Stop a proposed oil pipeline by … kayaking?

That’s the idea behind the Pipedreams Project. Concerned about a proposed pipeline that would connect Alberta tar sands oil fields to the British Columbia coast, a trio of British Columbians paddled the region that would be in danger in the event of a spill. Now they’re working on a documentary about the proposed pipeline, the trip, and the people they met along the way.

Human populations grow faster near protected areas

New in Science: Protected areas like national parks and forests seem to stimulate economic development [abstract only]. The study’s authors examine more than 300 protected areas in 45 African and Latin American countries, and find that human populations near the preserves are growing nearly twice as rapidly as those in rural areas farther away from preserves.

On the one hand, this is good news – it might be evidence that, rather than depressing economic development, natural reserves actually provide benefits to locals in the form of jobs as park staff or ecotourism guides, or development projects coupled with conservation efforts. On the other hand, though, it could be that development associated with tourism actually puts more pressure on the land just outside protected areas, making the preserves more isolated and less ecologically functional. The paper also shows that deforestation of the areas around preserves increases as the human population growth rate increases.


Wittemeyer G, P Elsen, WT Bean, A Coleman, O Burton, and JS Brashares. Accelerated human population growth at protected area edges. Science 321:123-6.

Life on 2000 Watts

How much energy can each man, woman, and child on Earth use sustainably? According to a consortium of European scientists, it’s 2000 watts. That’s 17,520 kilowatt hours per year per person. Like most nice, tidy numbers, that number is probably more or less fictitious (there’s the question of where the energy comes from, and how you calculate the per-capita consumption, just off the top of my head), but it’s good to have a starting point for thinking about it. And an article in this week’s New Yorker, by Elizabeth Kolbert, does a pretty good job of working through that thought process.

My household electricity usage comes to a little less than 7,200 kwh in the last year – my provider, Avista actually has some great online tools for assessing home energy efficiency, and even allows me to specify that I only buy power from wind and other renewable sources. Unfortunately, my personal energy budget includes more than home light and heating: there’s auto fuel, electricity used at work, and the energy used to produce and transport almost everything I buy, just to name a few. It’s a pity there’s no good way to sum all those up.

Global weirding: bats dying off

NY Times: bats are dying off in huge numbers throughout the Adirondacks. No one seems to know why, but symptoms include low fat reserves and susceptibility to some sort of superficial fungus. Puts me in mind of colony collapse disorder in honeybees – another unexplained disaster befalling ecologically critical species.

It’s frankly scary. This is the kind of thing we might expect as a result of climate change and a general increase in human interference in natural systems: gradual changes having sudden, nonlinear effects. We’re dismantling our own life-support system for parts, and we don’t even know which bits are important.


In today’s NY Times: A surge of off-road vehicles is roaring across the West’s public lands. Since coming west for graduate school, I’ve seen a lot of this firsthand. There’s not much of the Mojave Desert (outside of national parks) that isn’t crosshatched with ORV tracks, and it’s shockingly hard to get away from the roar of gasoline engines in the mountains of Idaho. It’s nice to know, as the Times article points out, that there are a few off-roaders trying to reshape the pastime into something more responsible – but they’ve got a lot of work to do.

Corn’s not just for eating anymore

NY Times: Increasing ethanol production, spurred by government incentives, concern about global warming, and the desire for energy independence, could be starting to impact the food supply. Cross-reference to the Economist (whence the graph): the upturn in prices is the biggest since the 1970s.

I can’t say it’s surprising, given that most estimates I’ve seen conclude that ethanol couldn’t supply the world’s energy even if all the farmland on the planet were converted to biomass production. But it is surprising that it’s happened so early in the movement to drop fossil fuels. If this is the wave of the future, Americans could someday find themselves literally taking food out of the mouths of the Third World to fuel their cars. That’s a terrible thought.