Monday, December 31, 2007

A thought in closing for the old year....

The end of the year is a good time to reflect, though one should reflect every so often. This year has been a good one personally as I've accomplished a lot of my goals, despite some setbacks in my professional and personal life, I was able to bounce back. In addition to taking stock about what one did and did not do, it's also a time to ask how did my world view change.

Here in California, there's been a lot of debate about the housing crash that's happened or happening depending on your point of view. One of the myths of the past is that real estate prices only go up, we know now that's not true. It was repeated not as knowledge but as wishful thinking. A few prognosticators said that too many people were not being compensated for what is known as a "risk premium" That is getting returns beyond the norm for taking on more risk.

I'd argue that we are in a similar situation today with the environment and our current lifestyle in that we aren't properly taking into account the risks of our current lifestyle. It's very much akin to the "housing prices can go up" talk of the past few years. Just because we can't prove that things aren't going to get worse does not mean that it won't get worse. Atlanta is struggling with water challenges, something that many once believe could not happen.

So can we properly price for the risk we are taking with our planet. Most of the changes that we can start to implement in the form of "carbon wedges" are good things, such as using more economical forms of transport, more efficient appliances and lighting and eating less meat. These are replacements that once we're done we don't notice. If we are more prudent with our carbon expenditures, the benefit is that we are cleaner and more efficient. And who doesn't want a cleaner more efficient world.

I'm off to ring in the new year, best wishes in the new year and see you in 2008!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Let's Go All the Way....

Kelly Zito has a hilarious article in about Ari Derfel, a Berkeley (of course where else) Caterer who has kept every piece of trash that he has generated or composted the rest. And I mean everything, there was nothing half way about this experiment.

When Derfel hatched Project Trash Retention over dinner with friends in 2006, he decided to compost food, and hold onto all recyclable items (he also keeps garbage from vacations and backpacking trips). "If you're going to embark on this, there's no point if you're not going to go all the way," Derfel said, laughing.

A visit to his blog details the rules of what he's kept. Be forewarned some of it is in the yick! category and borders on TMI. In this past year, he's generated 96 cubic feet of garbage, which is pretty remarkable quarter cubic foot of trash. A good way to imagine that is only generating something the size of an old phone book a day.

I know I generate a lot more than that. One of the best quotes from the piece is:

"When we throw something away, what does 'away' mean?" said Derfel. "There's no such thing as 'away.' "

Rather, the trash bin is simply one stop in the life cycle of each item, Derfel says. Each thing we throw away has been produced somewhere, shipped to a store, entered the home, and then is sent somewhere else - using up water, oil and land.

I've read about experiments like this in the past, an it's a staple of classes in natural resources programs at colleges all over the country to keep the trash you generate for a week. But this takes it to another level.

CIC Challenge: Recycle things, buy less, but for now, try this, document everything you throw away each day for a week and see how much you through away. How many gum wrappers, bottles, cans, little half and half containers. How long is your list? How does it make you look at your trash differently?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Leadership in Motion....

The Wall Street Journal has an article about Portland, Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer and his bicycling habit. Blumenauer rides his bike to Capitol Hill daily, in all types of weather. Those who have been to Washington, DC in winter know what a feat that is. Blumenauer not also tirelessly rides his bike to work, he also tirelessly advocates bicycle rights such as making sure cyclists can partake of the subsidies that are often provided for car. Point of fact, he never applied for a parking permit. His other works include:

He launched the Congressional Bike Caucus, a bipartisan group that promotes public investment in cycling. In his early days, he tracked down Speaker Newt Gingrich in the House gym to pitch transit-fare subsidies for House workers. He got them. As the ranks of the Bicycle Caucus have grown -- there are now more than 170 members -- money for bike projects has grown, more than doubling during his time in office.

What a great role model for bicycling and reducing carbon emissions, and isn't being a role model what being a leader is all about.

And the circulation continues....

The AP has an article on the Freecycle(tm) phenomenon and it's increasing use. What surprises people is how may people are willing to give stuff away to others, but I think people are increasingly understanding the impact of stuff of all types in our lives. Not just the economic cost on our finances, the environmental impact on our planet, but also the mental cost in having to deal with it.

I think the movement to simplification is realizing that free has a cost, so you need to take a hard look at what gives you happiness. This is one of the tenets of the Your Money or Your Life program. One of the steps they recommend is to take stock of your possessions and your obligations and to understand what gives you happiness and what doesn't. What you find out is that much of your stuff actually degrades from your happiness.

An interesting thing about the stuff being given a new lease on life (Freecycle(tm) is trademarked and has been creating a lot of controversy for that. I can see both points, it reminds me of when Pat Riley trademarked "threepeat", if you are clever you should be acknowledged.) Is sometimes you get caught up in the hey it's free I should grab it, and then you realize hey I don't need it and what do you do, you offer it up again.

That's the beauty of the idea. There is also another way to think about it and that's community property, i.e. borrowing and using. That means stuff you own is utilized more fully. Good to see that community is being built while helping the earth.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Eloquoence always prevails...

It's a sad day when violence tries to prevail as it did today with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto today in Pakistan. I'm going to sidestep the issue of her politics and whether she was a good or bad leader, for that is left for history to debate. And frankly I am not qualified to speak on such matters for I am not a foreign policy expert and I have too many friends with much better formed opinions and stakes in the game than I do.

Instead I'll relate to something more personal, and that's the power of words and speech. Long time readers of this blog and my other writings can attest I hold high regard for the rhythms and reach of the word. Be it spoken or written, words have power and that's why eloquent speakers have always been targets. So it's sad when someone so masterful with words is taken down so violently.

Words have power, and they force discussion. This blog has never been a platform for edicts, but it's target has always been reflection for our problems are rarely so simplistic. When a side fails to be able to articulate its position in words, it relates to force as the fall back. Words also have the force of being independent of the speaker, giving them power beyond the material. Thomas Pynchon once wrote in words of support to Salman Rushdie after the fatwa was issued that "a death sentence is a rather harsh book review."

Now I normally would not write about non-environmental news events, but as a collegiate debater in the late 80s, we were familiar with Bhutto's distinct style and recognized a master practitioner. She was elected President of the famous Oxford Union debating club, and indication of the respect of her peers for her talents.

It is one thing to see someone speak from tape, it is another thing to see it in person as I did when I had the opportunity to meet Bhutto in person. This happened when I was covering her visit for a school magazine. She was charismatic, and she had the ability to think on her feet. (As an aside, I have to say the other people who I've seen speak in person in a live venue with similar gravitas are Steve Jobs and in a completely different style the Dali Lama -- the ability to see someone command a crowd with words is amazing).

The point of the post is not the words, but the power of words to move one to action, good and bad. Eloquence in words, eloquence in action, eloquence in living, our challenge lies in creating a better world, when the alternative is so much easier. Destruction and consumption are always cheaper alternatives to creation, but that only makes creation that much more valuable. The point of debate is not winning but understanding, consider our actions with reflection and the actions will have meaning, do it blindly and automatically and only waste is left behind.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Take a break from our regularly scheduled programming...

I'm recovering from a very fun evening of whiteboard pictionary. Which may or may not be ecologically sound. Substitute disposable paper for dry erase markers. Either way it was a lot of fun. Almost everyone who came to my little shindig carpooled, proving that you can have a lot of fun in a resource smart way. Yay! (sorry gimme rhyme had to take it). I ended up going to work, after guiltily admitting that I did a little Post Holiday shopping and bought a new pair of sunglasses since my last ones broke over the weekend.

However, perhaps I should have spent more time on the internet. I was reading GigaOm and he pointed me to an interesting website called The Story of Stuff a Flash movie with Annie Leonard that in an bullet style presentation talks about the lifestyle of stuff. It's actually pretty engaging since it's full of some really mind boggling facts. For instance?

  • 1% of what we buy is trashed within 6 months! That means we throw away tons of good stuff!

  • Consume twice as much as we did 50 years ago!

  • We get bombarded by 3000 advertisements a day!

  • The average American produces 4.5 pounds of garbage a day.

A lot of what Annie Leonard talks about is covered in the book Stuff that I wrote about earlier but cannot find the post.

So if you have a few minutes this holiday week this is definitely worth spending 20 minutes checking out. If you have some more time, you might also check out BBC's documentary "Century of the Self" that talks about the history of creation of public relations that explains much of our shopping desires:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The light you see is....

A CFL, an LED or the reflection of change. Some may say that today is special, and in many ways it is. But it is like every other day, an opportunity to make things better. The past year, the subject of the environment, climate change and better living has come to the forefront. There's a change in the language of prosperity, a shift from more to better.

Whether you are religious or not, today is a wonderful day to reflect and ask what does one do because it's the right thing to do, not necessarily because it benefits you. For today's not about the days you receive, it's about the difference you make. The gifts are stuff, it's the meaning behind that matters.

Right now, I'm taking a break from cleaning my apartment before other holiday stragglers away from home will stop by and we'll enjoy some snacks and stories. We'll head out for Chinese food later and than play some games. But before I get back to the chores, a small moment to wish you and yours a Happy Holiday.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Showing Holiday Cheer in the Christmas Landfill

The Holiday season is a very odd season, I do enjoy celebrating and the people getting together, reminiscing. Though to be honest New Years, Lunar New Year and Thanksgiving are more of my favorites probably because they have so much to do with food and drink. The reason it is odd, is that much of the season is obligatory in fashion which causes guilt, stress and a sense of owing. Now a lot of this seasons is about showing you care about those around you, and that is through gifting. I too fell in this trap, since there is someone dear to me that I decide to get a gift for. But I'm not sure I got a meaningful gift but I did want to get this person something. Ahhh the stress!

Now magnify this manyfold and you realize that there is a lot of stuff sitting around unused after the initial excitement has worn off, or in my case there are many things that I have left unopened. In fact I regifted one of them at a White Elephant exchange recently. Now much of this does end up getting tossed in landfills, and it also took the energy to make and dispose of these items. This is so apparent when you go to Target or Macy's or JC Pennys' and they have sectioned dedicated to gifts for him (which is all novelty stuff that is going to break or pile up. (my favorite thing that made me go ugg is this towel warmer Electric generated heat is crap efficiency, and to me the fewer electrical plugs near water sources is generally a good policy).

The same happens in corporate settings. A lot of my jobs have been in places that specialize in corporate chotkes. This year we received a very nice gift, I just can't bear to wear it, since I have an equally nice one that still has a lot of life in it. (There is something to be said for giving cash since it can be used for what you need, but with me I just put it in the bank, so I do believe in helping people enjoy life in some way).

Now I've suggested about the damage that this stuff does to the planet, since it is resource based and it's not renewable or consumable in most case. It's interesting to see that many of the people who are completely trapped in debt, also feel they have to get gifts for others even though they are the least able to afford it. So they increase their stress. It's as if they feel a need to prove their care (and I think I fell into that above as I mentioned). It gets even worse when people feel they have to buy season specific decorations every year. Because there are new latest and greatest decorations. (For instance, is buying an LED based Christmas lights better than keeping your old ones. Tough call. But if the old ones go into the landfill, I say pass. The energy difference I haven't calculated, but I think it's negligible.)

Now gift giving is a major part of the human condition, in fact it may be ingrained in our primal sense. Animals will bring a token of food to a prospective mate. So are there ways to celebrate the season and show your care without bankrupting yourself or the earth. The Chinese give red envelopes of cash, I think there might be something better (and I'm not talking gift cards). Thoughts?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A simple kind of life....

"I don't know how it got to this point.
Now all those simple things are simply too complicated for my life
How'd I get so faithful to my freedom?
A selfish kind of life
When all I ever wanted was the simple things
A simple kind of life "

-No Doubt, "A Simple Kind of Life"

Paul Krugman demonstrates the power of "a picture is worth a thousand words" in his blog post which share a graph he created based on the data in this post and I insert it here:

Krugman fails to label the axis but the horizontal axis is years since the Kyoto accord and the vertical is the metric tons of CO2 emissions created by different countries. I won't comment on the graph or what it means. It's pretty self explanatory about the trends. But continuing this theme about lifestyle and the environment the question is why?

The NY Times has a series of series of articles on China choking on growth. One of the culprits in China's industrial drive is to service us and the rest of the world with cheap products. When raw materials are commodities and effectively the same price, the differentiator is labor. And China has a lot of it. I will never forget a conversation I had with a man working on a construction project in China and he described a story of how he was going to bring in some expensive equipment to some excavation and the local foreman said no way. He would call up men in a week to do it and cheaper, and sure enough thousands of men showed up to do the excavation.

China has been industrializing all the dirty things we no longer will do ourselves, and we drive them with our desire for cheap products. And we want more and more, but what's the kicker is as much as they are building for us. They are building for themselves too. They want cheap products too. So production is increased, and all the associated emissions that come with it. Today, a car is the Chinese dream. They are replicating us with the same factories for themselves.

If we're to be able to get them to buy more efficient goods, we have to insist on more efficient good from them for them and for us. All those simple things that we want, they want. Or as No Doubt says "all those simple things are simply too complicated for my life. How'd I get so faithful to my freedom? A selfish kind of life"

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cell Phone a La Mode.

An article about planned obsolescence is about as original a posting as one on legalizing drugs. So I'll talk about a related topic, fashion. Think about it, it use to be that electronic goods become obsolete for utility reasons, but instead for fashion reasons. Most of the functionality is the same, it's just packaged differently and called new and transformed into the must have item. If anything, it's probably the best indicator that an industry is mature is when Pink becomes an innovative feature.

Modern technology has created the equivalent of fashion seasons for technologies and with it the need to discard something not because it doesn't work well enough, but because it reflects the past. I've always been amazed by women's fashions and how one season make the past one passe. Which is just another word for obsolete.

So where do obsolete clothes and so last years cell phone go? Well, depending of the tech gadget, maybe out of your wallet and later to a landfill. There has to be a better way, and Ars Technica has a post on a new service called Second Rotation that will buy up your old tech goods. Second Rotation then refurbishes them for sale to the less fashion conscious (ehmm people like me).

Not a bad idea to bolster the Reuse part of the green mantra. Now only if we could figure out a way to get rid of my skinny tie from the 80s?

Food or Fuel which do you choose?

If the Carbon Crisis is a result of over consumption, then one needs to think about the food. One of the simplest way to reduce carbon impact is a particularly hard one in the U.S. and that is reducing your consumption of meat. Meat ounce for ounce takes a lot more energy to produce, a steer needs many times it's weight to be ready for the butcher. To understand the direct relationship between food and energy, think about the current trade off covered in this New York Times article detailing the clash between corn for ethanol and corn for feed.

There are numerous benefits to cutting your meat consumption such as increased fiber, general loss of weight and better balance of vitamins. However in our meat based market it's tough. I try to take a five for footprint approach to my meat consumption, at times excluding entirely and other times reducing it to once in a while.

What is scary is that in terms of finance, food and fuel are rarely discretionary, living far away and relying on processed food tells me that there will be a pinch in our pocketbooks. This may be a good thing if you believe economists that is what motivates change.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A slightly new direction....

If you could see me right now, I'm looking between two computer screens trying to figure out where to take this blog. I started out this blog when I had a car accident and embarked on an experiment leading a carfree life. At that time, the blog was called, "Car(e)free in California" to capture the carefree nature of being carfree. Of course that was wishful thinking. Since sadly in California being carfree it is very difficult to be carefree since most everything needs a car to get to. Even things like going to the mall. I did find out that my lifestyle of living close to work, did make my work experience plausible, what it did not do was make my social life possible and I capitulated and bought a car. I can say that after 15 months of car ownership, I have yet to hit 12,000 miles of driving way below the average. But still driving.

I ended up morphing the blog into "Car(bon)free in California" to explore climate change and reducing one's carbon impact. And this is where we are today. I keep an electronic notepad with story ideas. And I have a lot about driving and alternatives, but also visible is a theme on the relationship between financial insecurity and carbon footprint.

It's been an observation that those who live the most extravagant lives, also live lives of debt and financial worry. Think about all the expensive sports cars and SUVs and the financing required for that. Or all the McMansions that have endless amounts of square footage making people worry about not only their mortgage payments but how they are going to afford their utility bills.

In the short term, I'll be changing the focus of the blog in subtle ways, exploring the personal financial impact of a carbon footprint. I have a lot of posts about carbon free living, and will continue to scour the web for articles relating to climate change. If you think about it. The rest of the world aspires to our lifestyle, and that is a consumer lifestyle.

Does living carbonfree mean living more free, free of worry, free of fear, free of stress? Let's explore....

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Behind the Curve....

In Friday's Wall Street Journal, Robert Lee Hotz, the new "Science Journal" columnist for the WSJ writes (free for a few days, but hey maybe Uncle Murdy will act on his thoughts of freeing up the online WSJ) about the Keeling Curve which may perhaps become the most iconic of graphs in the climate change debate. The Keeling Curve charts the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and it is undisputedly growing as you can see below.

keeling curve

One of the scary things about this chart is how clear the data is, now I don't have the raw data, but you can extrapolate that CO2 concentration is going to increase, and even by how much. In the trade, we call that good science, you can make predictions with it. Now many on the no climate change is happening side say show me the data, well here it is.

Human success is a very strange thing, often it is our reluctance to face the facts that allow us to excel think the Wright brothers and man made flight, or that housing always goes up the subprime debacle. The trick is knowing the difference. Schopenhauer had many great quotes this seems very apt...

"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident." Let's hope that we get ahead of the curve and accept it before there is no choice.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Counter In-tube-itive

Sometimes you can just be down right wrong, and it's time to fess up. I've been advocating and recommending to my friends and neighbors to consider moving to an LCD flat panel display because it's been my understanding that LCDs are more energy efficient that their tube counterpart. I may still be right, in that perhaps on a square inch to square inch basis LCDs may be more efficient. I need to confirm. But if you read this interesting Wall Street Journal piece (good for 6 days, no permalink to be found) one needs to remember that people are upgrading to much larger screens.

A 28-inch conventional television set containing a cathode-ray picture tube, or CRT, for example, often uses about 100 watts of electricity. A 42-inch LCD set, a typical upgrade item, requires about twice that amount of electricity. But the real beast is the plasma set. A 42-inch model often sucks up 200 to 500 watts, and a 60-plus-inch plasma screen can consume 500 to 600 watts, depending on the model and programming, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

So net net, more to quote the eternal words "More Power!" And don't even talk about plasmas? Those are the mega-energy hogs. Another way to think about is that plasma displays are like giant neon lights. Speaking of which which casino in Las Vegas will be the first to use LED for their signs, maybe it's already happened.

I had dinner with a friend (who will never read this blog, so I can bring him up) who recently bought a 52 inch monster, obviously I'm working at the wrong company since I can't afford such a beast. But the kicker is everyone in his office is looking at the same. Do I see a perfect storm of energy rationing coming up?

But to get back to the matter at hand, here are some interesting things to think about...

"What scares us is the prices for plasma sets are dropping so fast that people are saying, why get a 42-inch plasma set when you can get a 60-inch or 64-inch one," says Tom Reddoch, director of energy efficiency for the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute's laboratory in Knoxville, Tenn., an independent organization that advises the utility sector. "They have no idea how much electricity these things consume."

Now in full disclosure, I don't have a TV, though I can watch some television over the air using my computer LCD monitor. I have caught the Wii bug and I am seriously thinking of getting a TV/upgrade monitor to go with it. But my inability to get a Wii may take care of that desire.

I close with a remembrance of one of my favorite movies and a scene about TV, in the movie Smoke William Hurt plays a writer who catches the game on a tiny black and white TV with bad reception, wearing a baseball cap, and in that simplicity he still looks happy.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Consumption Conundrum...

I've been meaning to save this post for awhile, but the New York Times has an interesting piece on eco-shopping. And how green is being marketed as better for the planet, but on balance is it true. At the root of our economy and our existence is consumption. It's unavoidable. If you don't consume you don't live. It's like eating, which in itself is an act of consumption. But like eating, if you eat too much it has dire consequences.

So much of what is sold as Green is like diet products, they are products meant to act as a suitable substitute instead of refraining or choosing a better alternative. Is it better to have one regular oreo or three fat free ones. There is a metabolic answer (which can be equivalent if both have the same amount) and then there is for lack of a better word, a moral answer. Not so much couched in terms of right and wrong, but more in elegance.

Are all these green goods just false actions. We need to buy, we need to consume, but can we in any meaningful way consume responsibly to our current values, it truly is a consumption conundrum.

Think about it. How many purchases are meant to rectify things, instead of improve things. The Nobel Prize winning physicist Arno Penzias made an observation that the internet does make people more equal, it just amplifies existing differences. I'm paraphrasing, but the money quote was that if you don't know where you are going, having a sports card just means you get lost faster and over a larger area. Sports cars are great, but we've got to start figuring out where were going.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Salad Days for Going Green or do as San Francisco Does?

I trawl around looking for neat tidbits about green living and sometimes they come from the most interesting places. I do love food, and I'm a regular reader of Michael Bauer's Blog in the San Francisco Chronicle website. Today he has a really good blog post about a tidbit from Nielsen Research's Phil Lempert, called Why San Francisco's ban on plastic grocery bags is important? where he discusses the impact that San Francisco's plastic bag ban will have. There are two really interesting facts that come from Lempert's post:

In San Francisco alone, last year there were about 180 million plastic shopping bags distributed -- which, according to the San Francisco Department of the Environment and Worldwatch Institute took roughly 774,000 gallons of oil to produce.

that's a mind boggling statistic. Think about it, if the S.F. population is 744,000 (U.S. Censue estimates) and it's not a particular large city, think of places like New York and Los Angeles. Let me put into some other terms, the cost of the raw oil for those plastic bags is 1.7 Million dollars at $94 a barrel of oil. Anotherinteresting tidbit about what Britain's Tesco is doing with reusable bags:

While the opposition to the ban cite higher prices for consumers, that tact just isn't going to work this time. I know of no shopper who actually finds the typical plastic bag useful or comfortable. We have lived with them when we have no choice. But choices are abundant. Reusable canvas totes, compostable bags made from corn starch, paper bags made from recycled paper are all better options. Tesco's new Fresh & Easy stores actually offer shoppers canvas tote bags "for life" after the initial purchase price of $1 -- they will replace it for free if it breaks.

Now Tesco is often compared with the same disdain that many on this side of the pond hold for Wal-Mart, but it is interesting to see the leadership position they are taking. We see the same with stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. The other day I saw Safeway with a bag of their own highlighting their "Organics" label.

I find it difficult now to not grocery shop without my O'Reilly and Associates Mac OS X conference bag, yes it tags me as a geek, but then you can't fight your inner nature. :) People internalize the habit of having their bag, and bags are available when needed. I only wish my newspaper would stop using the plastic bags.

I hope Lempert is right that this is the start of a trend....


Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Get Social, Get Solar.....

Here in the Silicon Valley, everyone is into social networking. Which to me begs the question, can you have an anti-social network? Everyone wants to get connected? Well how about connecting with your neighbors to connect with the grid, and bringing the sun in for a little light? Well that's the idea behind SolarCity's community Solar Programs. I heard about this program at a talk, and this is how it works. You get your neighbors together and you can get SolarCity's consulting and installation services at a bulk discount.

You also benefit in that the community shares the same exposure and property value lift, where uniformity seems to be a premium. You get economies of scale and that means better economy for everyone. Sadly the price is not cheap, right now the cities who are participating have very high household incomes, but like luxury car features, hopefully it'll go down market soon.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Brr it's cold, have you greensulated?

I have to admit while my new job is not perfect (but no job ever is) , it's nice to be a place that supports the environment in ways that it can besides Press Releases. I do feel there is a sincere effort. We have a "Green Team" that meets every so often, and members take on projects in addition to their work to make company a better global citizen. Running a business can be wasteful if you let it be.

At our most recent Green Team meetings we the president of a company called Greensulate that is a design and consulting firm based out of New York that specializes in green roofs and walls. These are gardens hat are built into the roof or walls so that they become the roof or wall. From their website the advantages are more succinctly listed than I can do so I quote:

Other benefits of green roofs and green walls:

Cut noise=less noise pollution.
Reduce CO2=cut green house gases.
Storm water capture=act as a sponge and filter for pollution and storm run-off.
Decrease urban heat island effect =cooler cities use less energy.
Green roofs make people happy=studies show green roofs increase productivity and decrease absenteeism.
Decrease energy use=cut energy costs up to 50% as summer temperature goes down 6-8 degrees in green roofed buildings.

I've been interested in Green Roofs for awhile, the psychological benefits are often overlooked. I remember hearing about factory workers at Ford who loved working in a roof where there were birds. Best of all the roof made economic sense since it lowered the cost of water treatment and waste, so there is no sacrifice, just different maintenance duties. More details can be found here.

Closer to home, well at least my home, is the new California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park that features a green roof as well, The San Francisco Chronicle has a great article here. Now green roofs may not be right for everywhere, but it's good to be aware of the options.

I leave this post with something to think about, many of our zoning guidelines are targeted at preservation of property value, but it also restricts choice. Also, sadly much of our zoning rules also are responsible for societal architecture that encourages CO2 creation in the form of the automobile as primary transport. Another thing is the restriction to a few building material types ruling out options such as green roofs. As our elections come up in the next year, think of candidates who consider the living value not just property value of their decisions.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Is Stuff Happiness?

Madeline Bunting over at the Guardian has a great column titled Eat, drink and be miserable: the true cost of our addiction to shopping that explores our growth economy and it's limitations. It explores the question by highlighting some introducing studies about the effects of wealth and happiness. I'll just quote Bunting:

But there is a madness at the heart of this economic model with its terrible environmental costs. It's best illustrated by a graph used by the US psychologist Tim Kasser at a Whitehall seminar last week. One line, representing personal income, has soared over the past 40 years; the other line marks those who describe themselves as "very happy", and has remained the same. The gap between the two yawns ever wider. All this consumption is not necessary to our happiness.

Now it's clear that stuff isn't critical to being happy, there are many cultures in hunter gatherer cultures where people surveyed are as happy or more than more affluent cultures. So why the gap?

I think much of the resource waste of our economy and unhappiness is a result of what I'm calling the "Promise Economy" Let me start with a confession, I am complete glutton in many ways. I love food, I love dining, I love trying new experiences and I love cool gadgets. I'm in no ways anti-stuff. My house is a cluttered mess of books, papers, electronic gadgets and some of it does get used, but most does not. But all of it was bought with the promise that it would make my life better. And it was sold on that promise that my life would be better. But in most cases, it failed on that promise. Leading to disappointment, and to a certain degree of unhappiness. And the cycle repeats as I look for the item that will make me happy, and buy variants of the same item hoping for that divine moment. So it's not me, but that so much of the stuff we buy is crap, we buy on hope. When we buy truly good stuff it can make us happy.

The reason stuff makes us unhappy is that so much of consumer goods are sold in ridiculous ways, drinking a particular brand of light beer is not going to you the hot girl of the TV commercials. And when it doesn't you're bummed. We expect so much of our consumer goods, and when it fails we look for something else discarding what we just picked up. No wonder why so much consumer culture is sad, it's not because we are satisfied but that we are perpetually disappointed. It reminds me of a saying of an old girlfriend who often would say "the key to happiness is low expectations and comfortable shoes"

This post has rambled on a little longer than expected, but maybe a more concrete example might show what I mean. I have bought many a MP3 player over the years, I bought the Rio, an MP3 player that looked like a cassette that you could play in your cassette player and each time I was disappointed. All of them had the promise of making my life better, but all failed miserably. I eventually bought an iPod, and it worked at a level that was divine. It made me happy because it gave me an experience that I was desiring. It could be argued that all the previous ones I bought were crap, and that my expectations were low that I was pleasantly surprised. While the iPod was great, it wasn't perfect. I later bought an iPod Nano which ironically had less memory, but made me happier since it was smaller and more portable. Sadly for Apple I have no interest in buying a replacement for a long long time. Don't worry a new MacBook is on the horizon.

If you are going to create a goods economy, please try to aim for good stuff. The earth will thank you since there will be less waste.

P.S. Don't worry, once disappointed I try to sell my technology as fast as possible so it doesn't clutter my life and someone gets disappointed with a used item instead of a new one. Meaning less overall crap in the world.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Loving Green! Or at least marrying green....

Talk about unintended consequences! The National Academy of Sciences just released a report in their latest proceedings that found out that divorced people consume 46% more electricity than married people. The LA Times has the story about the study. The obvious thing is that if you have a light bulb on and there are two people in the room, obviously the per capita electricity use is lower. The same could be said for density in cities vs. the suburbs. Aside from being a duh piece of research, it got me thinking about are there other reasons for the increased energy use. It also got me thinking that fewer and fewer people are getting married these days. Much to my mother's consternation I'm one of them.

So does loneliness foster energy use. Of my single friends, I do have to say that they do watch more TV than most people I know. TVs are incredibly energy drains, especially the mega large tube TVs of the past. (If that's not a plug to get a new flatscreen, I don't know what is). I know that many of my single friends tend to bounce around a lot more, I know I do. That extra consumption of fuel doesn't do wonders to the carbon footprint? I know my single friends spend a lot more time on their computers. Heck I do, of course maybe spending all that time in front of the computer is why they are single. Maybe I should finish up this post and get out.

The article does mention one thing that is non-obvious is that it's not so much the state of marriage that is good, but it's that you co-habit a space and amortize your carbon consumption over multiple people. Perhaps revisiting shared housing, is a way to turn the balance back to single people in the carbon calculation. I did enjoy sharing a house during the dot-com bust, it felt a lot like college with cool conversations, impromptu dinners.

Oh well, carbon free may mean spending more time on Yahoo Personals. Got to run.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

If you can see it does it make it more real?

A post that has been going around the bloggosphere has been posting a commercial from Victoria State in Australia that effectively illustrates the amount green house gases you create with your daily actions. Originally posted by Saul Griffith at his blog. I won't describe it too much, you should see it for yourself.

As human beings we tend to believe things that we see, such as the old adage "seeing is believing" or at least until we know better. How many of us doubt that germs and viruses exist, even though we cannot see them? The same is true of greenhouse gases. Well maybe we can't see things the way we do in the commercial, but there are other ways to see our impact. One is during when we get our monthly electricity bill. But that's hard to connect with our actions. P3 International has the Kill-A-Watt Electricity Usage Meter that lets you see the drain your different electrical products use. It makes you aware of the phantom power all over the home.

I've tried to get better about turning off things like my computer when I leave even though it aggravates me waiting for it to boot up. But I also know that every little bit helps, sometimes I'm actually even successful.

I leave with this thought, if a watt is saved in your house and no one sees it, does it matter. You bet it does.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The housing crisis and carbonfree.....

It seems to be everywhere stories about the housing crisis. A lot of the articles focus on the economic and financial damage that is happening with the increasing number of subprime loans defaulting and the impending defaults that are coming when loans reset to a higher interest rate. While I am extremely interested in matters financial, I thought I'd take some time to explore some of the consequences of the past few years of housing appreciation.

It is no secret that houses got more expensive, but one thing that is often overlooked is that houses also got larger, a lot larger that the word "McMansion" entered the popular lexicon. With the free flow of lending money, builders built larger homes in order to reap larger margins, and now it's time for the bill to be paid. The environmental impact of these houses is just starting to be felt, most of these homes due to their size were built further away from city centers and require an automobile to live there. My last post on "walk score" can highlight that, if you look at most new developments built in the last five years, I'm sure you'll find that most have a very low walk score.

In addition to their larger size, these new homes require more energy to maintain. More room, more electricity and gas heating. This is exacerbated in that many of these new homes have vaulted ceilings where the heat hides. Someone once told me that the French aristocracy fell in part due to the excessive expenses in maintaining their estates. With the cost of fuel oil increasing, heating homes will be both environmentally and financially costly. It's easier to expand a home than to shrink it, so we're going to be living with these mega-homes for a long time.

Lastly, larger homes have more rooms to be furnished leading to more consumption and resources for rooms that are never used. How many times does one use a living room vs a family room?

The housing boom of the past five years is only now being felt, and I don't think it's going to tickle.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

"Money for Nothing"

The New York Times has an article by Matthew Wald about a recently published report by the McKinsey Consulting firm that says that the U.S. could reduce it's carbon emissions using technologies that have been around for 20 years.

One of my favorite quotes from the executive summary is that:

Almost 40 percent of the abatement could be achieved at "negative" marginal costs, meaning that investing in these options would generate positive economic returns over their lifecycle.

Money for nothing, what's not to like. It gets even better in that these changes do not require substantial lifestyle changes. However barriers remain, most of the reason these technologies are not used is that incentives are misaligned in the form that structural costs are borne by the builder, while the cost is borne by the occupier. Aligning these or mandating through codes would redistribute the costs.

We tend to decry regulation in America, and I'm not a big person for government intrusion, but I do believe in rules that level the playing field and remove the "free rider" problem. Everytime someone proposes banning something, industry goes you'll destroy the industry. It happened with unleaded gasoline (a move that some researchers claim is responsible for a 10 point gain in IQ), or in the TV world the mandated support for closed captioning or the v-chip. All these industries survived.

Energy efficiency is good business. Duh!