Thursday, January 31, 2008


This is a whimsically done distillation of the world as 100 people. It breaks down the world into numbers that we can comprehend and visualize. It's easy for me to get jaded about these things, since it's easy to see these things over and over again. But just because we see it over and over again doesn't mean there isn't some truth. I share this, because the animations are very amusing.

So using the analogy of proportionality, imagine this. If everyone in the world was to change their lifestyle to our average lifestyle, we'd need FIVE more Earths to make it happen. (Though accounting for only 5 percent of the world's population, Americans consume 26 percent of the world's energy. (American Almanac) - Do the math) Common sense dictates this is not possible, so we have a few options:

1) Be cynical and say, well guess it's a bummer if you don't live here. And resign yourself to the lottery of circumstance and consider yourself lucky.

2) Assume the world will become like us, with the obvious consequences of scarcity and rising prices.

3) Reduce our consumption to be proportional to our population. In effect figuring a way to cut 80% of our consumption. That's really hard.

The options don't look good, but once you look at the five earths problem, it makes you think we better find a way. So there is another path, and that is buying time instead of stuff. We got a big problem, and we're going to need time. So we have to consider all three until a fourth way reveals itself.

As the movie says, "Failure, it's not an option." and neither is doing nothing.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Things like this break your heart. You got to remind yourself that this is the exception not the rule.

You Expand to Your Surroundings....

A fascinating experiment at Alfred University in New York reveals our consumption impulses and how it's influenced by our surroundings. In this experiment Green Alfred removed dining trays from the cafeterias and they found out that students eat and waste less. The notion of an empty tray makes you want to fill it. This one step also ended up saving Alfred University money as well. Now remember, students could still go back and get more food, but lacking the initial space they didn't. Sometimes constraints are good.

I wouldn't be surprised if this must fill space, applies to other parts of our lives as well. When we buy a bigger house, we want to fill it, and buy more stuff. When we have a big refrigerator we want to fill it. So maybe small is good. We avoid choices when we can, and the constraint of choice forces the choices on us so we don't have to choose to choose.

Interestingly, our eyes may play a larger role in our assumed happiness than our feelings. Brian Wansink of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab explore mindless eatings, where the size of a plate influences how full you are. How odd. It's also odd that upstate New York seems to fixated on researching food and how we eat it. Perhaps because there is nothing else to do there (I speak with authority, as they said I did time). Wansink covers this in his book.

Sometimes we take more than we think we actually take. Understanding that about ourselves can help us be more green by being more mindful.

Billyuns and Billlyuns......

Stars? No, Plastic Bags!

This little nugget:

The Whole Foods decision is “a bold move, without a doubt,” said Allen Hershkowitz, director of the municipal waste program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He noted that Americans use 50 billion to 80 billion plastic bags a year.

came from a New York Times article on Whole Foods decision to ban plastic bags from all it's stores. A natural follow up to San Francisco's recent ban on plastic bags at larger stores, it's a welcome respite. I know that plastic bags pile up at my house mostly from my morning Wall Street Journal. But also from stores, I do my best to not get bags but they still pile up. I know from my recycling bin that paper bags add up as well so it's best to use reusables. Another interesting tidbit from that same article is:

In addition, he said, Whole Foods was given a test run of sorts when San Francisco banned plastic bags last year. The number of paper bags used in the San Francisco stores increased a mere 10 percent, he said, suggesting that some customers switched to reusable bags.

If you have high quality bags, they will get reused. Anyone who travels in New York City can attest to the tons of people who use the Bloomingdale's brown bags or the decorative "Met" bags. The probably with plastic bags is that they are almost designed to be single use. My suspicion is that the paper bags being so bulky people just end up buying a reusable one.

This is a positive move, an even better move is when you shop for an item or two and are heading to you car is simply say. No thanks, I'll carry it out in my hands.

Monday, January 28, 2008

From trendy to normal...

Today I had the privilege of listening and participating in a conversation with Chip Giller, the President and Founder of Grist an online magazine focusing on the environment that was founded in 1999. I was not familiar with Grist, though I had heard the name before, but I had never checked it out. It's a shame since I've lost a lot of time, but as they say better late than never. It's really interesting site that has a wide variety of content centered around the environment. For example there is an advice column that deals with the fun memorable questions all the way through analysis of candidate positions on the environment. It's large swath of content basically says, the environment touches almost every aspect of your life.

Giller, had a really provocative quote that resonated with me in that the goal is to move the environment from trendy to normal. Where environmentalism isn't a telegraphed activity, but one that is ingrained. He gave two examples that illustrate the change. The first is the wide acceptance of seat belts, just 30 years ago, people didn't wear seat belts often, and now it's the norm. The other example he gave was personal hygiene. It's hard to believe in an age of anti-bacterial everything that people use to rarely wash their hands. and now the reaction to not washing one's hands is ewww!

It's a nice way to think about it, we no longer think of unleaded gas, because that's what it is. That one step probably is responsible for 10 IQ points in the general populace and the improvements in our health and environment. The goal is normalcy, and Giller and Grist have revealed that we want actionable advice.

In the past I've had my 10 ways of going carless, and my Five For Footprint initiative and tips for going carfree. In other ways, I've focused on awareness, such as keeping a garbage diary to understand your garbage stream. One of the goals for the next year that I've already started on is the linkage between financial security and environmental impact. With luck, the two can buttress each other. Say goodbye to McMansions and more the "Not So Small House" and also understand the power of "Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle" consumerism and what that means both for jobs and for the planet. It's time for us to put Dream into Action since "Things can only get better."

Now it's personal.....

I have some personal afflictions that seem to contradict themselves. I really enjoy reading personal finance blogs and I am impressed by some of the wisdom that many have to offer. There are strong linkages between the personal finance movement, the voluntary simplicity movement and the environmental movement. My other affliction is my absolute love of food. I am always amazed by the sheer innovation in how simple ingredients can be combined to create phenomenal taste sensations. It's amazing when all my interests converge.

The first article concerns a sample of tuna in NYC Sushi restaurants that revealed excessive concentrations of mercury in sushi. Sushi is probably the reason that I cannot go deeply vegetarian. I really have to say O-Toro is as close to heaven that I will get while living, or for that matter ever. The fact that my indulgence in sushi might be jeopardizing my health makes it personal. I find it interesting that the people most afflicted with high mercury levels in their blood were the following:

The report found especially high levels among Asian New Yorkers, especially foreign-born Chinese, and people with high incomes. The report noted that Asians tend to eat more seafood, and it speculated that wealthier people favored fish, like swordfish and bluefin tuna, that happen to have higher mercury levels.

When you start getting personal with people with people with high incomes, change is sure to come.

As a personal aside, I try not to eat too much meat, and I don't consume beef. One of the reasons is that beef is incredibly inefficient, the amount of wheat needed to raise a cow is mind boggling, now this is old hat if you remember Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet you understand what the impact of beef is on the planet. Well the New York Times reminds us about a how the impact of a meat guzzling lifestyle in this article. Meat basically takes a lot of energy, it rides high on the food chain and it hoovers everything in it's path. The Times article illustrates the impact powerfully:

To put the energy-using demand of meat production into easy-to-understand terms, Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, calculated that if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius.

Our most cherished notions of sustenance are being challenged, we pollute what is scarce and valuable and we demand more but get less. Food if life, it's time to respect it as such and not just something to measure numerically. I remember one time I ate a piece of leather that proclaimed to be grilled pork at a restaurant, and I remarked to my dining companion that something died for this meal and the least we could have was honor it by cooking it properly. Sadly I let it go to waste as it was inedible. If we want meat we should emphasize quality of experience not quantity.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

New Frontier....

This post is best read with Donald Fagen's "New Fontier" playing in the background. The Wall Street Journal has a read on Aaron Wissner a High School Math teacher who has gone to extraordinary lengths to prepare for when we live in a peak oil world. He has stocked up provisions and started gardening in an effort for self sufficiency. In short he has gone off the grid. Are such measures the delusions of a worry wart. To each their own, but it does highlight something is that so much of our existence is predicated on cheap oil, even this computer that I'm using to type this.

Sometime low tech is best. My brother is doing an adventure race, and he's been buying supplies and one of the things that he purchased was a watch that had an altimeter and digital compass. I insisted that he purchase a good old fashion magentic compass as well. Because sometime the words "batteries not included" or worse "batteries not working" are not good words to hear. Oil and carbon consumption has become such a key part of our existence it's hard to remember how hard it is to live in a more clean way, as this quote that closed out the Journal article sums up nicely.

In the dining room, their son gurgled and cooed as Ms. Sager spooned baby food into his open mouth. "We're not there yet," she said. "It's easy to forget that growing your own food is a lot of work."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Space Wars.....

How much space do we need to move people around, this is a really amazing illustration:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Off to Switzerland...

My oh my how a year changes everything, just a year ago in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum, the focus was on climate change and a warm economic future. To give you a sense of the world view at the time according to the Financial Times of London

Big risks to global economy 'receding'

ower energy prices and a more stable US housing market have diminished risks in the global economy to the point where the world now has the "luxury" of worrying about mispriced financial markets, according to the new first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

John Lipsky told the Financial Times that financial market risks - including general high asset prices, an explosion of structured finance or unwise trading in the yen - were "less pressing than those we worried about a few months ago".

Reading that article, you wonder how could we be so wrong. More appropo for this blog is the realization that climate change is definitively off the table and that makes this blogger admittedly nervous. A slowing economy will no doubt moderate consumption, but there is a real danger that green technologies will lose big as they will be underpriced by more polluting alternatives whose Research and Development costs have already been amortized. A worse case scenario is that car dealers will start unloading bloating inventories of SUVs at a discount which will once again become popular because of the declining cost of gasoline due to the current economic climate.

Other concerns is that in an effort to jumpstart the economy, employment will target toward larger industrial efforts leading to more carbon production. It's a perverse form of Gresham's Law where the bad drive out the good.

The challenge now will be stimulating investment, an environmental new deal that focuses on projects to reclaim our waste. If we develop programs that re-engineer our waste flow, we'll be able to come out of this economic slump stronger both economically and environmentally. However, I also know that more pressing concerns of paying the bills will make it difficult for people to focus on the long view. I'll try to keep perspective

The focus at Davos may have changed because a new bear is at the door, we just have make sure we don't forget the other bear hasn't left.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Recreation Redux.....

This past weekend I headed up into the High Sierras for some ski happiness and for the three day weekend I was blessed with some amazing weather, better company and a whole lot of fun. In looking over the trail map, it was interesting to see how green Vail Resorts was by buying wind power credits to offset it's electricity consumption as detailed here. It'd be really easy to take potshots since skiing is such an ecologically challenging endeavor when one thinks about getting there, but I do think the symbolism hits home since winter sports rely much on natural beauty as part of the experience. And the views of Lake Tahoe were amazing.

Some interesting things that still struck me about skiing since I last went almost a decade ago.

- increasing use of petroleum products. In the old days there use to be metal hangers for your lift tickets, now it's plastic fasteners. When getting food, instead of paper plates, you often get styrofoam plates.

- the cars going to the mountains are much larger, SUVs are everywhere. In the past, the Subaru Outbacks were popular, now it's gigantic Tahoes and other megavehicles.

- skiing is much more popular, in the past the lift lines were as white as the slopes, now it's a multicultural mix. this is a good thing.

With luck we'll innovate better winter sports to be more green, though with the increase in temperatures, it's going to be harder to create ski areas.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Biohazard Zone and Idea House

Sorry I haven't been posting for awhile. I've been under the weather and not terribly green (well to be honest, I've been looking very green at times, but not because of ecofriendliness). The number of trees that have died to keep me in tissue is probably equivalent to many old growth forests. And tossing those tissues into compost probably would have created a biohazard zone.

Yeah, It's been yucky. Well prior to my descent into muckiness, I was able to visit Sunset Magazine's Idea House 2007 that showcased a lot of new green technologies. Some of them were very cool, at least to me such as using an endless pool in the middle of the house as a heat sink to keep heat for the evening. Though me being a swimmer probably biased that as well.

Some other things that were very cool was a water collection system that cycled rainwater and grey water for re-use as irrigation. A combination of solar photovoltaics and passive solar that used Ultraviolet for energy was very hot. And the fact that the passive solar array used UV meant that even in San Francisco foggy days, heating still took place.

There is a lot of mainstreaming of these technologies before they can go into wide use at a lower cost. It's sad that to take advantage of these green technologies means being rich and hate to break it to the world. There are more non-rich than rich.

Regardless of the cost, it's good they exist. The Sunset house admission is $20, and is a donation. However, you can also volunteer through One Brick and see the house and it's companion apartment as an appreciation for volunteering.

*** Programming note: I'll be sans computer and network for a few days so posting will be sparse. I hope that you are able to get Martin Luther King Jr. day off. Recent political events show how distasteful politics is and trying to claim and assign ownership for change is really a silly thing. The important thing is we try to make change for the good, and that means the work of many in the capacities and powers they have been entrusted with. On Monday, we remember that as a country we widely held values that were unchangeable, and now those most of us view think those values now look ridiculous. Take a moment on Monday to rethink our assumptions, and remember that together we have the power to change the world.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dante's iPherno

The New York Times Magazine has another article of interest this week. This one asks where do cell phones go to die and what happens to them in the afterlife. In a whimsical takeoff on Dante's Inferno Jon Mooallem explains where phones go from recycling to resale to the place it holds in our hearts. It also reveals how the little buggers may do more than annoy us when they don't work, but when they die.

In a study published last year, 34 recent-model cellphones were put through a standard E.P.A. test, simulating conditions inside a landfill. All of them leached hazardous amounts of lead — on average, more than 17 times the federal threshold for what constitutes hazardous waste. Under a stricter state of California test, they also leached four other metals above hazardous levels.

Yet we still crave these new things. I spent much time visiting websites trying to decide whether a k550i was in my future. And I'm trying to understand my insufferable craving for a flash based Macbook (Macworld starts tomorrow) there is a bit of deep insight that reveals itself

“Somewhere during the last 100 years, we learned to find refuge outside the species, in the silent embrace of manufactured objects,” Jonathan Chapman, a young product designer and theorist at the University of Brighton, writes in his book “Emotionally Durable Design.” But designers and consumers have snared themselves in an unsustainable trap, Chapman told me, since our affection for many high-tech objects is tied exclusively to their newness.

In our pursuit of newness we lose sense of the past, having worked on email for almost 10 years now, it amazes me that it is till plain old text that wins in communications. Nothing has supplanted the 168 character text message for it's elegance and immediacy. Sometimes it's the essence that transcends the newness. Yet we still hope that newness will solve our problems, Is there a link between that craving and our society's increasing singletudeness, that next year's model will solve all one's problems. Director Scott Hicks on the Charlie Rose on his movie Shine said that the movie was not about cure, which is an American obsession but on acceptance. That acceptance spring loads with a tension that exists for the desire for progress.

Mooallem forgets one place where cellphones lurk and that's in the limbo of many sock drawers where they neither are used, discarded, just merely forgotten.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Speaking of Values....

Harvard Psychology Professor and author Steven Pinker has a New York Times Magazine story about the biological origins of morality. Talk about heavy reading. I note this article for two reasons. One it seems to be an appropriate follow on to the recent posts about values. Since values reflect a "moral" position or sense of priority at least. The other is this closing quote:

And nowhere is moralization more of a hazard than in our greatest global challenge. The threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting. In many discussions, the cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere), and the solution is temperance (conservation) and expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling, if for no other reason than that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness. Though voluntary conservation may be one wedge in an effective carbon-reduction pie, the other wedges will have to be morally boring, like a carbon tax and new energy technologies, or even taboo, like nuclear power and deliberate manipulation of the ocean and atmosphere. Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

It begs the question that changes have to go beyond conscious decision, but unconscious as well. As much as I have been beating up my co-workers for their paper cup affections a more drastic solution may have to happen. A friend of mine's husband work at a firm where the kitchen has no disposable cups, just washable mugs. People don't complain they just use it as the default position. But as Pinker says, that just might be boring.

A computer with nine lives, well at least two.

The Economist has a very informative article about what to do with an old computer. In it, a classically anonymous correspondent tried out different free versions of the operating system Linux and found out they were quite usable.

Now, the same crowd that says the environment couldn't be improved because it goes against human nature and doesn't economically make sense is the same crowd that says people wouldn't work for free to create a high quality operating system. Yet, like a bumblebee it in fact does fly.

The Economist goes even further in offering to help old machines get in the homes of kids who don't have a computer.

Anyone wishing to contribute a superannuated machine to the cause (and who is prepared to pay the shipping cost to Los Angeles) should contact The Economist’s office in New York.

Voting and the Environment....

No this isn't a post about the political candidates. But it's an analogy post. There is a perverse logic about voting that given all the votes, your vote doesn't matter since your vote is just one of a huge number. But every so often, every vote and maybe your exact vote matters. People say the same thing about recycling, carpooling, bringing your own mug, that it doesn't matter. But who knows someday that paper cup you and you and you don't use will matter. That's a vote you can make every day.

While this isn't a post about political candidates, it is a post about voting and with the primaries coming up do vote, once it's more than the usual suspects showing up at the voting booth is when things will matter.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The stack of values....

I operate in a corporate context, it's what I do to pay the bills and build up a war chest to escape. The toughest thing about operating in a corporate world is that much of the things operate under a subtext, or under a set of values that are heavily coded under the rubric "professional". Now I often fall out of the range of those values and it made me wonder where does the conflict arise and it comes down to a simple proxy: paper cups.

At work we are big, and I mean BIG on disposables, we have a free coffee bar, lots of coffee cups and coffee lids every day. We have take out boxes for our food, and people use them even if they are sitting in the cafeteria. Now what was interesting is that most people don't care that they generate a lot of waste. Especially those in power in the high school politicky way that is a modern corporation. It's interesting, does the power of consumption translate to a willingness to take or assert power in all contexts. For me the problem is not that I can't use 3 cups a day, but something internally stops me. I bring my own mug. Does my guilt impede success.

Now how does that correlate with the stack of values, I was reading the Wall Street Journal yesterday (no article link today) and they were focusing on how executives dressed was costing them promotion opportunities. There are obviously brain cycles dedicated to seeing how employees dress in the minutia of fashion. But do executives ever think, "boy that person in accounting sure uses a lot of paper cups, we do have mugs?"

A stack of used throwaway coffee cups may not be a way to see how some one stacks up, but it could.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Lightbulbs, lightbulbs everywhere and here's why.

The Wall Street Journal has a limited time free article on the massive subsidization effort for Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) that the three largest investor owned utilities are undertaking in California. Basically the deal is the California Legislature has offered a carrot and a stick. If the utilities reduce Californian's energy expenditures then they get a bonus, if they don't they get penalized. In short they have seen the light.

Lighting is apparently responsible for 37% of electricity consumption, but it doesn't impact peak usage which is what determines how many power plants are built. The only hazard is that the cheaper you make something, often people use more of it. So let's hope that people don't add more lights and we're back to square one.

It's all about transparency....

The New York Times has a pair of articles that while seemingly unrelated capture the same concept. The first article covers the FTC investigating what exactly providers of Carbon Offsets are doing to offset emissions. The lack of standards and auditing makes it difficult to know whether you make a difference. It reminds me of the challenge charities have with demonstrating how much of dollars raised go to charity, big questions about making a difference.

The second article is about an experiment by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory of the Energy Department that installed intelligent power meters that would notify home owners when achieving their target home temperature would conflict with their target energy costs. The signal would then let users choose whether to change their target temperature to achieve the cost goals. The signals led to a 10% reduction in energy use.

What both stories focus on is the value of transparency in order to drive better outcomes. If we know what is happening, that feedback leads to better decisions. Where else can transparency in our carbon consumption lead to better behavior. A label on products indicating how much oil was needed to make it and ship it? We put food labels on all our food items for nutrition and that happened in my lifetime. Maybe we'll have carbon stickers on everything we buy in a few years?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Want to Feel Like a Rock Star?

Today on the CarFree Yahoo Group Mailing list, someone posted an article on valet parking for bicycles at the local CalTrain station. Caltrain is the arterial system that serves the San Francisco Peninsula linking San Francisco and San Jose together. It's a great program where you can get a free spot and free valet parking if there isn't space on the train. The service run by Warm Planet Bikes means keeping things cool.

I recommend checking out the article since it has a lot of bike friendly links.

What is normal?

My last post I said that advertising has had a normative effect on our aspirations, in that they have made our aspirations very similar. And that similar aspiration has been focused on house and home. Home ownership is the American dream and not just any home, but these days a big home. In fact if you have a small home people wonder about your success, because all around us we have large homes. The statistics bear this out, "according to the National Association of Home Builders and the U.S. Census Bureau, the average new home size has climbed from 2,080 square feet in 1990 to 2,324 square feet in 2001" And doing a quick search, the Boston Globe reports that in Wellsley homes of 4000 sq. ft. are now the norm. Now not everyone can live in Wellsley, Massachusetts but people would like large homes since they feel that's normal, and they buy where they can, usually far away but "accessible" via car.

Once they get there they realize the following:

1) more rooms means more furniture (more forests logged to furnish homes)
2) more rooms means more volume, which means more heating bills (more CO2 emissions)
3) more space, can only be built further away so that means more driving (more CO2 emissions)
4) more rooms means more carpet, which means more vacuuming.

You get the picture, having a big home and leaving all other parameters open means that you consume more not just in the house but in everything else.

So who made McMansions normal. It's our aspirations.

Aspire differently, and with less pollution we'll probably respire differently too.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

None of your Beeswax!

The New York Times has an article on the acquisition of Burt's Bees by Clorox and whether BB can keep it's green cred.

As companies try to greenwash themselves, it's hard to believe they will keep to the values that made the original company so special. Ben and Jerry's sale to unilever still is a wash. Stock Markets tend to maximize profit, and there is always a tradeoff that encounters pressure. We know that good companies can be good businesses. The question is are good profits enough, or do they want great profits?

If you want a perspective on why private ownership of a company makes a difference, check out Gary Erickson's Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business where explores the different roads taken and the tradeoffs involved as he grew Clif Bar to where it is today. Could you walk away from $60 Million, he did.

Why do we aspire?

To understand climate change, and our general impact on the environment, once has to understand our lifestyle. And more importantly why do we aspire to the lifestyle we do. I've been thinking about this a lot as I put together my personal goals for 2008. In formulating my own goals, I've been talking to other people. It's a great conversation to have in the new year. What are your resolutions and goals?

As an aside, I prefer goals over resolutions in that if you have an off day you have a chance to recover, where if you have a resolution, once it's broken it's broken. One of the interesting things that come out is that a lot of people have goals such as buy a house, or buy a bigger one. I was at a party talking to a friend and she is a real estate maven tracking the local market. She would like a nicer place, and she has a nice one already, but we all would like nicer. The other thing is that people aspire to be better, either with a raise or a new job (that often makes more money) presumably so they can buy more.

So why do we aspire to stuff? Though I have no data to back it up, I think we aspire for more stuff because mass media has normalized our aspirations. At one time I think people aspired to what their emotions wanted, but I think our emotions are shaped now by external forces. For instance, the American Dream is usually summarized as a home and that our kids are better off than we are. Implied is that our kids have better and or more stuff than we do. It's interesting that the American dream is described in terms of stuff, as opposed to in terms of freedom or liberty. When did that happen? How did it happen? I'm not sure, but I wonder. WIkipedia has an interesting overview of conceptions of the American dream. It's formal entry was actually in 1931, but there are precedents prior to that.

So getting back to the question at hand, as I look at my aspirations I realize that I probably don't resonate with the stuff economy for the reason that my aspirations tend toward mastery, and more stuff does not facilitate achieving those aspirations. For instance, I'd like to be a better writer, I'd like to be a better guitar player, I'd like to be a better athlete and a better friend and partner. I can fool myself that buying a better guitar will make me a better guitar player, or a newer bike will make me a better cyclist. But that's deception. I still have a long way to master those disciplines that the hardware will make nominal improvements. It will make me better, I am somewhat faster on my new bike, and I may ride a little more. But it's the time and effort, not the stuff that makes me better. Somehow, competency became my aspiration.

So what does that have to do with a carbon free society, everything. A shift from aspiring for materials to mastery will necessarily improve our world. I think it'll improve our society as well. In a future post I'll explore the impact of the aspiration for a larger home and the consequences it has on our carbon economy. It's surprising what a simple maximization equation results in an entire lifestyle.

What are your aspirations and why?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Is neat stuff really better than less stuff.... has an article on our urge to organize our increasingly growing amount of stuff. The premise is that you can control your life by better organization. The same thinking applies to our schedules as well. But that's a separate post. Why the huge growth in the organizing business? Well this quote says it all:

Annual consumer expenditures have almost doubled in the U.S. since 1990 to $8 trillion in 2006, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. "We've been through an orgy of getting, and now there's an orgy of storing," says Perry Reynolds, vice president of marketing at the International Housewares Association in Rosemont, Ill. The Commerce Department's November consumer-spending figures showed that purchases jumped 1.1% over October, the largest increase in 3½ years.

But coupled with this other story in today's WSJ titled "Consumer Bankruptcy Filings Rose 40% in '07" it says even more. Think the two are related just a bit.

There are going to be some rough seas ahead, think that 5000 sq ft McMansion is cheap to heat? Think again, oil just hit a record peak, and heating oil is to follow. If you won't do it for the planet or your children, be a little selfish and start acting for your pocketbook.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Garbage Diary Day 1 and 2: Cheating....

OK, I've been tracking my throwaways for the past two days on my mobile phone, and it's not pretty, but it's not particularly excessive either since most of the things have been small little things. But boy do they add up. In full disclosure I'm cheating a little bit since I have some stuff coming in from Amazon tomorrow that will be full of happy packaging goodness that will go into the paper recycle bin. Basically some cooking crap that I "need". Replacement for an old can opener (that can get added to the trash list), measuring cup, I've been cheating by eyeballing but baking is more science than art and a lasagna pan. And my one true indulgence of the mix, a 3 cup french press for coffee. As you can see, I'm living high on the hog. All that will have packaging and should be added to my list, but since I'm posting before I get it, it'll seem like less garbage. For two typical days this is what I threw away.

coffee creamer
coffee creamer
tissue from akery item
paper towel
wrapper from candy
paper towel
store flyer
penny saver
coupon pack
wine bottle
salad dressing bottle
coffee creamer
plastic plate
yogurt cup and cap
coffee creamer
wall street journal
taco salad shell
two napkins
post it note 1 x 1.5
toilet paper
disposable razor
2 tissues blow my nose
Plastic Wrap
tangerine peel
newspaper bag
pack of coupons from mail
post it note 1 x 1.5
wall street journal
plastic bag for freecycle item - someone took the item and left me the bag *sigh*

My wall street journal is probably the most bulky item I regularly throw away. I have secondary trash that is thrown my way by marketeers that I have to deal with. I need to figure out a way to get off the list, but the sad truth is that it works. I page through the circulars for my grocery list and I'm not likely to go online to look the stuff up.

Most of my other garbage relates to hygiene and food. I'm not a regular consumer of toys (defined as fun stuff) anymore. I'll be explaining that in a future post.

As for recyclability, most of my throwaways can be recycled, the exception being some food related stuff like coffee creamer cups I use in the morning and plastic wrap. I do a pretty good job of reusing plastic bags. Maybe excessively so.

Lessons and takeaways:

1. it's easy to toss things without thinking. A lot of items I had to consciously recall that I threw away.
2. Much of our waste is convenience food related, I know at work the free coffee spawns lots of paper cups. I tend to use my own cup, but if I didn't I'd have 3 - 4 cups or cans of stuff each day. Things like creamer and sugar packets for various reasons tend to be packaged, mostly for takeaway.
3. We have a lot of packaging. Things like that nasty plastic wrap, and large boxes for software relate to reducing shoplifting. Apple has done a great job in reducing their packaging but goods have to be requested from the salespeople as a result.
4. Standardization leads to a lot of waste. When shipping, there are a set number of box sizes. If it's mostly empty space, fill it with plastic bags filled with air or packing peanuts. You get a lot of waste in the form of cardboard, packing filler, etc.

The solution buy less, buy what you need, buy secondhand, borrow.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

What Makes People Happy?

It's a really big question to consider as we start the new year, since when you come to think about it. Supposedly our actions are our actions because it'll make us happy. However numerous studies reveal that despite the variance in average living standards, people are generally happy across countries of high and low living standards? If so, does this make our consumption meaningful? Could we live with less? These questions are explored by two academics. The first is Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman who is response to the Edge World Question: "WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT?" explores Easterlin Paradox which says good or bad we tend to adjust to a natural set point. If so should we expend the resources we do to improve our lives materially?

From the New York Time, Professor Jared Diamond asks What's Your Consumption Factor? that explores the impact of the disparity in consumption between the developed world and the developing world. The difference in resource consumption is a whopping 32 times, let me emphasize THIRTY-TWO TIMES. The consequences of us not changing are frightening, but not necessarily so. To quote Diamond:

Americans might object: there is no way we would sacrifice our living standards for the benefit of people in the rest of the world. Nevertheless, whether we get there willingly or not, we shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Given this knowledge, progress is not a matter of radical change but being willing ask ourselves "WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT?" And one candidate is that stuff equals happiness. Or alternatively, that real change requires real sacrifice. Change is possible, we just need to be open to the possibility that some ideas we hold are wrong.