Environmental issues

2009 08 01
Forget shorter showers


Posted by in: Environmental issues

Oh thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou so much to the internets for this article on a variety of environmentalism that drives me absolutely bonkers.

Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide.

Or let’s talk water. We so often hear that the world is running out of water. People are dying from lack of water. Rivers are dewatered from lack of water. Because of this we need to take shorter showers. See the disconnect? Because I take showers, I’m responsible for drawing down aquifers? Well, no. More than 90 percent of the water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. The remaining 10 percent is split between municipalities and actual living breathing individual humans. Collectively, municipal golf courses use as much water as municipal human beings. People (both human people and fish people) aren’t dying because the world is running out of water. They’re dying because the water is being stolen.

And so on with lots of illustrative examples. The author concludes with a reasonable meditation on the sorts of political changes we need to bring about.

I think this is exactly right. We’re facing enormous political problems with the environment now that require broad political solutions. Everyone in my neighbourhood can recycle and bike to work for the next ten years and all the good we’ve done can be undone in an instant by a single line in a farm bill. Environmental activism that focuses energy and effort away from that level may be well-meaning, but it can also be positively harmful. At this point we really need to think globally and act nationally.


Howls of outrage (14)

2009 03 11
Recently read: Cradle to Cradle


William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

The environmental movement has invested significant time and energy over the last few decades trying to move us to a “sustainable” way of life; much of that effort can be summed up in the slogan “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” William McDonough and Michael Braungart find the goal of sustainability flat and uninspiring—they ask us to imagine our reaction if someone described his marriage as “sustainable.” Their book is an invitation to think in a radically different way about environmental issues, starting (but by no means ending) with conventional recycling efforts.

The basic problem with conventional recycling is that it would often be better described as “downcycling”: products that were never designed to be recycled are transformed into inferior products which are themselves only one step away from the landfill anyway. Moreover, the process of transformation often uses chemical processes with harmful byproducts and consumes a significant amount of energy.

Because it was not designed with recycling in mind, paper requires extensive bleaching and other chemical processes to make it blank again for reuse. The result is a mixture of chemicals, pulp, and in some cases toxic inks that are not really appropriate for handling and use. The fibers are shorter and the paper less smooth than virgin paper, allowing an even higher proportion of particles to abrade into the air, where they can be inhaled and can irritate the nasal passages and lungs. Some people have developed allergies to newspapers, which are often made from recycled paper.

The creative use of downcycled materials for new products can be misguided, despite good intentions. For example, people may feel that they are making an ecologically sound choice by buying and wearing clothing made of fibers from recycled plastic bottles. But the fibers from plastic bottles contain toxins such as antimony, catalytic residues, ultraviolet stabilizers, plasticizers, and antioxidants, which were never designed to lie next to human skin.

And so on. The moral is that recycling—or downcycling, rather—shouldn’t be an afterthought. Rather, we should design products from the start with the expectation that they will be reused. This is certainly possible—the book is filled with examples—but it does require a radical rethinking of the process of industrial design. M and B also challenge the idea that this needs to be especially expensive, claiming that a careful design process can actually help companies make money at the same time that they benefit the environment. M and B, it seems, never met a cake without dreaming up some way to have and eat it at the same time.

In an interesting twist, M and B have decided to make this point using the very materials on which their book is printed.

Imagine if we were to rethink the entire concept of a book, considering not only the practicalities of manufacture and use but the pleasures that might be brought to both . . . .

Is it an electronic book? Perhaps—that form is still in its infancy [Cradle to Cradle was published in 2002]. Or perhaps it takes another form as yet unimagined by us. But many people find the form of the traditional book both convenient and delightful. What if we reconceived not the shape of the object but the materials of which it is made, in the context of its relationship to the natural world? How could it be a boon to both people and the environment?

We might begin by considering whether paper itself is a proper vehicle for reading matter . . . Let’s imagine a book that is not a tree. It is not even paper. Instead, it is made of plastics developed around a completely different paradigm for materials, polymers that are infinitely recyclable at the same level of quality—that have been designed with their future life foremost in mind, rather than as an awkward afterthought. This “paper” doesn’t require cutting down trees or leaching chlorine into waterways. The inks are nontoxic and can be washed off the polymer with a simple and safe chemical process or an extremely hot water bath, from either of which they can be recovered and reused. The cover is made from a heavier grade of the same polymer as the rest of the book, and the glues are made of compatible ingredients, so that once the materials are no longer needed in their present form, the entire book can be reclaimed by the publishing industry in a single one-step recycling process.

This passage nicely captures the refreshingly creative approach the author’s take to their subjects. The inspired choice of their own book’s materials to illustrate the principles inscribed on it ensures that the lesson is never far from the reader’s mind. Unless you’re reading it on a Kindle, Cradle to Cradle doesn’t feel like an ordinary book. The plastic pages feel smooth; it smells nice, in my opinion; it’s surprisingly heavy.

Just as they urge us to reconsider conventional recycling, M and B also try to get us to do the same with a host of related concepts that have been an important part of the conventional wisdom among environmentalists for decades. Too much legislation, too much activism, has been dominated by the notion of harm reduction, when in fact we should be trying to dream up ways in which products might benefit the larger ecology to which they belong. And they tell us about buildings that produce more energy than they consume and factories which pump out water used in the industrial process cleaner than it entered the factory. (If you find this all very cool but don’t have time to read the book, you should check out M’s TED talk. Very cool.)

Cradle to Cradle is strongest when it descends from abstractions to the description of actual projects undertaken by M and B—the former is an architect and the latter a chemist. It’s a pity, then, that they don’t do this more often. Instead, much of the book is taken up with an extraordinarily repetitive account of its general principles. This book could and should have been much less tedious, and much shorter. It could also have been better written. I was surprised to read that the book was actually ghostwritten by a poet. The prose was often so awkward, and the material so poorly organized, that the book actually read as exactly the sort of earnest but flawed effort you might expect from two people with great ideas and little ability to write.

Back to the physical materials in the book for a moment. The idea, recall, is that these materials are technical nutrients. This means that when the world no longer needs Cradle to Cradle, the publisher can simply wash the pages clean and publish a new book. But as I mulled the idea over (and discussed it with a friend, who added a nice helping of sceptical mockery), it started to bother me even more than the sheer weight of the book (even I, with my massively powerful upper body, would not want to carry around a knapsack of such books). Eventually I clued in to the fact that nowhere on the book is there any information about where to return unwanted copies. In other words, after putting an enormous amount of effort into making the ideas in their book concrete, and then telling us over and over about how awesome this all is, M and B appear to have completely neglected to actually implement the idea, or rather, to implement to the idea past the point of gimmickry.

Not yet willing to give up, I called the office of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. They put me through to someone in the production department who sounded thoroughly stumped when I asked her if it was possible to actually return the book to them for reprinting. “Oh, we get calls asking about the material,” she told me, “but no one has ever asked about returning it.” She promised to get back to me after looking into the matter. After a bit of back and forth by email, I confirmed my hunch that when M and B say that “the entire book can be reclaimed by the publishing industry in a single one-step recycling process,” the “can” here refers to the theoretical possibility of reuse, and does not imply that anyone will ever actually bother to do it.

I don’t want to be a dick about this, so let me just say that I think it’s ok that this reconceptualization of the traditional book has its problems. I bring it up because it illustrates how difficult it is to reconceptualize something traditional without broader and far-reaching changes in consumer habits and patterns of distribution. But if this cheeky takedown of M has anything to it, it also illustrates a general problem M has translating his visionary ideas into actual practice.

So that’s my impression of this book: visionary, provocative, necessary, flawed, and pretty badly written. On balance, I think it’s worth reading and wrestling with in spite of its faults. You can hardly escape it without a fresh perspective on traditional environmentalism and the sense of a whole world of possibilities awaiting us if we approach it the right way.

(If you just can’t get enough about this book, Steve’s review is much friendlier (and more informative, actually).


Howls of outrage (3)

2007 02 12
Bees in trouble


Mysterious ailment destroys bee colonies across US. This kind of thing terrifies me; it has the feeling of the first visible symptom of a total apocalyptic collapse. And it’s an apolitical reminder of why we need a first-rate science infrastructure (education at all levels, public funding for wide-ranging no-immediate-payoff science, encouragement of high social regard for scientists).


A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2007 01 27
Water water everywhere


From Spencer – who just turned 30 – comes this link. It’s a description of the real-life game facing engineers as global sea levels rise, an essay with pictures, The Army Corps of Engineers Game.


Howls of outrage (5)

2006 08 21
Postscript: War and the environment


I mentioned in a recent post that the environmental consequences of war are often overlooked. Indeed, I have the sense that they’re not just often overlooked by the gung-ho-for-war crowd, but even by anti-war types with a strong interest in assembling compelling reasons to avoid war. Here’s a nice supplement to that point, focusing on the environmental consequences of the recent war in the Levant.

It is an interesting feature of the Iraq War that it is the only war – at least the only one I can think of off the top of my head – that actually had a highly compelling environmental reason in its favour: As I used to point out ad nauseum, Saddam Hussein was on the point of success in his project to destroy the Iraqi marshes, an ancient, irreplaceable, and unique ecosystem, which supported an ancient, irreplaceable, and unique culture (the Marsh Arabs). [Update: By "compelling," of course, I mean "strong," rather than "decisive all things considered."]

Yet, even in the case of the Iraq War, we need to weigh against it all the unexploded ordinance, the depleted uranium, and other assorted acts of violence to the environment perpetrated by both sides. We should also recognize that Saddam Hussein was draining the marshes for a variety of reasons, including agriculture and the suppression of dissent. The removal of Saddam Hussein will hardly address these contributing causes to the environmental destruction which the war put on hold, and to some extent reversed. So it remains to be seen whether the reversal of the marsh’s fortunes can be extended and consolidated, or whether it was just a pause in a longer, and very sad, story of environmental catastrophe.


Howls of outrage (2)

2006 07 06
Climateprediction.net


As I mentioned earlier, my poor laptop finally became unusable, so we shelled out – or rather, our credit cards shelled out, and hopefully we’ll pay them back someday – for a desktop. I’m happy with it so far: A Dell with a 19 inch flat screen monitor, a gig o’ ram, a decent processor, and a 160 gig hard drive. It cost $750 after tax and shipping, which is not bad at all, considering. And it actually arrived a day before its estimated ship date.

Anyway, once I had the desktop set up (and good lord, Dell likes to ship those things just filled with useless crap, so it took a while), I did something I had been meaning to for a while: volunteered with a distributed computing project.

Here’s how it works. You install a program on your computer. When you’re not using your computer, it starts running computations for part of a much larger project. It doesn’t slow down the computer at all – as soon as you touch your mouse, the program fades into the background and stops its work. Once it’s done the project, it uploads the results to a central server, and gets a new assignment.

Yeah, yeah – you’ll be worried about privacy and spyware and crap. I don’t think there’s much to worry about, though, if you pick a well-run and transparent project. Any other downsides? Well, your computer will be running quite a bit, but I’ve spoken with someone who knows more about this than you do, and he tells me that the computer will be dead for some other reason long before it dies from this sort of use. The software for these projects is also usually highly configurable, so you can choose how often it writes to disk, etc. etc. etc. if you’re really fussy.

Anyway, the project I volunteered my computer downtime for is hosted at Climateprediction.net. Click around the site and see for yourself. I’m not exactly sure what my computer is doing, but judging from the screensaver, it appears to be simulating the earth’s climate from 1920 to 2080. I installed it on June 30th, I think, and so far it’s finished 0.627% of the project assigned to it, which is due Jan 29th, 2008. So, big project, huh?

I really like the idea that my computer can be useful to a worthwhile project like this.

(You can also volunteer to have your computer crunch prime numbers, do cancer research, investigate the behaviour of proteins, and more. I’m too lazy for links, but if you can’t figure it out, and are dying to try one of those, let me know and I’ll help you out.)


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2006 04 02
A failure of Will


There’s a lot to say about the piece of wanton hackery that is George Will’s latest column on global climate change. Eh. If Will can’t be bothered to write a decent column, I can’t be bothered to take it seriously as an actual contribution to a genuine debate. I’ll just limit myself to a single, obvious point, which, believe it or not, takes up the least worst part of Will’s column.

Among other things, Will suggests that the science behind recent claims of global climate change is flawed. Why does Will doubt the science supporting predictions of anthropogenic global climate change? Not, of course, because he understands anything at all about the science. Rather, Will’s view seems to be that if the scientific consensus has changed on an issue, the more recent consensus, no matter how well established, is dubious. In the seventies, the concern was with global cooling. Now, you see, the worry is global warming. The reader is invited to throw up his hands, with Will, and stop thinking about the issue.

The problem with this standard is that, taken seriously – and I don’t think Will would want it taken seriously, except on selected issues – it would deny science any role in the formulation of public policy. There is no area of science that has escaped serious revision. (Astronomers once believed in a geocentric universe. Now they tell us that that’s not the case. Who to believe? Who indeed.) So there is by Will’s standard no area of science that we should be able to rely on to formulate public policy. Since we must rely on science to formulate public policy all the time, Will’s standard must be seriously flawed.

In spite of Will, we’re in the vicinity of all sorts of really interesting questions: What does scientific objectivity amount to? Are there times when we shouldn’t trust the scientific consensus on an issue? Given that the scientific consensus is sometimes provisional on an issue, how ought the current science on an issue figure into the formulation of public policies which might outlive the scientific consensus? How should public policy handle risk under uncertain conditions? And so on.

Now, since I do think that the scientific consensus on an issue can sometimes be systematically flawed (think of the history of racial genetics in the early 20th century – resisting that scientific consensus would have been perfectly sensible), I don’t want to imply that we always ought to march in lockstep with the current best science of the day on any issue. These questions are tricky, and the danger of a quick, irritated response to Will is that it will take his anti-intellectualist bait and gloss over distinctions we may want to draw on later.

The short response to Will’s doubts about the science supporting claims of anthropogenic global climate change is that anyone who seriously cares about the issue is welcome to examine the very public history of the debate as it has developed. It’s clear to anyone who does this that the science in question is well-established, having survived a tremendous amount of scrutiny. As with any scientific consensus on an issue, it’s subject to change. Nevertheless, if any body of scientific understanding ought to be taken seriously by public policymakers, it’s this body of science. People who believe otherwise ought to explain clearly why they doubt that, or risk becoming poster boys for left-wing claims that the right has an irrational hatred and fear of science.


Howls of outrage (5)

2005 08 20
Cheaper solar energy on the way?


Posted by in: Environmental issues

Ohhh, possibly very good news.


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2005 08 12
Oil


Fucking hell, this is quite something, isn’t it?

Oil prices today rose to record highs of more than $66 (�36) a barrel as more stoppages at US refineries rekindled fears of demand outstripping petrol supplies.

In afternoon trading, US light crude was up 32 cents at $66.12, just below an all-time high of $66.15 a barrel set earlier in the day. London Brent crude was up 41 cents at $65.79, having earlier set another record at $65.88.

Oil prices are almost 50% higher than a year ago, but would need to surpass $90 a barrel to exceed the inflation-adjusted peak set in 1980.

My (very sketchy) understanding is that this is fine if it is happens reasonably gradually – indeed, it even has some great environmental consequences, since long-term price increases tend to spur conservation efforts (more fuel efficient cars, etc.).

There are a lot of different factors driving this. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.


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2004 12 23
Will on global warming


Gosh, this is hackish. It’s not worth actually responding to, but I will pause momentarily to note that it is a ripe, ripe work of hackish blather.


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2004 08 10
Rooftop Gardens


Matthew Yglesias, not exactly an environmentalist type, has got this right:

A little while back I talked to someone who was involved with some sort of program here in the District where they were planting grass and trees on the roofs of office buildings. In part this was a welfare-to-work initiative, but some non-trivial environmental benefits were also being claimed. The benefits are said to be several-fold. First, because soil is a good insulator, putting such a garden on the roof of your building helps moderate internal temperatures, hence reducing the need for energy expenditures on air conditioning and heating. Second, were such gardens to be widely planted, the increased foliage would allegedly help moderate city-wide. Third, the presence of more greenery would improve local air quality. Fourth, to some degree it creates carbon sinks which alleviates global warming. Fifth (though this is my addition, not an argument that was presented to me) it would look cool.

The claim was that because of the cost savings on the energy side, some relatively mild tax credits would make it worth property owners’ while to plant such gardens, thus bringing society various environmental benefits. Is all this true? I couldn’t say, though I’d like to know, it seems like the sort of innovating thinking that we could use more of. Plus I think it would look cool.

I might as well come out and admit that I get a strange little thrill from seeing trees on top of buildings. Hey, you gotta get your kicks somewhere.


Howls of outrage (2)

2003 08 23
The EPA


Check out these two pieces on the EPA’s response to concerns about air quality in New York after 9/11. Now, if I recall, it was only the frickin Village Voice which ran a story about this at the time, scooping both these papers by almost 2 years.

I was uncertain at the time what to think about the Voice piece. On the one hand, it seemed alarmist, and I was also surprised that none of the mainstream press picked up the story. I also doubted that the EPA would squander its reputation with a lie which would be easy to refute, and whose refutation would seriously erode public trust the next time it was needed.

I see now how very naive these assumptions were.

EPA Pressed to Call Air Safe After 9/11, Report Says (washingtonpost.com)

EPA’s 9/11 Air Ratings Distorted, Report Says


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