It's the Environment, Stupid.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Green Power Partners

Browsing around, I stumbled across this article (the date says Jan 2005, but I think they mean 2006) about the EPA's List of Renewable Energy Users, so I went to check out the EPA list.

The US Air Force uses over one milllion MWh of green power - which is great - but renewables only account for 11% of their electricity usage. Whole Foods comes in second with just over 450,000 MWh of green power, but according to the EPA that accounts for 100% of their electricity usage. There are also a few others listed that meet that 100% including No.24, my very own alma mater, Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA (that's about 90 miles north of Seattle, just south of the Canadian border.)

This list includes the top 25 of the EPA's 607 "Green Power Partners", a voluntary partnership for companies and institutions that want to buy green power. The next list will come out in April.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Another climate change canary - sea birds

To continue to the climate change theme - "Scientists fear unusual weather behind massive seabird die-off" - an article from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer today reports that changes in weather are affecting birds up and down the western coast of the U.S.

And in other news, the AP reports that ExxonMobil has posted record profits for the 4th quarter: "Exxon Mobil Corp. on Monday posted a record profit for a U.S. company of $10.71 billion in the fourth quarter, as the world's biggest publicly-traded oil company benefited from high oil and gas prices and demand for refined products."

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Climate change cover-up

A New York Times article reports that climate scientist, James E. Hansen, refuses to be hushed up over recent findings on global warming.

Why is the government and NASA going to all this trouble to cover up facts about global warming? (And if its not about trying to keep info from getting out why all the denials of statements etc.?) So 2005 is the hottest year on record - is NASA the only organization with that information?

I just don't understand why the U.S. government puts so much effort towards disproving, denying, or ignoring climate change. At this point it doesn't really matter what specifically caused the presence of all this CO2 in our atmosphere - whether it was us or plants or whatever other studies are still trying to battle out the 'truth'. We know humans are putting a lot of CO2 out there, so why not just start reducing it and working towards adapting to a future with an increasing warmer climate instead of pretending it isn't happening.

Do we really need to wait for a White House directive to begin to reduce CO2 emissions? Does the U.S. have to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol for the country to take action? What about the mayors in cities across the U.S. who want to do their part to reduce emissions? Individual states can also take the lead without G.W.'s support and begin to set a higher bar for pollution standards (California anyone?) Big companies like 3M and DuPont didn't wait for regulation to voluntarily cut their emissions (and are profitable despite doing so) maybe they can get others to do the same.

What data will have to be released that will get the attention of those in the White House and their powerful anti-climate change lobbyists? Maybe Hansen knows.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Renewable energy snags

This week's sustainable saturday does not feature me rambling on about sustainable development, but instead features a couple of blog postings from about a few problems currently facing renewables such as solar (lack of talent and R&D) and wind (greedy wind manufacturers)...

Friday, January 27, 2006

Nuclear takes the lead

"Interest Revives Worldwide in Nuclear Energy"(A recent article from AFP posted on

I really don’t like the fact that nuclear power has gained such a prominence in this mitigating climate change debate.

How much money are we going to sink into increasing nuclear energy production to maintain the status quo? Can we put that money into clean coal technologies instead? Or if it is decided we must have nuclear energy (because I doubt I’ll be consulted on this decision) why must we build nuclear plants the way we built them 50 years ago? Can we come up with a new design that is more efficient and uses less power (because it really is silly to have a power generator needing lots of power to run itself.)

Nuclear power will never be the answer until there is a way to:
a) safely store the current waste (safe does not mean holding barrels designed to last 50 years since this stuff will be active for long, long past that time – nor does it mean exporting nuclear waste to different countries, or exporting it to the moon – can you imagine if a shuttle full of nuclear waste went the way of the Challenger?).
Or b) not have any by-products. (no, this is not impossible, it will just take a little bit of research and innovative design…)

Have we completely disregarded renewables altogether? Europeans think there should be more research into renewables, according to this Eurobarometer survey, even though the nuclear industry in Europe says this is not an accurate reflection about public opinion on nuclear energy (now why would they say something like that?)

Why not rethink the way we do energy – not just how it’s made, but how it is distributed. Vijay Vaitheeswaran has a great book Power to the People that rethinks the future of energy.

So this brings me back to my usual state of bafflement - why is it so hard to convince governments and their corporate pals to try something new? What have they got against the greater good?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Pricing the Environment

In a world where money talks and everything else listens we are increasingly forced to put a price on the priceless in order to save it, however arbitrary those costs may be. A recent report from UNEP has recently valued coral reefs....
"Coral Reefs Cheaper to Protect than Neglect, UN Finds" (from, from Reuters)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Infrastructure Investment

Infrastructure is important to a city’s economy. With the ever increasing pressure to open up trade, low and middle income countries around the world are forced to be players in the global marketplace if they want their economies to grow. However, in many of these countries infrastructure has been neglected, and in some cases is holding back the move forward. A New York Times article from October 2004 highlights Brazil, one place that is facing this dilemma. Even though exports are increasing, the aging railways, roads and ports can’t accommodate the traffic – bottom line: Brazil loses unless it upgrades its infrastructure. If Brazil were to do that, it could potentially increase trade traffic and boost its economy. But it costs money to upgrade infrastructure, and such investments would more than likely take a country into a deficit – a practice frowned upon by donor agencies such as the International Monetary Fund. And even when new infrastructure projects are undertaken, such as roads or water treatment systems there often isn’t money left to invest in maintaining them. Numerous studies have shown that performing regular maintenance – fixing or repairing things, and preventive maintenance - costs far less in the long run. This is true not just of transportation infrastructure, but of things like water, drainage and sewage systems, and electricity grids.

The lack of proper maintenance calls out for disaster, take New Orleans for example. Had the levy not broke, would the city have flooded? Who knows, but the levy would have had a better chance of not breaking had it been properly maintained. That is a dramatic example of course, but it is happening all around the world, in high and low income countries. The same can be said of social infrastructures like education (schools) and healthcare (hospitals). The lack of investment in these things only hurts the economy in the long run.

The article referred to: New York Times "Drive for Global Markets Strains Brazil's Infrastructure" October 27, 2004 - By Todd Benson.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Rebuilding the already built environment?

Back in September I attended an event put on by City University of New York (CUNY) and a non-profit organization, Green Ground Zero (GGZ). The talk was on green architecture featuring architects Michael Sorkin, and Tony Daniels.

They were given the opportunity to share some of their work, which is pretty amazing. Among other things, Daniels helped design the Stillwell Avenue terminal in Brooklyn, NY for NYC Transit. Sorkin's work presented included both built and imagined structures the most visionary images being of a self-sustaining city where, in theory (he admitted), people would work and play where they live, and even grow their own food, harvest rain water, make their own power (solar or wind), which would take them off the grid (less reliant on infrastructure connections to nearby urban areas), reduce the need for transportation, and create a sense of community.

In addition to showing slides and discussion of the architect's work, moderator, Neil Chambers, founder of GGZ, showed slides of a deserted, flooded New Orleans, and slides of a post-tsunami Indonesia. He asked Sorkin and Daneils how they would re-build on these sites. They both answered accordingly – design buildings based on the natural elements of the surroundings; use energy efficient materials; mind the ecological footprint etc.

That's all fine and good - but these were areas that had been devastated and there was no choice but to rebuild from nothing. I wanted to know how they might rebuild an already built environment - how to put their ideas and vision into play in ever growing, existing cities. During the Q&A I asked just that. Sorkin fielded my question and he basically said that it can’t be done, and that the best thing to do is to build “smart”, self-sustaining cities from scratch.

His urban utopia seems to be based on the assumption that it cannot be created in already urbanized spaces, and must be built from scratch or rebuilt on areas that are either untouched or already decimated. It is this assumption that I question. I think its great if we can build new, sustainable cities, but what about the already existing, in many cases, decaying, urban areas? How do you make those places sustainable?

Monday, January 23, 2006

Whale of a Test

Lifted from the pages of Grist… "A Whale of a Door Prize
Greenpeace dumps dead whale at Japanese embassy..."

What is the Japanese embassy going to do with a dead whale now that Greenpeace has ever so eloquently made their point? I've got an idea - let’s not let that whale go to waste, we should use it to make another point – let’s run a toxicity test on that whale. I want to know how much lead, mercury, PCBs and other toxins have built up in that animal’s blubber. And then once we find that out, lets print out the results (on paper made with post consumer materials, printed with soy based inks of course) and attach them to a bunch more dead whales (or other deceased toxic marine life) and start dumping them on the door steps of companies that emit those chemicals into the environment.

Of course the companies will say they don’t know why they were targeted, and how there’s no way to prove that their chemicals made it into a dead fish, blah, blah. But since those types of chemicals aren’t normally found in the natural environment they must have originated some where... who knows maybe the 17 countires who don't want whales hunted, might also want healthy whales, and maybe they'll hop on board to support the opposition of unleashing toxic chemicals into the environment.

(The Grist write-up...)
"Greenpeace, ever masters of artful subtlety, dumped a big ol' dead whale on the doorstep of the Japanese embassy in Berlin yesterday. Here we pause a moment to let you savor the mental image ... ahh. The whale dump was a protest against Japan's ongoing hunt for minke and fin whales in the Southern Ocean, allegedly in the name of research. Two Greenpeace ships have spent the past month there, where they've "dogged, delayed, and disrupted" Japan's whaling fleet, the group says. But today Greenpeace announced that the ships will be ending their mission and that the campaign's focus will turn to encouraging the public to boycott products from companies with ties to whaling. It's not just Greenpeace that objects to Japan's "research." Earlier this week, 17 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Britain, France, and Germany, voiced their opposition to the Willy killin'."
straight to the source: BBC News, 19 Jan 2006
straight to the source:, Reuters, 19 Jan 2006
straight to the source: Terra Daily, Agence France-Presse, 20 Jan 2006

Sunday, January 22, 2006

"The Revenge of Gaia" - Too little too late?

Environmental scientist James Lovelock sees the big picture – literally. He studies the entire planet. Like a doctor examining the human body, Lovelock studies the earth, and his diagnosis isn’t good. Lovelock’s recent article in The Independent (which I learned about through an article posted on WBCSD) paints the ultimate doomsday scenario for life as we know it. He essentially says that the earth is one giant being and regulates its own temperature. It did this long before we came along and will continue to do so after we’re gone. Right now we’re making the planet sick with all of our pollution, and she’s, in a sense, running a fever, in order to remedy the situation (‘she’ referring to the earth or Gaia – which is how Lovelock fondly refers to the planet.) The only cure for her sickness is the very thing that is making her ill – us.

Lovelock writes: “We will do our best to survive, but sadly I cannot see the United States or the emerging economies of China and India cutting back in time, and they are the main source of emissions. The worst will happen and survivors will have to adapt to a hell of a climate…We should be the heart and mind of the Earth, not its malady. So let us be brave and cease thinking of human needs and rights alone, and see that we have harmed the living Earth and need to make our peace with Gaia. We must do it while we are still strong enough to negotiate, and not a broken rabble led by brutal war lords. Most of all, we should remember that we are a part of it, and it is indeed our home.”

It may, in fact, be too little too late. And although I’d like to think that there is hope, our track record in moving towards change doesn’t bode well for the future. Take the Kyoto Protocol for example the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) was created in 1992. However, soon after, it was realized that voluntary mitigation efforts weren’t working, so in 1997, a more formal, binding agreement arrived: The Kyoto Protocol. But it wasn’t until late 2004 that Russia signed on, enabling the Protocol to take effect early 2005. That’s about 13 years of doing nothing but more of the same polluting as usual. What’s the hold up?

Business and governments say they need scientific proof before they can move forward in the fight against climate change, but even with a growing amount of scientific evidence proving its effects, there’s just as much scientific evidence suggesting otherwise, despite the fact that the UNFCCC specifically states: “lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing such measures…” But that was one of the main reasons for lack of participation (that and the erroneous belief that mitigation would negatively impact economic growth).

We need a global adherence to the precautionary principle, which basically says its bad until you can prove its good - guilty until proven innocent. Right now we live in a world where polluters run free and it’s up to the pollutee to prove that a certain toxin or chemical or practice is bad. But what if chemical manufacturers for instance, before using a new chemical, must first prove that their new chemical isn’t harmful? They might try a little harder to make sure their products are safe - their profits would depend on it.

For too long we’ve been moving forward on a destructive path, under a “pollute now, clean up later” frame of mind. As much as I would like to be optimistic, we as a global society can’t just stick to this business as usual method because there may not be a “later” opportunity to clean up. Lovelock may be wrong, but he may also be right. How much longer are we going to wait to find out?

(The Independent article notes that The Revenge of Gaia is Lovelock's new book to be published in February.)

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sustainable Development - What's in a defnition?

Welcome to the second edition of Sustainable Saturdays.
This week: what’s in a definition?

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This widely cited definition for sustainable development comes from the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report (after the commission’s chair Gro Harlem Brundtland.)

At times I wonder if people who spout off this definition have even read the report. It isn’t just a report with a couple of suggestions about natural resource conservation, it’s a full blown document that draws links, and makes connections between ALL development activities.

Here’s a more specific definition from the report that might aid the ambiguity of the first:
“[T]he pursuit of sustainable development requires:
· A political system that secures effective citizen participation in decision making
· An economic system that is able to generate surpluses and technical knowledge on a self-reliant and sustained basis
· A social system that provides for solutions for the tensions arising from disharmonious development
· A production system that respects the obligation to preserve the ecological base for development
· A technological system that can search continuously for new solutions
· An international system that fosters sustainable patterns of trade and finance
· An administrative system that is flexible and has the capacity for self correction"
(p.74 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. “Our Common Future” 4 August 1987. United Naitons. A/42/427)

A little less vague, and although a little long for a soundbite, it gets more to the interconnectedness within term (at least the interconnectedness I believe lies within the term.)

Sustainable development wasn’t born in 1987 as many people tend to believe. In an internationally recognized context, I’ve pegged it as beginning in the early 1970’s when the world was concerned about being able to sustain its burgeoning population on increasingly declining natural resources. Check out this excerpt from the Stockholm Declaration of 1972:

“In order to achieve a more rational management of resources and thus to improve the environment, States should adopt an integrated and coordinated approach to their development planning so as to ensure that development is compatible with the need to protect and improve environment for the benefit of their population.”
(Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. 16 June 1972. Stockholm, Sweden. Downloaded from: ID=1503. It is referred to as the Stockholm Declaration after the city where the conference was held.)

The term sustainable development wasn’t actually used in the Stockholm Declaration, but the concept was there. The actual term was first used in the World Conservation Strategy (1980), a report that did deal mainly with natural resource conservation and preservation.
(World Conservation Strategy. Prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in cooperation with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). 1980.)

In 1983, the Brundtland Commission was established, (its official name was World Commission on Environment and Development). The UN charged this commission with proposing “long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development” and “to recommend ways in which concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among developing countries and between countries at different stages of economic and social development and lead to the achievement of common and mutually supportive objectives which take account of the interrelationships between people, resources, environment and development.”
(United Nations General Assembly, “Process of preparation of the Environmental Perspective to the Year 2000 and Beyond”, 19 December 1983, A/RES/38/161.)

So until the report came out in 1987, sustainable development was really just about natural resources and the environment. However, the Brundtland Report took the concept and ran with it, realizing that the environment was crucial to development efforts and pointed out that everything is linked.
“Failures to manage the environment and to sustain development threaten to overwhelm all countries. Environment and development are not separate challenges; they are inexorably linked. Development cannot subsist upon a deteriorating environmental resource base; the environment cannot be protected when growth leaves out of account the costs of environmental destruction. These problems cannot be treated separately by fragmented institutions and policies. They are linked in a complex system of cause and effect."
(brundtland report, p48.)

After the Brundtland Report came out the UN was impressed and called for an Earth Summit, and in 1992 the UN Conference on Environment and Development commenced in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to further the talk of sustainable development. At this conference, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change began (they developed the Kyoto Protocol), and Agenda 21 was initiated and further emphasized the interconnectedness that is necessary for the success of sustainable development.

An excerpt from Agenda 21:
"Prevailing systems for decision-making in many countries tend to separate economic, social and environmental factors at the policy, planning and management levels. This influences the actions of all groups in society, including Governments, industry and individuals, and has important implications for the efficiency and sustainability of development. An adjustment or even a fundamental reshaping of decision-making, in the light of country-specific conditions, may be necessary if environment and development is to be put at the centre of economic and political decision-making, in effect achieving a full integration of these factors.
(Agenda 21, 1992. Ch 8.2)

The thing keeping sustainable development from being a successful development approach is perhaps the very definition that has made it famous. Governments, business, donor agencies, non-profit orgnizations still have the tendency to see sustainable development as an environmental issue rather than what it really is - the interdependence of the economy, society and the environment.

To be continued next Saturday...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Impervious Suburbia

I grew up in suburbia – which could be any-sprawl-USA – (although I like to think it was a time before sprawl went SPRAWL.) I didn’t actually realize I disliked it so much until after I returned from traveling abroad. I had a severe case of reverse culture-shock. Gas guzzlers, franchise restaraunts, videostores, more and more shopping complexes, monster stores ending in "depot" and their competitors, all of which just add up to a massive expanse of asphalt and concrete .

One example of this increasingly expanding sprawl outside of Seattle is Issaquah – which only keeps expanding because it’s at the “edge.” Beyond it lies old “rural” areas, and trees and more trees that gradually turn into the Cascade Mountain range. (Issaquah is also next to Redmond, home of the ever expanding Microsoft – not the reason for sprawl of course, but a bunch of rich people have needs...)

While there are a few mini-McMansions in Issaquah, most of the houses are cookie cutter developments that look like the American dream threw up – manicured front and back lawns, sidewalks, three car garages, etc. (In Seattle, the McMansions are reserved for the islands in the Puget Sound, many of which are accessible only by ferry, private boat, or helicopter.) To build these, developers come in, clear out the trees and get to work. And down the road, to accommodate the happy families that have attained the American dream, more trees have to be cleared to make way for grocery stores, dry cleaners, banks, McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and Blockbuster.

So what was once just trees is now a paved over, built up happy neighborhood. Only, the residents aren’t too happy when there’s word of a cougar sighting. Squirrels cute, raccoons we can deal with, but cougars – how dare they invade our neighborhood! Our small children and dogs are in danger! Well what about the cougars? They kind of got screwed over royally on the real estate deal.

Residents also don’t like the rain so much – especially when there’s a lot of it in the winter time. (They also don’t like that there’s not enough rain in the summer time when their lawns turn brown). It doesn’t down pour in Seattle very often, but it can rain a nice steady rain for what seems like days, and days and days. After all these days of rain, the rivers can fill up and there can be flooding here and there. Mudslides occur. There’s usually some heavy road or property damage yearly. The funny thing is – like the cougars – people point fingers at the rain for causing their problems. When really, the increasing amount of sprawl is just compounding the problem. By paving over and building up on what used to be nature’s drainage system (the trees and ground) there’s no place for the water to go.

In Los Angeles (sprawl on steroids) there is an organization called Tree People. A reforestation group that has planted millions and millions of trees since they began in the 1970's. Recently, Tree People founder Andy Lipkis branched off into watershed management. He convinced the city to let him try out a new way for LA to manage its water, and instead of building more concrete culverts he's retrofitting school yards and back lawns with cisterns and infiltrators to help handle the flow. The T.R.E.E.S. project - Transagency Resources for Environmental and Economic Sustainability - "employs technologies that mimic the “sponge and filter” function of trees. It also demonstrates the technical and economic feasibility (and desirability) of retrofitting a city to function as an urban forest watershed." The great thing about the T.R.E.E.S project is it works.

Working with nature is better than battling with it. We (many humans) tend to think we’ve in fact conquered nature – but the reality is the war is far from over and nature isn’t going down without a fight.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Power of the Individual

One of the major catch phrases in environmentalism today is “Think Global, Act Local.” The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil tried to make this happen with Agenda 21 – a voluntary commitment agreed to by cities throughout the world with the intent of making a difference on a local level.

Curitiba, Brazil was one place where this succeeded. To clean up communities, former mayor of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner, instituted a “garbage purchase” program where residents of low-income areas would trade in their garbage for bus tokens or food. To reduce traffic congestion he created a bus system as efficient and frequent as the best subway systems in the world, without digging a single tunnel. (I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Lerner speak last year at The New School. He’s great!)

(Un)fortunately Curitiba was one of the few cities to actually follow through on its end of the local Agenda 21 agreement. Many others had good intentions that simply weren’t accomplished for various reasons (many cited lack of funding as the main culprit).

In a New York Times article back in October, David Suzuki, Canadian scientist, turned environmentalist, said he’d had it wrong all these years when he supported the “think globally, act locally” campaign.

excerpt from the article: “These days, Dr. Suzuki worries most about how people have become estranged from nature, habituated to seeing the world ‘through a fragmented lens,’ as he puts it, and oblivious to the fact that the economic abundance of the modern world depends on the health of its air, soil and water….Dr. Suzuki said he used to urge people to think globally, act locally. ‘That was a mistake,’ he says today. ‘When people think globally, they feel helpless.’” So he suggested that people do small things, on an individual level, such as using nontoxic lawn care products, in order to make a difference.

We can’t underestimate the power of the individual because that power can have a great positive impact, but it can also have a very severe negative impact, especially when those larger connections aren’t grasped by the masses. Americans live in a very consumer oriented society, even when we’re a country under duress, we’re told by our fearless leader to shop. The products we buy are designed to be disposable. We don’t recycle because it’s easier just to throw things in the garbage. We think to ourselves, “so I threw the Diet Coke can in the trash. What’s one frickin’ aluminum can gonna do? I can’t be bothered, I’ve got more important things to do.”

Here’s what one aluminum can means:

Americans throw away enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet.

Tossing away an aluminum can wastes as much energy as pouring out half of that can's volume of gasoline.

Making new aluminum cans from used cans takes 95 percent less energy and 20 recycled cans can be made with the energy needed to produce one can using virgin ore.

Recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to keep a 100-watt bulb burning for almost four hours or run your television for three hours. (

I could stick these stats on my fridge so every time I reach in for a cold beverage encased in a can I’d be reminded about my impact… but I’d still probably throw away that can. Why? Because while being fun trivia facts, they aren’t going to get me to change my behavior, habit, routine etc. and I probably won’t change my ways until throwing away that can has an immediate effect on me personally. For instance, I might think twice about throwing the can away if, say, there was an electrical current that shocked me every time I neared the garbage can. Or if someone threatened to kill my dog if I were to throw the can away rather than recycle it, that might get me thinking. Changing consumer behavior is tricky, but is ultimately what will have to happen in order for change to occur on a large scale (obviously not to the extent of my exaggerated examples involving electro-shock therapy or dog intimidation).

Individual actions collectively add up to a gi-normous impact. (No, I really doubt that is a word, but in this context I’m using it to mean bigger than gigantic and enormous combined – that’s HUGE!). The difference an individual can make can be empowering. That’s what grassroots movements are all about. The big question is how? There are studies citing things such as peer pressure or social marketing campaigns that can work to induce individuals to change. In addition to those, we might be able to combine some of Joe Trippi’s observations of how the internet can empower individuals to make a difference (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised), with some of the factors Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary for social epidemics to flourish (The Tipping Point).

What would get you to change the way you do things?

(For the record, I don’t drink soda in aluminum cans or otherwise – the throwing away the can thing was an example. However, I do recycle as much as they allow me to here in NYC. It’s not as ingrained or appreciated as widely as it is in Seattle, but they’re trying. And the only frosty beverages in my fridge currently are the brita, week old milk, and a bottle of Brooklyn Lager.)

The article about David Suzuki I referred to: New York Times, 10/18/05, by Cornelia Dean. “Environmental Conscience Urges Canadians to Tread Softly” (I’d add a link, but the NY Times online now charges for their archived articles – if you really want to read it your local public library is probably subscribed to the ProQuest Database newspaper archives, you can find it through there.)

Oh and this blog posting was inspired in part by Joel Makower’s blog posting from 1/14/06.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Industry vs. legislation

Washington State is toying with the idea of shifting some of the burden of recycling electronic waste onto the manufacturer. The proposed legislation would require manufacturers and retailers to make it easier for you and me to avoid letting our unwanted electronics end up in landfills.

The idea behind shifting the burden of waste from the consumer to the manufacturers is that the manufacturer of the good has to figure out what to do with it after you don’t want or need it anymore.

As it stands now the consumer is stuck with the burden. In NY for example, people just put stuff they don’t want on the street. If it’s not picked up by someone who walks by and happens to have a use for, say, a broken monitor, the garbage truck will pick it up in a few days. Others who want to be more “responsible” about tossing out their old tv or computer could take it to a collection facility. But that requires cash, because it’ll cost you $5 to $10 once you actually lug your stuff all the way to the collection site. Then there are others that think they’re doing the right thing by “donating” their e-waste to charities like the Salvation Army and Goodwill, but by doing that they’re merely shifting the consumer responsibility onto the charity organization. So, right now it’s really a no-win situation for the consumer.

However, if computer manufacturers had to figure out what to do with that monitor once you didn’t need it any more, a lot less computers might end up in landfills - or in China. (The U.S. generates most of the world's e-waste, and we send about half of it to China because we don't want it in our backyard. This link has some photos and info about that.)

Personally, I don’t think the WA legislation goes far enough. We need to shift the burden entirely on the manufacturer. Maybe if the manufacturer had all this e-waste piling up that they didn’t know what to do with but had to deal with, they’d be forced to design a product that didn’t need to be thrown away but could be disassembled and its parts reused. Or it could be designed to be thrown away because maybe the materials would be biodegradable. (This plan is laid out by William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s in the book Cradle to Cradle.)

But guess what, the industry doesn’t like legislation – at all – no matter how lenient it is. Big surprise.

Here’s the reported industry response from the Seattle P-I article: “They say the new rule would unfairly burden their industry, potentially forcing price increases on their products or the export of jobs overseas.” Does this sound familiar? They must have copied and pasted it from an emergency kit that comes standard with every industry business license entitled “What To Do If Pesky Legislation Tries To Regulate Your Industry.” Although I haven’t actually obtained a copy of it, it probably reads a little like this:
1) Be outraged. There is absolutely nothing wrong with your current business practices.
2) Immediately call everyone else in your industry and send out a joint press release with this line, “the new rule will unfairly burden our industry, potentially forcing price increases on our products or the export of jobs overseas.” (Note: if all of your jobs are already overseas ie. outside of America, just leave the overseas part in for dramatic effect.)
3) Lobby against legislation. This could include, but is not limited to large contributions to politicians.
4) If things get out of hand and the public should happen to support said legislation, hire a PR company to run advertisements to make the public feel sorry for your industry and make them hate whoever it is that proposed this damn legislation in the first place. That sorry bastard will regret the day they introduced it.

What if instead of spending millions of dollars lobbying against proposed legislation to regulate industry, companies spent those millions of dollars to change their ways? Heck, why even wait for legislation at all? What if industry initiated change? Then there would be no need for the emergency kit. There would be no bickering or lobbying over big business and our politicians could get on to other items on the agenda. That wouldn't be such a bad thing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Would GW like pollution if it were in his backyard?

The attorneys general from twelve states sent off a little letter to the EPA the other day expressing their concerns about GW’s proposal to relax toxin reporting standards. (I’m apparently a late comer to this issue – I missed the EPA public comment deadline of 1/13/06 - but by golly, that won't stop me from commenting on it).

According to the article from Environmental News Network, that got it from the Associated Press: “The proposed changes, which require congressional approval, would exempt companies from disclosing their toxic pollution on the long form if they claim to release fewer than 5,000 pounds of a specific chemical -- the current limit is 500 pounds -- or if they store it onsite but claim to release "zero" amounts of the worst pollutants.”

This reporting (Toxic Release Inventory Program - TRI) was put into effect by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in 1986 as part of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA), and expanded in 1990 with the Pollution Prevention Act (probably PPA). (Acronyms retrieved from: TRI, while a fabulous asset, isn’t perfect – you could go plug in your neighborhood in the database, see a massive amount of chemicals being emitted near you and freak out, even though those might be non-toxic chemicals. On the other hand, there are other chemicals that might be incredibly lethal in low doses. You could look on TRI and think, “oh that’s not that much. We’ll be fine,” but really not be. There is also the assumption that all companies are reporting toxin emissions truthfully and accurately – but, come on, who really knows for sure?

My solution to this problem is simple: ZERO EMISSIONS! What if there were no toxins? There wouldn’t be any need for TRI or any reporting measures and it wouldn’t matter what kind of neighborhood these companies were located in because there wouldn’t be any toxins in any amount to worry about.

Yes, Virginia, zero emissions are possible. A company can look for ways to make its processes more efficient, reducing wastes and effluents, rethinking inputs etc. It is called innovation. Lots of businesses do it to stay competitive. Innovation can streamline production, increase efficiency and save money. Of course companies might need a little assistance in getting this done, especially the smaller ones, but it can happen.

Maybe zero emissions won't happen tomorrow (that would be an awful lot to ask), but if a company is open to innovation, it would greatly increase the likelihood that they would make the necessary changes towards zero emissions if the proper incentives were in place. What if instead of taking contributions (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them bribes) politicians gave that money right back to big business and said, “No, you take it and make your production process more efficient.” Or what if the politicians took that money and created a fund to support businesses who did want to change and move toward zero emissions (a fund for business, funded by business)? And what if these businesses could help each other out and share their technological innovations, and then what if they went through that whole one-upmanship thing where each company tried to be more efficient than the other, because the more efficient they were the more money they would get from that big ol' fund? (For the non-hypothetical version just substitute the what-ifs for when).

Monday, January 16, 2006

What if climate change mitigation was profitable?

"Australian Prime Minister John Howard told the conference 'the idea that we can address climate-change matters successfully at the expense of economic growth is not only unrealistic but also unacceptable'." (From -

What if you could address climate-change matters without sacrificing economic growth? Would Mr. Howard say, "That'd be fine. Let's do it." Or would he just make up some other lame excuse for not wanting to address climate change.

I don't care whether or not you believe that climate change is a naturally occuring phenomenon, whether it is induced by human industrialization, or created by little green men from mars - it is happening. Ice caps are melting, ocean temperatures are rising (you know the drill) the facts are there, it is not speculation any more. So why fight it? The longer we (okay, "you" meaning governments ie. U.S., and Australia) bicker about how much it'll cost to make our world cleaner, the more time passes that we're not doing anything about it. (That sentence should really end with an !)

Now, before you write me off as just another doomsayer - ask yourself, if cost were the main issue, why are there some companies that are voluntarily reducing their emissions? You don't hear them complaining about the costs. Why don't they just continue business as usual? Why? Because they're still profitable, that's why.

"In 1994, DuPont committed to cutting its gas emissions by 40% by the year 2000 from its 1990 levels. By 2000 the company had met its original target and set an even more ambitious one -- a 65% reduction by 2010. But the gains have been so dramatic that DuPont has already hit that goal too. It also uses 7% less energy than it did in 1990, despite producing 30% more goods. That has saved $2 billion." From Business Week. "The Race Against Climate Change" 12 December 2005.

Of course I don't specifically know which businesses are influencing Mr. Howards remarks, but someone should set up a meeting with DuPont and others who are realizing that climate-change mitigation isn't all that bad for the bottom line - plus, it's even getting some positive PR out of the deal, which strengthens investor relations, which leads to... (you can fill in the blanks.)

Sunday, January 15, 2006 call to action against GM and Ford

I was going to post an e-mail I sent out yesterday via, but I clicked ‘submit’ before realizing I hadn’t actually captured any of my brilliant e-mail with the ctrl-c function. (Well, it wasn’t exactly brilliant, it was more of a short rant, that was at most borderline poignant.)

Anyhow – follows environmental policy type topics and if you request, they’ll send you an occasional call-to-action e-mail. What’s so great about these e-mails is that writes a letter for you and all you have to do is put in your name, address, e-mail and send it off. (This is all done on their website. Click a link in the e-mail they send you and it takes you to a ready made page where you put in your info.) I’ve done this multiple times, most recently regarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (I also personally e-mailed my own congress people and senators about this, but that is a topic for another day).

Yesterday the e-mail asked me to send a note to car manufacturers (specifically GM and Ford) demanding them to stop making gas guzzling vehicles and start making more fuel efficient ones so we can stop our reliance on foreign oil and fight global warming. Here’s another great thing - also gives you the option to put the letter in your own words if you want to. So I did. I changed the argument up a bit, and instead of focusing on reducing reliance on foreign oil, I suggested that GM and Ford will lose market share to Honda and Toyota if they don’t change their act. I suggested that the explanations behind plant closures GM (and other U.S. companies) use for declining profits – poor economy, high wages, rising health insurance premiums, rising workers comp costs, blah, blah – are not the real reasons behind the struggling car manufacturers downturn. The real reason is because they are resisting change. If American car manufacturers don’t start rolling out more fuel efficient vehicles, hybrids or cars and trucks with alternative fuel capacities they’ll simply lose to other car manufacturers that are doing it. Additionally, if car manufacturers can partner with or fund alternative fuel researchers it will not only help in reducing our dependence on foreign oil, but will create a marketplace for new kinds of vehicles. (That was the gist of my e-mail – wanted to keep it short in case someone does actually read it).

I probably wouldn’t have done anything other than perhaps give a soliloquious rant on my newly formed blog if it weren’t for’s call to action e-mail. And while I don’t know if GM and Ford will actually read my response, I doubt I’m the only person who sent a message. A ton of responses are a lot harder to ignore than just one.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Sustainable Saturdays

Stealing - or rather borrowing an idea I liked from World - I will devote Saturdays to sustainability! If only every blog were so lucky. (World Changing has Sustainability Sundays).

I'm for sustainable development. Actually, I was obsessed with what I thought sustainable development was when I first started grad school. It was the best thing ever to hit development theory and would save the world if only everyone practiced it. Too bad I had no clue what it actually was. I would tell everyone I knew that I was really interested in sustainable development. I got two kinds of responses: a postive affirmation indicating that person knew sustainable development was a good thing, right? The second type of response was a little more difficult, "What do you mean by sustainable development exactly?" That answer ALWAYS stopped me in my tracks as I fumbled with some kind of save-the-environment, good-for-the-people answer.

I decided I should find out more about it if I was going to be the new poster girl for the term. As I began to educate myself on sustainable development I realized NO ONE knows what it is. There are nearly one million definitions and variations on the term (that is an approximate number of course, picked randomly from my head). Sustainable development, sustainable livelihoods, sustainable communities, urban sustainability... and on, and on and on. There are even actual reports and studies on the use of the term, and a few have even attempted to determine where it has been implemented and what it meant to do.

The fact is sustainable development is losing steam. It has become too vague, and too ubiquitous to make a difference. It has come to mean everything from forest conservation to clean energy to "green" buildings. One thing these definitions do have in common is their relation to the environment - oh and the priority given to sustainable development by government and development/donor agencies (no matter how they define it), which is as a separate issue. Governments treat the environment separately from the economy, and social issues. This is unfortunate because the three really cannot be separated - you can't really address one without having some impact or influence over the others.

So, now I'm even more obsessed than ever with the term and believe that it can save the world, if and only if the economy, the environment and social well-being are looked at together.
(to be continued obviously since this is the blog topic...)

Friday, January 13, 2006

Economic growth should not be equal to environmental degradation

Economic growth does not have to come at the expense of environmental quality. Anyone who says other wise is just plain wrong. Sure that's the way we (governments and businesses worldwide) have done things in the past, but it most certainly does not need to continue. I'm not an economist by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn't take a big long equation to prove that at a certain point environmental degradation will end up destroying economies (and already has.) Of course this won't happen tomorrow, or next year or five years from now, but if things continue as they are it will happen sooner than we expect. A little smart planning and long term thinking will go a long way in creating a sustainable world.