Friday, February 29, 2008

Cars Uncool, say it isn't so. Youth Worldwide say it is!

The Wall Street Journal says in an article that youth in Japanese are shunning cars, and car makers there are trying to figure out why. Cars traditionally have been symbols of status and freedom, but in recent years have been associated with new values and ideas. A telling insight is the following:

Nissan designers interviewed 16-to-20-year-olds four years ago in Japan, the U.S., Europe and China to grasp how cars fit into their lives. They were surprised to find that many youths world-wide felt cars were unnecessary and even uncool because they pollute and cause congestion, Mr. Bancon says. The feeling was particularly strong in Tokyo, where computers and Internet access are widely available and where mass transit is inexpensive and reliable -- making the car makers' predicament worse here than in many other parts of the world.

In an earlier post I wrote about how technology is making mass transit an option, and here is data that confirms that. However, as much as the youth associate cars with new values, it may be the realities of the new world that move older drivers to change their driving habits, as the suburbs that cars enabled become uninhabitable due to increasing energy costs. The Atlantic in this month's issue askswhether the suburbs as the next slums. As mortgage defaults create ghost towns. The article asks "If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban living may not be much of a bargain in the future." Starting off as a young adult is hard, and living in the suburbs with a car with the new costs make it that much more so.

The car as the base unit of existence is being challenged, it'll be interesting to see what the youth of the world choose for their world. We've already chosen ours.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Now what were we saving again?

The Wall Street Journal has an article from the unintended consequences department. It highlights a recent study from University of California Santa Barbara on energy consumption when Daylight Savings goes into effect finding that energy consumption rises. While there is more daylight, those savings are offset by the need for heat in the morning and longer periods of time for air conditioning. What made sense in Benjamin Franklin's day, has changed with the advent of modern technology.

If global warming is regularly noticeable (the stats say the average is going up, but that does not necessarily translate that we can notice it), will we find out that with more day, we will have more air conditioning because it's hotter, and then the feedback look continues? Let's hope not. Though you have to be amazed at the number of places that could not exist before the advent of air conditioning, think Phoenix or Las Vegas.

I'll pay you to be green...

The Wall Street Journal has an article about employers who are offering perks to encourage employees to be green. Some of the perks include subsides for trading in your car to buy one that is more gas efficient, allowing employees to buy CFL light bulbs at company rates and even grants to make your home more energy efficient.

I think this has a lot of power if it's done sincerely, of course they had some snarky consultant explaining how it's good business. However, I like the story of the CEO who just couldn't bear to see his employees coming into work alone in large SUVs and decided to so something about it. In the article Gillan Taddune, the Texas based Green Mountain Energy's chief environmental officer put it's this way.

"People in general get overwhelmed when they hear about glaciers melting," she says. "I think companies can help [employees] do things in ways they can sustain."

Sometimes I get by with a little help from my boss.

paper progress....

i decided to get a donut while waiting for the train. everyone should have a bad habit or five, donuts are mine. the local grocery store only had paper bags and i remembered san francisco had banned plastic bags. seems like commerce still moves on. imagine that.

ahh the thrills of being green.

today i had a dinner i had to attend to for work. and being green and being fortunate to work at a company that offers a shuttle between san francisco and work, so i took the shuttle to my dinner and even got some work done on my laptop. another motivator was that traffic sucks and i hate being stuck in traffic more than about anything else.

however i still had to get back home after my dinner. i had it all planned that i would grab a drink with a friend and then take the train down and take light rail, and walk to my car. whoops. i misread the time table and missed my train meaning i'm on a later train that will get me home much later than i would like. oh well. so i'm on the train now writing this blog post on my phone.

so this brings up an interesting observation. technology can help change how we travel. before the advent of laptops and smartphones this would be reading time. instead it's blogging time. a retrofitting of our mass transit system can make it more appealing. i look around me and people have their laptops and phones during this ride.

unfortunately, mass transit has to be more frequent to be effective. i suffered a one hour penalty for missing my train. people's lives are unpredictable and being stuck is not an alternative most people will accept.

*** epilogue

Well I finally made it home, when I got to the train station it turned out that the last light rail was almost a half hour away, and that would mean I would get home after midnight and I had some things remaining to do. I'm so glad that tomorrow morning is my rest day so no practice. I ended up taking the taxi to my home a few miles away, not cheap for the journey but it was too late to argue. One thing I love about New York City is the frequent mass transit even late at night, most people are not willing to trade time if it's too much of a pain, even with lots of technology.

walking the walk is really hard, especially if walking means you're late.

Friday, February 22, 2008


A lot has been happening this past week, so this blog is slightly out of time. The other day a friend of mine and I will often go out for Indian Take Away and eat it at my place and get caught up. We usually have a good bottle of wine to go with it. It's a fairly inexpensive way to get caught up and have a better than average meal.

It's usually pretty straight forward, make a call on the telephone, drive over for pick up and come back. This time I was surprised by the take out containers they gave me. In the past the containers have been the "Chinese Take out" white boxes, paper goods and fairly disposable. This time, they were plastic containers like margarine. I was thinking, nice upgrade but dang, how are these going to biodegrade? I know that most people are just going to throw these away and they will last forever. Most likely the paper ones would too, since landfills lack the oxygen and bacteria to make them disappear. But there was at least a chance. Also, the paper comes from renewable resources where as the plastic ones come from dino juice. So I washed them and I have them in my cupboard with the rest of the containers I've picked up over time.

It got me thinking that in our take away packaging we've started using more plastic? Why is that? Later this week I went to a potluck, and being overly busy people a lot of the attendees did take away, and there was a lot of plastic containers. I ended up taking some of the leftovers home including an industrial strength take away box. Now I still have this "doggie bag" plastic container from 3 years ago that I packed in my suitcase from a business trip since it had so much utility and I use it a lot still.

Is this really progress. Thankfully some things remain the same, I went out for a Subway sandwich the other night and they wrapped the sandwich in good old fashion paper, they even let me not take a plastic bag.

Is upscaling of things that are going to end up in the trash really a good thing? More value for the consumer, less for the planet. Hmmm.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The hard job of counting....

Today NPR's Fresh Air featured New Yorker magazine writer Michael Specter talking about his article in this month's issue about the challenging act of accounting for our carbon footprint. There are a lot of things that are counterintuitive about what goods consume less carbon than others. Being in California, it was a bummer to hear that if you live in New York, you are better off drinking French burgundies instead of California reds because the carbon count of moving wine by sea instead of over land in trucks tips the advantage to the French. But in California, we still are better off being localvores. The full article is online as well plus a web only interview with Specter.

There are no shortcuts unfortunately, we have to consume less, drive less, live in smaller homes. Unfortunately, I think this will be happening due to economic conditions so it's not a voluntary effort. Since counting carbon is hard, let's count things that we know will matter:

1) More efficient light bulbs.
2) Find alternatives to driving solo if possible. (this is tough, but remember 1 out of 20 is five percent)
3) Seek experiences not stuff ( but make sure you are not driving to get the experience, or at least carpool)
4) Vote for those who want to make things better, not just keep things the same.
5) When in California drink California wines.
6) Wash clothes in cold water when possible.
7) Put other ideas in the comments....

Sudden reminders to savor the day.

My wishes and thoughts go out to fellow environmental blogger Arduous for the sudden loss of a dear friend at an all too early age of 30 years old to an undiagnosed cancer. Arduous bravely cast this loss as a call to action, which requires strength far beyond what I could imagine I could muster. What we do matters.

Anytime there is a sudden meaningless loss, it's often a reminder that our time here is finite and that we make a difference today in the time we have now. The call is to live consciously and be aware of the impact of our actions. We do cause ripples.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Smaller Margins Save the Earth....

No this isn't a blog post about smaller margins in selling, but smaller margins in printing saving paper. Economics blogger Marginal Revolution talks about writer Tamara Krinsky's movement to save paper by reducing the standard margins in Microsoft Word will save 5.4 million tons of office paper. She's kicked off a petition at to ask Microsoft to change the default margins. A clear case where a small change can make a difference.

An alternative to printing is to create a PDF and read it on the screen if your screen quality permits it. Apple's Macintosh OS X supports printing PDFs as standard. Primo PDF is a solution for Windows users that is free for non-commercial use. I have mixed feelings about everything being digital. The printed paper is it's own reader, and I have old floppy disks from my Apple ][ days (yes I am that OLD) that I can no longer read. But I do endorse printing fewer things, especially those things that are not necessary.

So make sure you don't live in the margins, make yours smaller.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Commute Contradiction...

The Michael Corkery of the Wall Street Journal has a blog post exploring people's willingness to pay for a green home. The numbers are encouraging as owners are willing to pay more than they were in 2004. However, buyers prefer to purchase in outlying communities instead of urban centers and in effect negating the benefits of the green housing.

I wrote yesterday about established firms creating green products, and it show how pervasive greenwashing is. Life Carbon Offsets, paying money is a modern version of Indulgences.

Habit changes require some kicker to make it happen, both externally and internally. I wonder what will change our minds about where we want to live?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

In defense of baking soda.....

A friend of mine recently stumbled onto my blog and through mistaken identity believes that I might be an expert on all matters green. Very flattering but not true. In it, my friend asked the question "What is the best (green) cleaning product?" along with two links to two products touted as green. While I'm not an expert, I do love a good question and started thinking about what makes a greener better product. I don't like to say which product is better, especially when I have no means of testing or citing a definitive study but I did find the choices interesting, for the purpose of discussion I'll call them cleaner "the 60s" and the other "New Kid on the Block"

"The 60s" is an environmental based cleaner that has been around for a long time, long before "An Inconvenient Truth" or the notion of Green being hip and cool. One of the things about "the 60s" is they realize there are limitations to their natural formulation based on citrus oils and other biodegradable ingredients in relation to commercial cleaners and they are forthcoming about them on their website. My sense is that Simple Green was created as a product based on values, and has probably evolved over time as they learn what works and doesn't.

"New Kid on the Block" is a green product that comes from a major manufacturer and I'm sure it works, but my skepticism comes in is that this is clearly a product primarily meant to meet a market. It probably satisfies some basic set of environmental regulations, but I'm not sure it's been tested over time. Usually, failures of the product are dismissive saying this is the tradeoff of green vs effectiveness.

I'm more inclined to go with the "60s" as the "better" product due to the experience they have gained trying to be eco and effective. It's a product created to fulfill a mission, not just a market. I have used "the 60s" and say for most applications it works quite well.

This begs the question of what is a safe cleaning product, most commercial cleaning products are fairly caustic and utilize chemistry to do their bidding. No problem in a safe environment, but what happens when inhaled or flooded down the drain. So what's a good gauge of safe, and I thought about Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" a new book that is a follow up to the wildly successful "Omnivore's Dilemma" In "In Defense of Food," Pollan summarizes his nutrition advice to 'Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.' In the words "Eat food" he recommends looking at the labels of foods and asking, do the ingredients listed resemble food?

The same could be said of cleaners, if you take a look at the ingredients does it seem safe? Are there warnings that sound excessively dangerous. If you accidentally spill the cleaner on you, will it hurt you. If so, it's probably very effective at "cleaning" but if clean is something you can use, probably not "clean" just nice and shiny.

In looking for safe cleaners, one ingredient that is quite effective is baking soda. You can use the old stuff in your refrigerator to clean tile, sinks and tubs and it's mild abrasion doesn't scratch surfaces. A little elbow grease might be necessary, but you won't need to ventilate your bathroom for an hour after use. It won't burn you. So while not perfect for all applications, it's quite usable for many. So that's a better cleaner that's also inexpensive.

So have I answered the question, which is the better cleaner? Probably not, but I hope that I've offered some signposts in the absence of a comprehensive comparison.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Has it been 300 already, some words to live by...

I was doing some blog maintenance and I realized that my little Valentine ditty in rainbow colors was post 300. I started this blog as an experiment in response to the stupendous talent of my friend E is for Eating. Unfortunately her schedule has impacted her blogging and I miss her distinctive voice. The original blog was started after a car accident where I decided to forego purchasing a replacement car for as long as I could to see if it was possible. I could definitely lead a life without a car, doing my daily errands and going to work. However, I found that the lack of car in Silicon Valley to be socially isolating. Ultimately losing the affections of what I called the "Chinese Version Ellen Pompeo (of Gray's Anatomy fame)" or CVEP motivated the purchase of an automobile. Call me shallow.

The original title of the blog "Car(e)free in Califonia" no longer applied, so I transitioned it to "Car(bon)free in California" instead, the experiment ended but there are so many places where we can live a lighter lifestyle without crimping our style that topics kept begging to be written about, and experiments such as the garbage diary, or clean the crap out of your life, etc means that I'm still blogging. 300 moved really fast.

For post 301, I wanted to tackle a big subject, and one that I think is related to our lifestyle and the impact we have on our lives and planet. And that topic is happiness, or the pursuit of it.

This past week has been a hard one at work, being in the public eye is tough and the company I'm with has had a very hard and scrutinized couple of weeks. It culminated with a large number of people's lives changing drastically as they figure out how to make ends meet. (can I be more euphemistic, probably not). At work, a lot of people mentioned that I didn't look happy, now in general "I'm an only happy when it rains" kind of guy. Now, in most cases my co-workers were genuinely concerned. Now I wouldn't say I was happy, but I wouldn't say I was unhappy per se. I think I just know in the scheme of things, I have much to be grateful BUT, there is much that can be improved.

Bicycling magazine often holds a reader poll asking for responses to topics like "Favorite Bike," "Favorite trail, " etc. One of the questions was "Least favorite cyclist" and the quoted answer for someone "Me." Reason: "Because I'm so sloowwwww..." That answer really resonated with me. Since I often look back and go "was I (or we) really that stupid" but it leads to growth.

This is very much counter to the credo of our country where we are to "live in the pursuit of happiness" and it struck me that the phrasing means we are not suppose to catch it. Think about it, the phrase is not "Life, liberty and the state of happiness" or "Life, liberty and the state of happiness" no, it's pursuit. We move from two states to an action. Now the pursuit can be really interesting in life, on this valentines day if I finish this post in time, we call pursuit courting. But we assume we obtain it.

So is happiness the root of our consumption, only if we're constantly pursuing it and never getting it. Happiness may even be overrated. There's a recent Newsweek article talking about the happiness backlash. Professor Eric Wilson in his new book "Against Happiness" argues that we need sadness in our lives. has an overview of his work. Both allude to the great works of progress and art from sadness. A sense of sadness as we look at our forests disappearing, might make us change.

As we look at the planet, will some sorrow save us?

Happy Valentine's Day

Roses are Red
and Violets are Blue
Being Green
Says I love you!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A return to virtue....

I'm a little hesitant to pursue a society that exalts virtuousness because it's easy for that society to become sanctimonious and from there it's very easy to move to being judgmental. A trait that occasionally reveals itself in me and I try to keep in check. But heck, I'm only human. However, I believe democracy and civil society requires something more than pursuing one's interest above else. This is especially true now given humanity's ability, even regular people like ourselves, to have a disproportionate impact unconsciously.

My background is technical, though that's because I didn't have the courage in my youth to pursue a career in letters, and often your brain may lead you to places your heart does not. Another interest that developed in my later years was economics, books like Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics showed how much economics can reveal about our every day lives, even unexpectedly. Behavioral economics may be showing more about how the mind works than psychology. So I often troll around some economics blogs. Today on the liberal economic blog Angry Bear there was a post where the left and right started converging on capitalism run amuck. Or at least the flavor of capitalism that runs rampant today. Here is an excerpt.

Our consumerist economy depends on people's inability to discipline their consumption. The best consumer sees no reason why he shouldn't have what he wants, right now. The best consumer, in other words, exists in a perpetual state of childishness.

This reminds me of ancient Rome:

Democracy requires virtue. So does a healthy capitalism. A nation that cannot govern its own appetites will, in time, be unable to govern itself. An economy that divorces economic activity from the restraining virtues that make for good stewardship will implode.

I'm not sure capitalism requires virtue, nor democracy, but it does require empathy. I can tell you humanity does too. The lottery of life places one in different circumstances, and one cannot simply exist oblivious to the plight of other. If you see a child suffering on the road, you do not go on by. We know that much true. So with that simple case, imagine the situations of differing degrees that our shopping and living actions impact others. Perpetual youth means you forgo one of the benefits of experience of the ages and that is called wisdom.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Perspective and Priority....

One of the truths of our modern age is that we crave control but we rarely get it. Often the notion of control is through the ability to buy, or to own. One of the things we're told that we can do to set our destiny is to buy a home, and with a home we want to outfit to serve our needs, Diderot's nightgown is a good example. The story behind Denis Diderot's (an 18th century philosopher) nightgown is that he receives a splendid nightgown(essay, and he realizes that it is so much nicer than anything else he owns that he feels that he has to upgrade the rest of his belongings to make it match. It's a trap we can easily fall into. And when we fall into it, we lose a lot of control.

It's hard times in the valley, and today was harder than usual. I don't want to judge today, people choose the lives they have on the best knowledge they have or with the best sense of self control that they have. I only hope that with change, we can create lives that really give us control, by creating sustainable wants.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Which is harder???

With Valentine's Day rapidly approaching one often wonders on this tumultuous day which is harder to follow your heart of to save the earth? Do you reveal your feelings for that someone special or do you dare forget to show your feelings? Who would have imagined that romance would be so difficult. But I digress? Back to the original question of which is harder, following your heart or saving the planet? Too easy, how about doing both?

Well thanks to the Ecofabulous's Lust List it doesn't have to be hard at all. The green shoppers at ecofabulous have put together a great list of environmentally friendly gifts, from Organic Artisan Chocolates, eco-raised flowers and a girl's best friend of Conflict Free Diamonds.

Of course maybe consumption is the wrong motif this heart shaped day. Perhaps, the gift of time might be a better gift. For that movie lover (who loves movies almost as much as they love you -- or so you hope) a coupon book of 12 movie dates might be more memorable and more appreciated this Oscar season. Of course maybe that's not personal enough, perhaps a back rub might be the gift that brings you closer. If you have the strength, few things are more appreciated than a good back rub.

Let your mind wander and your heart expand with wonder of gifts that say to that someone that you are special. Give a second gift on Feb. 15. and give the gift of surprise.

As they say, dying is easy, comedy now that's hard. Saving the planet is easy, following your heart, now that's hard. Climate may change, but some things remain timeless.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Forget moving back to the land, we need to move back down the block.

The idyllic faux country house of the suburb is basically a farce. Back to nature, not really when getting to and from nature relies on an automobile. Any notion that being environmental with CFLs, hybrids, biodegradable detergents basically gets negated in that given land use and transportation you just can't win. That's what I read from an article in the New York Times (what else, my local California paper -- you think I'm kidding they quote someone from Belmont, CA which a good friend of mine lives). Suburbanites use more energy and produce CO2 than city dwellers. For instance this graphic below from the article:

More troubling is that suburban life espouses a philosophy, what do you find attractive.

But the problem with suburbs, many environmentalists say, is not an issue of light bulbs. In the end, the very things that make suburban life attractive — the lush lawns, spacious houses and three-car garages — also disproportionally contribute to global warming. Suburban life, these environmentalists argue, is simply not sustainable.

I don't think it's so cut and dry, with proper zoning the suburbs can blend the two. Local supermarkets and daily business can offset the senseless driving that goes along. Intelligent mass transit can probably reduce the commute congestion. The damage from lawns and 5000 sq ft, may not be so difficult, but reducing the average square footage is entirely doable.

The city wins, but that's because the suburbs are just so out of whack. Progress can be made.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

No Silver Bullet and what it takes to train...

It's catch up time for this blogger, and one of the goals of the blog is to target more actionable behavior. Yesterday both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal had coverage of a study published in the journal Science about the accounting of carbon emissions in generating biofuels, that they may be actually more damaging in carbon consumption than traditional fossil fuels. I am not surprised since the infrastructure for developing biofuels is non-existent at this time and not well centralized, unlike fossil fuels. The silver bullet is no silver bullet, but it plays to the agricultural lobby's desires and our own human desire for quick fixes.

The biofuel debate reminds me of the craze in the late 90s of "Fat Free" foods or reduced calorie food as a solution to our health woes. The problem was the issue isn't fat, the issue is calories. Eating more fat free food isn't any healthier if the consumption of calories is as egregious as eating regular foods. This is actually a really meaningful analogy since while we might not be consuming food calories, we are consuming energy calories (OK, for the technically anal, calorie is a measurement of energy, I know, I know. I did get a college degree in biochemistry, etc, etc, but work with me here). The issue is the number of calories we use, be it from biofuels or other sources. The goal is reduction, not substitution.

So to use another analogy, our energy bodies are out of shape and it's tough to get into shape when you are out of shape. I know this personally as I train for a triathlon that I should sign up for soon. One of the challenges of peak performance, is efficient form, and it's hard to develop efficient form when you are flabby. Trust me on this, I'm in the midst of this transformation. As we get into energy conditioning shape, we won't see much progress, just as we don't when we start training. But eventually it'll kick in. Some things are done the old fashion way. Exercise more, eat less.

While we talk about CFLs and Hybrids, we should forget the old fashion tips of turning off lights or walking to do some errands. We got energy sloppy over a long haul, we're going to get energy buff over the long haul. There will be improvements, but it's changing the way we look at the world and our lives that will make us faster, not some quick fix.

ONE LAST WORD, it's not sacrifice it's about wanting something better. You get in shape, you are happy being in shape. We are not sacrificing our lifestyles, we're getting ourselves off the couch and into a better lifestyle. It's tough, I'm tired after a long swim and a hike, but it beats the alternative.

Ask and you shall receive....

No sooner did I wish for the change in China to a more greener lifestyle, than the Wall Street Journal feature a page one article about Chinese getting activist about dealing with the tidal wave of disposable chopsticks the country consumes to the order of 63 BILLION pairs of chopsticks. It really is a staggering amount, but it's no surprise in a country of one billion people, that means people are eating out about 63 times a year for some of their meals. If we think about the number of disposable forks we use or Starbucks cups the number would be comparable. What is impressive is that it's becoming an issue in a country that is developing not yet developed.

Disposables are a huge problem in every country that can support them, they are major employers. In China it's estimated the disposable chopstick industry employs 100,000 people. That's 100,000 families that depend on those jobs. Notions of consumption and planned obsolescence are primary drivers of our economy. I'm not sure what the answer is.

Another interesting point was that in China, much of the awareness stemmed from pop stars bringing up the issue. As our presidential campaign season rolls forward the question is where does change come from. Pop culture or political culture. I think both, pop culture leaders can create the public acceptance through their fans wish to emulate them, and that can make it much more politically feasible to implement changes in policy that do the heavy lifting.

Pop stars, keep asking, and we should keep electing that who do the giving....

Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Billion Reasons for Hope.....

Happy Chinese New Year everyone! It's the year of the Rat and that means that it's time to think forward again. The great thing about living in a multicultural world is you can keep remaking your new years resolutions, because it's some culture's new year somewhere!

China has been suffering quite a bit in preparations for Chinese New Year due to weather and other system breakdowns. To the uninitiated, Chinese New Year is the Family Holiday. Itis akin to Thanksgiving in the U.S., where people all go home to celebrate. It's a time of celebration and gratitude and hope! The freezing weather has stranded many in their effort to get home.

2008 as most know is a huge year for China, where it will showcase to the world it's progress with the Beijing Olympics. Big celebrations are efforts to show your best, and show your potential. And once you know your potential you want to follow through every day. Like the old adage goes, if I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor. On the flip side, you don't value what you don't have until you don't have it. And I think there is a natural progression that occurs with industrialization. The British and the Americans went through the industrial revolution and we've improved. Sure we go backwards every so often, but hey Whole Foods is banning plastic bags.

So this brings us back to China, the hard times that have happened will make people ask at what cost. What are we trading away. I think that this will lead to more change on the positive side, since the sense that we can get rid of things over there disappear when there is here. China may be hitting that moment. People everywhere want better lives for their children, and that is hope enough.

Enjoy the new year, spend those red envelopes well and ecologically.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Climate change by bargain....

It's pre-spring cleaning time here at C in C, and I hate to say it that I've not been particularly frugal nor environmental. As I process all the stuff in my life, what to keep what to toss. Guitar keep, DVD player give away on freecycle(tm), cookware keep, old electronics toss, you get the idea. In addition to things that have gone "obsolete" there are things that have just plain gone bad. In cleaning out my refrigerator and freezer, I'm finding food that is bordering on mutating into a new form of life.

Out it goes. But the question is how did I get here? Where did this stuff come from? And it comes from the faulty logic of a good bargain and buying in bulk or buying on sale. How many times have you been to Costco and picked up so much stuff that you will never get through it. Or worse yet, bought stuff, stored it away, and then bought it again since you forgot you had it in the first place? Or bought something just because it was a good deal. Guilty on all counts. I don't think I'm alone.

Now stuff is good, but stuff for no good reason is bad, and it seems that a lot of our waste is no good reason stuff, and why did we buy it? Because it was a bargain. It's easy to forget that we have to be conscious not only about what we buy but how much we buy. Since that stuff has to be made, moved and disposed of it, it's almost as if the product died in vain.

If you buy stuff that wastes away, it's no bargain no matter what the price.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Is it the road or is it the car... has a very personal piece on gas mileage and how it's impacted by the way our roads are laid out as much as by the cars we drive. I am a big proponent of intelligent zoning to encourage non-car modalities of travel. BUREAUCRAT SPEAK for making places more walk and bike friendly.

Check it out, I'll blog more on this later today if I get a chance. have to run to cast my ballot. Please vote if you are in Super Tuesday state today. Your vote does make a difference.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Can You Say Irony?

The New York Times has an article that almost caused me to cough up a lung in shock.

The story is about the future city of Masdar, which is designed to be a car free, energy self sufficient city next to the Abu Dhabi airport. Forgive my skepticism, such mega-projects tend to be experiments in self promotion and public relations as they are authentic experiments in self sufficiency. The largest reason for the failure of such efforts is that they go against nature and they go against human nature. Masdar will be built behind huge walls to protect it from the airport and the desert. If history is any guide, people tend to hate living near airports. Life under a flight path will drive people away. Other things include solar powered desalination plants. This BBC article explains the incredibly high cost of desalination but here's a sample.

"Desalinating the sea is an expensive, energy intensive and greenhouse gas emitting way to get water," said Jamie Pittock, director of WWF's global freshwater programme.

"It may have a place in the world's future freshwater supplies but regions still have cheaper, better and complementary ways to supply water that are less risky to the environment."

The report called for greater emphasis on managing existing supplies before the go-ahead was given to major water projects.

So why do such efforts get such support? In short they are sexy, they seem cool and they appeal to our desire for bling and metaphorical bling. The money spent on such efforts would be better spent on large scale efficiency improvements in existing energy footprint. But that would be as I referenced before boring.

The sad truth is boring often works, you want a more dull investor than Warren Buffet, you're probably not going to find someone more boring in style, but then again you aren't going to find someone more successful either.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Super Post!

There are so many stereotypes about Green's and one of them is that they probably aren't into sports. Well not this Green, I am excited for today's game because I think it'll be a good one despite the absurd point spread predicted. One of the great things about sports, especially playing them is that they can be very environmentally conscious. Few things are more simple than a open pitch and a ball for a great game of World Football (or what we call Soccer), all human powered.

However there is something else that one can learn from Sports, and actually from all well designed games and that is a sense of fairness aimed to fostering competition and innovation. It's incredibly difficult to create a set of rules that are fair and foster parity over time. This is something that great sports leagues have mastered and the NFL is one of them. The structure salary caps, revenue sharing, the draft with the goal of achieving parity. This allows small market teams like Green Bay (which is owned by the town of Green Bay) to compete with major markets like New York. This means from year to year that all teams are contenders. There are rough years (ok many rough years if you are in San Francisco like I am) but with time and coaching there is potential. Sports and games create a set of rules where one can achieve success, it's not obvious if you look at Billy Beane with the Oakland A's but it's there.

An comprehensive history of the NFL can be found in MIchael MacCambridge's America's Game where compromise over compromise resulted in a competitive league of participation, despite the efforts of some owners. A lot of the credit for this goes to the late Pete Rozelle who steered the league during key times. Navigating conflicting interests in the aims of the better good is a real skill.

Now what do sports and the environment have to do with each other. A lot actually, both are shared stakes kind of games. If one team overly dominates the league, people lose interest in the league and the whole league dies. If one country over consumes, than it does well but eventually the whole planet dies. The challenge of Kyoto is the signing up of countries for limits, the U.S. a wealthy market team refuses to yield, while smaller market teams are desperately trying to catch up. Unlike the NFL, we do not have a revenue sharing plan or alternate draft.

The toughest challenge of legislative bodies is to create rules that engage a populace to better things, however special interests can lead to deadlock or worse. In the New York Times, Ian Kershaw has an excellent piece on the unintended consequences of democracy. We forget that Hitler came to power on democratic coattails. A democracy based on self-interest alone cannot construct rules that benefit the common interest. However, rules that only serve the common interest, result in shadow rules of self interest. Striking that balance is key, but as they say that is easier said than done.

Happy Super Bowling...

Friday, February 01, 2008

How much to drive behavior change...

The New York Times highlights a program in Ireland that drastically cut the use of plastic bags. What was the program? An incredibly hefty charge on plastic bags that are used to the amount of $0.33 per bag. That completely blows away any Redemption Value or deposit we have on cans and bottles today, and is an order of magnitude greater than the $0.03 you save when you bring an alternate bag.

In effect since 2002, within weeks plastic bag use dropped an incredible 94%, not a misprint. It also made carrying a plastic bag a social taboo. Receiving the kind of ostracizing reserved for smokers. This makes me wonder about the nature of incentives and the power of negative incentives to shape behavior. I wonder what would happen if Ireland did the same for paper cups? Tax proceeds also went directly to environmental causes which I think improved it's acceptance.

Part of the Irish success story is a result in the lack of interests, with no domestic producers of plastic bags there was no industrial opposition to the law. The Irish law was also clear to make sure that stores could not pay for the bags on behalf of the customer and offset the costs elsewhere. Even if the stores switched to paper, there would be a charge, so it extended to the notion of taxing consumables in general. Stores who were originally opposed even were converted:

Today, Ireland’s retailers are great promoters of taxing the bags. “I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it,” said Senator Feargal Quinn, founder of the Superquinn chain. “But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”

The question that comes out of this is how do you change negligible behavior. Plastic bags are a norm and people are use to them. The argument is that people won't change because of the convenience, but in the case of Ireland they did.

Do positive incentives or negative disincentives work better in shaping environmental behavior? An effort of mine is facing this exact question.