Category Archives: Book Review

Why Do The Yaks Hate Us?

So instead of writing these massive book reviews, I thought I’d share a few tidbits from a book I’m currently reading. The book When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind–Or Destroy It. Yes, more light reading. It’s written by Jonathan Watts, a China-based environmental correspondent for The Guardian in the UK. Based on his years living in China, the book takes a look at the four geographic corners of the country, chronicling the China’s environmental history, the damage that’s been done by rapid industrialization and whether the country can avoid becoming an environmental wasteland.

Reading through a chapter on the Tibetan plateau, Watts conveys in three paragraphs how subtle changes to economic policy can have significant impacts on climate. In this case, the impact is negative, but I think a takeaway is that it can go either way.

The culprit here is yaks. Yes, yaks, or more to the point, regulatory changes made in the 1980s that deregulated herd sizes for both sheep and yaks, the two primary livestock on the Tibetan plateau. Deregulation meant that herders could buy as many animals as they could afford, and a subsequent change to tax policy valued yaks at four times the amount of sheep (which on the face of it makes sense, yaks are pretty big). In addition, the government banned polygamy around the same time. All of this incentivized herders to increase the size of their yak herds, because it was now legal, a better value and a larger yak herd made up for the lost prestige of no longer having multiple wives.

Yaks grazing on the Tibetan plateau

More yaks meant more yaks grazing, and that quickly threw off the equilibrium between livestock and grassland that had been set over thousands of years. The overgrazing caused much of the plateau to rapidly become desert and less able to absorb moisture. This caused more heat to radiate into the atmosphere, and with much of the plateau at an elevation of 14,000 feet or more, this heat radiation had an outsize impact on climate. The result was that the Tibetan mountains have been warmed more than anywhere else in China, even with the massive amounts of pollutants created by industrial production in the country’s east.

Set right against the Himalayas, the adjacent mountains funneled water vapor directly into the stratosphere rather than becoming rain or snow, as it would have at a lower elevation. Water vapor has a greater greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide, increasing climate temperatures even more. Because of its place on the globe–at an incredibly high elevation and next to the world’s highest mountain range–changes to the Tibetan land quickly impact climate on a global scale. As Watts writes:

Changes in the soil here fed back rapidly into the atmosphere, affecting global air circulation just as rising ocean surface temperatures affected storm patterns.

It’s a reminder of the law of unintended consequences. When dealing with the environment, every action has an equal and opposite reaction–but we don’t learn what it is until well after the fact.


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Green Gone Wrong: Or, Why We Can’t Buy Our Way Out of Global Warming

Green Gone Wrong, written by journalist Heather Rogers, is an expose of the green industry–organic food, carbon offsets, electric cars and their ilk–from the left. The author’s argument can be shaped like this:

Global warming is a real threat. Something needs to be done. But most of what’s being done under the guise of green isn’t solving the problem. In fact, it’s actually obscuring real solutions.

Take the hybrid car. CO2-spewing internal combustion engines  in cars have been replaced by hybrid electric engines, which at face value is a good thing. Score one point for the greens. But research has shown that Prius drivers actually drive farther, up to 25% more, once they own a hybrid. When people feel like they’re using less gas per mile, they often compensate by driving more miles. Net-net: They often end up using a similar amount of petroleum as they did when driving a car with an internal combustion engine.

And that leads to the book’s main point: The green industry as we know it is based on consumerism–switching from dirty products to green products–when in fact what we should be doing from an ecological standpoint is using less. That’s not a laine that goes over well in board rooms, and understandably so. The incentives of green capitalism, a term that Rogers uses throughout the book, are misaligned with what actually needs to be done to reduce atmospheric carbon in hopes of reversing–or at least stabilizing–climate change.

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Filed under Book Review, Economics, Green, Science

Book Review: Red Families v. Blue Families

One of the things I intend to use this blog for is writing short (WARNING: my idea of short is probably longer than yours) reviews of books I’m reading. For those of you who know me, I’m an avid reader, which is aided by the 45 or so minutes I spend commuting on the bus each day. In fact, when I was away from work for 12 weeks on paternity leave, my overall reading went down.

So with that said, that brings me to some thoughts on a book I finished about two weeks ago (and is still overdue, sorry Seattle Public Library): Red Families v. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, written by legal scholars Naomi Cahn and June Carbone. A friend was visiting a few weeks ago and picked up this book from our dining table to comment that I read the weirdest books, and given that I have no legal background whatsoever, for me this book probably falls in that camp.

The impetus for picking the book up in the first place, however, was that I’m a new parent, at the early stages of forming a family and even though our daughter is still working on sitting on her own, I’m already thinking about what shape our family will take. What role do we want education to play in our children’s lives? What will we teach them about love and relationships? Will we encourage them to delay marriage into the early 30s, even longer than we did ourselves, so they can establish a foothold economically? Conversely, if we ever get a phone call from college announcing that they’re engaged, will we see that as a good thing or something to be, ahem, negotiated once grad school is completed and a job offer is firmly in place? What’s more important–starting a family or becoming financially independent? How you answer that question probably says a lot about what part of the country you’re from, your socioeconomic class and how you vote.

The main argument behind Red Families v. Blue Families is that economic changes over the past 40 years have created two different tracks for family formation within America, and that these tracks follow political differences in the country–the eponymous red states and blue states–very closely. The authors make clear, however, in this chicken or egg case that it’s family formation that has created the difference in our politics, rather than inherent differences in politics leading toward different types of families. (More after the jump.) Continue reading

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