Thursday, February 19, 2009

Finding the Sublime in Economic Collapse

Coin purse, probably made in China. It can be yours for $4 at

For the last few months I've been following economic news closely. I realize now that it's a morbid fascination, the same kind of base impulse that drives people to rubberneck at car crashes or spend money just to see the special effects in disaster movies.

The global economy is enduring a terrible, catastrophic collapse. And it's compellingly beautiful.

If you're familiar with this blog, you know that I consider the economy a force of nature in its own right, and an intrinsic part of the global ecosystem. The human economy isn't separated from nature at all: it uses nature intensively, and has enormous and continuous effects on what we traditionally think of as "wild" nature.

The economy is an incredibly complex, yet interconnected system. The same run-up in energy and housing prices through the mid-2000s affected billions of people in billions of different ways, and their billions of different responses helped precipitate the current credit crisis. And the extent and effects of the current credit crisis will have similarly wide-reaching consequences that no one today will be able to foresee.

In the course of my economic news obsessions, I've come to see the current economic collapse as something similar to the massive algal blooms that regularly occur in the Gulf of Mexico. Those blooms occur when fertilizer-rich runoff from the Mississippi River basin flows into the Gulf, and sets off an explosion in algae growth, which starves the ocean of oxygen and kills everything (here's a more in-depth explanation of how the so-called "Dead Zone" happens). The American economy bloomed through the 1990s and early 2000s thanks to cheap credit from developing nations like China. Now that the housing market and SUV manufacturers are dead and decomposing, their carcasses threaten to suffocate everything else as they sink.

There's one key difference: the dead zone, while huge, is confined to the Gulf of Mexico. The current economic collapse is global.

Below, I'd like to share what I consider to be the best big-picture overviews of the global economic ecosystem:

  • Frontline: Inside the Meltdown. A blow-by-blow overview of the financial crisis, how it happened, and the subsequent government bailouts. It's focused mainly on Washington and Wall Street, but does allude to the housing bubble that caused the problems upstream.
  • This American Life: Giant Pool of Money. A great overview of why banks were so eager to lend mortgages to people who couldn't afford them; or, an explanation of how cheap credit is like the fertilizer runoff that feeds a red tide.
  • The Planet Money blog. A constantly-updated blog and podcast from the same people who produced the "Giant Pool of Money" episode linked above. Their latest work is focused on the likely nationalization of large American banks, a socialist intervention that's indicative of how deep and desperate the crisis is.
Managing a healthy economy, like managing a healthy ecosystem, is easy. Managing an economy in crisis is like managing an ecosystem that's riddled with invasive species and unpredictable climate changes: it's unclear whether meddling does any good, and it might be better to sit back, let some species go extinct, and let the rest evolve to sort it out among themselves.

The untreated sewage of Canis familiaris

Every year around this time, the melting snow and ice reveals hundreds of turds that lazy dog owners have left behind over the course of the winter. It's disgusting and infuriating: why do people see fit to turn our streets and sidewalks into open sewers?

If you read this blog, you know where the street shit is destined: it'll wash down a storm drain, and into the nearest river or harbor. In many cities, domesticated dogs are a significant source of fecal coliform bacteria in urban waterways and beaches. For those of us who live next to Casco Bay in Portland Maine, all that water-borne fecal bacteria will be absorbed and filtered by the bivalves and bottom-feeding crustaceans that are beloved to gourmands. Although maybe a bit less so, now.

According to the EPA, "Pets, particularly dogs, are significant contributors to source water contamination. Studies performed on watersheds in the Seattle, Washington, area found that nearly 20 percent of the bacteria found in water samples were matched with dogs as the host animals." A 2002 USA Today article summarized more research about the problem:
"The environmental impact of dog waste went unrecognized for decades. Then scientists developed lab techniques to determine the origin of fecal bacteria contaminating water... At Morro Bay, Calif., for example, dogs contribute roughly 10% of the E. coli, says Christopher Kitts, a microbiologist at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo. "And that can be the difference between a beach closing and a beach not closing," he says."
Let's be perfectly clear about this: if you're not picking up after your dog, you're essentially dumping untreated sewage into the nearest stream, lake, or ocean.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Where is the Front Brabant?

Back in December, I'd mentioned how my friend Nate has taken on a new hobby of "shipspotting" from his third-floor apartment on Portland's Munjoy Hill, where he has an excellent view of the Portland Pipe Line oil terminal and the tankers that dock there.

At the time, I wrote that "if more curious harbor-watchers like Nate were able to accurately track the transoceanic commerce of these ships, we might have a better idea of where our oil is really coming from... Is our oil British, from the fields of the North Sea? Or Arabian? Russian? Venezuelan? For now, that's the proprietary knowledge of shipping and oil corporations - but it's knowledge that's free for the taking, for anyone with harbor views."

Since then, I've subscribed to Nate's new "Ships in Port" blog, where he's been posting updates of harbor traffic along with tidbits on the ships' histories and crews (this information is still surprisingly scarce - most oil tanker companies haven't embraced the internet, with a few exceptions). And thanks to Nate's latest post, I've learned that you don't even need harbor views to keep track of harbor traffic: new marine regulations actually require every large vessel to carry an electronic transponder, "which transmits their position, speed and course, among some other static information, such as vessel’s name, dimensions and voyage details."

Naturally, a web developer has designed a Google Maps mash-up to post the transponders' transmissions on a world map at Here's a link to the map of what's in Portland Harbor; here's a view of Philadelphia's harbor, and here's the very busy Port of Long Beach, in Los Angeles.

So indeed, it is possible to keep track of where our oil might be coming from, by tracking the positions of the ships that visit Portland. Back on January 20, for instance, the Front Brabant was unloading oil at the Portland Pipe Line terminal. A search for the vessel on reveals that after about 2 weeks of transponder silence, while the vessel was at sea, the Front Brabant suddenly popped up again at longitude -44.22946, latitude -23.06147: the Port of Angra Dos Reis, just west of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

According to Wikipedia, Angra Dos Reis has "countless beaches, islands and pristine waters perfect for swimming or scuba diving," plus an oil terminal and Brasil's only nuclear power plant. If those sound like odd neighbors, keep in mind that Casco Bay, an emblem of the rugged Maine coast and a big tourism destination in its own right, also sports a major oil terminal and a major fossil-fueled power station on Cousins Island that produces a lot more pollution than Brasil's nuclear reactors ever will.

Unfortunately, doesn't reveal what cargo the Front Brabant is loading or unloading in Brasil - but my bet is that it's re-loading its hold with Brasil's soy-based biofuels. I'm planning to track the Front Brabant over the next few months to see where it goes - and where our oil comes from.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Cubicle Symbiosis

A new office building in Delhi proposes to use 60,000 indoor plants in lieu of building ventilation. "By 'growing' fresh air indoors," write the project's developers, "we can reduce the supply of external fresh air needed by air-conditioned buildings, while still meeting industry standards for healthy indoor air."

The fresh-air garden concept has been in use for 15 years at Delhi's Paharpur Business Centre, a 20 year-old building that houses over 1,200 plants for 300 workers. Years of data collection have demonstrated that the building's workers suffer fewer respiratory ailments and headaches, and are more productive. You can check on the PBC's indoor air quality, and compare it against outdoor air in Delhi, here on their web site.

"We conducted another experiment and sealed all fresh air and exhaust from the building for 6 weeks and found that that the air quality inside the building was better than outdoors."
As it happens, a lot of the research on house plants and air quality has been conducted by NASA, in anticipation of the day when astronauts will need to grow their own fresh air on the moon and other places where the outdoor air just won't do.

The houseplants pictured above are GreenSpaces' top recommendations for a cubicle fresh-air garden. The Areca Palm filters out dust, humidifies the air, and removes volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde. The Mother-in-law’s Tongue plant converts C02 into oxygen at night, and is recommended for bedrooms. And the Money Plant is another good scrubber of volatile organic compounds.

More info at

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Portland, Maine in historic USGS Topographical Maps

Watch the city grow while its wetlands shrink. These maps come courtesy of the UNH Dimond Library collection.

Click any of the images below for more detail, or click the year to view the source maps.

Portland, Maine, in 1891:

...and in 1916:

...and in 1957: