Monday, October 13, 2014

Can Water Hyacinth Navigate? Should We Copy It?

The Weed from Hell. Can it Navigate?
I spend a lot of time in the California Delta, near the convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers that drain the Central Valley. The Delta is, to me at least, an almost overwhelmingly complex ecosystem, chopped and sliced by the Army Corps of Engineers' extensive and aging levee system. Over the last 15 or so years, I've fished and hunted there and have seen many large scale environmental changes and fluctuations- mostly degradation- and it remains a source of fascination and ultimately concern, as we keep tinkering with the balance between uses and nature, all exacerbated by the increasing urgency of California's water situation, to potentially catastrophic ends.

The Delta I know best, the area around Frank's Tract, Big Break, and Sherman Island, is characterized by a very complex system of currents and tides. Tides can approach 4 feet at times, and they impact the direction of currents in the many main channels and back channels in a way that takes several decades to learn fully. After all my time out there, I'm only just beginning to develop a rudimentary sense of optimal tide and current conditions for fishing.

In summer months, water temperatures get well above 70 F, ideal conditions for invasive species like the water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes). I'm not sure of this, but one of the changes I think I've seen lately is a big increase in the amount of hyacinth. This could be linked to increased nitrate levels in water, perhaps exacerbated by the drought. At this time of year, water temperatures begin slowly dropping - this leads to a massive mobilization of hyacinth. Massive rafts of it can be seen wandering around on the water, seeking better growing conditions. Some of these clumps take on the size of small islands, and in low light conditions may easily be mistaken for them. On a boat you have to weave in and out of them frequently to avoid fouling your prop or worse. 

On a recent perfect Delta autumn day I was wandering around on the water myself, in my boat, looking for concentrations of striped bass (another famous non-native species common in the Delta) to tempt with a fly rod. I was parked at the corner of Potato Slough, on the main channel of the San Joaquin. While mechanically casting out and stripping in my line, I had occasion to contemplate the ubiquitous and vigorous hyacinth, which seems to be on a perpetual campaign to take over the known universe, evidencing very much the kind of will to survive at all costs that Charles Darwin apprehended so well. Having just read his On the Origin of Species, narrated by Richard Dawkins (highly recommend!), my mind was on this topic. The hyacinths seemed to be exhibiting an uncanny ability to move deliberately, something that few plants can do. They appeared to almost be "intelligent" about it, optimally using winds and current to end up, for a minute or a day or a month, in better growing conditions. 

Remembering a recent article about plant neurobiology by Michael Pollan, I suddenly thought "what if they're actually navigating? Or even communicating with each other while they're doing it?" If plants evidence neurobiological structures, as they appear to, then wouldn't a species like hyacinth (which seems to be like aspens, less a collection of individual plants than a single pulsating, maddeningly recombining organism) be able to move their roots and leaves slightly in order to harness wind and currents to drive them to water and conditions most suitable to growth? And thinking of Darwin, most certainly this adaptive behavior would have genetic roots. What if we were able to tease these genes out and use them for something else? Or if we were applying biomimetic design to something, say mechanisms for water treatment plants, how would we use this inspiration from nature? 

Or should we? Biomimicry likes to find examples from local environments as inspirations for design strategies. A good example is the design for the renovation of the San Francisco Mint, an elegant and beautiful project by the architecture firm HOK. I saw a recent presentation by HOK's Director of Design, Paul Woolford, who managed the project. Local species that inspired ideas for building systems- lighting, ventilation, thermal performance, and balance- included the California Brown Pelican, the spookfish (a new one for me), the Picasso Sponge, and the native California Salmon (I'm definitely familiar with that one!).

So here's a strange question- should we use biomimetic strategies from invasive species, like the hyacinth? Are there ethical or design issues here? According to the National Ocean Service an invasive species is " organism that causes ecological or economic harm in a new environment where it is not native." The key concepts here are "harm" and "native." Given the context, there may be a crucial difference between perceived economic harm and environmental harm. And the paradigm of perfection for species is whether they are "native" or not- we think of the salmon as more noble than the striped bass because it's more native. This kind of emotional mindset drives a lot of environmental policy. Ideally, things that are good for the environment should be good for the economy of humans too- as Janine Benyus is fond of saying "We are nature too." 

We're also the ultimate invasive species, so why don't we admire the scrappy and voracious water hyacinth and striped bass? Darwin had a lot to say about what was not then termed "invasive" species, there's a nice breakdown on that here. My sense is that he would be appropriately dispassionate about this, although in his time the massive invasions had not yet occurred on the scale we're seeing today, with the extensive systems of conveyance (global trade with ships and airplanes) we've given invasive species. 

Biomimicry is a powerful design tool that is a rich source of ideas from evolution. It didn't occur to me to bring ethical considerations into its use until I contemplated the irritating and rather terrifying water hyacinth, which, like kudzu and others like it, seems unstoppable. How might we go about learning from even plants and other creatures that are repellent to us? I'd love to hear from the Biomimicry folks on this.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

NYT Op Ed Can't Ding Efficiency and Nakamura Nobel - Because It's Groundless

Shuji Nakamura in San Francisco in early 2012, shortly before
the launch of Soraa.
 Photo by Russell Abraham.
The impact of the well deserved award of the Nobel prize in physics to physicists Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano, and Shuji Nakamura for the invention of the blue LED was recently diminished by an Oct. 8 New York Times op ed by Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus, of the Breakthrough Institute. Shellenberger & Nordhaus, well known for advocating for nuclear energy and expanding natural gas production, seem to have a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic idea of energy efficiency and its role in economic development and policy. And they have a history of climate change denial and even attacking Rachel Carson. In their op ed, as they have done many times before, they beat the drum for the "rebound effect," claiming that LEDs, arguably the most important green technology to be developed in some time, will not reduce energy use. This is an unconscionable use of media attention to what should be seen as a milestone for energy efficiency- promoting an energy agenda that seems to me to be suspect and decidedly anti-environmental.

The Jevons Paradox or rebound effect is beginning to look like the Nosferatu of pop theories on energy and sustainability. No matter how many times a stake is hammered through its heart it just keeps popping up periodically out of the grave. For those of you who are not familiar with it, it goes like this, more or less: energy efficiency measures and technologies actually end up causing more energy use because they make energy cheaper. So basically, energy efficiency causes the opposite of its intended goal. How's that again? This is one of those ideas that may appear so appealing because it's supposedly "counterintuitive" - well intentioned but misguided efforts to do environmental good or right environmental wrongs can certainly go horribly wrong when they're not well thought out. (Things like introducing invasive cane toads to Australia to control invasive cane beetles come to mind right away). And of course upon apprehending this counterintuitive idea we can feel swell by congratulateing ourselves on knowing the real story and pass it on- it's a poisonous meme. Jevons is consistent with "neo-classical economics" and ideas like "free markets" and "trickle down theory" that have repeatedly been shown to be pretty much worthless but persist because they provide simplistic explanations and justifications for the undue concentration of wealth.

The person doing the most stake hammering is David Goldstein of NRDC, who over the years has done an admirable job of debunking rebound effect. His excellent and timely rebuttal to the Shellenberger and Nordhous piece, as well as several earlier pieces, spell it out clearly: rebound effects have not been demonstrated to be significant, if they exist at all. I will add to this clearly reasoned argument just a few items from my own unique perspective.

The first problem with this particular op ed at this particular time is that even though its claims are baseless it may have a deleterious effect on energy efficiency measures because of how the argument is constructed. Although the authors are careful to praise the Nobel prize winners, the effect of their argument is to imply that energy efficiency actually causes increased energy use, therefore people can't help concluding that all energy efficiency efforts are basically useless. Whether it's intentional or not (you decide after perusing the Breakthrough website), this conclusion plays quite well to oil, gas, and nuclear lobbies who would prefer to distract us from efficiency and get back to the business of burning fossil fuels and building unfeasible nuclear plants. The logical problem with the argument (one of the most common problems with data reported by media, and even with much science) is that it confuses causation with correlation.

According to Daniel Kahneman (2002 Nobel prize winner for economic sciences) in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the reason this problem exists is that the human mind, in its fast thinking, emotional mode, constantly seeks causes and explanations for things that may show correlation but in reality are not causally related. Making decisions with this faulty logic may result in grave errors of judgement, a typical failing of humans both individually and in groups. So the fact that energy use is perceived to be growing in some areas may reflect the fact that populations with access to cheaper energy are themselves growing- it doesn't mean that cheap energy causes more overall energy use. A plausible outcome is that in addition to widely adopting LEDs, we will decide we have enough light and not increase our use of it- there are real limits to how much we really need after all. As Goldstein alludes to in his article, one very important consequence of efficiency measures and technologies is that when successful, as they have been in many global economies, they often serve to focus more attention on energy use in general and lead to further efficiency measures, the net effect of which is a reduction in energy use, the original point. So energy efficiency actually results in...saving energy. Whoa dude!

Shellenberger & Nordhaus' sloppy reasoning includes statements such as "The I.E.A. and I.P.C.C. estimate that the rebound could be over 50 percent globally" without providing any solid evidence of such. Statements like this certainly risk being misinterpreted by our "fast thinking" brains and lead to incorrect judgements about energy efficiency policy and technology.

There is one area of lighting in which new LED technology has resulted in overlighting with poor quality light, and that is street lighting, a serious environmental problem at the moment. From what I can gather about the causes for this, many municipalities in the US and Europe moved too quickly into adopting LED streetlight systems, in the interest of saving energy, before adequately understanding how to transition from the old technology to LEDs. This resulted in much light encroachment and light pollution with overly blue light, which is hated by many residents and may harm plants and other critters. But this was not caused by energy efficiency, it was caused by a lack of appropriate application of technology and poor planning.

Energy efficiency in many economic regions, including California, is in fact now the largest source of energy. New technologies that make significant efficiency possible on a large scale are rare- LEDs are the first new lighting technology of consequence to come along in a long time. Many of the "clean energy" sources that Shellenberger & Nordhaus claim are more important to invest in will take decades to scale, although prospects are good for solar and many renewables. And efficiency and clean energy are not opposing, either/or propositions - we need as much of both as we can get, as fast as we can get it. For the time being, we will be relying on fossil fuels for a very large share of our energy, and almost all efficiency efforts are worth considering and investing in, for many reasons. Slamming energy efficiency, especially now, when we have reached what can be perceived as a milestone in validating LEDs, is not doing any good for us or the planet.