News Items: Micro-Houses, Global Warming and Agriculture

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Sixteen sheets of 4' x 8' plywood are enough to assemble micro houses like this one.
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The rate at which people recycled steel cans more than tripled from 1988 to 1993.
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In a new, warmer climate, our vast corn fields may have to give way to rice or grapes.

The following news items originated from multiple sources.


Micro-Houses

Most of us beat the high cost of living by saving a nickel
here, a penny there. But Bill Kaysing of Soquel,
California, cofounder of the Holy Terra Church in nearby
Aptos, which he started to help the sick and the homeless,
has found a unique approach to keeping living costs to a
minimum. It’s called micro-housing and the houses he’s
created resemble a child’s playhouse or a backyard
toolshed.

Back in 1940, after seeing his childhood friend’s father
move out of his house and into the backyard tool shed as a
result of a divorce, it hit Kaysing that the toolshed
didn’t make a bad home. Even though this was an ordinary
toolshed, it had a toilet, kitchen, and contained
everything to make it a pleasant place to live. He was
overwhelmed by the man’s ingenuity and has continued to
apply this innovative thinking to his own life.

Kaysing was not alone. The micro-house was officially named
the Granny house back in the 1970s by California State
Senator Henry Mello for its use as a second housing unit
for older people. The relaxed building code’s only
requirements were that it be less than 640 square feet and
be occupied by at least one person older than 60. Kaysing,
however, sees the micro-house as suitable for anyone looking
for an alternative or addition to their current home, an
ideal place for teenagers who need a little space from mom
and dad, or homesteaders who just need a quick roof.

According to Kaysing, a micro-house can be built with 16
pieces of 4′ x 8′ plywood. This includes the floor, roof,
and sides.

Global Warming and Agriculture

Earlier scientific predictions that global warming would
devastate U.S. agriculture in the next century by leaving
corn withering on the stalk and desiccating vast wheat
fields across the Midwest are unduly pessimistic, according
to a new analysis by Yale economists. In fact, they suggest
that U.S. agriculture would be minimally damaged and could
even be slightly more profitable if global warming occurs.

The new study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
and the National Science Foundation, is scheduled to be
published later this year in the journal American
Economic Review.
It is based on climate and economic
data from 3,000 counties and is the first to use existing
data to project the complex economic changes that would
occur as farmers adapt to rising temperatures by shifting
to more profitable crops or land uses.

The study also is the first to base projections on farmland
value, which reflects the most profitable use of the land
under competitive markets, according to Robert Mendelsohn,
professor of forest policy in the Yale School of Forestry
and Environmental Studies. He coauthored the analysis with
Yale economist William D. Nordhaus and Daigree Shaw of the
Institute of Economics in Taipei, China.

Previous economic forecasts, which placed U.S. agricultural
losses on average about three times higher than the Yale
study, focused too heavily on declining grain production
and omitted adaptations farmers might make, Professor
Mendelsohn said. For example, a 1989 Environmental
Protection Agency study estimated crop losses by the second
half of the 21 st century at $6 billion to $34 billion per
year, while Yale researchers predict a range of effects on
farmland value from a loss of about $6 billion per year to
a gain of as much as $2 billion.

“While earlier studies focusing on crop yields provide a
useful baseline, they have an inherent bias that causes
damages to be overestimated,” according to professor
Mendelsohn. “The bias is sometimes called `the dumb farmer
scenario’ because it ignores possible adjustments such as
the introduction of completely new crops, technological
change or changes in land use from farming to livestock,
grasslands, or forestry.”

The forecast for American agriculture would be even more
optimistic if the fact that plants grow faster as carbon
dioxide levels increase were taken into account, Professor
Mendelsohn said. In fact, global warming would probably
increase worldwide food production, he added, by extending
the growing season and making farming profitable in areas
now too cold for farming. But the economic impact could be
very harsh in isolated areas, especially in developing
countries dependent on subsistence farming, he said. The
Yale study used a midrange estimate of greenhouse effects,
projecting that a doubling of today’s carbon dioxide level
will cause the average global temperature to rise about
five degrees Fahrenheit and increase annual precipitation
by about 8 percent by the second half of the next century.

Their research has enabled Professor Mendelsohn and others
to develop a new model for forecasting agricultural
profitability. Called a Ricardian approach, it differs from
previous models by placing less emphasis on wheat and corn,
which require cooler growing conditions but, in 1982,
accounted for only about $22.5 billion–less than 19
percent of the total market. (The Yale researchers used
data from the 1982 Census of Agriculture and based their
forecasts on the dollar value in 1982. )

One version of the Ricardian model used by the Yale
researchers focuses on cropland acreage and inherently
places more emphasis on farms growing grains, thus yielding
predictions of slight agricultural losses. The second
version, which yields predictions of agricultural gains as
high as $2 billion a year, emphasizes farm revenues and
places a relatively higher value on irrigated farmland in
the West and South. These regions have a Mediterranean and
subtropical climate–a climate that will become
relatively more abundant with rising global
temperatures–and their crops yield more revenue per
acre than grains. “Irrigated warm-weather crops such as
fruits, vegetables, rice, hay, grapes, and cotton may be a
silver lining behind the climate-change cloud,” Professor
Mendelsohn said.