified five separate species using the pond to bathe, four of them native.  Additionally, the safety of the space from the local feral cat population, plus my gigantic trees, has proven useful for nesting, and I know of four species of birds who are nesting in my back yard, alone (and I'm confident that there are many more).  One species, yellow-billed magpies (endemic to California), is threatened with extinction from west nile virus, and so my pond management (using my pond to water my garden and trees every three days) may even be providing some help, as I have kept my mosquito population pretty low. 

I don't use any fertilizer on my lawn, nor do I spray any pesticides on anything, so our runoff to the local river isn't any more polluted than when it came in.  I'd like to say it's because I'm environmentally friendly, but I've never cared what my lawn looks like.

In fact, my habitat is very thirsty and my soil is porous, and very little of our water actually runs off into our curb (where it would evaporate and pour down a sinkhole, because our street doesn't have a drain). 

When we shower, run the sink or flush the toilet, our water heads to a water treatment plant, where it comes out cleaner than the water that came downriver. 

One variable I don't understand (but I expect is quite large): I do not know how much water is leaked out of bad city pipes and infrastructure on its way to and from my 1/8th acre lot. 

Much of the water that we paid for and "used" then continues downstream, where some of it is collected, pumped 200 miles South, and sold by somebody who claims to own it.  For some reason, my payment for the use of the water never resulted in transfer of ownership of that water to me to sell to this downstream entity. 

Chances are great that this water is then sprayed into a field of alfalfa or an almond orchard, where it collects very large amounts of artificial nitrogen, along with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and locally occurring heavy metals.  It then either evaporates, sinks into the local groundwater, or runs into the local river.  Such water is not cleaned, and so its costs are borne downstream, in the air, and in groundwater aquifers.  Through this landscape where "my" water flowed, cleaner because of me, it passed thousands of Californians whose groundwater is now so contaminated that they cannot drink it.

If I lived in a desert or a rain shadow, my use of water in such a way may be considered wasteful.  But where I live now, with water such an important part of my ecosystem, dramatically curbing my water use may be the wrong thing to do.

I could write a book dispelling the other assumptions made above (eg., agriculture is 3% of our economy and is a huge burden on many Central Valley communities; if we cut all of our outdoor residential water use completely, we'd save about one-third as much water as we use on alfalfa in the State).

But for now, I only hope that this opens up a conversation about water's use and real impacts throughout our gigantic and diverse, and wonderful State.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Trying again: Let's start with frankenfish and consumers' right to know

© 2012 Joshua Stark

According to some producers, wild salmon just don't grow fast enough.  Oh sure, a Chinook salmon can reach 40+ pounds in two years, feeding for free and adding to the health of our lands and waters as it does, but this kind of willy-nilly public resource just doesn't cut it for those who wish to have complete control over their market.  So in the name of profit, these folks have genetically engineered a species of salmon that grows over twice as fast as wild fish.  Meant to be farmed in closed systems, these GE salmon will be fed by fishing for baitfish, presumably, and will not be allowed to enter our oceans, for fear that they will out-compete and destroy wild salmon.  First, however, the producers of this fish must get past the FDA, which doesn't look like too big a hurdle.

While the FDA wrestles with the question of legalizing GE salmon for consumers, California is considering whether or not to require labels identifying such meat as GE in the marketplace.  And while I might address the basic question of even allowing GE salmon at some future point, right now I want to address consumer knowledge in the marketplace.

This, of course, is a no-brainer outside of the halls of governance:  Libertarians to Socialists agree that consumers have the right to know where and how their food comes to be.  Even the opponents of the labeling bill (AB 88) couch their opposition in a manner that acknowledges some leeway in labeling requirements, arguing not that they shouldn't be labeled, per se, but that such requirements are the responsibility of the federal government, not the State.

In reality, the bill's opponents are concerned that if consumers know what they are buying, they will probably choose not to buy it (about 50% say they wouldn't).  Really, consumer choice is the issue here, and California has every right to require labeling.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What is the California Delta to you?

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Dan Bacher has an update on Delta issues - noting that federal representatives of the Delta and North Coast recently met with the new Delta Czar, Jerry Meral.  Their reason:  To let him know that they have "grave concerns" (Mr. Bacher's language) about the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.  Add their voice to the many groups who've been involved for years fighting to make the Delta whole and healthy.

According to Mr. Bacher, the Reps.' concerns are over a peripheral canal.  However, if you read the quotations, it sounds like those representatives are not as adamant about opposing a canal as is Mr. Bacher.  This is too bad, and we constituents need to let them know that we want solid, explicit language opposing any conveyance around the Delta.

Make no mistake:  Any peripheral canal would be an ecological compromise, at best; at worst, it would be an ecological and economic disaster for a fertile, diverse, unique region. 

Everybody rips on the Delta, but the Delta is California's crown jewel, the source of our very life: from its water, the foods that come from its amazing soil (with no need to go against gravity), and its unique habitats.  From the way it is talked about in the news and in so many watercooler conversations, you would think that it is a festering sore on the face of the Earth, a cesspool of pollution, devastation and death just waiting for a catastrophe to rip it wide open and spread famine everywhere.  But, we have made ugly in concept something that is beautiful in fact - even now - and we do it because we do not understand our physical connection to it. 

You, who drink water in Los Angeles, water that is pumped hundreds of miles and over an entire mountain range, you are connected to the Delta: It infuses your cells, hydrates your body, helps fire your synapses. 

You, who spray water to ever-saltier flats on the West Central Valley, you are connected to the Delta: It lines your pockets, pays your kids' tuitions, keeps your workers happy.

And we, throughout the world, who buy California produce, we are all connected to the Delta:  It grows the largest agricultural industry on Earth, it builds our muscles and bones, forms our staffs of life, grows our children's eyes and brains.  We sanctify it, pray over it, cook it up, add it to our very selves.  We are made of the Delta.

And this is good.

But if we are to continue to benefit from it, then we must treat it right.  Many billions of other lives depend on the Delta, too, and the Delta, as any ecosystem, depends upon those lives for its own health.  There is no separation of a wetlands habitat from its water without loss and significant change, and we, as Americans, have taken on the responsibility of caring for those creatures we have harmed. 

Mr. Bacher notes a sad new record set this year:  more Sacramento splittail minnows were killed at the pumps this year than any other.  Nine million little lives lost for the pumps, while more water was pumped than ever before.

All of this that is the Delta - the devastation as well as the vitality, goes into those things we put in our bodies to keep ourselves whole.

So next time you start to think about the Delta as a horrible place, just remember:  The Delta is You.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Professor Mankiw's frustrating comment - with no chance to comment!

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Sorry for the non-environmental post, but the Harvard Econ. Professor Greg Mankiw has me a tad frustrated this morning.

I'm no economist, and so, if he cared to, I'm sure Mr. Mankiw could come in and take apart my comments here, (frankly, I'd love that, because I want an accurate representation of economics out in the public, and where I'm mistaken, I want to be corrected).  My real problem is that the Professor posts to a blog, but doesn't allow comments.

First, I would hope Mr. Mankiw would understand that the interactive nature of the internet makes it a world-changing phenomenon, and participate wholeheartedly in this interaction.  Second, I think by opening comments, Mr. Mankiw would watch his own posting a bit more carefully.  Case in point:

I'm poking through the cadre of economic minds on-line (starting at Env-Econ, of course) this morning, and I come across a little post by Prof. Mankiw.  He ends this three-sentence post with:

"If you can remember only one fact, make it this one: The middle class (middle quintile) pays 14.1 percent of its income in federal taxes, while the rich (top tenth of one percent of the population) pay 30.4 percent."

Of course, I'm frustrated by this comment, because it misses a basic economic concept, "diminishing marginal utility".  But, when I scroll to the bottom of the page to respond, I find no way to comment!

So, I'm taking time to point out a couple of mistakes that Mr. Mankiw makes in his inference (as I understand it, he is inferring here that our federal tax system is sufficiently progressive).

First of all, as he points out, the richest 1/10th pay about double in "federal taxes" (we'll get to that definition in a minute) what the middle quintile pays.  My immediate question:  What is 14% to a person making the middle quintile vs. 30% to one of the richest 1/10th?  So, I follow the link he posted, and I find that the middle quintile is defined as people making between ~ $34k and $62k, while the richest 1/10th are defined as making over about $2,468,000.

Then I ask:  What is the marginal utility of this money - the relative impact of 14% on $34k ($4760) vs. 30% on $2,468,000 ($740,400)?  Am I the only one to see that the five grand is way more valuable to the person making $34k than the $750K is to the person making the nearly $2.5 million?  If you don't see that, then realize that I just swallowed the poorer persons yearly after-tax salary in the rounding error for the richer person.

Now, consider that these were just the examples of the poorest in the group.  For the richest of the 1/10th, we are talking billions upon billions of dollars earned per year. 

Upon closer examination, then, it becomes obvious that 14% is a far heavier tax burden on the middle quintile than 30% is on the richest 1/10th.

And there is one other problem.  The "effective federal tax rate" Mr. Mankiw uses doesn't even include federal excise taxes - like the 18.4 cents-per-gallon on gasoline.  For poorer people, these taxes are heavy burdens (one study showed that the folks in the middle quintile pay about a quarter of their income on transportation), but for rich folks, that regressive tax is almost nil.

Professor Mankiw, please consider teaching folks in the ether about real tax burdens and economic concepts (like diminishing marginal utility), and please oh please start participating in the earth-changing world of the interwebs.

I'd be tickled pink if you'd start here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sec. Salazar continues the time-honored tradition of promising California hydrological miracles

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Mike Tougher has a good article in the San Jose Mercury News about Interior Secretary Salazar's comments on pumping Delta water to Central and Southern California.

Last year, when I pointed out that Meg Whitman (remember when she ran for Governor?) promised more water, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and chalked it up to the pressures of a live debate (I'm sure I'd look like a complete moron in a live debate, so I'm always judging those events nicely).  Secretary Salazar, when taking questions before the Commonwealth Club, might also get the benefit of the doubt.  It was a live, well-respected audience.

But the comments Mr. Tougher reports show a man flirting with serious conflicts with physics.  And believe me, physics always wins.

From Mr. Tougher's report:  "Salazar said building a new aqueduct around the Delta might increase the flexibility of water operations in such a way that it could lead to more water deliveries."

The Delta needs x amount of fresh water each year.  We aren't sure what x is, yet, but we know that in a typical year it is more than it now gets.  If freshwater is diverted from the Delta, it will suffer an ecological decline.

Mr. Salazar later visited the new fish screens put up to protect fish from the South Delta pumps.  Unfortunately, what Mr. Tougher failed to note is that the sucking up of fish into the pumps is only one of the ways they impact endangered and threatened species.  Their overall impacts on the flow of water through the Delta also kills fish by confusing them and sucking them into predator pits. 

But never forget that removing actual habitat (i.e., through a peripheral canal) is not the cure for pump impacts on tides and flows.  The single greatest ecological and economic benefits for both the Delta and the rest of the Central Valley would come from farming the Westlands for solar power.  

Physics can be our friend.