Category Archives: Sustainability

Slow burn

The latest big climate report does not feature good news. There is increasing consensus that man’s activity is ‘very likely’ having an impact on the climate, and recent weather activity adds to evidence of climate shift. I think there’s still uncertainty on the longer range projections, but it now seems to be at the point where the risks of continuing unabated are outweighing the costs of taking action.

My feeling is that we will see increasing action, some helpful, some maybe not. I think green building will quickly become the new standard. I think oil & gas will be volatile in terms of price, both due to peak production issues and geo-political activities, so it’s hard to guess how people will react to that. I fear that ethanol (corn-based) will be more problematic than helpful.

Action!

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James Howard Kunstler’s latest post ‘The Agenda Restated’ provides his ideas for action. I dig this one above all:

Expand your view beyond the question of how we will run all the cars by means other than gasoline. This obsession with keeping the cars running at all costs could really prove fatal. It is especially unhelpful that so many self-proclaimed “greens” and political “progressives” are hung up on this monomaniacal theme. Get this: the cars are not part of the solution (whether they run on fossil fuels, vodka, used frymax™ oil, or cow shit). They are at the heart of the problem. And trying to salvage the entire Happy Motoring system by shifting it from gasoline to other fuels will only make things much worse. The bottom line of this is: start thinking beyond the car.

And the bottom line:

The best way to feel hopeful about the future is to get off your ass and demonstrate to yourself that you are a capable, competent individual resolutely able to face new circumstances.

Indeed!

Cars – a luxury or a tax?

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From a NYT op-ed by Robert Sullivan, “The City that Never Walks”:

London now charges drivers a fee to enter the core business area, but here such initiatives are branded as anti-car, and thus anti-personal freedom: a congestion fee, critics say, is a tax on the middle-class car commuter. But as matters now stand, the pedestrian is taxed every day: by delays and emissions, by asthma rates that are (in the Bronx) as much as four times the national average. Though we think of it as a luxury, the car taxes us, and with it we tax others.

Found this on Richard Florida’s blog The Creativity Exchange.

Do you have a box?

Box

In a story on Amory Lovins in the Jan 22, 2007 New Yorker, the writer describes him as ‘thinking outside the box’ to which Lovins says ‘There is no box.’ (Lovins is co-author of Natural Capitalism and a long-time innovative thinker about sustainability). Lovins comes across as a bit of a nutty professor, and there are worse things to be.

I think we all have a box, that is the limits of our own thinking, the pre-conceptions that we don’t even think to question. But some have a much bigger box than others, and I think we all could stand to push the sides out!

My pet peeve in this area has to do with the role of cars in the future. Most people I talk with seem to feel that ‘you can’t get Americans out of their cars’ and Lovins seems convinced that you have to have lots of car-like contraptions (he just wants them built more resourcefully). But I don’t buy it. Cars have some nice things going for them; they get you around, they keep you warm and dry, they have nice sound systems. But they are big and bulky contraptions that only make sense when the price you pay for gas is the extraction cost when it’s plentiful. The only time I really like driving is out on totally open roads, of which there seem to be few these days. Imagine life without (most) cars (it was the world of just 100 years ago).

Thoughts for the new year…

Have no fear!

This comes from a post at WorldChanging.com:

We can build a bright green society, one which will give our kids a future. We can build a much safer society, one which will increase our kids chances of growing up healthy to live in that future. By and large, the steps involved in building both are the same, and none of them involve color-coded terror alerts. The time has come to stop living in fear, and start building a better world.

Full post here.

Paul Stamets & Mushrooms

Mycelium Running

While in San Francisco last week, a highlight was a talk by Paul Stamets, a mushroom expert and author most recently of Mycelium Running, a summing up of his knowledge. Mycelium is the underground fungi network that is pervasive in nature, and it appears to have some amazing properties in terms of its role in creating healthy soil and perhaps even its ability to ‘digest’ toxic materials. I’ve just started the book, and it is truly mind-bending in its scope. Check it out!

The Upside of Down – Thomas Homer-Dixon (2006)

The Upside of Down

New book that is not exactly cheery about our global situation. Thomas Homer-Dixon does a nice job in “The Upside of Down” of synthesizing quite a lot of information, both current and historical, about change and crisis. He sees five “tectonic stresses” that we face today, including climate change, energy scarcity in oil, population pressure, and income gaps. His argument is that our overly complex and ‘brittle’ systems cannot withstand the pressures that will come to bear from these stresses.

His argument in part uses the Panarchy model, which describes cycles of growth, collapse and re-growth in ecosystems, and talks about how mature systems start to become so ‘efficient’ that they lose resilience and become liable to collapse. Homer-Dixon argues that we are getting to the same situation, where our long reliance on growth and efficiency are making our society less resilient to change, setting the stage for serious problems. His path out is probably a difficult one, but it involves making attempts to build resilience back into the system, through more localized and redundant capacity.

The historical parallels with Rome are interesting, as he paints a picture of a civilization that sucked resources from vast areas to feed the central system, and it ran into a decreasing return on investment for its efforts at getting food and fuel, until things broke down. He acknowledges that there are plenty of explanations for the decline of Rome, his being just one of them.

His book provides one of the few analyses of the downside of ‘economic growth’ that I’ve come across, and it does appear to be a vicious circle that we really have no viable alternative to at this point – a real surge of imagination is needed to point to a new model.

I’ll give Homer-Dixon the final words:  “We know that static, brittle systems don’t survive.  We also understand that in any complex adaptive system, breakdown, if limited, can be a key part of that system’s long-term resilience and renewal.”

World Changing!

WorldChanging book

The WorldChanging folks have their big book coming out very shortly, and are doing a book tour. The main Portland event is on Sunday, Oct 29 at the World Forestry Center at 6pm. More details here.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Saw the Al Gore powerpoint show the other day, and I thought he did a pretty good job of presenting the material without going over the top in alarmism. I know some critics have said he presents some data as more certain than it really is, and perhaps that’s the case, I don’t know.

What surprises me about the folks who “don’t go for” this whole global warming thing are several points; (1) they seem to think that doing anything at all will ‘destroy the economy’, (2) and that government can’t really do anything right anyway, and (3) that the market will sort it all out. Not quite a coherent position.

While I believe that some skepticism about climate models and human causation are in order, I do believe that there are government policies that could do some good at attempting to lessen the potential impacts of warming. For instance, not subsidizing housing built in low-lying, hurricane prone areas. Studying warming impacts on agriculture and disease. And increasing fuel standards and/or imposing a carbon tax.

Driving to heaven!

Here’s a great line from Kunstler:

Sometimes I think: if this nation could somehow harness the energy in all the smoke it blows up its own ass, we’d all be able to drive to heaven in Cadillac Escalades.

I too get pretty fed up with commentators who take this line with regard to the future:  they say, “let’s face reality, you’ll never get Americans out of their cars.”  As if cars are all just as much fun as we see in the advertisements, as if there’s never any traffic, as if commuting for two hours a day is some kind of fun.  Cars are, like, so twentieth century!