June 14, 2009
This weekend I saw the TV show Wa$ted and the documentary Born Into Brothels — two entirely different shows, but I think I saw the heart of a problem we have: we have become accustomed to a way of living that will be difficult to part with.
Wa$ted is a TV show — they come into your house, find how you’re wasting energy, propose and install solutions, follow your progress for a month, give the first year’s annualized savings in cash. The episode I watched resulted in a modest reduction in energy consumption by the family, and several refusals to part ways with some of their things. Born Into Brothels is about a photographer living in Calcutta who realizes the plight of the children of sex workers, gives them cameras, knocks down numerous barriers to help get the kids raised out of abject poverty, and has both success and failure.
These are very different shows, but it helped me see that regardless of outcome, even when the result is positive, people are resistant to change. (more…)
May 3, 2009
My Mom is visiting, taking a well-deserved rest from care of my father, who is no longer able to care for himself. After a few days of catching up, I found myself unable to restrain myself from reciting my manifesto. Sorry, Mom.
Condensing the details into a big picture that makes enough sense for a smart, but not-so-technical, and not-as-young person as I is a good opportunity. Throughout my life, I have observed that I only really understand something when I am able to present it in straightforward, no-jargon and instructive manner. For example, I have taught several software development languages to novice computer users — I often learn as much as the students I have taught.
We discussed clean coal and carbon sequestration, amongst other things. The simple explanation (more…)
April 24, 2009
100 (Billion) Bottles of Beer On the Wall
PBS’s Frontline aired a program called Poisoned Waters
this week — it’s an excellent program, discussing how coastal waters and estuaries are still polluted, despite several areas of progress caused by the EPA enforcing regulations of the Clear Air Act in the 1970s. And while sewerage is no longer being dumped into rivers, other industrial effluents are.
In particular, they mentioned agricultural waste — animal manure, but also industrial waste, harder problems because the sources are dispersed and tend to leech into the groundwater system, rather than be poured directly from the end of a pipe, as in the case of sewerage treatment plants.
One frightening aspect of the show focused on how new chemicals that mess with our endocrine systems are in the water, but not being taken out of public drinking water supplies … partly because scientists cannot yet quantify theirs effects. Thus, there are no regulations or standards for these chemicals, yet ample evidence to suggest they are harmful not only for the numerous fish turning up dead in the water, but for people. And chemicals we know are harmful are still around, like PCBs. One person working at the Washington, DC water supply said she would not drink the water out of the tap.
It occurred to me that information like this could cause people to say “see, it’s a good thing I am drinking bottled water”. (more…)
April 19, 2009
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a method of evaluating the entire cost of a given product, from cradle to grave. It’s a very, very important aspect of understanding our consumer society and it’s impact on the earth. It’s also a very highly technical process and one that is susceptible to error; it’s quite easy to miss some subtleties and get the whole thing wrong. The New York Times printed an article about life cycle assessment today, and I think the authors may have done more harm than good.
To be fair, the article appears to be accurate. Its authors discuss the trade-off between a reusable stainless steel water bottle and a single-use plastic bottle. They explain, in a large graphic, how the process of making stainless steel impacts the environment and incurs costs in energy, transportation, toxins, and so on. One could read the article and conclude that a reusable cup is a bad choice, especially after reading statements like
One stainless steel bottle is obviously much worse than one plastic bottle.
This is a true statement, and is only qualified in a sort of vague way, namely that while there are costs, they are mitigated over time as the mug is re-used. They present this data as:
…if your stainless steel bottle takes the place of 50 plastic bottles, the climate is better off, and if it gets used 500 times, it beats plastic in all the environment-impact categories studied in a life cycle assessment.
Read this statement carefully. (more…)
March 5, 2009
John from my office asked a good question the other day: why are paper cups so bad?
Actually, no paper cup is particularly bad. Certainly not as bad as a Hummer, or a gallon of corn ethanol to power it, or even the hamburger you eat while driving in the hummer and drinking your Coke.
And actually, probably not as bad as the Coke itself. But why are lowly paper cups so bad?
The first thought is that they are not easily recycled. This is only sort of true; good recycling processes can deal with food and with coatings like wax and plastic added to paper cups. However, most local recycling programs exclude items with food residue because of issues with animals as the recyclables are sitting on the curb, or waiting for processing. So even though most paper cups end up in landfills, let’s assume that the paper is recycled.
The real issue here is with one-time use, or disposable products. In the US, we use 130,000,000,000 (yes 130 Billion) disposable cups every year (260B in the world) — yikes! We use them once. They provide value for perhaps 15 minutes, yet they require significant resources to produce, transport, store, and then back again to add to our landfills (or if we’re assuming they can be recycled, back to the recycling plant.) (more…)
March 3, 2009
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has a new project: they are creating a map of the actual companies having green jobs. Click a state, and you’ll see pins identifying the location of companies producing renewable energy or energy conservation productions. You can apply several filters by city and district. Each company is listed with a link to their website. Pretty slick. Currently, they have data for 12 states, but they are soliciting input from everywhere.
Do you work for, or know of such a company? Get it listed!
February 4, 2009
How it pains me to say this, but WalMart, indeed corporations as a whole, may not be villainous scalawags. At least not completely.
WalMart has beaten their goal of reducing its internal goals of increasing fleet efficiency by 25% in three years. And with the introduction of a fleet of new hybrid and not-just-diesel fueled trucks, they claim they’re on the way to their goal of doubling fleet efficiency, right through to (drum roll) sustainability.
Well damn, I am as cynical as they get, but even I can see that this is a pretty great thing. And I take credit. No, not full credit, but all of those of us who formerly reviled WalMart for their environmental turpitude
guilt-ed them into helped them understand that they were leaders and what they do matters. A lot. Michael Moore and his ilk might have had a little more influence than I, but I am in better shape.
Oh, sure, WalMart still treats their employees like crap (more…)
January 18, 2009
I have several household energy reduction projects in mind and am hoping to get some advice about which one I should take on first. I am considering:
- Tankless (on-demand) Hot Water Heater
- Foam Spray Insulation combined with Energy Audit
- Geothermal Heat Pump
- Solar (PV or Water Heat Assisted)
I have a lot of questions about which ones make sense, how to tell which one is best, how much they’ll cost, and how to measure all of it. (more…)
October 28, 2008
My nephew, Andrew, has been in Togo with the Peace Corps for more than a year, with another left. He is providing not just his work and labor, but is now helping a group of farmers learn about self-financed sustainable farming practices. If they are successful, it may be a model for the whole village of 200 people.
And perhaps other villages.
Andrew reports having plowed fields with oxen, planted crops, and trees.
But what I find most interesting is not that his actions may help for the coming crop harvest, but his perspective on how to get things done.
What is really exciting to me is that now I have a year left to make some serious impact. I have the respect of the community and the Togolese people in general. I am no longer the “white guy”
It is with his year of service that he earned that respect, and from which he is able to have a serious impact. It may have helped that Andrew is an exceptional young man, with strength of will, passion, and a strong sense of duty.
But there’s no doubt that a lot of sweat and deprivation were involved.
A Letter from the Corps
I am also struck by the parallels to this letter from my nephew in the Peace Corps one might find in a letter home from one of our country’s soldiers.
Each may have a serious impact, each has stepped beyond their own self-interest to do something important, faces danger, and which takes great effort and deprivation. Each has thrust themselves into a completely foreign environment and culture. And each has done this voluntarily. It’s also true that neither has any guarantee of success. I have nothing but respect for them. (more…)
July 1, 2008
The drumbeat is sounding louder and louder. In the last few days, a new site answers the question What must we do to fight global warming?, called 350.org. The site is based on the assertion that we must get our planet’s CO2 levels to 350. It’s higher now.
(Technically: 350 is the number of parts per million or PPM of molecules of CO2 in our atmosphere. This is the amount that scientists believe is the maximum the climate can sustain on its own.)
Bill McKibbon has been an important voice working to convince all of us that global warming, climate change or whatever you want to call it is not just happening, but that it is something we can solve. (more…)