Expensive-r gas

I saw this article in the Guardian UK over the weekend, which features Dr. James Hansen of Goddard Institute of Space Studies waxing darkly about green:

Hansen said current carbon levels in the atmosphere were already too high to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Yet the levels are still rising despite all the efforts of politicians and scientists.

Only the US now had the political muscle to lead the world and halt the rise, Hansen said. Having refused to recognise that global warming posed any risk at all over the past eight years, the US now had to take a lead as the world’s greatest carbon emitter and the planet’s largest economy. Cap-and-trade schemes, in which emission permits are bought and sold, have failed, he said, and must now be replaced by a carbon tax that will imposed on all producers of fossil fuels. At the same time, there must be a moratorium on new power plants that burn coal – the world’s worst carbon emitter.

It’s a cheeky lede and all, but the point is taken. All you Nether-philes out there, get serious about getting serious. But then the chorus about a global economic slowdown and its effects on measures to counteract rapidly-advancing climate change pipes in.

Governments are putting plans aimed at mitigating carbon dioxide emissions on hold at a time when concerns are focused on finance rather than ecology and when the collapsing price of oil and gas is undermining incentives to invest in renewable energy.

Another blow to the sector is the tumbling price of permits for emitting carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. In countries where emitters must buy these permits, like those in the European Union, low prices mean emitters have fewer incentives to make their production process more efficient or move to less greenhouse gas intensive fuels.

So… let’s say we have identified a dependable correlation between the price of gas (natural or petrol) and the value of carbon-emitting permits, such that as the price of gas falls, efforts to raise efficiency AND demand for carbon permits also flag. What to do? Call the psychic hotline? Follow your heart?

How about we look into this conundrum and… wait for it: raise the price of gas ON PURPOSE!

Brilliant. villainous. sneaky. shrewd. under-handed. UnAmerican. Exactly.

Made by hand, tested by labs

I’m a little late to this but… like many issues, it is woven into a blanket that is easy to forget you have, unless it’s the one you pull up every night to keep warm.

In response to the furor last year over lead in toys from China and elsewhere, the government responded with the Consumer Product safety Improvement Act. Sounds reasonable enough, right? The materials used to fabricate toys should be thoroughly tested before mass production and dissemination through chain retailers and the intertubes. But what about small runs of hand-made items, clothing, dolls, toys from people who have created tiny, sustainable niche markets to make things and support themselves? What about used clothes and thrift stores? No difference at all, the Act says.

For starters, the CPSIA requires end unit testing on every product intended for use by children under 12. It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to do this testing, regardless of how small the business. That means that manufacturers (like myself ) will have to pay to get every different product they offer tested. These tests have to be done at a CSPC accredited lab, and cost up to $4,000 with an average of around $150. So for me, I offer 3 different types of dresses. Each dress contains 2 different fabrics, as well as buttons, and thread, so that’s potentially $600 to test one dress. But I have 3 styles, so that’s $1800. And when I get a new bolt of fabric, I need to start all over again. I can only make 15 dresses from one bolt, so there is no way I could make the testing financially feasible.

At present, there are no exemptions for small businesses and “micro” manufacturers like myself and most handcraft artisans.
There is no exception for quantities made, where the garments/products are made or anything else. Nor is there an exception for unadorned fabric components, unfinished wood components, materials which, by their nature, are free of lead and phthalates. Also, the Act takes a “guilty until proven innocent” approach, which would treat a handmade, unfinished wooden toy that doesn’t meet the certification deadline of 2/10/09 as a “banned hazardous substance” which would be illegal to distribute in this country. Each infraction carries a $100,000 felony charge.

This legislation is also retroactive for any pre-existing inventory as of February 10th, 2009. This means that everything on the shelves in those big (or small) stores will also be “banned, hazardous substances” – contraband. Larger corporations that can afford testing will incur thousands, maybe millions of dollars in fees, and this expense will be handed down to the consumer, probably making the prices for children’s products go through the roof. This also means that after that date, even selling your kids old things on eBay or Craigslist will be illegal. Charities will not be able to accept donations without a certificate of compliance either.

Designers and shop owners are being turned into activists by this issue and the looming deadline, as their livelihoods are at stake. The manufacturing scale here should easily connote a distinction in risk, and the handmade fabrication and retail industries should be enlisted as a corrective/alternative to mass-produced, imported goods, not lumped in with them. These are the folks who started out championing local, organic, small scale and sustainable as the cornerstones of new enterprise. And they were right. It is a crucial point of departure which is itself one of the new routes to sustainability. The time in which lawmakers could be insufficiently familiar with this distinction, and other, very related ones, has passed.

Green Stimulus

Jokes about the size of Obama’s package notwithstanding, discussion on once-and-future efforts to get the country going again but in a different direction are a re-run of the initial green wave. As a correspondent at Marshall’s puts it

My practice group works exclusively in the public sector. Obama’s only constituency in Congress and the nation for bold initiatives, such as Green infrastructure, will come from states (a small handful) that are ahead of the curve on green initiatives. The biggest candidate is CA, where the Governor has already signed legislation that is more aggressive than the federal government, or likely, any other state in the Union. How much congressional representatives from CA are in line with these initiatives is not clear. Other constituencies will be politicians from states with companies heavily invested in green technologies and industries, such as wind farms, solar, and solar thermal (big energy, small footprint so far). Ironically, many of the bigger companies are based overseas.
My conclusion is that the constituency is not ideological, nor is it very deep. Politicians love Green the way they love “tough on crime.” It’s a great ad, and you don’t have to do too much, other than build a few prisons in the latter case, and show pretty pictures of wind turbines in the former. Green initiatives have been seen as a potential boom catalyst. In a global economy that has driven down the price of oil, the national security imperatives that were the strongest political selling points, are lessened. Obama will need to make a case directly to the people and drag a disinterested Congress with him. Does he care enough? Time will tell.

What this financial collapse on so many levels boils down to is an open opportunity to pivot. We already know that we cannot go back to doing/living/driving/buying/building/traveling/growing/powering the way we used to. So this gargantuan effort to stimulate the economy must be informed by that reasoning. It was going to take a gigantic re-investment in public-oriented (mass transit, updated electrical grid) infrastructure all along. Now we are going to get one under the not very different pretext of saving the economy and creating jobs.

Our energy problems and the depressed economy are related, we must let them be one.

Got Milk?

Sweet little baby in the manger I don’t even know where to start with this. A family portrait of our bloat if there was a need for a new one. The economic ‘slowdown’ (c’mon!) has led to a growing surplus of so many things we’ve been overproducing as a means to take advantage of growing markets… either we’re such children about this or our economic system remains too primitive as to allow for self-destructive indulgence – which are basically the same things.

Anyway, cows. Too many. Producing far too much milk. So much that the government price floor kicks in and we begin to buy the excess while producers continue to feed and milk Elsie so as not be caught flat-footed when things ‘recover’. Please. And this.

In China, for instance, per-person dairy consumption nearly doubled in just five years, to 63 pounds in 2007 from 33 pounds in 2002 (though it remains far below the per-capita consumption in the United States of about 580 pounds), according to the U.S. Dairy Export Council. The growth translates into the need for nearly 40 billion pounds more milk each year, roughly equal to California’s annual milk production.

Okay, stop right there. 580 pounds of milk per year per person, and the Chinese are up to 63? Forget methane and the effects of cow flatulence on CO2 emissions for a second and just think about how
much more we are consuming than, one might suspect, we really need. It’s not just a little extra but on the level of orders of magnitude. I do not know what the optimum consumption of milk per annum would be. But I do think that whether it is 137 or 683 lbs. it should be separate and apart from how I define the idea of personal freedom. If I want to consume 974 pounds per year, fine. Set a healthy range for my consumption (b/c I’m obviously incapable) and charge me more when I whiz past it. For the milk, for the extra weight on my plane ticket, for the added trips to the doctor, for the car tips to work b/c I’m feeling too ‘slow’ to bike in. The impulse to set price floors for the cost of anything is being calibrated in the wrong direction. Let’s determine what consuming all this milk is costing us and set price parameters based on that.

As a part of this we can begin to understand all of these excess points in housing, automobiles, and commodities of all sorts as part and parcel of the ‘slowdown’. We’re slowing down because we’re bloated; when you’re out of shape and out of breath, you can’t help but slowdown. I don’t mean to make this sound so simple and will stop if others will throttle back on making it seem so complicated.

Green Recovery

With the stock market ready to record its biggest annual drop since 1931, conversation automatically advances toward January and what kind of economic recovery investors can look forward to. Pick any of the questionable words/phrases out of that last clause to gauge how out of touch we remain, from a media standpoint, with what is happening to the country, the economy and the planet in concert.

The optimism is hard to overstate; we’re a resilient people, no doubt. The dissonance is amazing. And, truthfully, we shouldn’t be cowering. But we need to put that optimism to the test and face facts. Keeping your head up when things are grim, that’s optimism. Doing the same things over and over and hoping for different results, well, that’s just another way of licking our ears clean.

This future that we’re afraid of is within site; ours is to embrace it, prickly though it be. The assumptions coming back into focus in hopes that this little economic tremor will pass need to be held as suspects for a while longer. Habeas for all – read them their rights, charge them and give them their one phone call. But hold them. We seem to never be able to concentrate on any one problem long enough to get it by the short hairs, if you will, before something conveniently displaces it. I’m not talking conspiracy here. It’s the millions of false equivalences that are a natural outcome of a shallow cultural paradigm we’ve allowed to slip into place, where everyone speaks in the language of commodity but no one understands the slang.

All you money managers out there need to hold your seats for a while. Alternate reality: Figure out something to do with your money within five hundred yards of your driveway as a method to tilt the local tax coffers again. Seriously. Economies of scale have nothing to do with humans.

Recovering the green will mean having people make things for other people. Re-establishing local identities, putting people to work, paying taxes, furthering the public good is the only way to increase the wealth of a wealthy society.