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The challenges and opportunities posed to humanity by our dependence upon, and articulation with, the natural environment are immense, urgent, and of enduring consequence. The set of interrelated issues involving energy, natural resources, environmental contamination and climate change, and their impacts on the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and even the lithosphere, as well as on human political, economic, demographic, and cultural systems, are complex, intertwined, and systemic.

I’d like to start a far-ranging and detail-laden discussion here concerning these issues and system dynamics, exploring how human actions alter the systems in which we are ensconced, and thus alter the context of our own existence. The rapid deforestation and desertification of the world not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming, which in turn increases the frequency and ferocity of forest fires, increasing the deforestation which increases global warming, in an accelerating feed-back loop; it also eliminates rich repositories of biodiversity, at enormous costs to humanity and to the natural world. Our dependence on fossil fuels, also contributing to global warming, contributes as well to volatile and dysfunctional relations among nations and cultures, forcing petroleum dependent developed and developing nations to pander to the sometimes tyrannical and violence-exporting regimes of oil-rich countries.

Considering just global climate change, both well-known aspects (e.g., rising sea levels as a result of global warming, and the threat that poses to low-lying coastal areas), and less well known aspects (e.g., feedback loops such as those involving the albedo effect through decreasing ice caps reflecting less heat into space, thus causing accelerated global warming; and potentially catastrophic chain-reaction effects, such as those involving disrupted marine food chains due to decreased protophytoplankton production), the breadth and complexity of interacting systemic dynamics demand more from us than the superficial and barely informed popular concern and denial that dominate popular discourse on the topic.

In addition to the immense body of systemic theory, empirical observation, and informed speculation concerning how our actions impact our natural context, and how the resulting changes in our natural context impact our existence in return, there is the entire subset of thought and action regarding our actual and potential responses to this reality. The New Energy Economy, focusing on more extensive use of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and the technical problems of storage and transmission involved, provides a basis for discussion. Within that framework, specific policy issues, such as the efficacy of cap-and-trade carbon markets, or carbon taxes, or taxes and subsidies more generally, come into play. The history of these efforts, including the intense international negotiations culminating in the tentatively promising Kyoto Protocol and disappointing Copenhagen Accord which followed, and current possibilities, such as more decentralized interconnected carbon markets, belong in the conversation.

As always, I invite any and all to participate, hopefully bringing some combination of expertly informed knowledge and insight, on the one hand, and popular perception and curiosity on the other.

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  • Elly:

    In my opinion, water issues will be the most significant environmental issue in the coming decades. The population in Colorado, especially along the Front Range increases while the amount of water available to us remains relatively fixed.

    Denver Water has done a great awareness-raising campaign on the importance of conservation. I have to wonder when it will be time for mandatory watering restrictions and other conservation regulations. In my opinion, telling people to water during certain times of the day and to water for a certain amount of time only goes so far. Many people just don’t care or don’t believe that we are running out of water.

    This reminds me: I need to go dial back my watering times for September. :)

  • Elly, let’s explore what kinds of policies and innovations can potentially address the issue. I’ll throw out a few ideas, and let others discuss them, and add to them, if they wish:

    1) Steeply escalating taxes for high levels of water usage, to dissuade such usage, and to “internalize the externalities,” that is, incorporate the cost to the public in the price paid by users. The revenues raised can then be applied to addressing the problem, by investing in public awareness and the implementation of social institutional and/or technological solutions. This would, for instance, make golf on water-hungry golf courses a far more expensive passtime, because golfers would pay the real social costs of their recreational activity.

    2) Tradable water usage permits. One possibility, which would require a complete restructuring of water law (dumping both the traditional, Eastern “Riparian Law,” and the Western, scarcity-driven “prior appropriation” completely), would involve deciding how much water we (whether jurisdictions are water districts, states, or regions) are going to allow ourselves to consume, and then allocating the permits that add up to that quantity according to some algorithm (e.g., number of people in household, number of employees in business, or more complex formulas), allowing people to buy and sell them on an open market. Using more water than you have permits to cover would have to involve fines substantial enough to effectively prohibit it.

    3) Desalination and pipelines for transportation. This may be an inevitable part of our distant future, since increasing demand on a decreasing resource is going to create a long-term crisis that will eventually have to be met in some decisive way.

    4) “Toilet-to-tap” solutions (which already exist), which purify used water for immediate reuse, including water flushed down the toilet. This probably should be in widespread use already, and, aside from cost, faces the formidable obstacle of discomfort at the idea of drinking recycled toilet water.

    5) “Brown water” solutions, which involve using only partially purified used water for non-potable purposes, especially for watering lawns and other green spaces (e.g., golf courses).

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