Saturday, July 26, 2014

ANS -- Neil deGrasse Tyson: We'll Have to ‘Sink Lower’ Before Congress Takes Action to Save the Planet

This is an interesting interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist.  It's interesting to see how clearly he thinks.  Here's a sample paragraph:
"So people often confuse the raggedy, bleeding edge of scientific research with the established truths that consensus of observation and experiment reveal. And so that's the whole, full explanation for that one sentence, which is hard to put into one quip. So, Earth is going around the Sun, whether or not you believe that's true: that has been experimentally, observationally identified and demonstrated and we've moved on to the next question. The Sun is going around the center of the galaxy. Earlier people didn't know that or they doubted it, some people thought we were the center of the galaxy ­ that was an active area of research. The evidence mounts and we learn that the Sun ­ in fact, there was a whole debate on this, back in 1920, to be precise ­ and we concluded, after better data became available, that the Sun is just orbiting the center of the galaxy, in much the same way the Earth is orbiting the Sun. And now that's a closed issue and we're on to other questions. So I think people are confusing the bleeding edge of science with established science, and somehow thinking that all science is like the bleeding edge, where that's not true. "
find it here:  

Salon / By Lindsay Abrams
comments_image   48 COMMENTS

Neil deGrasse Tyson: We'll Have to 'Sink Lower' Before Congress Takes Action to Save the Planet

Tyson takes on climate deniers and challenges scientists to speak up before it's too late.

July 24, 2014 |  

Neil deGrasse Tyson is a force. A respected astrophysicist with a custom space-theme wardrobe who moonlights as a late-night television guest, the director of New York's Hayden Planetarium, a living meme, and in his current star turn, host of the hit series "Cosmos," a reboot of the Carl Sagan original, he's also, without doubt, a sizable thorn in the side of the religious right.

What he is not, Tyson tells Salon, is an advocate. He trusts, instead, that science will speak for itself. But insofar as science has a human vessel, Tyson's inarguably embraced the role. And so long as the science demands it, he's never been one to shy away from controversy, be it demoting Pluto from its planetary status, or more recently, representing the emerging consensus on climate change as it comes under attack from religious and industry forces.

Tyson didn't write the script for "Cosmos" ­ that was the work of Ann Druyan, who told my colleague Andrew O'Hehir that she's surprised critics talk about the show "as if Neil has had something to do with its inception or its writing." But she acknowledges, too, that part of getting the message across is having the right messenger, and Tyson's certainly risen to the occasion. He articulated his own take on climate-change deniers ­ "people, if they begin to lose their wealth, they change their mind real fast, I've found, particularly in a capitalist culture" ­ during an appearance as Chris Hayes' much-vaunted guest on MSNBC. By now, he's become invested in this specific iteration of the culture wars to the point that Fox News saw fit to take him and his "white liberal nerd" admirers down a few pegs.

If climate-change-denying politicians can couch their false claims by asserting, "I'm not a scientist," Tyson has the opposite task: He is a scientist, but he's not a climate scientist; he can speak with authority on the tenets of settled science ­ whether climate change is happening ­ but has less to say about what we should do to mitigate its effects, and can only speculate with the rest of us about whether we'll be successful.

After watching him engage with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa on global political issues at New York's Beacon Theatre in June for a live recording of his StarTalk podcast, Salon followed up with Tyson to learn more about how he positions himself: as an educator, as a highly visible minority in a STEM field who's spoken, in the past, of the societal barriers that stood in his way, and as a cultural icon who, while putting the science first, is still aware of how many retweets he gets from his 2 million-plus followers.

Oh, and while he's not a policy guy, he does have some ideas about how to solve the world's problems. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

Lindsay Abrams: Through "Cosmos" and in recent comments you've made, you've become something of a spokesperson for the effort to fight climate change and especially to fight climate-change deniers. But you've also said you won't debate deniers or creationists because the science should speak for itself. Where do you draw the line between education and advocacy?

Neil deGrasse Tyson: People, I think, may occasionally think of me as an advocate, but in my mind, I'm not. I'm just trying to get people as fully informed as they can be so that they can make the most informed decisions they can based on their own principles or philosophies or mission statement. What concerns me is that I see people making decisions, particularly decisions that might affect policy or governance, that are partly informed, or misinformed, or under-informed. And so I think there's value as an educator, and especially as a scientist, to get as much of that information out there for people to respond to. And then I just go home and they do with it what they want, whether they reject it or embrace it or whatever. But I don't have the energy, the interest or the urges to debate people on any topic at all. It's just not due as an educator.

LA: Do you think that scientists should play any role in helping to shape policy or in leading calls to action from the public? Or is that just not the domain of scientists and educators?

NDT: There's a long, storied history of scientists as advocates, scientists as major social/cultural spokespeople. And a lot of that stemmed from the Cold War where the major Cold War weaponry was completely traceable to the brain efforts of physicists ­ basically the Nuclear Age. So what you had were physicists who knew everything there was to know about these bombs and felt that it was not the way the world should go. And so you had these sort of "physics pacifists," if you will, who were quite outspoken ­ Einstein was among them. Even though you can see in his equation the foundation of the energy derived from those bombs: E=MC². So I would say that during the entire Cold War there was a long and distinguished train of scientists who were quite visible and quite outspoken about their views on war, weaponry and this sort of thing.

In modern times, I find it odd that people turn to me to comment on these other matters. I'm an astrophysicist. But there are people who are climate scientists. I think more climate scientists should step up to the plate and serve that same corresponding role that the physicists played during the Cold War, and if they want, to empower lawmakers and the citizenry to make informed decisions about the future of the country. So I think it should happen more than it has happened. But, like I said, many of these issues are not directly at the center of my professional expertise and we have others for whom it is. So in the way that nuclear physicists stood up, I think we should have climate scientists standing up.

With any issue that comes up, when we have an emergent scientific truth, we can't just sit back and watch people debate a scientific truth ­ they should be debating the politics that would follow from the emergent scientific truth. That's really what the debates should be about, but they haven't been. And I'm disturbed by that, because I don't know what kind of democracy that is, if you're gonna run around cherry-picking the results of science, of emergent scientific consensus because it conflicts with your philosophy and you want to be responsible for the governance of the nation, which involves thoughtful planning for the future of our health and our wealth, the state of the economy, all of the above.

LA: We talk about science with a capital S, as something that's "true whether or not you believe in it" ­ especially settled science. And I'm wondering if that's where some of the pushback might come from, because scientists do get things wrong sometimes, or scientific thinking changes.

NDT: So unfortunately that sentence ­ which I have uttered, and I think some people even have put on t-shirts, with my name on it ­ to fully understand what it means requires some qualification. In science, when you perform experiments and observations, and when the experiments and observations begin to agree with one another, and they're conducted by different people ­ people who are competitive with one another, people who are not even necessarily in your field but do something that relates to your field ­ you start seeing a trend. And when that trend is consistent and persistent, no matter who's doing the experiment, no matter where the experiment is being done, no matter whether the groups were competitive or not, you have an emergent scientific truth. That truth is true whether or not you believe in it.

On the frontier of science, stuff is wrong all the time. I mean, if I have an experiment ­ what typically happens is, if it's an interesting result that nobody expected, the press will come, and then they'll write about it and maybe my host institution will send out a press release which will feed this… state. And the press will say "New results: scientists say…" and then they say cholesterol is good for you. And then a few weeks later, cholesterol is bad for you. And the public is wondering, what the hell is going on? Do scientists even know what they're doing? How come they don't agree? Well, on the frontier, we don't agree. That's what the frontier means. That's why there is a frontier; that's the whole point of the frontier. If we all agreed on it, it would just be in the textbooks and we'd move on.

So people often confuse the raggedy, bleeding edge of scientific research with the established truths that consensus of observation and experiment reveal. And so that's the whole, full explanation for that one sentence, which is hard to put into one quip. So, Earth is going around the Sun, whether or not you believe that's true: that has been experimentally, observationally identified and demonstrated and we've moved on to the next question. The Sun is going around the center of the galaxy. Earlier people didn't know that or they doubted it, some people thought we were the center of the galaxy ­ that was an active area of research. The evidence mounts and we learn that the Sun ­ in fact, there was a whole debate on this, back in 1920, to be precise ­ and we concluded, after better data became available, that the Sun is just orbiting the center of the galaxy, in much the same way the Earth is orbiting the Sun. And now that's a closed issue and we're on to other questions. So I think people are confusing the bleeding edge of science with established science, and somehow thinking that all science is like the bleeding edge, where that's not true.

LA: It sounds like a lot of that is a communications problem and probably a lot of it is the media's fault. But that has to make you worry about the power you have as a scientist, when you can slap a headline on something and say "Scientists say…"

NDT: Yeah, so, the press wants to be out ahead of any results, right? And it's only an interesting headline if what the scientists found was different than what people were thinking or expecting that preceded it. So I understand that urge, but what the press doesn't say is: "this result still needs to be verified by other experiments." Something isn't true because one scientist has one result from their one experiment. And I think not enough of the press recognizes this, and they need to, otherwise they're giving a distorted view of what science is and how it works in the hearts and minds of the public.

LA: At the Beacon last month, you spoke a bit about the importance of STEM literacy. Obviously not everyone is going to go into the math, science and engineering fields, but do you have a conception of what every responsible citizen should know? Is it enough to watch "Cosmos" and get the basic concepts, or is there another level of understanding the public needs?

NDT: Excellent question. So I have an unorthodox definition of science literacy, and I'm trying to get more people to think about it in this way. I think typically when we think of science literacy, it's "do you know what causes the seasons?" or what the DNA molecule is, or how our internal combustion engine works or what the Big Bang is or "what is evolution?" And this is chalked up as evidence of whether you're scientifically literate or not. And while that's an aspect of it, I think what's more important than even that is how is your brain wired for thought, for inquiry and for curiosity.

If you are curious, and you want to learn more about something, and you question what it is you see in search of answers that would support or deny what you see, that to me is science literacy. And so it's, how do you approach someone who makes a statement to you? Do you say "Oh, that's great, that's gotta be true! Tell me more" or is it "Well, why is that true? How did you come to arrive at that conclusion? What are the consequences of it? How does it affect others, how does it affect me, how does it affect civilization or culture?" To me, the capacity to even know to ask those questions is at the center of what it is to be scientifically literate.

Now, given that, we don't want a whole world where everybody is a STEM professional; that would be boring. There would be no artists and comedians and poets, and novelists and journalists and the rest of what fleshes out what we call civilization. But at a minimum, I think everyone should be scientifically literate, no matter their profession, because here's what could happen: Suppose we're going into space in a big way and we're tapping a whole generation of STEM professionals, but you're not a STEM professional; you say "I want to become a lawyer" and so you go to law school. But then there are people worrying about who owns the rights to asteroid mining, and then you say, "Well, I understand asteroids, and I know what they are and I know what they're made of and maybe I want to be that lawyer."

And all of a sudden, society begins to participate on the moving frontier of STEM professionals. Artists will say, "Take me to the far side of the moon because there is a new sculpting series that I want to start and I need the inspiration that that would bring me." Or there's a new story that could be told about the crew of seven that was alone with one another on a generational ship. It's a source of creativity among artists as well as others who flesh out, like I said, what we come to define civilization to be. And then everyone's a participant.

LA: There's been a lot of talk in recent years about science being under attack, and it seems like that could be the kind of thing that could help people become more aware of what's going on, and maybe less hostile toward science. Or would you argue that that kind of scientific literacy would just be a way to get people to have science more involved in their lives than it otherwise would be?

NDT: Yeah, that's a perceptive question and comment. I would say that the reason people even think that they can attack science is because they think science is this thing, this edifice. And when they choose to walk up to it, that's when they address it and they query it, without realizing that science is so fundamentally all around us, in everything we do and say and think about. And one of the messages of "Cosmos" was how thoroughly dependent we are on science and its cousin, technology. And once you recognize that, you're not going to say, "Today I'm not going to do science" or "I didn't do well in science in school so I'm just going to ignore it." It's all around us and it invites you to embrace it. That will make you a more informed citizen of a democracy, where you elect people who will govern your lives with laws that they pass. You want them to be enlightened and informed, as enlightened and as informed as is humanly possible.

LA: After the Beacon event, you mentioned a time you got into a trouble for something you tweeted about education, that seems similar to what you're saying now ­ that good teachers need to engender a love of learning. Why do you think that was so controversial?

NDT: What was controversial was that I said, "Why is it that you're more likely to hear a teacher say 'These students don't want to learn' than a teacher say 'I suck at my job.'"

Some people said "he's clearly never taught" but clearly they've never read my CV: it has all my teaching experiences clear and explicit there and it goes very far back. So, yes, it's a strong tweet, and I just don't ever want a teacher to put the blame of a student not learning on the student. You're not there to just put up a lesson plan and hope that they follow it. You are if you're a college professor, because people are paying big money to attend the school, and if they flunk out, it's not your problem. But in the public schools, I think we should measure teachers by how much improvement their efforts bring about in the progress of students. Not by how many straight-A students they might put forth as a display of the excellence of their educational talent. A straight-A student gets straight As because the teaching talent of the teacher is irrelevant. That's what straight As means. It means you got an A in every class you took ­ and that's only possible if the variation in the teaching skills in the teachers of each of those classes is irrelevant to you.

You perform no matter how good or bad the teacher is. So the least illuminating student you can put on display at your school are the straight-A students. The one who is the greatest display of whether or not you're a good teacher is the student who was flunking but is now maybe getting a C. Or the student who was getting a C and now is getting a B+ because of your intervention as teacher, because of your effort to think about how that student learns relative to someone else.

Now, that's hard, particularly in big cities, especially in New York, where you might have 34 kids in a class. It may even be impossible to find the right key for every student. But the reason they're not learning is not because they don't want to learn; it's because the system has not allowed you the time to find the key to every one of the students. And so the answer should not be "they don't learn because they don't want to learn," it should be "they want to learn but the system does not allow me the time to figure out what their formula is." And by the way, it's something called individualized learning; it's not a new educational concept. They need much smaller classes to enable that. But who I was indicting is those people who say that students don't want to learn.

I spend every day of my life that I reach the public asking myself first "What are the receptors that exist in the audience I'm about to address?" Is it culture, is it sports, is it food, is it entertainment, is it movies? And I spend some effort of my life acquainting myself with all of these ancillary elements, so that when I do have a conversation with a person and I'm not reaching them by some traditional way, I access my utility belt that I've assembled for myself and say "Oh, this person likes this set of movies; I saw those movies, let's start there." And now the person gets excited, their eyes brighten up, and now the receptors are ready to engage in the science, which was my object of the lesson plan. You know, that's a simplified example of what I'm trying to get across here, but you get the point.

LA: Somewhat related to that, when we talk about people who are going into the sciences ­ women and minorities are still significantly underrepresented in STEM ­ do you have thoughts about what we can do to lessen that gap? Or to encourage people who don't traditionally go into these fields?

NDT: I don't have a silver bullet there, but I'm thinking long and hard about that problem. And maybe I'll have a solution or some insights that I could share with people in a couple of years but right now I don't have deep insights to it. And there are interesting other questions: For example, there are other fields that are predominately women that don't get the same level of analysis as the fields that are predominantly men. For example ­ maybe this exists but I haven't seen it ­ no one is asking why veterinarians are 85 percent women. There's no movement to reduce that number so that there's equal numbers of men. And veterinary school is harder to get into than medical school in terms of percentage of applicants they accept. So, I wonder if the answer to that is more broadly, deeply embedded in society than just pointing to the cultural climate in one branch of science versus another.

You know, the NBA is 80 percent black ­ are we saying we have to reduce that number so that the blacks in the NBA are the same percent as in the population, so that there's room for white people to play? Are we saying that? Well, we're not. Why not? Well, there's some expectation that there is equal opportunity for everyone, so if you can believe there's equal opportunity, then things just shake out however they do and no one complains about it. So the challenge will be to ask, do women and minorities have an equal opportunity to study in the sciences? And if so, does that mean that that will ultimately become half women? And 12 percent black, or whatever the number is in the United States. If there are other fields where there is equal opportunity and we don't recover the numbers that we have in society, and no one is studying why that's the case, then that will make these other questions harder to address, is my point. So, I don't have an answer; these are the questions that I'm posing to myself as I continue to think about the problem.

LA: So you need to figure out why this is happening before you can find a solution.

NDT: I think what would be interesting would be to go around society and look at fields that are dominated by some demographic well out of numbers to their proportion of the population. So, veterinary medicine: 85 percent women. Nursing: 95 percent women. Men could be nurses, but they're not, so what's going on there? Again, the NBA. You just go around and look at the list. Then you have particle physics or whatever that's 85 percent men. So what's the difference between particle physics and veterinary medicine? Are there opportunities that are in one place and not the other? Do we believe men have equal access to veterinary medicine? Is there discrimination against men in that field? If not, then what is attracting the women to it? Whatever that is that's attracting the women to it, does that not exist in particle physics? And if it did exist, would it? So, I'm just saying, these are a zillion questions that are coursing through my head.

LA: To talk a bit again about climate change ­ not so much from a climate scientist perspective but in a general sense ­ in "Cosmos" you talk about the promise of green energy, but there's also a lot of discussion lately about it being too late at this point to make meaningful change, and of people feeling discouraged. Do you think we have what it takes as a society to reverse course?

NDT: In my read of history, when things get very bad, people tend to come into agreement about what next steps they need to take and there's less arguing. For example, in 1939, 1940 there were nationalists in America who didn't want to engage in the war in Europe. There were strong debates in Congress and the executive branch ­ and then we get attacked at Pearl Harbor, and at that point everyone is aligned. And we, at the time, had the tenth or something largest army in the world ­ something much lower than other countries that were actively engaged in this war ­ but once all of our pistons were aligned, we built a military machine that tipped the balance of power in the world over a four-year period. We felt threatened, we felt down, we felt like we had to act as one.

So I've seen this country do that. On multiple occasions: We did it for Sputnik. If someone wants to fly over your country in the air, there's a law, you need permission to allow them to do that. But if they're above the air, they're in space where there is no law that controls that ­ so there was Sputnik, launched in 1957, flying over the United States. A Soviet piece of hardware, launched on a vessel that would otherwise be used to carry intercontinental ballistic missiles. We freaked out. All of our pistons became aligned, and within 12 years of Sputnik going up, we are walking on the moon. We alluded to that in "Cosmos," with reference to Kennedy's speech about doing things not because it's easy but because it's hard.

So I think maybe we have to sink lower before the pistons of Congress and the electorate align to take meaningful action, to protect the planet going forward. And this idea about being too late, well that's defeatist of course. That's saying, "Well, okay, we don't know what to do so therefore let's do nothing." By the way, I can imagine ­ I mean, I'm making this up, but it's not far-fetched to imagine that someone invents some CO² scrubbing device ­ "scrubbing" is the word they use in the industry ­ where air blows in one on side and there's some thing inside that just takes CO² and makes solid bricks out of it and it's very effective, like the buried limestone of the cliffs of Dover. And then if you have that you can continue with industry. Because we've now removed the CO² that we put in, keeping Earth in equilibrium.

I mean that's an interesting option; why isn't anybody thinking of that? And by the way, that's an entire world outside of my professional expertise. That's engineering and climate and air and chemistry. So, people should know by now that if Kennedy says ­ before we have any spacecraft that can fly a human being without killing them ­ "let's go to the moon before the decade is out," and we go to the moon, well I remember that go-getter attitude; I'm old enough to remember that. It meant anything was possible, or at least was within technological reach ­ the laws of physics do prevent some things from ever happening, but technologically, there's no limit.

LA: Because you do have this public platform and people are listening to you, are there other issues that you would want to bring to the public's attention or that you think more attention should be paid to, be they social, political or environmental?

NDT: Yeah, people like dividing up all the problems and creating movements surrounding each one. And I think at the end of the day what we're really missing maybe is widespread, rampant curiosity. The kind of curiosity that children have. We need more of that in adults. Because if you're curious, then you'll say, "Oh, I wonder why that works that way." You didn't have to take a class in it, your own curiosity forces you to go to Wikipedia, or get a book on it, or rent a video. And that curiosity grows the knowledge base of everyone.

I've tweeted multiple times on the concept and idea of curiosity and those, by the way, are some of my heavily retweeted tweets. One of them was comparing the curiosity of children to the curiosity of the adults raising them. And I was worried that if an adult loses curiosity then they won't even see it in their children and they'll squash it because they'll interpret it as a destructive force in the household, when all the kid is doing is exploring what's in the drawers or what happens if you drop a glass on the kitchen floor ­ things that are definitely destructive to your house but are the manifestation of just kids being curious. I was in New York the day before yesterday, and it had just rained so there were puddles in the walkway. And there was a little girl with boots and a little umbrella over her shoulder, and she's walking straight towards the puddle. And I said, "Oh, this will be fun, I bet she jumps in with two feet." And the mother says "No, don't jump in the puddle, walk around it." And I said, "There it is! There is a little bit of curiosity being squashed."

Because what happens if you jump in the puddle? You get to ­ you're losing the experiment on what a splash zone will look like and how big is the splash based on how hard you jumped in it and could you clear the puddle, based on having jumped in it? And then you learn the puddle is there because there's a slight depression in the pavement, and so water collects where it's a slightly low point compared to other points, that's why it didn't roll down the hill. There's a whole experiment there that the kid would have done but did not because the parent didn't want to clean the clothes.

So I promise on this: If all people were curious, that would just solve everything, I think. Almost everything. It'll solve so much of what today we identify as problems that need separate solutions.


Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

Friday, July 25, 2014

ANS -- Scientists Discover the Fascinating Psychological Reason Why Conservatives Are…Conservative

Just in case you haven't already seen this article (I found it on Facebook), here it is.  Note the last paragraph. 
Find it here:  

Scientists Discover the Fascinating Psychological Reason Why Conservatives Are…Conservative

Right-wing ideology is tailored to a particular psychological profile.

Scientists are using eye-tracking devices to detect automatic response differences between liberals and conservatives.
Photo Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln
July 16, 2014 |  

The following story first appeared on Mother Jones. Click here to subscribe for more great content.

You could be forgiven for not having browsed yet through the latest issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. If you care about politics, though, you'll find a punchline therein that is pretty extraordinary.

Behavioral and Brain Sciences employs a rather unique practice called "Open Peer Commentary": An article of major significance is published, a large number of fellow scholars comment on it, and then the original author responds to all of them. The approach has many virtues, one of which being that it lets you see where a community of scholars and thinkers stand with respect to a controversial or provocative scientific idea. And in the latest issue of the journal, this process reveals the following conclusion: A large body of political scientists and political psychologists now concur that liberals and conservatives disagree about politics in part because they are different people at the level of personality, psychology, and even traits like physiology and genetics.

That's a big deal. It challenges everything that we thought we knew about politics­upending the idea that we get our beliefs solely from our upbringing, from our friends and families, from our personal economic interests, and calling into question the notion that in politics, we can really change (most of us, anyway).

The occasion of this revelation is a paper by John Hibbing of the University of Nebraska and his colleagues, arguing that political conservatives have a "negativity bias," meaning that they are physiologically more attuned to negative (threatening, disgusting) stimuli in their environments. (The paper can be read for free here.) In the process, Hibbing et al. marshal a large body of evidence, including their own experiments using eye trackers and other devices to measure the involuntary responses of political partisans to different types of images. One finding? That conservatives respond much more rapidly to threatening and aversive stimuli (for instance, images of "a very large spider on the face of a frightened person, a dazed individual with a bloody face, and an open wound with maggots in it," as one of their papers put it).

In other words, the conservative ideology, and especially one of its major facets­centered on a strong military, tough law enforcement, resistance to immigration, widespread availability of guns­would seem well tailored for an underlying, threat-oriented biology.

The authors go on to speculate that this ultimately reflects an evolutionary imperative. "One possibility," they write, "is that a strong negativity bias was extremely useful in the Pleistocene," when it would have been super-helpful in preventing you from getting killed. (The Pleistocene epoch lasted from roughly 2.5 million years ago until 12,000 years ago.) We had John Hibbing on the Inquiring Minds podcast earlier this year, and he discussed these ideas in depth; you can listen here:

Hibbing and his colleagues make an intriguing argument in their latest paper, but what's truly fascinating is what happened next. Twenty-six different scholars or groups of scholars then got an opportunity to tee off on the paper, firing off a variety of responses. But as Hibbing and colleagues note in their final reply, out of those responses, "22 or 23 accept the general idea" of a conservative negativity bias, and simply add commentary to aid in the process of "modifying it, expanding on it, specifying where it does and does not work," and so on. Only about three scholars or groups of scholars seem to reject the idea entirely.

That's pretty extraordinary, when you think about it. After all, one of the teams of commenters includes New York University social psychologist John Jost, who drew considerable political ire in 2003 when he and his colleagues published a synthesis of existing psychological studies on ideology, suggesting that conservatives are characterized by traits such as a need for certainty and an intolerance of ambiguity. Now, writing in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in response to Hibbing roughly a decade later, Jost and fellow scholars note that

There is by now evidence from a variety of laboratories around the world using a variety of methodological techniques leading to the virtually inescapable conclusion that the cognitive-motivational styles of leftists and rightists are quite different. This research consistently finds that conservatism is positively associated with heightened epistemic concerns for order, structure, closure, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and familiarity, as well as existential concerns such as perceptions of danger, sensitivity to threat, and death anxiety. [Italics added]

Back in 2003, Jost and his team were blasted by Ann Coulter, George Will, and National Review for saying this; congressional Republicans began probing into their research grants; and they got lots of hate mail. But what's clear is that today, they've more or less triumphed. They won a field of converts to their view and sparked a wave of new research, including the work of Hibbing and his team.

Granted, there are still many issues yet to be worked out in the science of ideology. Most of the commentaries on the new Hibbing paper are focused on important but not-paradigm-shifting side issues, such as the question of how conservatives can have a higher negativity bias, and yet not have neurotic personalities. (Actually, if anything, the research suggests that liberals may be the more neurotic bunch.) Indeed, conservatives tend to have a high degree of happiness and life satisfaction. But Hibbing and colleagues find no contradiction here. Instead, they paraphrase two other scholarly commentators (Matt Motyl of the University of Virginia and Ravi Iyer of the University of Southern California), who note that "successfully monitoring and attending negative features of the environment, as conservatives tend to do, may be just the sort of tractable task…that is more likely to lead to a fulfilling and happy life than is a constant search for new experience after new experience."

All of this matters, of course, because we still operate in politics and in media as if minds can be changed by the best honed arguments, the most compelling facts. And yet if our political opponents are simply perceiving the world differently, that idea starts to crumble. Out of the rubble just might arise a better way of acting in politics that leads to less dysfunction and less gridlock…thanks to science.

Chris Mooney is the author of four books, including "The Republican War on Science" (2005). His next book, "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science­and Reality," is due out in April.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

ANS -- California Halts Injection of Fracking Waste, Warning it May Be Contaminating Aquifers

At least we are starting to react to fracking.  It appears to be temporary, but it's something. 
Find it here:    

California Halts Injection of Fracking Waste, Warning it May Be Contaminating Aquifers

State's drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as California aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for oil industry.

by Abrahm Lustgarten
ProPublica, July 18, 2014, 11:50 a.m.
104 Comments Print Print This is part of an ongoing investigation: []


The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country's push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

[]  The potential impact of waste from oil and gas drilling ­ including hydraulic fracturing ­ on drinking water has been an issue in Texas, Wyoming and, with great urgency, in California this month. Here, a jar of fracking water waste is displayed at a recycling site in Midland, Texas. (Pat Sullivan/AP Photo)

California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review more than 100 others in the state's drought-wracked Central Valley out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there.

The state's Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating that their waste disposal "poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources." The orders were first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, and the state has confirmed with ProPublica that its investigation is expanding to look at additional wells.

The action comes as California's agriculture industry copes with a drought crisis that has emptied reservoirs and cost the state $2.2 billion this year alone. The lack of water has forced farmers across the state to supplement their water supply from underground aquifers, according to a study released this week by the University of California Davis.

The problem is that at least 100 of the state's aquifers were presumed to be useless for drinking and farming because the water was either of poor quality, or too deep underground to easily access. Years ago, the state exempted them from environmental protection and allowed the oil and gas industry to intentionally pollute them. But not all aquifers are exempted, and the system amounts to a patchwork of protected and unprotected water resources deep underground. Now, according to the cease and desist orders issued by the state, it appears that at least seven injection wells are likely pumping waste into fresh water aquifers protected by the law, and not other aquifers sacrificed by the state long ago.

"The aquifers in question with respect to the orders that have been issued are not exempt," said Ed Wilson, a spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation in an email.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation of more than 700,000 injection wells across the country found that wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, outcomes that were likely polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal law. That investigation also disclosed a little-known program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that exempted more than 1,000 other drinking water aquifers from any sort of pollution protection at all, many of them in California.

Those are the aquifers at issue today. The exempted aquifers, according to documents the state filed with the U.S. EPA in 1981 and obtained by ProPublica, were poorly defined and ambiguously outlined. They were often identified by hand-drawn lines on a map, making it difficult to know today exactly which bodies of water were supposed to be protected, and by which aspects of the governing laws. Those exemptions and documents were signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor in 1981.

State officials emphasized to ProPublica that they will now order water testing and monitoring at the injection well sites in question. To date, they said, they have not yet found any of the more regulated aquifers to have been contaminated.

"We do not have any direct evidence any drinking water has been affected," wrote Steve Bohlen, the state oil and gas supervisor, in a statement to ProPublica.

Bohlen said his office was acting "out of an abundance of caution," and a spokesperson said that the state became aware of the problems through a review of facilities it was conducting according to California's fracking law passed late last year, which required the state to study fracking impacts and adopt regulations to address its risks, presumably including underground disposal.

California officials have long been under fire for their injection well practices, a waste disposal program that the state runs according to federal law and under a sort of license ­ called "primacy" ­ given to it by the EPA.

For one, experts say that aquifers the states and the EPA once thought would never be needed may soon become important sources of water as the climate changes and technology reduces the cost of pumping it from deep underground and treating it for consumption. Indeed, towns in Wyoming and Texas ­ two states also suffering long-term droughts ­ are pumping, treating, then delivering drinking water to taps from aquifers which would be considered unusable under California state regulations governing the oil and gas industry.

In June 2011, the EPA conducted a review of other aspects of California's injection well program and found enforcement, testing and oversight problems so significant that the agency demanded California improve its regulations and warned that the state's authority could be revoked.

Among the issues, California and the federal government disagree about what type of water is worth protecting in the first place, with California law only protecting a fraction of the waters that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires.

The EPA's report, commissioned from outside consultants, also said that California regulators routinely failed to adequately examine the geology around an injection well to ensure that fluids pumped into it would not leak underground and contaminate drinking water aquifers. The report found that state inspectors often allowed injection at pressures that exceeded the capabilities of the wells and thus risked cracking the surrounding rock and spreading contaminants. Several accidents in recent years in California involved injected waste or injected steam leaking back out of abandoned wells, or blowing out of the ground and creating sinkholes, including one 2011 incident that killed an oil worker.

The exemptions and other failings, said Damon Nagami, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in an email, are "especially disturbing" in a state that has been keenly aware of severe water constraints for more than a century and is now suffering from a crippling drought. "Our drinking water sources must be protected and preserved for the precious resources they are, not sacrificed as a garbage dump for the oil and gas industry."

Still, three years after the EPA's report, California has not yet completed its review of its underground injection program, according to state officials. The scrutiny of the wells surrounding Bakersfield may be the start.
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Abrahm Lustgarten

Abrahm Lustgarten covers energy, water, climate change and anything else having to do with the environment for ProPublica.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

ANS -- Rise of the Christian left: Why the religious right’s moment may be ending

Here's some interesting predictions for the immediate future.  A part of the Millennial generation is classified as the "Faith and family Left". 
Find it here:   

Monday, Jul 21, 2014 04:45 AM PST

Rise of the Christian left: Why the religious right's moment may be ending

From Pope Francis to a generation with new priorities, the finest Christian traditions are being reinvigorated

Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig

Topics: pope francis, Christianity, christian left, Religious Right, moral panic, Editor's Picks, Capitalism, Religion, partisanship, The Left, Politics News
Rise of the Christian <em>left</em>: Why the religi  (Credit: AP)

It's hard to tell if the near-constant stream of millennial-centric political think-pieces are perpetuating or reflecting growing curmudgeonly fears about the future of the country. Maybe it's a little of both, and Fox is probably observing within its competency when it pegs more than a handful of us as "deluded narcissists" –  but it appears there's room for some political optimism among all the moral panic and the reign of the religious right. With millennial religious and political attitudes in flux compared to our predecessors, the upcoming years could be the Christian left's big moment.

Which isn't to say the United States has no Christian left history ­ with Civil Rights and the heyday of Catholic labor in our past, there is healthy precedent ­ but for the millennial growing up in the age of Jesus Camp and 'Teach the Controversy', Christian political activity has almost always veered rightward. Yet if the Culture Wars are losing momentum in light of issues like unemployment ­ which 76% of millennials identified as a critical issue in a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute survey, compared with 22% who found abortion or same sex marriage critical ­ how will Christian millennials fall out politically?

One thing seems clear: however they align themselves, it won't be along typical partisan lines. A recent Reason-Rupe poll of young Americans found millennials to be, in the words of Nick Gillespie, tired of  " partisan crap," which more or less covers it. The Reason-Rupe findings track well with the 2012 PRRI results linked above, which concluded that 45% of young people identify as independent, with only 33% calling themselves Democrats, and 23% Republican. While Reason-Rupe concludes its report hoping millennials' anti-partisan tendencies will eventually lead them to a kind of libertarianism ­ socially liberal and fiscally conservative ­ as it stands, the young favor a variety of policies that tend to the economic left, with majorities generally favoring government guaranteed living wages, health insurance and food and shelter. Nonetheless, roughly a quarter consider themselves some kind of social conservative, and 40% call themselves socially liberal, with the remainder suspended somewhere in the murky middle.

One way to interpret the seemingly disparate interests of millennials ­ guaranteed existence minimums on one hand, lower taxes and fractured social issues on the other ­ is to imagine us as a cohort of politically schizophrenic pajama boys with an entitlement complex and little understanding of how policy works. Another explanation is that the young are merely more attached to their personal ideological commitments, regardless of whether or not they fall along traditional party lines. Along with Gillespie, I think this latter interpretation is right.

This reading is especially credible in light of this year's Pew Forum political typology report. Pew split Americans by cohesion in values and goals rather than party affiliation, and came up with eight types, including the "faith and family left." The most racially diverse of the eight types, the faith and family left represents a fascinating innovation on American political sorts, and led Michael Dimock, vice president of the Pew Research Center to observe that "the caricature that all religious people are Republican is just not true." Whether or not the faith and family left has roped in a sizable constituency of young people just yet, the mere establishment of such a typology on the political landscape could be just the ticket to a new direction for the green set. Why?

According to " Faith in Equality: Economic Justice and the Future of Religious Progressives," a report released in April of this year by the Brookings Institute, partisan polarization has represented an enormous blockage to religious leftist political engagement up until now:

The staunchly conservative views of the religious right and its unabashed support for the Republican Party has created an expectation in both parties that the faith-based constituencies supporting them on certain issues will act as uncritical supporters of their platforms as a whole. Faith leaders­and this is not unique to either side­often feel they risk losing access to policymakers if they refuse to support the party line on specific issues. "In both parties, the false expectation is that the faith community is supposed to be cheerleaders or chaplains," Carr said. As a result, he continued, "to have both agreements and disagreements" comes to be seen as "unnatural activity."

But this obtains only insofar as parties are calling the shots, and parties call the shots only insofar as people are willing to support them, vote the way they're told, and pump money into them. If the Reason-Rupe and PRRI reports are right, millennials just might be opting out of the partisan approach to politics altogether, which means the partisan leash on religious constituencies might just be fraying. This makes coalitions like the faith and family left ­ which has commitments all across the political spectrum, founded in faith rather than political expediency ­ seem a lot more viable in the long run. In short, the weaker the partisan system becomes, the more nuanced the religious story about politics can become. And this means prime time for the Christian left to re-enter the political stage.

And what a smashing re-entry we're set for, with figures like Pope Francis casually backhanding capitalism and corporate greed in graceful continuity with his praise of family life, solidarity and a culture of life. At this very moment, different factions of the religious left are duking it out over Obama's proposed executive order banning discrimination against LGBT workers on behalf of federal contractors, and though the diversity of the religious left might concern some, the big picture is that the religious left is a growing force for political influence. As time passes and the mantle of political participation passes from prior partisan generations down to millennials, we might see that influence continue to grow, re-invigorating some of the finest features of the Christian tradition: to resist categorization, pull hard for the oppressed and downtrodden and insist upon hope while coping with the realities of power.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

ANS -- Two short positive articles

Here's two little short ones.  One is about Vancouver, B.C. going the opposite direction from everyone else and making life a bit easier for the homeless. 
the second, is about tiny floating islands that suck up pollution and clean rivers "naturally".  Sounds like a great idea.  It was sent to me by one of our readers.

Find them here:    

These Awesome Bus Benches Double as Homeless Housing

A Vancouver organization's pop-up shelters provide a dry spot to sleep.

[apparently you have to go to the website to see the photo....]

(Photo courtesy of RainCity Housing/Spring Advertising)
June 27, 2014 By Liz Dwyer
Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at GOOD.
full biofollow me

It rains a whopping 200 days out of the year in Vancouver, which isn't terrible if you have a cozy pair of galoshes and a warm, dry sofa to curl up on every evening. But what if you're homeless and spending the night sleeping on an exposed bus bench?

That's where some tricked-out transit seats are helping to save the day. Equipped with a pop-up "roof," the benches keep residents of the Canadian city with no place to go from getting drenched.

The benches were created in 2013 by local advertising agency Spring and grassroots advocacy group RainCity Housing, which provides progressive services to Vancouver's homeless. During the day, the benches serve as seating for those waiting for the bus to arrive. At night, the front lifts up and out to create an overhang. The back of the bench tells homeless people, "Find a home here," and it gives RainCity's address.

"We don't know if they have been used by homeless folks, but probably," Bill Briscall, the organization's communications manager, told The Telegraph. The need in Vancouver is certainly there: "In a park one block from my house I see people sleeping overnight almost every month throughout the year," Briscall said.

The benches are a welcome contrast to the trend of draconian laws and policies that negatively affect the homeless. Norway hopes to make begging punishable by jail time. Earlier this month, anti-homeless spikes sparked controversy in London; a posh apartment building had installed the pointy pieces of metal in an effort to keep people from sleeping on its grounds.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., cities have installed transit seats with dividers or have turned to impossible-to-lie-on curved benches to keep homeless folks from sleeping on them. While the goal is to help people get off the street and into permanent housing, this solution in Vancouver is nice to see.

These Incredible Tiny Islands Suck Pollution Out of Water

A Scottish company is building floating ecosystems to clean up rivers and lakes.

[there's a very short video on the website]

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(Photo: Biomatrix/Facebook)
July 12, 2014 By Kristina Bravo
Kristina Bravo is a Los Angeles–based writer. She is Assistant Editor at TakePart.
full biofollow me

Cleaning up dirty water has been on the agenda of many scientists lately. That's no surprise­water pollution poses a health risk pretty much everywhere, especially in developing countries, where kids play among sewage, workers toil in muck daily, and millions die from drinking contaminated water every year. Scotland-based Biomatrix Water offers one more innovative way to clean up the mess: installing islands that suck up pollution from the water they're floating in.

The islands look and work like wetlands. Man-made structures hold together their vegetation; the pollutant-sucking process works naturally. Roots suspended beneath the islands promote the growth of aquatic biofilm (the green slime you find on rocks) that "cleanse[s] the water through the breakdown, sorption, and metabolic transformation of nutrients and impurities," explains the Biomatrix website. Treatment plants have used biofilm filters for decades, reports Fast Company. But the company's engineering additions, such as columns of synthetic fiber, maximize the growth of the beneficial bacteria that absorbs pollutants.

The islands come in different shapes and sizes and can be modified to grow local greenery. Besides increasing biofilm in the water, they also serve as fish refuges and feeding zones, creating low-maintenance ecosystems that could improve the area's biodiversity while thriving for more than 20 years. The buoyant structures are also nice to look at: They can hold trees, driftwood, and even sculpture.

Partnering with conservationists and local governments, the company has already installed the pseudo-wetlands in the Philippines, India, China, and other countries.

Monday, July 14, 2014

ANS -- California ranchers tackle the climate crisis one pasture at a time

Here is an article about another way to help the land and the climate and the cattle and sheep. 
Find it here:   


2 Jul 2014 7:01 AM
Hacking the climate

California ranchers tackle the climate crisis one pasture at a time

By Sasha Harris-Lovett
marin cows  Mustafa Alami

John Wick's battered blue jeans, wire-rimmed glasses, and plaid work shirt make him look like a stereotypical rancher, but he is not. He's a philanthropist, and he runs cattle on his 540-acre ranch in Northern California not for money or beef production, but instead to try to promote native grass species by mimicking grazing habits of the elk herds that once roamed these hills.

Through more than a decade of experimentation on his ranch, Wick has stumbled upon what may turn out to be a groundbreaking discovery: He's found a way to manage grasslands that can curb climate change, while also providing multiple benefits to ranchers and to society.
hacking-climate-logo Hallie Bateman

Wick wasn't always a climate activist. He worked as a carpenter and construction project manager, then married into the wealthy Rathmann family. (His father-in-law was the CEO of the massive biotech company Amgen.) When Wick and his wife, Peggy, moved out to their ranch 16 years ago, they were simply looking for more space for an art studio.

But in 2007, Wick started to worry about global warming. "I couldn't sleep at night," Wick says. "I was terrified." Instead of letting these anxieties continue to paralyze him, he decided to do something about it.

Wick thought about the natural cycle he saw on his ranch. Plants grow by converting sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. Each blade of grass, he explains, is like a little straw that sucks carbon out of the air and into the plant's tissues. When the roots eventually decompose, some of the organic material ­ made primarily of carbon ­ remains in the soil and becomes protected from further decomposition.

Was there a way, Wick wondered, to make grasses on rangelands amass more carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil? Rangelands cover 770 million acres of the United States and make up about one-third of the planet's ice-free land surface. If these ecosystems could be managed, on a large scale, to store more carbon, it would cause a notable reduction in global warming.

Wick assembled a crew of experts, from ranchers and agricultural agencies to scientists and policy-makers to help answer this question. "I called everybody who I could think of that would be at all interested," Wick says.

Together they created the Marin Carbon Project.

Tom Wick, founder of the Marin Carbon Project Tom ForsterTom Wick, founder of the Marin Carbon Project

Wick convened a group of scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to discuss whether he could manage his ranch in a way that would extract carbon from the air and deposit it in the soil, and if so, how to measure it. Specifically, he wanted to know if spreading compost, a natural fertilizer, across the landscape could result in removal of more carbon from the air.

Wick's presentation particularly intrigued Dr. Whendee Silver, a biogeochemist from the University of California, Berkeley. She had studied soil carbon in tropical forests and recognized that little was known about it in California. Silver's team began doing controlled experiments to see how compost, in conjunction with cattle grazing, affects underground carbon storage and grass growth in rangelands.

The results of Silver's experiments were encouraging. The areas where compost had been applied sequestered about 900 pounds of extra carbon per acre of land each year over comparable plots where none had been put. If this practice were scaled-up, Silver calculates that spreading half an inch of compost on half the grasslands in California would remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to balance out the greenhouse gas emissions from all the electricity use in California homes and businesses each year.

Aside from being good for the environment, applying compost to pastures was beneficial for business: It improved forage for cattle by increasing grass growth by 25 to 50 percent, causing the soil to retain 2,800 more gallons of water per acre, and making the pastures more resistant to drought.

"I get contacted by ranchers from all over the country who have heard about this, and who are interested in applying compost," Silver says.

UC Berkeley biogeochemist Whendee Silver UC Berkeley biogeochemist Whendee Silver

Silver's team was careful not to overlook unintended consequences.

For instance, would adding compost to grasslands cause soil microbes to produce additional powerful greenhouse gases such as methane or nitrous oxides? Not in rigorous lab tests, and not on the field plots they had studied.

Could invasive weed seeds hide in compost? Not if it was made properly: The heat of the composting process would kill almost all seeds.

By making rangelands more fertile, would more non-native plants take root and thrive there? These grasslands, like most in California, were already dominated by non-native grasses that were brought here in animal feed and by European colonists over 200 years ago. Silver found that putting compost on grazed rangelands didn't increase the proportion of non-native to native grasses, and also didn't increase the proportion of other invasive weeds like star thistle.

What about nutrient-rich runoff, which can cause algal blooms and dead zones in waterways? Silver said her team didn't look specifically at this issue in their test plots, but that "the compost breaks down very very slowly so it is unlikely to have a negative effect on water quality." In fact, compost reduces water runoff by increasing soil water-holding capacity, so it compares favorably to synthetic fertilizer or manure application.

And finally, and most importantly, what about all the greenhouse gases emitted by making compost, transporting it to fields, and spreading it? Would these carbon 'costs' outweigh the extra carbon stored in rangelands?

To answer this question, Silver's lab group spent three years quantifying emissions from soil microbes' response to compost, and analyzing greenhouse gas emissions from compost production and transportation, from changes in livestock food sources and digestion, and from waste management. Then they compared these emissions costs to the carbon savings from making compost and the carbon storage underground when compost was applied to rangelands, assuming the number of grazers on the land remained unchanged.

"Even being really conservative (in our estimates), the compost application came out ahead," says Dr. Marcia DeLonge, a post-doctoral scholar working with Silver. "It was a climate-beneficial practice."

DeLonge found that putting compost on rangelands was especially favorable for the climate if the compost was made from materials that would otherwise produce a lot of methane under traditional waste management practices, like liquefied manure or landfill-bound green waste. When composted, the breakdown of these same materials produced far less potent greenhouse gases.

Based on all the research they've done, Silver's team is confident in their results. "Putting compost on grazed grasslands led to soil carbon sequestration and net greenhouse gas reduction," DeLonge says.

And it wouldn't work as well without the grazers. Grazing, in the appropriate duration and intensity, is key to the Marin Carbon Project's approach to storing carbon in California rangelands. "If you don't graze the grass you end up with a lot of dead thatch that increases fire danger," Silver says. If it were to burn, the dry vegetation would release carbon to the atmosphere.

The positive effects, both for ranchers and for the climate, could last for decades. Applying compost to grasslands starts a positive chain reaction, DeLonge explains, where more plant growth leads to more carbon stored in soil, which in turn enables more plant growth.

She's observed this cycle for the past five years, and predicts that the carbon benefits of a single compost application on a plot of land could continue for upwards of 30 years.

Green shoots in drought-ridden California Green shoots in drought-ridden California

The Marin Carbon Project sources its compost from a small facility nestled in a bucolic valley close to Wick's ranch. Six long windrows of compost steam in the dewy morning air. Made of cow manure from a nearby dairy and yard waste from local homes, this compost effectively recycles some material that otherwise may have been sent to a landfill. A three-foot long thermometer, plunged deep into one of the piles, ticks up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. "It's hot enough to cook a potato in there," the facility manager says.

This particular compost is bound for three ranches in Marin that are now working with the Carbon Project to establish "carbon farm plans" on their properties. By putting compost on their fields, these ranchers will test the feasibility of Wick's idea on a larger scale than Silver's test plots.

If it turns out to be an effective method for storing carbon underground, putting compost on grasslands could transform ranching as well as waste management nationwide. Food scraps, no longer considered waste, would be sent to facilities where they could be made into compost and spread onto the land. Ranchers would become stewards not just of the land, but also the climate.

There's certainly no shortage of unwanted organic material: According to the Environmental Protection Agency, of the 36 million tons of food scraps generated each year in the U.S., only about 5 percent is converted to compost. The rest wastes away in landfills, where it makes up more than 20 percent of trash and decomposes in an oxygen-free environment to produce methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Carbon farming on a large scale poses technical challenges, however. Buying compost and transporting it to rural pastures is expensive. "At the price that (compost) currently is, it would be very hard to get this project scaled up," says DeLonge, though the increased forage production and drought-resilience of pastures may make the practice more cost-effective for ranchers in the long run.

In addition to the cost, many California rangelands are too steep or remote to drive on with a compost-laden dump truck. Because of that, Dr. Lynn Huntsinger, a rangeland ecologist and certified California rangeland manager who is not affiliated with the Marin Carbon Project, doubts putting compost on rangelands is a practical solution to climate change most of the time. "It's really important to distinguish rangelands from what we might call 'pasture,'" she says. "And I think (the Marin Carbon Project) is about pasture… In certain areas it could be a viable strategy. But probably not on the majority of arid rangelands."

Even if we found a way to spread compost over rangelands on a large scale, it's not clear that the effects would be the same elsewhere. A grassland in arid southern California is a distinct ecosystem from one in Marin, and a one-size-fits-all approach could be ineffective or even harmful. In a very dry landscape, compost might just desiccate and blow away. In some sensitive ecosystems, compost application could potentially alter native plant communities, many of which are uniquely adapted to thrive in infertile soils.

In an article published in Global Environmental Change, critics of the Carbon Project in the scientific community warn, "over-generalizing results (about carbon sequestration potential) from one rangeland type to another can lead to false expectations."


Silver agrees that more research is needed to determine the potential for carbon sequestration in arid systems.

Wick, for his part, is determined to see his idea grow. Buoyed by the scientific stamp of approval that Silver's research has lent to his project, he continues to meet with policy-makers and speak at conferences about the Carbon Project.

His next step is finding ways to pay ranchers for the extra carbon they sequester underground through their management practices. One idea is to sell "carbon offsets" to companies and individuals who want to make up for their own pollution. Another: Selling "climate-friendly" wool from sheep that graze on compost-fertilized pastures.

Many challenges remain for carbon storage in rangelands on a large scale. Meanwhile, the science shows that putting compost on pastures, at least in some parts of California, can provide significant benefits to the climate as well as to ranchers. "This whole system of using nature to try to help slow global warming is in the exploratory phases," Silver says. "But people are definitely taking the steps to move forward with this."

Sasha Harris-Lovett is a freelance environmental journalist and a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group.