Is it Self-Inconsistant to Fear Climate Change and the Use of GMOs?

Probably. Although consistency is the most overrated virtue.

Consider that if you believe in climate change it is probably because you are “listening to the scientists.” Why, then, do you ignore them when it comes to their belief that GMOs are, on net, beneficial? Your response is likely that scientists disagree about GMO use. However, this is simply mood affiliation, scientists don’t universally agree on climate change either. I could list the many prominent organization that recommend using GMOs — many of the same organizations that have helped inform your opinon about climate change — but I doubt this would help.

However, as I said at the outset self-consistency is overrated. Anyone who has ever broken up with someone and later been jealous when they started dating someone new is self-inconsistent. Which is to say, human. The danger is self-inconsistency mixed with self-deception. Honesty is an underused method of avoiding logical entanglements.

Gawd, That’s a Lot of Space Junk

Copyright Gizmag

Just how important is the problem of orbital debris? At present (2012), there are roughly one thousand operational satellites, half of which are in near-Earth space, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists Satellite Database. But in addition to about 40 derelict satellites, the U.S. Space Surveillance Network is tracking more than 22,000 pieces of debris, each of which is larger than about 4 inches (10 cm), the reliable detection limit of their radars and telescopes. Only two weeks ago the explosion of a Russian upper stage rocket added over 500 large pieces of debris to the problem.

Read the accompanying article here.

GMOs and the Environment

The following post is an excerpt and ellaboration of a longer post I wrote entitled The Future of Zambian Agriculture.

The dialogue surrounding the commercialization of food is fraught with unintuitive results that seem to run counter to much of the public discourse regarding the benefits of local, organic food sourcing. Many consumers and advocates around the world now view locally grown, organic produce as superior — both environmentally and in terms of health — to large-scale agribusiness reliant on extensive use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Some NGOs beg to differ, however. Chief among them is the powerful Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has recently invested more than $1.8 billion in agricultural development, primarily in Africa, with hundreds of millions directed toward GMO crop programs.[30] The foundation is drawing on a growing body of research that, perhaps surprisingly, suggests GMOs may provide a healthy, environmentally friendly, and highly productive agricultural option.

For instance, in 2008 two researchers from Carnegie Mellons published a study in Environmental Science and Technology, which looked at the lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of food production. Surprisingly, the study found that the production phase dominated all other phases of the cycle, accounting for a staggering 83% of emissions.[31] All told transportation made up just 15% of GHG emissions despite an average “food-mile” distribution distance of 6,760 km when all transportation factors were added. The authors found that cutting meat consumption just slightly was much more effective at cutting total GHG emissions than consuming locally grown food. A 2011 study published in the same journal by a team of researchers at UC-Santa Barbra found similar results.[32]

When economist Steve Sexton examined the efficiency of local versus commercial agriculture in the Unites States, he found an all-local, “150 food-mile rule” would require an extra 214 million acres of arable land, a roughly 30 percent increase in fuel costs, and increased fertilizer use between 35 and 61 percent depending on the crop.[33] “The direct environmental costs of large-scale agriculture are clearly non-trivial,” wrote Sexton, however, the key question, he concluded, is whether a system based on local agriculture is superior in terms of its environmental, economic, and health outcomes.

A study published earlier this year in the journal Nature found that Bt cotton, a common genetically engineered version of the crop, reduces pesticide use, thereby encouraging natural predators that can help minimize the harmful aphid population.[39] What’s more, these benefits extended to crops like soybeans and groundnuts in neighboring fields. The study was conducted over a twenty-year period (1990 – 2011) and took place in China where 95% of the cotton grown is now of the BT cotton variety. A separate study, which appeared late last year, also in the journal Nature, found that globally, non-organic growing methods produced five to 35% more yield than organic crops.[40] Since GHG emissions are embodied mostly in production, higher per-hector yields mean a more environmentally friendly product.

Even the technologically conservative Amish have embraced GMOs. “Amish law doesn’t say anything about growing genetically modified tobacco,” Amish tobacco farmer Dan Dienner told Joshua Davis of Wired Magazine back in 2003.[41]

The benefits of high-productivity are especially evident when compared with the effects of locally grown food. As economist Ed Glaser has point out on many occasions (see here, here, and here, for instance) “the city” is the most efficient social arrangement in human history along a number of dimensions — including that of the environment. One big contribution of cities is that they increase population densities and allow people to live closer to work. Cities also contribute greatly to energy savings. Glaser finds that “[e]lectricity use is about 88 percent higher in the average single-family detached home than in the average apartment in a big building.” Urban gardening and locally grown food simply acts to decrease densities, which leads to more carbon output. Glaser estimates that allotting just 10% of farmland into urban areas would increase carbon emissions by 75%.

For those with a sophisticated palate, organic food may taste markedly better; and, indeed, certain types of fine dinning may necessitate limited quantities of local ingredients. For most of us, however, the difference in taste between the produce and meats we can buy at a modern supermarket any day of the week and what may be available at the Sunday farmer’s market is minimal. The question is whether, on net, eating food that tastes marginally better and is slightly fresher calls for what would amount to a drastic increase in carbon output. I don’t think it does, and presented with the evidence I think local-food advocates would agree. Technology may one day change this calculus, but for now I see the cost of local food far outweighing any benefits. Also, note that current evidence does not support the view that organic foods produce better health outcomes.

Others stress the community aspect of local food and community gardens. First, it hardly needs to be said that these farming and distribution arrangements are simply one of many, many ways that community can be promoted for any given neighborhood, town, or city. Second, this argument is highly variant on the definition of “community” being used. If I feel that, for example, we should promote the concept of a “world-wide community,” any notions that I should help my neighbor down the street at the expense of a Mexican tomato farmer quickly becomes misplaced.


[30] Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Agricultural Development Strategy Overview”, August 2011.

[31] Christopher L. Weber and H. Scott Matthews, “Food-Miles and the Relative Climate Impacts of Food Choices in the United States,” Environmental Science & Technology 42, no. 10 (May 1, 2008): 3508–3513.

[32] David A. Cleveland et al., “Effect of Localizing Fruit and Vegetable Consumption on Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Nutrition, Santa Barbara County,” Environmental Science & Technology 45, no. 10 (May 15, 2011): 4555–4562.

[33] Steve Sexton, “Does Local Production Improve Environmental and Health Outcomes?,” Agricultural and Resource Economics Update 13, no. 2 (2009): 5–8.

[39] Damian Carrington, “GM Crops Good for Environment, Study Finds,” The Guardian, June 13, 2012,

[40] Verena Seufert, Navin Ramankutty, and Jonathan A. Foley, “Comparing the Yields of Organic and Conventional Agriculture,” Nature 485, no. 7397 (May 10, 2012): 229–232.

[41] Joshua Davis, “Come to LeBow Country,” Wired Magazine, February 2003,

The Story of Fermat’s Last Theorem

I first learned of Fermat’s Last Theorem from a professor in an undergraduate calculus class at the University of Washington and have been interested in it ever since, partly because the problem appears so simple to prove and partly because of the mystery surrounding its origin. Fermat is alleged to have scribbled its formulation in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica, stating that he had found a wonderful little proof, but that it couldn’t fit in the space provided by the margin. That was in 1637. It wasn’t until 1995 that mathematician Andrew Wiles — after having spent 7 years working on the problem in secret — was finally able to come up with a complete proof — 358 years after its conjecture. Mathematicians now believe Fermat was mistaken in his method of proving the problem because the techniques finally used to crack it weren’t even invented until hundreds of years after Fermat’s death. Fermat’s last theorem is similar in form to the Pythagorean Theorem. In particular it posits that  a^n +b^n = c^n cannot be satisfied for any integer ‘n’ greater than two.

Because I have been interested in the problem for some time I was happy to find this documentary by Simon Singh, which I found quite entertaining and moving:

Breathtaking Photo of Space

Source: Copyright Nick Risinger.

The boyfriend of one of my oldest and dearest friends spent several years creating one of the largest sky-surveys ever created.

Nick Risinger, a 28-year-old native of Seattle, trekked more than 60,000 miles around the western United States and South Africa to create the largest-ever true-color image of the stellar sphere. The final result is an interactive, zoomable sky map showing the full Milky Way and the stars, planets, galaxies and nebulae around it.

Previous professional sky surveys (including the Digitized Sky Survey of the 1980s, which is the source for theWorld Wide Telescope and Google Sky) shot only in red and blue. Including a third color filter gives the new survey a more real feeling, Risinger said.

In all Nick took over 37,000 individual photos that were then stitched together to create his image. Last week he released an iPad App that includes many interactive features. If you are fascinated by space, or want to be, I suggest giving the app a try.

Does Ideology Affect Our Perceptions of Temperatures?

A new study finds that the surprising answer is “yes.”

That authors of the study used data from about 8,000 poll responses, obtained between 2008 and 2011. The surveys included questions about how people perceived the weather in recent years. For temperatures, they were asked whether they were higher, the same, or lower than in past decades. Similar questions were asked about the frequency of floods and droughts. The survey also asked for self-assessments of political leanings, and included several questions that got at core ideological beliefs (such as egalitarian or individualist tendencies).

Things were completely different for temperatures. In fact, the actual trends in temperatures had nothing to do with how people perceived them. If you graphed the predictive power of people’s perceptions against the actual temperatures, the resulting line was flat—it showed no trend at all.

And those cultural affiliations had about the effect you’d expect. Individualists, who often object to environmental regulations as an infringement on their freedoms, tended to think the temperatures hadn’t gone up in their area, regardless of whether they had. Strong egalitarians, in contrast, tended to believe the temperatures had gone up.

The authors conclude that climate change has become perceived as a form of cultural affiliation for most people: their acceptance of it is mostly a way of reinforcing their ties to the political and ideological communities they belong to. And, since temperatures have become the primary thing the public associates with climate change, people now interpret the temperatures through a filter based on their affiliations, a process termed “cultural cognition.” In other words, we tend to interpret the temperatures in a way that reinforces our identity, and our connections with others who share similar political persuasions.

But surprisingly:

At the moment, however, this same sort of politicization hasn’t occurred with things like droughts and floods, even though changes in precipitation are one predicted outcome of climate change. However, given the attention to the ongoing droughts in much of the country, this may only be true for a very narrow window.

HT: Marginal Revolution