Baseball, a river, plastic bags and behavioral economics

It was a beautiful day for a ballgame yesterday at Nationals Park. President Obama threw out the first ball (to cheers), temperatures climbed close to 80 degrees, the game was a sellout and the ballpark overlooking Washington D.C.’s other river–the Anacostia — never looked better. Here’s the view from my perch in the upper deck.


About that river: The Anacostia River flows for about eight miles from Prince George’s County, Maryland, into your nation’s capital, where it empties into the Potomac. It has a troubled past and a bright future, as I learned recently on a boat trip along the Anacostia organized by my synagogue, Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, and led by our eco-friendly rabbi, Fred Dobb.

Jim Foster, the president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, told us that dumping of raw sewage, along with industrial waste from the Washington Navy Yard, had turned the Anacostia into one of America’s most polluted waterways by the late 1980s. Not coincidentally, the Anacostia runs through Washington’s poorest neighborhoods. Today, things are looking up.  Driving the improvement are tougher pollution laws, increased awareness of the river’s value, riverfront development spurred by the new Nationals Park and, most recently, a law regulating plastic bags in the District of Columbia that has already had a remarkable impact.

Plastic bags along the Anacosta
Plastic bags along the Anacosta

Plastic bags are a blight on the river. A trash survey by the city’s Department of the Environment found that, depending on whether the garbage was collected at storm drains, streams or nearby surface sites,  between 19 and 33 percent of the waste entering the Anacostia was plastic bags. About 20,000 tons of waste enter the river each year.

Last June, in an effort to protect the Anacostia and its tributaries, the D.C. City Council unanimously passed a five-cent tax on plastic and paper bags to discourage their use. Money collected under the bill will go to clean up the river.

How is the bag tax working out? Brilliantly, so far. In January, the month the bill took effect, people dramatically scaled back their use of plastic bags. According to The Washington Post:

In its first assessment of how the new law is working, the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue estimates that city food and grocery establishments issued about 3.3 million bags in January, which suggests a remarkable decrease. Prior to the bag tax taking effect Jan 1, the Office of the Chief Financial Officer had estimated that about 22.5 million bags were being issued per month in 2009.

Yes, that’s right: The city’s stores report that they gave out 85% fewer disposable bags the first month the law took effect. [click to continue…]

Richard Heinberg: Trying to save the world

Today’s guest blogger is Richard Heinberg, senior fellow in residence at the Post Carbon Institute, an expert on peak oil and the author of nine books, the latest of which is Blackout: Coal, Climate and the Last Energy Crisis. My friend Ed Maibach sent me this essay, and I liked it so much that I obtained permission from Richard to run in on the blog. While I edited it for space, it’s still longer than the usual blogpost—but worth reading, I think, for what it says about the need to rethink economic growth and to have a more honest debate about climate.

Heinberg Hi. My job is trying to save the world, and I’d like to tell you a little about my line of work.

First, it’s a job I enjoy. I get to feel good about what I do, and I meet a lot of smart, interesting people. I get to travel to exciting places to attend conferences, and at least some people respect my efforts (though many others think I’m crazy or misguided).

It’s not all a bed of roses. The biggest problems with trying to save the world are: first, that it doesn’t always seem to want to be saved; and second, that those of us trying to save it can’t agree on why it needs saving or how to go about doing so. Let me explain.

When I say “save the world,” I mean preventing human civilization from collapsing in a chaotic, violent way that would entail enormous amounts of suffering and death. I also mean preserving the natural world, so as to minimize species extinctions and the loss of wild habitat.

I regard both of these priorities as about equally important, since they are closely interrelated: if civilization collapses chaotically, billions of people will do an enormous amount of damage to remaining ecosystems in their desperate attempts at survival; and if nature goes first, that means civilization will go too, because we rely on ecosystem services for everything we do.

But not everyone who works full-time at saving the world has the same balance of priorities. [click to continue…]

How to talk about climate change

First, the good news: A vast majority of Americans–as many 90%, depending on how you phrase the question–think the U.S. should act to curb global warming. Most expect the benefits of a national response to outweigh the costs.

Now, the bad news: Very few have acted on those beliefs. Only about 10 to 12% have contacted government officials, given money or volunteered with an organization working to reduce global warming.

So we’re concerned, but apathetic.

Those are among the findings of an exceptionally detailed public opinion study called Global Warming’s Six Americas 2009: An Audience Segmentation Analysis. The 132-page study breaks down the populace into six groups, which it calls Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful and Dismissive, and analyzes each of their views. It was conducted by the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, which is led by Ed Maibach.

Global Warming's Six Americas
Global Warming's Six Americas

[click to continue…]