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Will Silicon Valley Take on Energy Access?

As the smartphone industry turns its attention to emerging markets, energy poverty poses a challenge

With interest from Elon Musk to a16z’s Steven Sinofsky, momentum in Silicon Valley may be heading in an unlikely direction — towards addressing energy poverty.

Energy poverty, which affects 1.3 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity, is, according to David Roberts, “the greatest challenge of our time.” (Read his take in not one but two separate posts.) That’s because it pits our need to reduce fossil fuel consumption while lifting hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty head-to-head. It’s hardly the place where you’d expect investors who recently invested $1.5 million in the word "Yo" would focus their efforts.

photo of a group of people in a dark space holding small lanternsphoto Par AlmqvistSolar-charged LED lanterns from Omnigrid Micropower Company (OMC).

But pressure has been building for Silicon Valley to move beyond “me-too” apps to tackle some of the world’s greatest problems. People like Vivek Wadhwa have excoriated the valley over its lack of investment in enormous entrenched challenges from poverty to climate change. Energy poverty sits squarely between the two, but, despite growing interest in a broad bucket category called "science," has thus far received little interest.

But that pressure to invest pales in comparison to a much bigger force potentially driving the valley towards energy poverty — the smartphone. Remember, a not so insignificant portion of today’s venture capital (VC) investment boom centers around the cellphone as a platform for driving sales revenue. But traditional markets are increasingly saturated, which has led mobile phone companies, and the industries that piggyback on their platform, to seek emerging or frontier markets.

Description: 2015 Internet Trends Report

That has caused a global boom in cellphone penetration that has leapfrogged landline telephones. More importantly, that push to frontier markets includes a push to the next frontier of ad revenue — smartphones that connect people to the Internet. That’s why organizations like Facebook have launched initiatives to connect billions of people to the Internet — with all manner of crazy technology including lasers and balloons. Because, without a Wi-Fi connection, all those unconnected devices are leaving value on the table.

Description: 2015 Internet Trends Report

But there’s actually one much bigger catch: you …more

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In Conversation: Ramon Navarro, Chilean Big-Wave Surfer and Environmental Activist

‘The Fisherman’s Son’ on his fight to save Chile’s iconic Punta de Lobos

In a parking lot in Northern California, a white screen is hanging from the tin wall of a surf shop. A crowd has gathered for the screening of The Fisherman's Son, a film about professional big-wave surfer Ramon Navarro and his fight to save one of Chile's most iconic surf breaks, Punta de Lobos. We are all waiting for it to get darker so that the movie can begin; the projection must not compete with the light of the California sun. Meanwhile, everyone is having a good time. It’s Saturday and the crowd is alive. More than a few people appear to have come directly from the beach to see Navarro in person as he tours the West Coast screening his film and raising money to create a land trust at Punta de Lobos.

Photo of Punta de LobosPhoto by Government of ChileAs surfers begin to take on coastal stewardship in increasingly effective ways, they are generating hope for the future.

Ramon Navarro is a fisherman’s son. He is also a fisherman's grandson and great-grandson. He is from Pichilemu, Chile and at the April film screening I attended, Navarro continuously asserted that the land and its people have given him everything. Director Chris Malloy captures the surfer's origin well. There is a scene in which Navarro's grandmother recounts a childhood memory of eating sea bass stuffed with apples and cooked under hot sand and coals. By the time Malloy turns his camera toward the threat of development and the campaign to save Punta de Lobos, the viewer knows and can almost taste what is at stake; the local food and access to its abundance, the stories people tell about the land, the culture.

In 2013, Punta de Lobos was approved as a world surfing reserve by Save the Waves, a conservation organization focused on exceptional surfing areas around the world. Save the Waves has helped protect areas with remarkable surf in Peru, Australia, Mexico, and Santa Cruz, California. The organization designates reserves based on a number of criteria, including the quality of the waves, the consistency of good waves throughout the year, biodiversity, and other ecological factors.

The organization also emphasizes the importance of community involvement when selecting new reserve locations. In Pichilemu, the local organization fighting to protect the coast is the Comité por la Defensa de Punta de …more

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Protected Areas in the United States Too Small, Disconnected to Preserve Biodiversity, Studies Find

In fragmented habitats, nearly half of all species are lost within 20 years

The US National Park System includes more than 400 sites spread across some 84 million acres. But few national parks are large enough to contain ecosystems. Two new studies reveal that America’s national parks and other protected public lands are too small and fragmented to sufficiently preserve the nation’s biodiversity. Often missing are conservation corridors linking islanded protected areas.

aerial photo of a landscape, visibly divided by cut and uncut areasChris Margules, National Science FoundationTwo new studies find that America's national parks and other protected lands are too fragmented to preserve the nation's biodiversity.

A recent study on habitat fragmentation reached startling conclusions for the country’s ecosystems. Conducted by two-dozen leading ecologists, the study focused on long-term habitat fragmentation experiments on five continents. The authors found that more than 70 percent of the world’s forests are within one kilometer of a forest edge, making them susceptible to degradation by suburban, urban, and agricultural pressures that intrude further into forests every day. These influences were found to reduce diversity of life by 13 percent to 75 percent in all areas studied, with the percentage increasing the closer the habitat to the edge. In fragmented habitats, nearly half of all species are lost within 20 years, and this downward trend continues over time.

“Large public lands like national parks are critical for conservation, but not sufficient. Larger connected areas of land need to be conserved,” the study’s lead author, Nick M. Haddad of North Carolina State University, explained in an interview. “The scope and scale of land needed to protect and preserve a variety of biodiversity is well beyond the area that the national parks encompass. Ideally, it would be great to enlarge national parks, but more realistically the size needed to protect biodiversity should connect other protected areas in conjunction with national parks.”

Haddad cited the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor as an example. “The 1,800 miles of lands stringed together consist of several national parks and other protected lands, creating a superhighway for wildlife to flourish,” he said. “With human population increasing and the resources those increases call for, there is a greater need for more conservation against these pressures. We need to take advantage of the parks and other public lands, think outside their boundaries to create resilience and resist the negative changes of a shrinking …more

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Why Prohibiting Trade in Ivory Won’t Save Elephants

A controlled, legal trade is more likely to slow elephant poaching

This opinion essay offers another view on the question posed in our Plus-Minus debate, The Ivory Market: Keep It Closed or Open It Up?

What if we’re wrong about how best to save elephants from being killed for their ivory?

Photo of Elephant in TanzaniaPhoto by Dongyi Liu The ivory prohibition schema being pushed by wildlife and animal rights groups threatens to become conservation's version of the War on Drugs.

By now, there’s little dispute that these magnificent creatures are running out of time. Poaching rates continue to exceed elephant population growth rates, making it essential for the international conservation community to find real-world solutions to the ongoing crisis.

I certainly share the growing revulsion over poaching. But I find it alarming that so much of what’s now being promoted as elephant advocacy is likely to accomplish little for elephants.

Instead of looking at what’s behind the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory, elephant supporters are pushing for the global prohibition of all trade in ivory.

Here’s the problem. Ivory is no passing fashion, as I’ve written about at length. It’s been valued since prehistoric times. Anti-ivory campaigners caricature its primary use as carving material for the production of “trinkets.” Yes, huge quantities of bric-a-brac have been made from ivory, as well as a vast amount of industrial uses — piano keys, billiard balls and the like.

But the dominant use of ivory has always been art, and now, millennia later, we are left with an astonishing array of culturally significant objects made from this organic treasure, objects that we cannot destroy unless we want to erase vast swaths of not just of art history, but human history. Suppressing trade in these legal objects does nothing to protect elephants.

It’s a fantasy to think that appreciation of, interest in, and thus demand for ivory will ever entirely disappear. That’s why the ivory prohibition schema being pushed by wildlife and animal rights groups threatens to become conservation's version of the War on Drugs — yet another costly crusade that, after immense suffering and loss of life, will reveal that a problematic trade item can only be managed, not eradicated. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with ivory — it’s how ivory is often obtained from elephants that is so troubling.

But wait, you say. Behind every piece of ivory is …more

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China to Shut Down Domestic Ivory Trade

Announcement offers hope amid African poaching crisis and dwindling elephant numbers

Last week was a big one for African elephants. China, the world’s largest market for illegal ivory, announced that it would phase-out its legal, domestic ivory market. With elephants under dire threat from poaching, the news could not be more welcome to conservationists.  

Photo of Guangzhou, China Ivory CrushPhoto by International Fund for Animal Welfare Chinese officials prepared to begin crushing stockpiles of confiscated ivory at a January 2014 crush event in Guagzhou, China. On Friday, officials crushed 662 kilograms of ivory in Beijing at China’s second crush event.

“Under the legal framework of CITES and domestic laws and regulations, we will strictly control ivory processing and trade until commercial processing and the sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted,” said Zhao Shucong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration, referencing the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Flora and Fauna. The announcement came at a public event in Beijing, where officials destroyed 662 kilograms of confiscated ivory, including elephant tusks and ivory carvings.

So far, no additional details have been announced about the phase-out.

“We will be eagerly waiting for [details and a timeline], because of course the details are very important,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s land and wildlife program, speaking by phone. “But it is a very encouraging step.”

African elephant numbers have plummeted in the past century, from an estimated 10 million in 1913, to roughly 1.3 million in 1979, to just around 500,000 today. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, poachers killed 100,000 African elephants. Conservationists warn that if poaching isn’t controlled, African elephants could soon disappear entirely. (Read more about the poaching crisis and organized crime here.)

Poaching has been driven by the high demand — and the corresponding high prices — of ivory, particularly in China. In an increasingly affluent China, this demand only seems to be growing. In fact, a National Geographic survey found that 84 percent of the Chinese middle class intend to buy ivory products in the future. Conservationists say that China’s flourishing legal ivory market provides a front for illegal black-market ivory, feeding the poaching crisis. As a result, China is seen as an essential participant in any successful effort to curb global ivory demand and tackle elephant poaching.

Friday’s announcement was the first time China has committed to closing …more

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A Conservationists’ Conundrum: In Some Places, There are Too Many Elephants

South Africa is struggling with too many animals and too little open land

In Central and East Africa, poachers are killing tens of thousands of elephants a year, threatening the very survival of the species. In South Africa, however, conservationists are facing a different problem. In many of the country's reserves rising elephant numbers pose such a threat to habitat and other species that radical solutions to population control — including vasectomies of wild bulls and chemical contraception of females — are being adopted.

Photo of Elephant being prepared for vasectomyPhoto by Ann and Steve Toon A wild elephant bull is made ready for vasectomy operation in the bush in a private game reserve in Limpopo, South Africa.

South Africa's estimated 17,000 elephants live in fenced reserves with negligible ivory poaching, few predators, and abundant water. Natural mortality rates are suppressed, birth rates are high, and numbers have grown at around 7 percent annually, a rate that left unchecked means local populations can double in size in less than a decade. Now, landscapes are beginning to show signs of strain due to this population growth.

Elephants are what biologists call “habitat engineers.” That is, they play a significant role in maintaining healthy, diverse ecosystems. But with a daily intake of 600 pounds of food and a habit of stripping bark from trees, pushing over large trees, and breaking branches to get at leaves, the beneficial effects of opening up dense bush can soon turn to habitat degradation when elephant numbers rise too far and too fast. Woodland is reduced to grassland, key tree species are lost (along with the unique ecosystems they support), and vulnerable species are out-competed for water.

Where once elephants would have roamed widely for food and water, spreading their impact (and their ecosystem benefits) widely, fences now prevent such migrations. The construction of artificial waterholes, intended to improve game viewing for tourists, has compounded the problem.

Photo of Chinese swamp cypressBy Ann and Steve ToonA mother and calf at Hapoor waterhole, Addo Elephant
National Park, South Africa.

In truth, the relationship between elephant numbers and habitat is complex and poorly understood. Some scientists maintain that elephants’ ecosystem impacts have been exaggerated. Or it may be that the changes they are causing on South African landscapes is simply a return to past environmental conditions, when there were even more elephants. “Before …more

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In Review: The Water Knife

By Paolo Bagicalupi
Knopf, 2015, 376 pages

Paolo Bagicalupi's new near-future thriller arrives at a depressingly appropriate moment.  As the Golden State enters its fourth year of drought, with snowpack at an all-time low and unprecedented mandatory rationing being imposed, headlines in the New York Times blare "The End of California?" It's not hard to feel that the parched western states are taking a turn for the apocalyptic.

Photo of The Water Knife Book Cover

To some critics and commentators, climate change is also having a deep effect on literature, as more authors focus more closely on the actual and possible consequences of the subject in their fiction. The genre, if it can be called that yet, represents a loose affiliation that stretches back at least to J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World and includes such authors as Ian McEwan, Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Margaret Atwood. The Water Knife is perhaps the best, most-recent example of "climate fiction," and it expertly taps a wellspring of fascination and fear that runs beneath a culture ever digging a deeper hole for itself and the environment.

Set only a few years hence, The Water Knife features three point-of-view characters whose fates become violently entangled in a Phoenix ravaged by dust, heat and crime. The American states aren't so united anymore, some with borders closed to any desperately thirsty migrants making their way upstream.

Angel Velasquez is the titular "water knife," a combination gumshoe and hired killer who makes the incisions that keep potable water flowing in the desired direction. The drought is a money-making opportunity for him, a chance to live well as a gun-for-hire for the Southern Nevada Water Authority and its imperious corporate leader, Catherine Case, also known as "The Queen of the Colorado." Angel, Case and other SNWA operatives work to keep the fountains burbling in Las Vegas, at the extreme expense of everyone downstream. Case isn't above launching a missile attack on a rival city's water-pumping plant to protect her own interests. When she hears rumors of a game-changing water source, she puts Angel, in his tricked-out Tesla, on the job.

Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lucy Monroe hangs on as a resident of Phoenix, telling herself she's not merely another "collapse pornographer." She keeps searching for the next big story, the one that will justify her not bailing town to live with her sister's family …more

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