Category Archives: Sustainability

Crank that laptop!

Crank Laptop

Here’s an interesting short video on the XO laptop, made for the poorest kids in the world. Various design breakthroughs made very low energy consumption possible, enabling a minute of crank time to give you ten minutes of usable time, not a bad tradeoff. Plus they’ve done clever things to make it more reusable, more recylable, less toxic. (via BoingBoing).


Interesting article by Gregory Clark (professor Economics, UC Davis), “Life After Peak Oil” from the Sacramento Bee today, on the ramifications of expensive energy. Maybe not so bad…

So the future after peak oil will involve living in such dense urban settings where destinations are walkable or bikeable, just as in pre-industrial cities (the city of London in 1801 had 100,000 inhabitants in one square mile). Homes will be much smaller, but instead of caverns of off-white sheet rock, we will spend our money in making much more attractive interiors. Nights will be darker. We will not have retail outlets lit up like the glare of the midday sun in Death Valley.

Such a lifestyle is not only possible it will be much healthier.

I think that making this come true is largely about starting to shift mindsets and lifestyles now, so that the transition is not so painful.

The Air Car

Air car

I’m not quite sure how I’ve missed this concept, but in any case yesterday I learned of the Air Car – a car that runs on simple compressed air!  The compressed air moves the pistons, and an onboard air compressor can keep the tank full using very little energy.

The main designer behind it, Guy Nègre, has worked on Formula One race cars.  But this car is being targeted to urban environments, where most trips are short and it makes sense to have a small vehicle.  Apparently he did offer the design to established companies:

During the first phase of development, Guy Nègre, thought that he could develop an engine and sell it to the large automotive manufactures. Unfortunately, because adapting an air engine to traditional cars meant changing bodies and production line the large companies refused and he was forced to change his approach. The inventor then set out to develop a vehicle according to his philosophy. This car had to be ecology friend, silence, and practical.

As usual, it looks like the big car companies can’t see innovation when it hits them on the head!

Sounds like commercial introduction is next year in Europe and perhaps in India.  I’m fascinated to see how this works out…

Clever Cycles in Portland

Clever Cycles shop

This week I saw a story in the Portland Tribune about a new shop in the SE called Clever Cycles.  They are selling imported Dutch bicycles, a line called Bakfiets, that have built in wooden ‘buckets’ to carry kids, groceries, whatever.  I went over to the store yesterday just to check it out, and spoke to Dean, one of the owners.  He said they are trying to create a bicycle shop that’s a bit more friendly and less intimidating that the standard shop.

What’s nice about these bicycles is that they have some great built-in features, and they make the experience of practical urban riding a lot easier.  Portland’s a great biking city, and this is a nice addition to the scene.

Here’s a link to the story in the Tribune:  “Next generation spin cycle” by Kate Gowf.

Fast Cities?

OHSU building

While I’m often dubious about the whole premise of the magazine Fast Company, I see that they’ve put together a listing of the ‘fast cities’ of the world in a number of categories, and Portland makes the ‘green leaders’ list. I think that’s a fair assessment – there’s a lot of interest here in green building, and that interest is backed up by actual projects. As people do a better job of accounting for the full life-time cost of buildings, I think it’s inevitable that the techniques being pioneered here will become ‘no-brainers’ before long.

Above: a drawing of the new LEED-certified platinum OHSU building.

Friedman on "The Power of Green"

Green flag

I read Thomas Friedman’s long NY Times Sunday Magazine piece “The Power of Green” (April 15, 2007) with interest. While I found parts of the article intriguing, overall it seemed to be in denial despite some initial cautions.

His starting premise: “I am not proposing that we radically alter our lifestyles. We are who we are – including a car culture. But if we want to continue to be who we are, enjoy the benefits and be able to pass them on to our children, we do need to fuel our future in a cleaner, greener way.”

Despite his premise, Friedman then writes: “But here’s the really inconvenient truth: We have not even begun to be serious about the costs, the effort and the scale of change that will be required to shift our country, and eventually the world, to a largely emissions-free energy infrastructure over the next 50 years.” And later: “Most people have no clue – no clue – how huge an industrial project is required to blunt climate change.”

He then goes on to detail some of the possible projects that would be needed to have an actual impact, which include putting cars on ethanol, doubling our nuclear power capacity, cutting electricity use by 25 percent in homes & offices & stores. As he says, these are not trivial projects, and I’m not convinced that all of them would do much good anyway (corn-based ethanol already appears more problematic than helpful).

But as he concludes: “Equally important, presidential candidates need to help Americans understand that green is not about cutting back. It’s about create a new cornucopia of abundance for the next generation by inventing a whole new industry.”

So which is it? No cut backs, no changes to our lifestyle? Or massive economic changes? Friedman seems to think that enlightened leaders could lead us through this issue by sticking to the good news story. I’m doubtful – about how even an enlightened leader could effectively operate in the current climate – and about how effective even these big projects would really be. But there’s no question that it’s a debate worth having.

Water choices

Tap Water

An article today at SF Gate on a growing trend to use local tap water at restaurants instead of offering bottled. Personally I think it’s a good move. There are few standards applied to bottled water, and the energy used to ship water (heavy stuff, remember) around the world is a big waste when you’ve got water locally. From the article:

Among the new questions about bottled water: Is it spring water or filtered tap water? Does it come in plastic or glass? How much energy is spent to bottle and ship it, often thousands of miles from Italy or France? And are municipal water supplies at risk from corporations thirsty for bigger shares of the lucrative bottled water business?

Note also that restaurants have huge markups on fancy bottled water – is it really worth it? (Note: I’m not on a crusade to outlaw bottled water or anything – I just hope people will think about it a little before spending their hard-earned wages).

The Carbon Question

Good article yesterday in the Portland Tribune’s Sustainable Life section, “Carbon offsets far from settled” by Dawn Weinberger.  It explains the idea of carbon offsets, and points out some of the questions that should be asked of any organization in this area.  Here’s a piece of it:

For example, an offset purchased through the local nonprofit Climate Trust might help preserve a native forest in the Northwest, or it might help with rainforest restoration in Ecuador.

Does that mean there is literally a tree out in the Ecuadorean rainforest with Joe Offset Buyer’s name on it?

Not exactly. But Climate Trust does take the funds from Joe’s purchase and puts them toward replanting efforts, or one of several other causes – including one project that will help reduce carbon dioxide emissions at truck stops by allowing drivers to plug in their trucks at night rather than leave them idling.

Worth reading in its entirety.

While some folks still see this as a liberal guilt-assuaging mechanism, and at its worst that may have some truth, at its best carbon offsets are means to actually dealing with the problem of carbon emissions.  At this moment I suspect the biggest bang for the buck would be projects that lessen the carbon emissions from China – a recent story in the Oregonian claimed that Chinese emissions are impacting rainfall patterns on the Pacific Northwest coast!

Keep hacking!

Whole Earth Catalog

From an NYT profile of Stewart Brand, written by John Tierney:

“You have to keep on trying new things.”

That’s a good strategy, whether you’re trying to build a sustainable career or a sustainable civilization. Ultimately, there’s no safety in clinging to a romanticized past or trying to plan a risk-free future. You have to keep looking for better tools and learning from mistakes. You have to keep on hacking.

Read the whole article for some challenging assertions!

Design on the Edge – David W. Orr (2006)

Design on the Edge

I recently finished Design on the Edge by David W. Orr, the story of the creation of the Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. From the beginning this was planned as a sustainability project, to design a building that would use less energy and water, be built of materials with minimal ecological impacts (both in their creation and use), and would serve as an ongoing learning center about ecological interconnections.  David Orr is a professor at Oberlin, and was a champion of this project through its full lifecycle.

Orr makes it clear that there were many hurdles along the way; most of them institutional, not technological. At this point it seems fairly clear that there are tested techniques for making these project successful, but it seems that the mindset of many people is not yet ready to embrace the concept. Orr was very disappointed to see that even after the proven success of the Lewis Center, that subsequent Oberlin building projects, in particular a new science center, were built using conventional approaches, with guaranteed higher lifetime costs.

It’s really time for a total embrace of smart, green building in all projects.  We know how to do this!