Sustainable You

In order to keep oneself going, there are basic needs involving inputs and outputs which determine whether an entity dies or remains viable. In the debate over global climate change and whether anything should be done about it, we discuss and reflect on the effects of various elevations in temperature on our ability to secure the inputs necessary for viability. Or we act like there’s no such thing as climate change at all. But we’ll set that aside and believe for a moment that most people are sufficiently convinced.

Granting this, even if we can summon the political will to begin to limit greenhouse gas emissions to combat runaway climate change, would the resulting society otherwise be viable into the future? Do we believe we can achieve this and then be able to keep things – living standards, consumption levels – much as they are? In other words, would a reduced carbon-centric model be sustainable?

Many of the policy implications of limiting co2 emissions would necessarily alter the way we live. I trust this is a well understood point – and vociferous opposition to Waxman-Markey suggests that it is. The distaste and outrage toward this kind of change does not mean that it is any less likely. You can see the same evidence in the collapsed housing market, the financial services industry in tatters, the job losses in manufacturing, fractured global supply chains. When will this economy begin to recover? The question, taken with its constituent parts, almost answers itself. Or it should.

Even if there were no such things as rising oceans or the greenhouse effect, we could not sustain anywhere near present levels of energy consumption, and without those amounts of cheap energy, our society as presently construed cannot keep up its requisite levels of inputs needed for viability. We could not even keep it were it is.

Now, whether this adjustment is down or up would depend on nothing so much as our relative capacities for creativity and imagination – of course, the very reasons it all seems so unthinkable to so many. It is, literally. In order for there to be an evolution of our ideas about green, there will have to be a throughway beyond even sustainability.

Image: Henrik Hakansson, Fallen Forest, 2006.

Protecting Green, redux

While I was watching the USA-Brazil Electric Meltdown Boo-galoo II yesterday, I wrote a long and rambling post on the Waxman-Markey bill’s passage that I ultimately decided not to publish. For all the reasons 2-0 is the most dangerous score in soccer, trying to write about all the reasons other than a warming planet that we should limit carbon emissions is a bit of a fool’s errand, and an unnecessary one at that.

… But this transportation model has corrupted our most basic social arrangements by de-valuing actual community, an isolation enshrined by a complex communication system that leaves us poorly informed across a broad spectrum. With a wealth of information at our fingertips, we are unconcerned about where we’re going or what we’re about to do, and unsure about what happened yesterday, much less last week or five years ago. We have achieved an acute ability to wait until the last minute to do anything, which marks both our prowess and near-native anxiety.

We idle across unnecessary distances, sitting in traffic, hailing this voluntary expansion of sphere as progress even as we sacrifice depth of influence for mere distance of reach. Bold and innovative companies have brought us a succession of needless products demeaning the most basic tools as obsolete in favor of ever-greater complexity; this economy grooms us on its own pre-eminence, via the tenets of disposability, while weening us of any regard for unique settings or uses, moments or sensations in favor of collective experience. Activities that do not directly produce a financial benefit we have come to understand as non-performing. The reality that planetary preservation is an issue worth weaving into our advertising, spending habits, food, shelter and energy strategies, government policies, fashions and other cultural identifiers is a massive acknowledgment that undermines its own cause the wider its use and dissemination.

Is this model in jeopardy? Should it be?

Exhibit A for why I usually read instead of write on Sunday. Fortunately, Paul Krugman is/was having none of that and demonstratively points out that climate change is in fact more than reason enough to pass the bill:

But if you watched the debate on Friday, you didn’t see people who’ve thought hard about a crucial issue, and are trying to do the right thing. What you saw, instead, were people who show no sign of being interested in the truth. They don’t like the political and policy implications of climate change, so they’ve decided not to believe in it — and they’ll grab any argument, no matter how disreputable, that feeds their denial.

That’s the crux right there – they don’t like the policy implications, so they choose not to believe in the problem! It’s the ultimate in convenience, sort of like the new Shimmer – if someone was courageous enough to just point out that being a dessert topping AND a floor polish are converging conspiracies of household indulgence.

Speaking of which, here is a group that deserves special recognition: Democratic reps from districts Obama won who voted against bill. Jim Costa and Pete Stark of California; John Barrow of Georgia; Bill Foster of Illinois; Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana; Michael Arcuri of New York; Larry Kissell of North Carolina; Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio; Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon; Ciro D. Rodriguez and Solomon P. Ortiz of Texas; Glenn Nye of Virginia.

The Finest Joke is Upon Us

So the slow boil indignation over the possibility of cap-and-trade legislation has moved into high dudgeon mode. Love how the CEO of Chevron threatens that C-n-T means a return to a ‘pre-industrial economy.’

The answer to environmental problems—natch, and echoing John Tierney—is more growth, which is powered by the fuels that are in the crosshairs of policymakers right now:

To the extent that oil and gas fuel economic growth, they can actually serve the great goal of getting us beyond a carbon-based energy economy.

Because the market will decide when we’ve had enough of what and when to change and how to get us over and past the E on the fossil energy gauge when… I honestly can’t follow this reasoning. Of course, it’s not meant to be followed, so that’s my mistake. Concern for the environment can’t even break into the 20 top concerns of Americans, so see? It can’t be that important, anyway! They don’t already think it is.

Ahem.

Given a choice of three options, just 24 percent of voters can correctly identify the cap-and-trade proposal as something that deals with environmental issues. A slightly higher number (29 percent) believe the proposal has something to do with regulating Wall Street while 17 percent think the term applies to health care reform. A plurality (30 percent) have no idea.

No wonder, as Weigel says, republicans are trying to define the legislation as an ‘energy tax.’

We can’t do anything about our energy consumption because we use too much? The options on change are all too expensive and too disruptive to our way of life so… thanks but no thanks. Really? Did Darwin mention hubris in his Origin? I can’t imagine a discussion over the arrogance not to change in the face of threats to one’s survival making it into anything but a comic book send-up of the reasons societies collapse. But others, fortunately, aren’t so limited.

Ugly Green Ties to the Past

Not that one, specifically, but not altogether different, either.

I’m as skeptical as anybody about clean coal, but as a fan, of sorts, of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, I’m willing to give him and cc its due when he goes to links to take it seriously. Following routes we ostensibly mistrust, after all, is what open mindedness is about, n’Green pas?

This is all concerns FutureGen, a public-private partnership to build a first-of-its-kind coal-fueled, near-zero emissions power plant.

The article somehow manages to wax agnostic about the merits of living with the contradictions of the above statement.

Stephanie Mueller, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, issued a statement after Monday’s meeting leaving no doubt about Chu’s interest. “Secretary Chu believes that the FutureGen proposal has real merit,” Mueller said. “In the coming weeks, the department will be working with the Alliance and members of Congress to strengthen the proposal and try to reach agreement on a path forward.”

If the project is revived, it will have plenty of company internationally. Three similar IGCC projects figure among a dozen schemes that European leaders last month deemed eligible to compete for €1 billion in stimulus funds set aside to support commercial-scale application of CCS in coal-fired power plants. Of those projects, six will be selected to receive funding. Meanwhile, a consortium of Chinese power generators has initiated construction of the GreenGen project, which was inspired by FutureGen.

I cringed repeatedly about Obama’s invocation of cc on the campaign trail; it sounded exactly like the dreamy sort of pandering with which his critics have tried to paint him, to little effect thus far. But here comes the administration again, continuing to strike a serious posture with an expensive, non-serious solution.

The idea of outfitting new coal-fired power plants with carbon storage and sequestration technology should be a minimal point of entry into our energy supply; that the coal industry can and does tout this as the next greatest thing speaks to bar height for the industry and the candle power of politicians as much as anything. As we have said, the cheapest power plants are the ones we don’t have to build. Measures to flatten demand should at least accompany gargantuan efforts to make a dirty power clean.

And even on 4/1 this is not a joke.

FlimFlam alert

This editorial from the LAt brings up an interesting situation that we’re already in, as the EPA leans toward issuing a ruling on whether greenhouses gases are a danger to public health. If they do, which they are likely to, it will lead directly to some forms of preliminary carbon dioxide regulation. It’s going to be difficult and people are going to be screaming; driving a car is going to get more expensive when everything else already is. But is it the end of the world? That’s an interesting question.

Firmly focused on the downside is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has long argued that a climate-change crackdown would devastate Main Street America, imposing costly permitting requirements on such facilities as schools, hospitals and office buildings. Reacting to news of the pending EPA finding, chamber officials are even claiming that it would undermine President Obama’s economic stimulus package because infrastructure projects to be built with the money would be delayed by reviews of their impact on greenhouse gases.

Not really. The EPA finding would apply only to emissions from vehicles. If the agency does find that they endanger the public, it would add urgency to a process that’s already underway to toughen fuel-efficiency standards. Eventually, it might also lead to regulation of emissions from other sources, particularly power plants. But that’s years away, and onerous rules for schools and offices are unlikely. As for the stimulus money, most or all will be spent by the time the EPA gets around to regulating new construction.

It’s already really expensive to drive a car, only we don’t count all of the negative externalities as costs. These would include, of course, tailpipe emissions but also everything from the human design fiasco that is our highway-connected suburbs to the strips of fast-food joints that line them to the talk radio poison we self-inject sitting in so much traffic everyday. This is to say nothing of the wars and armaments necessary to safeguard said sources of earlier-described dangers to public health. No hyperbole is necessary to see all the ways we could begin to change how we live just by taking their real costs into account – not to mention, as the editorial does, the costs of doing nothing.

So get ready for the rending of garments as the EPA is demonized and carbon pricing construed as the end of civilization as we know it. There’s an irony I will not explain (Mean Joe?). The EPA will be doing its job in accordance with our laws. As the editorial points out, there will be winners and losers in so doing. But, in reference to the above, why shouldn’t we see ourselves as winners in this grand scrum, focusing on the things we will decide to change as positive steps?

The coming war of words (hopefully just that) over who is being green and who isn’t

China hits back at US criticism on human rights after the US needles China with human rights criticism, China responds with Human Rights Record of United States in 2008. From its preface: “As in previous years, the [United States’] reports are full of accusations of the human rights situation in more than 190 countries and regions, including China, but mention nothing of the widespread human rights abuses on its own territory.”

From Metafilter.

Ongoing and, as much as it has reached a few crisis flash points in the past, we’re largely aware of it and how to use it to our advantage, as are our 700 million Chinese brothers. But how long before these kinds of international conflicts extend to greenhouse gas emissions? Shouldn’t we lay in some provisions, keep some powder dry, as the sayings go? What would any of that mean?

One reason the Kyoto Protocol was rejected by the US government after being widely ratified worldwide was that it would have forced on us measures to curtail emissions whereas other countries would be able to continue developing/polluting for a while, putting the US at a competitive disadvantage, yada yada. But… what if we began preparing for these days as if they might well come, when we have open conflict with China about carbon emissions?

A further, really nasty question while I’m at it – what will be the Tiananmen Square  of the battle to wrest control of out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions? And to which nation/system will it seed political advantage? Note: (this does not automatically assume that said political advantage from 1989 democracy demonstrations in Beijing accrued in the direction of anyone other than CNN).

You’d be right to ask what we/they might do to lay a few cobblestones on the high road? Mandate and subsidize solar roofing materials for all? Incentivise train taking? Look for ways to flatten out and reduce overall demand for power and energy? Pan really way out and see this not as a conflcit but an opportunity for cooperation and collaboration? Whoa… eyes… blurry.

Inquiring minds should want to know.

The coming war of words (hopefully just that) over who is being green and who isn’t

China hits back at US criticism on human rights after the US needles China with human rights criticism, China responds with Human Rights Record of United States in 2008. From its preface: “As in previous years, the [United States’] reports are full of accusations of the human rights situation in more than 190 countries and regions, including China, but mention nothing of the widespread human rights abuses on its own territory.”

From Metafilter.

Ongoing and, as much as it has reached a few crisis flash points in the past, we’re largely aware of it and how to use it to our advantage, as are our 700 million Chinese brothers. But how long before these kinds of international conflicts extend to greenhouse gas emissions? Shouldn’t we lay in some provisions, keep some powder dry, as the sayings go? What would any of that mean?

One reason the Kyoto Protocol was rejected by the US government after being widely ratified worldwide was that it would have forced on us measures to curtail emissions whereas other countries would be able to continue developing/polluting for a while, putting the US at a competitive disadvantage, yada yada. But… what if we began preparing for these days as if they might well come, when we have open conflict with China about carbon emissions?

A further, really nasty question while I’m at it – what will be the Tiananmen Square  of the battle to wrest control of out-of-control greenhouse gas emissions? And to which nation/system will it seed political advantage? Note: (this does not automatically assume that said political advantage from 1989 democracy demonstrations in Beijing accrued in the direction of anyone other than CNN).

You’d be right to ask what we/they might do to lay a few cobblestones on the high road? Mandate and subsidize solar roofing materials for all? Incentivise train taking? Look for ways to flatten out and reduce overall demand for power and energy? Pan really way out and see this not as a conflcit but an opportunity for cooperation and collaboration? Whoa… eyes… blurry.

Inquiring minds should want to know.

Living in the City

Ah… the immortal words of Lee Ving, via a lot of good research presented in this article by Ed Glaeser.

The five metropolitan areas with the lowest levels of carbon emissions are all in California: San Francisco, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. These areas have remarkably low levels of both home heating and electricity use. There are cold places, like Rochester, that don’t air-condition much and thus use comparably little electricity. There are warm places, like Houston, that don’t heat much and thus have comparably low heating emissions. But coastal California has little of both sorts of emissions, because of its extremely temperate climate and because California’s environmentalists have battled for rules that require energy-efficient appliances, like air conditioners and water heaters, and for green sources of electricity, such as natural gas and hydropower. (Some analysts argue that this greenness is partly illusory—see “California’s Potemkin Environmentalism,” Spring 2008—but certainly, by our measures, California homes use less energy.) Also, despite the stereotypes about California highways and urban sprawl, some of these five cities, like San Francisco, have only moderate levels of transportation emissions, since their residents actually live at relatively high densities, which cuts down on driving.

In one of the charts, they measured overall carbon emissions for cities, then differentiated emissions of central city residences from the suburbs. Surprises abound.

Boston and Philadelphia are the third and fifth cities on the list. Though hotter summers and more coal make Philadelphia browner than Boston, the city-suburb differences in both areas reflect the high density and abundant public transportation in their central cities. Nashville and Atlanta, on the other hand, rank second and fourth not because their central cities are particularly green but because extensive driving makes their far-flung suburbs particularly brown.

However, even these are not without their caveats, exceptions and reasons why. So you should read the whole thing. Land use patterns and incentives that shift us toward high energy-use locales instead of green ones – those are the issues.

Plus, it beats getting fat and dying your hair.

business-as-unusual

One of the difficult things about any transition to a different model, whether in realms economic, social, political and especially one that overlaps all of these, is the extent to which assumptions based on business-as-usual are allowed travel in tact. We continue to hold fast to many assumptions, all the while slapping on all sorts of various goals for decreasing carbon footprints and lower emissions. It’s quite insane, by a traditional definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

This article about partnering industrial polluters with large landowners holds a few barely-opened pistachios about this transition and the kinds of changes in thinking that are required to begin living toward different ends.

The idea is to nurture food- and fiber-producing activities that are more climate-friendly. Over time, Collins says by phone from Washington, “Where we go from here will alter the discussion of how the country thinks about natural resources.”

The program will be similar to payments farmers currently receive to rest their land in order to preserve the soil, restoration of wetlands along rivers by municipalities to promote water quality and flood control,  and “biodiversity banks” in which landholders that affect habitat for endangered species are required to provide equal or greater amount of habitat elsewhere.

Bringing in a large, extraordinarily-tentacled and therefore quite sluggish bureaucracy like USDA alters the implications for how the policy will evolve. Once agriculture departments at colleges and universities begin to alter the way they think and teach on conservation and allocation of natural resources, especially with an abstract concept (ecology) becoming hopefully less abstracted as it gets integrated into curricula and policy outlooks, forecasts and long term models, then the beginning of the transition will be in sight. You factor out the ideology by attaching valuation on an objective plane, as seeing natural resources and related commodities as having greater value when considered as part of a larger whole. Sustainable then becomes a requirement instead of merely a goal.

Lest we forget, this is all in the service of not waking to that day when, as best summed up by the lyrics of a fourteenth-generation Indian killer, ” you can’t find an answer so you pray for a reason.”

The joneses, keeping up with

This is exactly what I was talking about in this week’s column. Admittedly it does involve foreign concepts like nonprofit utility boards and conscientious people, but this

The utility thinks behavior modification could be as effective in promoting conservation as trying to get customers to install new appliances is, Mr. Starnes said, and maybe more so.

is universal. Set aside ethical sympathies about the environment. Shame people into keeping up with their neighbors and they’ll take care of the imaginative/innovative part; you just put the comparative graphs on their bill. Okay, and the frowny faces, too.

In a 2004 experiment, he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use.

“It is fundamental and primitive,” said Dr. Cialdini, who owns a stake in Positive Energy. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”