Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lead Pollution and Violence in Latin America

My niece and nephew in Caracas will be the first
generation in some time to grow up without
lead emissions in their environment.
One of the striking things about Latin America in recent years is the horrible increase in violence.  When I was in Venezuela earlier this year, it was dangerous to get around the city of Caracas and many people are kidnapped, murdered, or violently robbed every year.

There are a number of reasons for violence in Venezuela and other countries.  Some have attributed it to political upheaval, drug gangs, lack of opportunity, and failure of established social institutions.

However, I ran across this brief article from July of 2013 by Rick Nevin, a noted economist who has been looking at issues of lead pollution and crime in the United States.  His research has shown that there is a link between lead pollution and associated poisoning and violent crime.  Indeed, he has demonstrated the rise and fall of violent crime in the United States and tracked it quite closely with lead pollution.

As many know, lead pollution in children causes widespread learning disabilities, cognitive disfunction, behavioral problems, and a number of other problems.  Nevin has shown variations in lead pollution output in different countries of Latin America and has shown that there is a link between lead pollution and violence.

What is interesting in the Venezuela case is that this country was one of the last countries to ban leaded gasoline in the world (in 2005).  In 2013, Nevin predicted that Venezuela will continue to see increased rates of violent crime for the next several years.  At least for 2014, that prediction has sadly come true.

I conducted research with colleagues many years ago on lead pollution in Trujillo, Venezuela.  We found very high levels of lead on the streets in front of homes, where children play, and in backyard patios.  There was no doubt that the lead was coming from automobile exhaust and that many children were exposed to lead in their daily lives.

While Venezuela is late compared to the rest of the world in banning lead from gasoline, I am glad that the next generation of Venezuelans will not have to be exposed at rates of previous generations.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Unilever's Corporate Sustainability Plan

Unilever has an online sustainability plan ( that is divided into 9 main areas within three themes.  Each theme has subgoals that are quantified within the plan (note, I have taken the text largely from the site with some modifications).

1.       Improved health and well-being
a.      Health and hygiene.  Goal:   By 2020 we will help more than a billion people improve their health and hygiene.
                                                              i.     Reduce diarrhoeal and respiratory disease through handwashing
                                                             ii.     Provide safe drinking water
                                                            iii.     Improve self esteem
                                                            iv.     Improve oral health
b.      Goal:  By 2020 we will double the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards, based on globally recognized dietary guidelines.
                                                              i.     Reduce saturated fat
                                                             ii.     Increase essential fatty acids
                                                            iii.     Improve heart health
                                                            iv.     Reduce calories
                                                             v.     Remove trans fat
                                                            vi.     Provide healthy eating information
                                                          vii.     Reduce sugar
2.      Reducing environmental impact
a.      Greenhouse gases.  Goal:  Halve the greenhouse gas impact of our products across the lifecycle by 2020
                                                              i.     Cut greenhouse gases in manufacturing by purchasing renewable energy, focusing on energy conservation and efficiency, and outfitting new factories with energy saving plans
                                                             ii.     Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from skin cleansing and hair washing
                                                            iii.     Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from washing clothes
                                                            iv.     Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation
                                                             v.     Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from refrigeration
                                                            vi.     Reduce energy consumption in offices
                                                          vii.     Reduce employee travel
b.      Water use.  Goal:  Halve the water associated with consumer use of our products by 2020.
                                                              i.     Reduce water in existing factories and build in water conservation in new factories
                                                             ii.     Produce easy rinse product and products that use less water
                                                            iii.     Reduce water use in skin cleansing and hair washing
                                                            iv.     Reduce water in agriculture
c.      Waste and packaging.  Goal:  Halve the waste associated with the disposal of our products by 2020.
                                                              i.     Goal of zero non-hazardous waste to landfills
                                                             ii.     Reduce packaging
                                                            iii.     Increase recycling and recovery rate
                                                            iv.     Increase recycled content of products
                                                             v.     Reuse packaging
                                                            vi.     Tackle sachet waste
                                                          vii.     Eliminate PVC
                                                         viii.     Reduce office waste
d.      Sustainable sourcing.  Goal:  By 2020 we will source 100% of our agricultural raw materials sustainably.  Several specific goals are listed ranging from paper and board to agricultural products like cage-free eggs and sustainable cocoa and palm oil.
3.      Enhancing livelihoods
a.      Fairness in the workplace.  Goal: By 2020 we will advance human rights across our operations and extended supply chain.
                                                              i.     Implement UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
                                                             ii.     Source 100% of procurement spend in line with our Responsible Sourcing Policy
                                                            iii.     Create a framework for fair compensation
                                                            iv.     Improve employee health, nutrition, and well-being
b.      Opportunities for women.  Goal:  By 2020 we will empower 5 million women.
                                                              i.     Build a gender-balanced organization with a focus on management
                                                             ii.     Promote safety for women in communities where we operate
                                                            iii.     Enhance access to training and skills
                                                            iv.     Expand opportunities in our value chain
c.      Inclusive business.  Goal:  By 2020, we will have a positive impact on the lives of 5.5 million people.
                                                              i.     Improve livelihoods of smallholder farmers
                                                             ii.     Improve incomes of small scale retailers
                                                            iii.     Increase the participation of young entrepreneurs in our value chain

Clearly striving to reach these goals involves all aspects of Unilever’s business operations, supply chain, and global operations.  Very few companies have such a clear, far-reaching initiative that bridges the desire to promote products that they produce while advancing a clear sustainability agenda.  And no, I'm not paid by Unilever to write this.  I'm not saying it is the greenest company or the best sustainability plan on the planet, but it is impressive.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Our Collective Parthenon

Photo by Bob Brinkmann.
As my readers know, I spent some time in the Greek Isles this summer.  However, I also spent two days in Athens seeing the sites.  Of course, I made the obligatory trip to the Parthenon.  One rambles around the ruins and there are scant interpretive signs.  I left wanting to know more.

While I was in Oxford, I ran into this book at Blackwell's Bookstore by Mary Beard called simply enough, The Parthenon.  Since it was not a dense unapproachable tome, I picked it up.  I am glad I did.  It is a relatively short book that highlights the entire history of the site from construction to the modern day.

Without going into the details of the Parthenon or its history, the overarching message from the book is that the Parthenon is really not a story about the Greeks that built it over 2500 years ago.  Instead, it is a story of the way that others used and abused it since it was constructed.

Certainly there is that relatively brief moment in time (if a few hundreds of years of its 2500 year history could be called brief) when it was used as a temple to Athena.  Then, it appears, that it was somewhat of a temple while also serving as a treasury and a regional tourist attraction (as it is now).  However, upon the fall of Athens as a major power, the temple served as home for a warlord, a monument to the Roman Emperor Nero, a church, a mosque, a fortress, and a site of squatters.

When the Greek government started to restore the Acropolis in the 1800's, the site was largely destroyed and in ruins.  It was looted extensively by treasure seekers and museum seeking to have pieces of classical Greek statuary in their collections (Lord Elgin and the Elgin Marbles for example).  A massive explosion in 1687 ruined the building and tore off the roof.  The blast also killed approximately 300 people.  How could they reconstruct the acropolis given all of this damage?

But reconstruct, they did.  They threw together the structure we see today and cleared the site of 2500 years of debris (no doubt losing important artifacts and historical context in the process).  Since then, many have realized the errors of the past.  Now, a much more scientifically appropriate reconstruction process is underway and the entire building is expected to be open to the public in a few years (one can only wander outside of it).

The modern Parthenon is nothing like the Parthenons of the past.  Certainly the design is the same, but the use and the way that people interact with the building are different.  Thus, the modern Parthenon is more of a reflection of us than it is of the past.  Each culture interacted with the space in their own way. The ancient Greeks constructed it, but many generations transformed the space for their own use.  While we see an ancient Greek space through our modern lenses, the reality is that we are seeing a very modern space that is interacting with ancient space and it tells us a great deal about ourselves.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Credit for Lionfish Study Gets Poisonous

Click for photo credit.
Check out this report from the Miami Herald about the fallout of publicity on a 6th grader's science project.

As many in the higher ed biz know, we often work with high school or younger students on science projects.  They come to us over the summer or have scheduled times to come in to do lab work during the regular semester.

Because they are so young, universities and the media often focus publicity efforts on these students.  They and their results are interesting and give us hope for the future.  It is always wonderful to see these students do good work.  Many of us put in long hours working with these types of students and our undergrad and grad students often help us with the mentorship work.

However, clearly things got out of hand with the lionfish research alluded to in the story.  It appears as if the media picked up on a 6th grader's project that was based on graduate student work already published.  The 6th grader did some follow up work to a detailed study conducted by a graduate student.  Who got the national and international credit?  The 6th grader.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Texas Goes 3600 Miles for Wind

A wind farm in Texas.  Click for photo credit.
Check out this interesting article in the New York Times on Texas' quest for wind energy.  They built 3600 miles of transmission lines from the windy panhandle to the major energy using areas of the state to try to encourage construction of windmills in the region.  And it is working.

Dozens of new windmills are being been built that will account for 7000 megawatts of energy.  The capacity of the transmission line is 18,000 megawatts, so there is room for further development.  Considering that a medium-sized coal burning power plant produces about 500 megawatts, the implications of this wind development project are clear.  The wind plant has the potential to eliminate the need for 36 coal burning power plants.

Of course, there are always challenges with wind.  The biggest, of course, is how to supply energy on non-windy days.  Nevertheless, this is a very big development for the green energy movement.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Another Huge Sinkhole in Spring Hill Florida

Spring Hill, Florida continues to be the epicenter of sinkhole activity in Florida.  The area developed rapidly since the 1970's.  Since then, hundreds of sinkholes have formed to cause widespread damage to homes.  The main reason for this situation is the unique underground geology in the area.  A groundwater mixing zone, where fresh and saline water mix to form a more aggressive solution environment for limestone, is nearby.  Plus the bedrock is relatively near the surface which means that the impacts of any solution and subsequent collapse are very evident.

Check out this video below.  Also, if you want to know more about Florida sinkholes, there's this.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Income Inequality on the Decline?

Check out this interesting piece in the New York Times about income inequality.  According to the author, it is on the decline globally.  This is an important finding because income inequality is a theme in much of the emerging discourse on global sustainability.  While the author acknowledges that income inequality is on the rise in places like the U.S., it is dropping throughout much of the developing world. He also states that many nations with income disparities can modify policies, such as improving education, to address the concerns.

The piece is worth a read to get a nuanced and critical view of the discourse on issues of income inequality.  What do you think?  We have certainly seen income inequality rise in the United States and it is of growing concern to many major thinkers.