Wednesday, November 18, 2015

"Even one inch of rain in Los Angeles can generate more than 10 billion gallons of runoff."

One of the most important ideas I've encountered in recent years, was in E.O. Wilson's The Future of Life He talks about how the earth naturally cleans the water and the air and how when humans cut trees, fill in wetlands, and pave the earth, we interfere with that natural infrastructure.  Then when we try to replicate what nature did for free, it costs us a fortune.  Wilson cites a 1997 study that estimated the annual value at $33 trillion.

Ecosystems services are defined as the flow of materials, energy, and information from the biosphere that support human existence.  They include the regulation of the atmosphere and climate;  the purification and retention of fresh water;  the formation and enrichment of the soil;  nutrient cycling; the detoxification and recirculation of water;  the pollination of crops;  and the production of lumber, fodder, and biomass fuel. [p. 106]
Flying into LA
So when I read this LA Times piece, I thought I should note it as one more example of how humans have unknowingly tampered with the natural regeneration and cleansing system that the earth provides.  In this case replenishing the aquifers. 
"As we have paved our cities, covering the land with impervious concrete and asphalt, less and less rain is recharging urban groundwater; it’s running off all those hard surfaces into storm sewers and out to the ocean. Every year, hundreds of billions of gallons of storm water wash into Santa Monica Bay, Long Beach Harbor and the San Francisco Bay. Even one inch of rain in Los Angeles can generate more than 10 billion gallons of runoff."
Think about the costs of building desalination plants, while LA is pouring hundreds of billions of gallons of fresh water into the ocean.  I don't know if that total is all the water that goes into the ocean or just the amount that would have stayed in the soil and/or drained down into the aquifers.

Up to now, our capitalist system hasn't applied the cost of such externalities of our economic activities. (For a graphic economics explanation of externalities, see this Khan Academy video.)  So when contractors bulldoze trees and replace them with a building and parking, the cost of the lost air cleansing and water retention those trees did is not not reflected in the price of the new building. Instead the cost is born by society as a whole.  This means that businesses have an incentive to destroy the environment, because doing so doesn't affect them. 

Unless there are strict environmental protections in place and/or government imposes some way to charge for the externality.  A revenue neutral fee on carbon is, for example, seen by many as a way to put the cost of global warming into the price of carbon based products.   Here's an example of how a carbon fee would work.

Meanwhile what I'd like lots of people to understand is this concept of the natural recycling the earth does and how messing with those processes really is damaging a very important natural infrastructure that has great impacts on the earth and the humans that live on earth.  The pavement in California is just one example.  By the way, the author calls for replacing it with more porous material that will allow rainwater to percolate down to the aquifers.   

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