Thursday, September 29, 2011


Richard Louv begins the final section of his book, Last Child in the Woods, with a question posed by his then four-year-old son, Matthew, "Are God and Mother Nature married, or just good friends?" Later, Louv and his son share this question with Fred Rogers whose reply includes this request to Matthew, "Will you let me know, as time goes by, what answer you find to your question?"

The relationship between God and nature guides only a portion of this interesting and carefully-researched book, but it is the final portion. It wraps up the story Louv weaves with perhaps the most effective argument favoring reconnecting children with nature, and that is to strengthen their spirituality. The argument leans towards no particular denomination or church, rather towards a spirituality rooted in the amazement that overcomes one in the face of an incredibly large, steep, and jagged mountain, the reflection of tree-covered hillsides, blue skies, and white clouds in the smooth surface of a mountain lake, the arching flight of a hawk overhead, or the cautious steps of a suddenly alert deer on the trail ahead.

Louv's telling of this exchange between his young son and Mister Rogers ends in the same manner the book proceeds, with respect for the question and the child asking it, with compelling interest in how the answer comes out. I know it will take some time, but please let me know the answer you find.

Although Louv clearly makes the case for the importance of nature in the growth and education of children, he does it gently, with openness to ultimate alternatives. Yes, he cites many examples, many research studies to support his contention that connections to the natural world help children learn science and math and language, cope with danger as well as with difficulties, appreciate the unknown, and even come to know God. But he entertains as much uncertainty in exactly how exposure to nature does these things, and how we might improve the connection down the road, as he acknowledges in dealing with his son's question about God and Mother Nature.

Although Louv has two sons, it is his younger son Matthew who opens both the book and its last section. This time the question has to do with Louv's oft-repeated recollections of playing outdoors during his own childhood, something Matthew felt he had missed out on growing up in the last decades of the 20th century, so Matthew asked how come it was more fun when his father was growing up. With this opening, Louv describes in disturbing detail the many obstacles preventing our children from experiencing nature with the same ease and wonder enjoyed by earlier generations.

Whether it's homeowner association rules prohibiting treehouses, forts, or any free, unsupervised play in open areas, the replacement of unstructured woods and vacant lots with ball fields used only for structured games, or the fearful restrictions placed by worried parents on how far afield their young offspring may go, there is little doubt of the differences kids experience growing up today compared to 40 or 50 or more years ago.

How many 5th-graders today ride their bikes several miles along major roads on their way to school? I asked my mother recently if she worried about me on those days in suburban Baltimore when she let me take a big spin towards independence. She recalled a strong fear for my safety, but she still let me ride. Of course the world was different then, recall there were no bike helmets or even seat belts!

And in the list of obstacles to kids enjoying the outdoors, did I mention the seductive draw of electronic gadgets yet? Richard Louv certainly mentions them! Couch potato may have been invented to refer to middle-aged men watching football on Sunday afternoons, but the term has been usurped by today's boys (and girls?) playing computer games and texting back and forth. I put girls in parentheses as our three daughters never owned a Playstation or similar electronic gaming device during their entire childhood - a part of "family life" we missed?

Louv highlights research documenting these things that remove kids from nature, but he also goes on to highlight as well the costs of that separation. He acknowledges nature-deficit disorder is not a formally recognized illness, but nonetheless reports many problems that may arise when children grow up with little to no exposure to the natural world of trees, dirt, creeks, bugs, mud, frogs, hills, and ponds.

But Richard also explores how we may return, not to the good old days, but to an exciting new future where parents and children have the opportunity to share an
easy, hand-dirtying, imagination-filled examination of a hillside of bare soil, a flowing creek, a climb-able tree, a trail of ants, or the capture of a frog by a snake! Louv does not spell out exactly how this will or must happen. Instead he shares an array of examples where that future has already begun to happen, and examines and discusses a variety of projects, programs, even movements, that could lead us further in this direction.

To paraphrase an apt question asked by one of my daughters at age four, but did we wanted to go there? Having spent a portion of my time reading this book gazing at high mountain ridges and walking alongside cool alpine lakes with mule deer and ravens, and once or twice passing by a class of adventurous ninth-grade students camping out and hiking in the woods, I know the answer I would give. But the more difficult question is how do we get there, to this new future.

Although Richard Louv does not have all the answers, he's posed important questions, and supported well his contention that most of our kids need and would benefit from more time spent in nature. He has also described a many-branched set of pathways to that hoped-for nature-filled future. And he's reminded us that to be human is to be constantly and repeatedly and deeply amazed, at a mountain, a tree, a waterfalls, a hummingbird, a sandy beach, a child.

Friday, September 16, 2011


Some question the push to subsidize and adopt green forms of energy, such as solar photovoltaic and wind turbines. The challengers suggest that green power cannot produce enough energy to replace fossil fuels, would cost too much to use, and has too many problems associated with its production and distribution. But virtually all of those problems boil down to costs - green energy costs more than dirty fossil fuels. Rick Martinez summarized much of this in the Raleigh News and Observer on September 14, 2011 in an article entitled "Green energy more hype than help."

The flaw in Mr. Martinez' reasoning is a failure to take into account the external costs of burning coal and gasoline. External costs for coal and gasoline are things that burning coal and gasoline cause that cost real money to fix but that are not included in the up-front cost (internal costs) of purchasing that fuel.

For example, extracting coal by removing a mountaintop in West Virginia causes deforestation and massive water pollution. However, the mountaintop and the forests are not replaced and the water pollution is not cleaned up. Moreover, your electricity bill includes no funds to compensate those living near or downstream from that missing mountaintop for their resulting expenses.

For example, burning gasoline releases nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons that cause ozone air pollution. That ozone air pollution has demonstrable health impacts that raise healthcare costs and damage people's health and fitness. Those healthcare costs are not paid for by the oil companies and are not part of the price of a gallon of gasoline.

Let' s be clear. External costs must be paid for, are paid for, one way or the other. It's just that external costs are not included in the price of the fuel whose extraction and use caused them to occur. They should be part of the cost of those fuels, but historically they have not been, and that continues today.

Solar photovoltaic and wind turbines both represent renewable alternatives to nonrenewable and polluting fossil fuels. Although solar and wind power generation have their own environmental costs, they clearly produce little to no air pollution, greenhouse gases, water pollution, or environmental health dangers. Solar photovoltaic and wind turbines have few external costs that result from their use.

So any comparison of the costs of producing electricity with coal to producing it with solar or wind is way off base if it does not include the difference in external costs of the two energy sources. Any comparison of the relative costs of running a car on gasoline versus electricity falls short if it does not include the external costs of burning gasoline that simply don't exist for producing electricity with solar or wind power.

Just how expensive are those external costs? The National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently estimated the hidden costs of energy production and use at $120 billion per year. Dr. Paul Epstein of the Harvard Medical School recently estimated the external costs for coal alone at from $175 to $500 billion per year.

For comparison, from 2007 to 2010, government subsidies supporting renewable energy sources jumped 186%, from $5 billion to $15 billion, this largely due to the government's recent economic stimulus bills. That 2010 figure of $15 billion represents just 12% of the low-end estimate of $120 billion per year in external costs of continuing to use fossil fuels.

We could subsidize renewable energy sources at a rate five times higher than the 2010 figure and they would still be much cheaper than fossil fuels!

This is why renewable energy sources must be subsidized - to make up for the unfair advantage fossil fuels have by not having to pay for their external costs. Renewable energy sources have few if any external costs. Until fossil fuels are forced to pay for their external costs, any comparison between the costs of fossil fuels and renewable energy is simply propaganda for the fossil fuel industry.

How could those external costs be paid up front by fossil fuels? The direct and simplest way is a carbon tax. Charge enough to pay for the damages the fuel causes. Take those funds and use them to reduce income taxes by a like amount, and you could have an overall revenue-neutral or tax-neutral tool that would even the playing field between fossil fuels and renewable energy.

With a tax on carbon, consumers would pay the true costs of using coal-generated electricity and driving gas-guzzling cars. Those who wished to save money on their fuel bills would lead the charge to renewable energy, such as solar photovoltaic and wind power. Power companies and car companies would get the message that consumers want efficient clean-energy alternatives, since renewable energy is, in fact, cost-competitive with fossil fuels.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Although my niece Megan, good friend's daughter Kate, and son-in-law Andrew may not realize it, they most likely share a sensitivity to ozone air pollution. You see, they each suffer from asthma. They are just three people I know who have asthma, there are others, since asthma is a condition that affects an estimated 20 million Americans, 1 out of every 15 of us. And experiments find that people with asthma suffer greater lung damage when exposed to ozone air pollution than the rest of us. We all suffer lung damage when we breathe ozone, but some of us experience more injury than others.

President Obama recently decided to delay issuing a rule that would have lowered something called the primary standard for ozone air pollution. That primary standard now sits at 0.075 parts of ozone per million parts of air (ppm) averaged over an 8-hour time period. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed lowering that primary standard to between 0.070 and 0.060 ppm of ozone. That would mean cities would have to adopt strategies to keep ozone pollution from exceeding 0.060 or 0.070 ppm averaged over 8 hours.

Just what is ozone? It is a molecule that consists of three oxygen atoms (O3). The oxygen molecule you want to breathe, that you enjoy breathing in deep gulps, has just two oxygen atoms (O2). How do normal, two-atom oxygen molecules acquire that third, troublesome atom? That involves energy, as do all chemical changes, and in this case the energy comes from sunlight. But sunlight alone is not enough. To get O3 from O2, the air must also have other gases present, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons.

Nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons come mostly from burning fossil fuels. Nitrogen oxides are produced when we burn coal in power plants to produce electricity, or burn gasoline in cars and trucks. This is also how hydrocarbons are produced, though hydrocarbons can also come from the evaporation of gasoline and other petroleum products or solvents like dry cleaning fluids.

Sparing you from more chemistry than you need to know, just be aware that those nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbon gases in the air help sunlight split apart some O2 molecules, freeing up two solitary oxygen atoms, which can then each combine with still-intact O2 molecules to produce O3 molecules, ozone. And ozone is a highly reactive molecule, which means that it will react with and change (equals damage) any of your body's cells it comes in contact with.

Your skin cells are made tough to resist chemical attack, and are not affected by ozone. However, the inside of your lungs are not covered in skin cells, they can't be or they would be no good at absorbing the oxygen you need to live. So the cells lining your lungs are readily injured by contact with ozone, which is unavoidable if it's present in the air - unless you hold your breath!

Megan, Kate, and Andrew, and the rest of us too, will suffer damage to the cells in our lungs when we breathe in ozone. Notice I said when, not if. All of us living in the developed parts of the world have breathed in ozone air pollution at one time or another. It's our most common and most important air pollutant - a molecule that is produced in the very air around us.

Experiments show that lungs can begin to respond to ozone concentrations as low as 0.060 ppm, levels often exceeded across the country during the summer months. In fact, the national 8-hour maximum average ozone levels during the summer of 2009 was 0.070 ppm.

We all suffer some level of injury from ozone air pollution. That injury can trigger inflammation and reduced lung function, increased susceptibility to respiratory infection, coughing, sore throat, shortness of breath, and aggravation of chronic lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis. The costs to health include increased medication use, more frequent doctor visits and school and work absences, increased emergency room and hospital admissions, and even premature death in people with heart and lung diseases.

Ozone is a seasonal air pollutant problem, because it requires intense sunlight and high temperatures. The sunlight, as you know, provides the energy necessary to produce ozone, and the high temperatures speed up that chemical reaction, meaning higher concentrations of ozone in the air.

When you hear news reports of a "Code Orange" air pollution alert, that means authorities expect the sunlight and heat forecasted for the coming day are enough, given the presence of nitrogen oxide and hydrocarbon air pollutants, to produce dangerous levels of ozone air pollution, especially during the hottest part of the day. People sensitive to ozone, people with asthma or heart conditions or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) should refrain from physical exertion outdoors to avoid suffering injury. Of course, all of us might do the same to protect our lungs, and if you ever hear a "Code Red" or "Code Purple" ozone alert, stay inside and hold your breath!

The recipe for reducing ozone air pollution involves reducing those "precursor" gases, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons. We can't stop the sun from shining, but we can burn less coal and gasoline, and clean up the smokestack and tailpipe emissions when we must burn those fuels.

The estimated costs for reducing those emissions to levels that would keep ozone under the proposed lower primary standard of 0.060 ppm - from $19 to $90 billion by 2020. The estimated health benefits approximately equal those costs, ranging from $13 to $100 billion. So a simple cost-benefit analysis suggests we should do it!

And those health benefits include saved lives and improved quality of life, especially for the 1 in 15 of us who suffer from asthma. Are Megan, Kate, and Andrew worth making that effort? Is your health worth it?