Monday, September 29, 2008

Planning for Waste...

In what has become a tradition, every September I hold a party where I bring together my disparate groups of friends and see what happens. There are those the swim, my tri friends, my work friends, my college friends and my friends of friends or friends I meet through other avenues. Needless to say, the shindig can get to be moderately large, in this case about 45 people (that freaked me out when I saw how large the evite had grown to be!) But being a good host, I tried to plan accordingly, the operative word her is plan. I partly put myself through college working for campus catering. I often wonder if I had not been raised so technically inclined, would I have considered a career in hospitality. So I can put together a function (listed on our call sheets as "f(x)" -- dang I went to an overachieving college) fairly well. I know that there is a 10 - 20% flake rate, until there isn't. So I planned for the RSVP case plus 50% of the maybes. I provided the staples, drinks and an assortment of snackables.

I like themes and constraints, and this time I created the theme of "citrus" in the tradition of "Iron Chef" asking guests who cared to participate to bring a dish with a citrus element. It was fantastic, people concocted some very clever and more importantly tasty dishes. But here is the rub, some people felt obligated to bring store made food, that wasn't citrus related. Now, I know good manners is good manners, but oddly the guilt leads to waste. Store bought foods tend to be super sweet, meaning most people take a little of the food leaving a lot left over. Some of this food goes to waste and let's not forget all the packaging. For some reason, home made food does not seem to stay as long.

The other aspect is that when people don't show up, the host inevitably buys more food than is needed and guess what, that might go to waste as well. So the irony of planning is that it can backfire. So if you give guidance, give true guidance. And while I understand that etiquette and manners is often a set of rules, it's also a set of values. And understanding the values is more than understanding the rules.

So as we hit peak giving season, and the economy continues to go to pot (the etiology of this is that when a work animal is no longer useful, it well becomes dinner being cooked in a pot) don't feel obligated to give gifts just to give a gift. Understand what is useful and meaningful. Meanwhile, I'm still eating out my leftovers.

There are superficial manners and there

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Inner City Inspiration....

Or you find things out in the the most unlikely places and when you do there is only one word for it....


or so thought the MacArthur foundation who granted Will Allen a "Genius Grant' for his work on creating "Growing Power" an inner city farm described in this New York Times article. Allen's ability to grow crops in the most unlikely places in the most sustainable fashion (ahh worm power) is amazing. It reminds me of the old adage that "Nature finds a way" especially if we give it a little help.

While the "October Prizes" are around the corner, I do feel the MacArthur grants are more interesting. Not restricted to a specific set of disciplines I have been fortunate enough to have dinner with some in the past (lest you think I'm name dropping, I'm just saying that I'm lucky) and there is a vibrancy that is invigorating. I highly recommend reading Denise Shekerjian's Uncommon Genius The great thing about reading Shekerjian's book is understanding that genius is not merely being more, but looking at things in a different frame of mind. Working with the constraints of the medium at hand and coaxing out value. It's about a vision and an independence of mind and spirit. If you get a chance, visit the Mac Arthur Foundation website and look at some of the recipients and their work. Some of the things are simply being alive and noticing what is there, like finding a loose thread and pulling it to see where it leads.

In greening we think in terms of alternatives or replacements, but can we reconceptualize the conversation. The closest for me right now is William McDonough, but I think there are others. As humans our brains think linearly, but nature is about closed loops. A reconciliation of these two are critical to our survival. It always has. So get creative and think of your own genius.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A good thing too far....

The Wall Street Journal ( in its brand spanking new look and feel) has an article about the current schwag of the moment, the reusable shopping bag. Companies love them since they are great advertising vehicles. I know I use my "Citrix", "Blackberry" and "O'Reilly Mac OS X" and "Esurance" reusable bags all the time. They really are a nice alternative to the relentless number of t-shirts that are often given away (something about high tech firms and t-shirts), but the point of the article is that now that everyone is giving them away they are starting to be, ehm thrown away. Additionally, finding a truly green bag is hard to find (and truly green is a loaded statement, there are tradeoffs. I tend to be big on biodegradability since it returns carbon back in for sequestration. Some tradeoffs the article explains are:

Finding a truly green bag is challenging. Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags, meanwhile, require the destruction of millions of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution.

The added challenge is getting people to actually use the bags. Even here in "progressive" Northern California:

Earlier this year, KPIX in San Francisco polled 500 of its television viewers and found that more than half -- 58% -- said they almost never take reusable cloth shopping bags to the grocery store.

Phil Rozenski, director of environmental strategies at the plastic bag maker Hilex Poly Co., believes even fewer people remember to use them. Based on consumer surveys conducted by the company, he says roughly the same number of people reuse their bags as bring disposable bags back to the grocery store for recycling -- a figure he puts at about 10% of consumers, according to industry data.

Changing behavior is tough, at my work I'm involved in the Green Team where we did a "Chuck the Cup" event The reality is even among the most well educated, convenience and the rush and gush of our lives makes it difficult to be green. But with stylish "Yahoo! Green Team Mugs" we're trying to make it easier. I'm looking forward to seeing the statistics on whether we've made a difference. I think we'll get a start, but I also know with an alternative most people will go for the convenience. One friend's husband works at an office where they simply got rid of the disposable cups and bought a stock of mugs. But that's a small office where the culture was changed quite quickly.

I have tons of canvas bags, polypropylene bags and a ton of mugs. I just gave one away that I got from a community service organization. Hope it gets reused. But at some point it becomes clutter and clutter goes to landfill. Ahh the power of free to get us to to grab things, like reusable shopping bags.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On the power of sand,...

You'll have to forgive me if this post comes out grammatically incorrect as I am typing this dilated since I just got back from the optometrist. But in an effort to be productive since I cannot read, I still can type. Today's topic is on the subject of corporate green teams. Many companies are forming volunteer organizations with varying degrees of support focused on making people more green in their jobs. These tend to be grass roots organizations with limited sanction. Through small activities they agitate not just the system, but other workers in their greeness or lack of greeness. Yet they still act in good faith to try to get things done since sometimes in life you have to be the sand that starts the pearl. That's what I think of most when I think of corporate green teams.

What's sad about being the sand, is that when the pearl is done, the sand is no longer visible. It's hidden inside. So when you fret about whether what you are doing is visible, think of yourself as the sand.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Meaningful Plenty...

Freakonomics continues to daze and amaze us with off beat examples of how economics plays a role in our lives in the strangest places. Last week they posited an interesting theory for rising obesity in the form of indoor plumbing. Basically, that you would limit your consumption if having to go, meant having to go outdoors in the cold. (Guess a chamber pot wasn't an option).

The blog post continues to expand on the idea, recounting when living in a summer house without garbage pickup, their behavior changed.

A few times in the recent past, I’ve rented a summer house with no garbage pickup. This meant not only paying for how much waste you produce, but also storing your trash until the one day that the dump is open. During these times, our behavior changed radically: not only did we compost all our food waste to cut down on stink, but we thought about everything we bought before we bought it to make sure we wanted to deal with the waste. As a result, we bought a lot less.

The general dogma is plenty is always better, but the universe is a zero sum game (not even that, you can't even break even) but we as humans believe otherwise. Is all the stuff we have really better. If we were to choose what in our society would we want to be plentiful, and that which we would not. What would they be? Remember, what we say and what we do are not the same. For instance, we advocate health as an important outcome (like anyone says they are for bad health) but we structure our lives and our food supply to be unhealthy.

My list, health, education, security and time. Though I struggle with the order. As our government tries to save our economy as we know it, I think well maybe we should think of a different economy. It's clear that it was leveraged to the few. Perhaps some constraints resulting from this crisis can lead to use create a different, and truly improved world. Not just a more world.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Behavior Change and Self Awareness....

Right now I've been particularly torn about convincing people to change their behavior through education and mandating the correct path through legislation and the architecture of our society vis a vis laws (I do love the phrase vis a vis, which means face to face suggesting a strong connection as in directly in the eyes). I'm a little down on behavior change through education, because I know damn well from my own personal experiences the limitations of it. Since despite my better educated self, I've engaged in risky behavior in many contexts. It's like the line from Scent of a Woman, that goes "invariably I knew what was right, but I didn't because it was too damn hard." So is there hope for behavior change? Perhaps.

I've been thinking about how do I change my behavior and one common theme in my own behavior change has been the act of documenting my behavior, in collecting data. It works for me with my personal finances, and it works for me in my exercise. Now note I said collecting data, not analyzing data. The act of recording is enough to make me conscious of my actions, and to serve as a correctant (is that a word, probably not according to my inline spell checker, but I like it and I'm keeping it). This thought came from an article on rampant recording of everything. Which then led me to think about Seth Robert's work on Self Experimentation (Full disclosure, I know Roberts but wasn't aware of his research style until I read about him in the New York Times. Lesson, people who seem ordinary in your day to day may be extraordinary in contexts you are not familiar with. Think J.K. Rowling unemployed in a coffee shop, you get the picture). In his work on sleep issues and weight loss Roberts used the most convenient research subject himself, and he collected vast amounts of data that led to some interesting conclusions. In looking at this work, I came upon a powerpoint and the quote that gets me is "Was making progress without knowing it."

Those are powerful words. Sort of like my exercise regimen of typing my workouts into a spreadsheet. I had every good intention of looking at the data. But I don't. Supposedly Beethoven wrote down everything, but didn't re-read his notebooks. The act of recording is the act that matters. Would recording our daily carbon count change our behavior. I know that when I record my garbage it makes me think, that's a lot of garbage. But I don't count. I just know.

Is the act of recording the act of ownership, I wrote it, I did it. Does it rewire ourselves. Is that the path to behavior changes. If people collect data on their own carbon actions, would they make progress without knowing it. Thoughts anyone?

Taking Measure...

The Wall Street Journal has a nice article comparing some home energy audit services and websites. While the self assessments are nice, the use of high power air to find the holes in your house makes a big difference. This is particularly of value in places where there are weather extremes such as the Northeast in winter or the Sunbelt in summer.

I would have curious to see how much overlap in the recommendations there were.

Carbon Free Web Surfing....

Today I discovered an interesting Carbon Offsetting program for websites by a company called CO2 Stats. CO2 stats calculates the carbon impact of your website, the traffic you generate, where your viewers are and even the type of computer they use. Using those numbers, they purchase offsets on the sites behalf and you get this cool badge.

I run my site as a hobby and I exceed the 100 hits per month, so it's something I'll need to investigate. I have very mixed feelings about carbon offset programs, as they feel like green indulgences. But I do like the idea of collecting statistics to better improve your site. While statistics are good for people, they are even better when they go invisible and reconfigure to be more efficient.

If you run a site and you want to run it greener, this is worth investigating and making your own judgments about. As we better understand our energy expenditures in all parts of our lives we can make better decisions to improve our sustainability.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Do I want to even wake up....

I occupy a strange place in the green blogosphere, in that I focus on the economic drivers of our situation as much as the environmental ones. As I stare mesmerized into the computer screen following Wall Street completely implode and actively debate whether I should go to the bank and pull out a lot of my money and put it under my mattress (I am only half kidding, and the part that I'm kidding about is putting it under my mattress) We're in pretty dire straits and it's going to be going on for a while. The economy is not between a rock and a hard place, it is under the rock and the hard place. Things are going to get worse financially and economically for a lot of people around the world, and it's going to take a long time to work it out of the system and return to what is fashionably called equilibrium.

Now a plus side of this is that with slower economic growth, perhaps there will be some dissipation in our consumptionfest and it will give the earth a chance to recover and buy us some time to resolve our environmental issues. Perhaps, I'm worried that the lack of capital to fund basic research means that we'll coast without much improvement, discovery is a costly process and it needs some love that just might not be available. A larger issue is that I think the momentum of the system is already in play. If you look at the damage that hurricane Ike did, I think that there are more storms coming into play. The earth and our waters have heated too much and warming is still continuing. Just like how the collapse of the Wall Street firms was laid before the big denouement, I fear that we still have much damage to deal with. I have no idea where the residents of Texas are getting their insurance from, but I hope it's not AIG. Even though the brakes are being applied, the challenges of the planet are still in play.

I don't like to leave on a bummer of a note, so I'll try to leave on some actionable but not necessarily pleasant thoughts.

1) Consider personally de-financing. If you have a lot of funds in the bank, consider converting that into hard assets and hard skills. Gardening and the material for gardening might be a good idea. As might learning how to can fruits and vegetables. Becoming more sustainable and self sufficient is probably a good idea.

2) Consider used first, a lot of people are going to be selling things. Give money to your farmers market and buy the goods from people who need some cash.

3) Spend time with friends and family. Learn the power of companionship and the ideas of others. Someone to debate and share opinions with is wonderful. That's why the blogosphere is so enticing. Now do it in real time.

4) Get involved with the community. Care about your community. There is going to a whole lot of breakdown going on. City budgets are going to get strained and resources we are use to are going to become less frequent. Things like litter patrol are going to be farther and further between. Do your part, and if there is garbage in front of you. Consider picking it up and throwing it away. Keep things clean.

I hope my imagination is running away from me, but things are going to be different, be prepared.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

In Memory of David Foster Wallace

This has been a hard weekend. Let me rephrase this, it has been a HARD weekend. And then a public life converged with my personal life, and I've been pensive and irritable. I'm not sure this is from the personal or public problems. I'm not a self confessional blogger, so I'll stick with the public news that writer David Foster Wallace was found dead as a result of suicide in Claremont, California.

Suicide is stupid, but then I don't think anyone in their right mind decides on suicide so forgiveness is the only course left for the living. Wallace was a hugely influential writer for me, more for his essays than his fiction. I confess I have a copy of Infinite Just that I've never been able to successfully make it through. I no longer have the stamina to make it through. Wallace had a highly observant style not only of the external events of his topics, but remarkably about the internal state of his topics. It's not possible to be observant of the the internal but his capability to infer were astounding.

What fascinated me about Wallace's discursive style is how it mimicked the fragmented nature of my own mind. I struggle to write this blog post while I have a football game being shown, and as I navigate the personal thoughts that have hijacked my mind. That back and forth of ideas captured the scattershot nature of my own ideas more effectively than any stream of consciousness style that had been captured before. I remember reading his Esquire story "String Theory" on Michael Joyce, who at that time was the 100th best tennis player in the world and it brought to mind my own personal struggle with the limits of my own capabilities. And while I am no where near being the 100th best at anything, I was afflicted with the self consciousness of the limits of my own capabilities while understanding I had some real gifts. If anything, dissatisfaction with one's affluence may be our definition of affluence. The article and it's understanding of tennis was so profound, I took the step of going to my local kinkos and making a copy of the article for my friend who was a tennis fanatic as well.

I also remembered for some reason recording an interview between Wallace and Charlie Rose, and watching it over and over again. Hearing Wallace recount his path from college, the turns he took, the choices he made was telling. Biography may not be prescriptive, but it does show that achievement is a discursive process despite what the books tell us. In it captured the struggle of art, and ominously he said he did not foresee himself killing himself. Sadly, that feeling did not last.

What does this have to do with the environment, carbon free living. Not much, except that we spend our lives trying to give life meaning through our actions and our creations. Cliche yes, but that doesn't diminish it's truth.

The APLS festival...

The last post I wrote was my submission to the APLS (Affluent Persons Living Sustainably), of which I am trying to figure out outside of person (questionable) and living (metaphysical) not sure I qualify. Some of the other posts of which I've been privy to have been quite good. The carnaval will be posted at Green Bean Dreams on Monday September 15, 2008. Check it out.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A poverty of time, but really just too affluent...

You really don't realize how affluent you are until you're not. I mean really not. We get use to a certain normality that we forget that our normal is really extraordinary. For instance, a car is practically a birthright in the U.S. It's our primary unit of transportation, we even have more cars that people. So cars are a fantastic metaphor for the irony of affluence.

If poverty is only being able to walk from place to place, we don't realize the effort it takes to walk until you have to walk again. But sometimes we feel poor on the freeway. When we drive, if we have the entire road to ourselves we feel like we are going fast, because we judge ourselves and our effort against walking. But bring traffic to the road, even if we are going the same speed as without traffic we feel poorer. Because relative to the rest of the traffic we feel slow again. We've taken a position of power and we've made it position of poverty. How odd, even though nothing has changed.

Affluence is a norm, and we focus not on our absolute condition, but instead on our relative. The others on the road change our perceptions of ourselves. So our sense of affluence is set not by ourselves, but by what we perceive of others. When we drive, we don't actually see our car, we only see other cars. We compare those cars to our sense of our cars. Our sense of affluence has changed.

In the past, if you had a home you were set. Now you have to have a big home. This is really visible in the way that television has changed. When TV first became popular, our TV shows were reflective of our society or our impressions of ourselves. Think The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Leave it to Beaver, All in the Family and Eight is Enough. Think even a show as non-sensical as Three's Company. In all these shows from the 50s through the 70s TV shows were about how people lived. Kids shared a room, apartments looked like our own apartments.

Somewhere along the line, TV stopped being reflective of our lives, but prescriptive of our lives. Of how we should live. Think Dallas, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210 and even Friends. In those shows everyone has what they want, there are no struggles of money described. (contrast that with All in the Family) They all have nice things, even if they work in coffee shops as we see in Friends. If our TV friends have lives that good, shouldn't we was the message. These images burn into our psychic screens, and we now think that this is affluence. How did we start striving for television lives, how did we become aspirational of that.

So affluence is not a state of being, but a state of mind, or more accurately a state of television.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

"Come Fight With Me"

My fellow Americans, with great humility I accept your challenge of making this planet a better place. Of leaving something not just for our children, but our children's children, of leaving something of great value and that my fellow Americans is that we leave our children better values, by living better ones today so they will have a tomorrow. Through our bold acts, it is not me, it is not you, but it is us that will turn the tide, with passion we will sway the future moving side to side.

Imagine feeling stronger, healthier.
Imagine looking better, more attractive.
Imagine those when you look in the mirror and see the fat that resides on our tired bones.
Consider walking once a week, consider riding a bike, and become the better person that is inside you.
Yes, for ourselves let's become healthier for our planet, while we become healthier for ourselves.
Come ride with me, come bike with me, come walk with me, Come fight with me.

Imagine a world, where economy of action matters,
Imagine like the athletes we cherish as they seek gold
Imagine not taking that unnecessary step
Imagine wasting no energy on those powerful bouts
With grace, and economy turn off those unneeded lights, drive more efficient cars, power down those unused toys
Come turn of that switch with me, come use those more effective things, come realize that small changes make a difference, come fight with me.

Our future is ours to choose, we take steps today knowing where those steps lead us. Let's not deceive us, let's not pretend, let's take the steps that show our courage. For the fight we fight is that of a better life, of a life that matters because you would not throw money out with the trash, you would not wreck you home without a care, you would not sacrifice your children since they are your heirs.

So fight for the values, by living the values. The truth is out there, let's live it. Come fight with me.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

As if there wasn't enough to worry about...

You ready to worry about something new? How about your nitrogen footprint? This is one of the worries that scientists express in this New York Times article about the role of nitrogen in our world. So much of our modern world has been about altering the rhythms of our world. For instance bananas in December. Our expectations change that we are willing to take silly risks, for instance about the excessive fertilization that occurs in the U.S. midwest:

“Look,” she said, “you just can’t have all these states and all these communities knowingly overfertilizing their land because they want a bumper crop every year. That’s just all kinds of bad. But Des Moines, for example, is willing to filter their drinking water to an extra degree just to be able to flood their water supply with more-than-normal levels of fertilizer.”

Earlier this week at work somehow the topic of this movie Koyaanisqatsi came up. The movie while still mesmerizing, it's techniques feel dated. However the themes of the movie are still highly relevant in the title of the movie which means "life out of balance" in the Hopi Language. If life is not a matter of balance, but a matter of timing. Wisdom that we have known for the ages....

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.