Thursday, July 31, 2008

Consumer Goods or Character Goods

I've blogged a lot about the role of stuff in signifying who we are. The Green Prius vs the Gas Guzzling Tahoe, the recycled fabric Patagonia jacket vs the sweat shop created discount item or the designer couture jacket. What does the copious presence of goods or the abstemious restraint of acquisition say about our lives? In short, when we buy goods are they consumer goods, items that address our internal needs or are they character goods, items that telegraph who we are.

The green shopping movement is strong on righteousness, as brilliantly glorified in the South Park Episode called Smug Alert! and made legendary the "Toyonda Pious". In an odd way, being green is an aggressive act. I completely believe what Joan Didion said that "writing is an aggressive act" is true. My intent though is rarely to convert you to a point of view, but to get people to think about the impact and make your own assessment of the risk and reward for your actions. So the question on the moment, is the use of character as a product attribute an act of exclusivity no different from a luxury good pricing itself out.

For instance, who is more green, the person why buys the latest green piece of clothing that's brand new or the person who buys their clothes from yard sales and thrift stores. Now on average, how are these people judged differently by others?

As we look to live more greenly, we run the danger of self rationalization, absolutism and judgement. Our acts (including what we buy) telegraph our character, but what exactly is the message received and how aggressive is it?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

More Second Lives....and extending some others.

Today I found out about Gazelle a site that simplifies recycling of electronic goods while giving you a little change to boot. It seems to streamline the process asking a few simple questions, and if you accept the price, they send you a box. Though like many services there is a price for simplicity. The prices aren't great, but it's better than landfill.

With the economy struggling, there will be a rise of the secondary market for goods. I know that I spend a lot of time at used books stores, part of it is to save money, the other part is to save resources, another part is that used stores tend to be locally owned and keeps the cash in the community extending the notion of being a localvore, it also mitigates the risk since I don't pay as much I can take chances on authors that are unknown to me, or indulge in a classic that I normally would not.

Of course, while books may be timeless, there are still great books from the past that are as relevant now as they were back then. Electronics at some point lose any meaningful value. In telecommunications we talk about the last mile problem to get bandwidth to the home, there to is a last step problem for our electronics. A fairly pronounced one will be the ending of Analog Signal television in February 2009. The natural impulse is to upgrade to check out that spanking clear picture, but what can you do about the old TV. Here are some suggestions:

1. TV Converter Box Program is sponsored by the FCC to provide rebates on the purchase of an external Television tuner to receive over the air digital program. This extends the meaningful life of your TV, but it also means that at some point the converter box needs to be thrown away as well.

2. Get Cable Television - most cable systems will provide analog signals for sometime to come meaning your old TV will still work. This too has the warning if your cable company requires you to get a cable box, there is more ewaste. If you are able to get regular television connection without the extra box, this is probably the best way to give your TV new life.

3. Get satellite, same issue as cable tv in that you need a box, but it's possible to buy them second hand. Getting a new system is more ewaste, so I'd pass unless you can find a hand me down.

4. If you are forced to upgrade, or want to upgrade. Be sure to dispose of your old TV environmentally, Yahoo! Green has some tips and links on how to dispose of your TV in the right way. (Standard disclosure, I'm employed by Yahoo!, but this came up as number 3 on a Google search (shhhh... don't tell anyone I did that))

E-waste and space waste is here to stay for a long time, so figuring out ways to reduce it makes sense.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Biking it New York Style!

New York, I LOVE it, every year I make a pilgrimage to visit one of my favorite places. I love grabbing fantastic dinners, seeing great shows, catching up with long time friends, checking out the museums and just digging life. The New York Times has an article about commuters riding into Manhattan each day and the stories of distance and most important daring are not to be missed.

Two other articles about greening in the old grey lady are:

- The rise of the LED to replace light bulbs

- Cash for Clunkers

If we can make it about the chix!

Talk about fate. In the morning I blog about how we need to make environmentalism sexy and super desirable when that evening I bump into my cute environmental Prius driving friend who tells me about this website her friends are working on called Hot Chix Dig which is a web pin up site in the tradition of Betty Page who reminds us that being green is HOT! There is definitely that ironic humor and women's liberation in the power of their bodies thing going on, and they basically agree to disagree with the standard feminist position.

But the premise is simple, photos of "Hot Chix" in hot poses around information about environmentalism will motivate guys to be more environmental. In the "About" section of the blog...

The Genesis of a Hot Chick.
I was in the electronic store's parking lot getting into my car, when this guy whistled at me and said "I love redheads!" Well, of course I look over and notice he's climbing out of a Prius. So I smile back with, "I love guys who drive hybrids!"

And thus, Hot Chix Dig was born.

May that unnamed dude forever be remembered by countless acts of environmentalism, done in the name of pretty ladies. Because after all, guys do what it takes to get girls. And if what it takes is a little love for Mother Nature... maybe we'll all be saved a few degrees of global warming.

This wasn't exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote about making green sexy, but speaking as a member of my gender, they might be on to something. I can imaging green pin up calendars in auto-shops by Toyota extolling the power of their synergy system.

While Hot Chix isn't exactly everyone's style (as to whether it is my style, I leave that as an open question), I appreciate any effort to get the green message in creative means. Now guys aren't the only ones who aren't environmental as my Looking for A Green Girlfriend post explored. Would a site called be as effective for the fairer sex? (it does get points for better alliteration).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Are we our cars,

Lost feelings return
So now maybe I can learn
To stop the world of a lie
This time around

Are we, are we, are we ourselves
Are we, are we, are we ourselves

Because seen through these eyes
We lead a double life
No one would know
So check it out

Stepping out
Here I go

Are we, are we, are we ourselves
Are we ourselves
And do we really know

- "ARE WE OURSELVES" -- The Fixx

The 80s band "The Fixx" are on tour again and lose lyrics popped into my mind upon reading this NYT Sunday Magazine piece on the American love affair with the car. I've blogged a lot about the signaling effect of our possessions, and perhaps no more one item expresses the American psyche than our cars. All this extreme lavishness put on our public selves.

So much of our economic models focuses on making green technologies cheaper, to make the technology and being green available. However the following passage gave me great pause:

But even as they compromise on size, some drivers are still spending lavishly on looks. Vinnie Mandzak, a brand manager at Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills, said customers are spending as much on customizing cars with metallic candy colors, leather interiors and “goofy wheels” as on the car itself. And at the higher income levels, he noted, no one is getting rid of their bigger cars.

Not all automobile experts think a sea change has taken place. They maintain that Americans will always prefer big and showy automobiles if they can afford them. “What doesn’t change is the American psychology,” Dr. Rapaille said. “When do you have enough money? Never. When is your car big enough? Never. As soon as I have the money, I’m going to get a bigger car.”

Perhaps the APLS (Affluent Persons Living Sustainably) need to make being green not about simplicity but being ostentatious, expensive and publicly so. That said maybe I'll be putting a deposit down on a Tesla Roadster this afternoon (OK, maybe not since I also live in the cult of personal finance blogs as well). So being green needs to looks hip, cool and sexy. I never understood why being a fat cat was desirable, since ehmm, most fat cats are er fat. Most greenies I know who live simpler lives tend to be in better shape. Perhaps, we need to emphasize that APLS are exclusive, we need to create a sense that the green life is not hard out of self denial, but that it's hard in the same way that getting into a hip club is hard.

Is being eco too much about "budgets" and not enough about aspirational things that are out of the budget. Human nature being what it is, this may be the ticket.

So much of green living is becoming an expert, Yahoo Personal Finance's Laura Rowley explores our financial fears (in full disclosure, I work for Yahoo! but this is an interesting post) that features this excerpt:

In his new book "High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families," Peter Gosselin argues that the burgeoning sense of financial insecurity is more than "a nation of whiners" in a "mental recession," as former senator Phil Gramm put it earlier this month.


Safety nets that supported working families in previous generations -- employer-provided health benefits, affordable housing, college and retirement savings -- have steadily eroded, Gosselin explains.

"Many of risks have been handed over in ways that people didn't notice, and requires them to do jobs that are spectacularly complex," explains Gosselin. "We need to be our own investment bankers for retirement and college savings, insurance brokers to understand our homeowners' policies, and lawyers to understand all the documents that get handed to us. It's not that we can't do these jobs -- but people have lives to lead and don't do lots of these jobs."

We have lives to lead, and most people even the most devoted of us cannot verify everything that we purchase. So much of our lives are based on assumptions of what is safe and what is not. We need to find a way to make being green in a way that is invisible and trustworthy. However we need to make it cool too.

An economist who I can't recall studied public goods, that is publicly visible goods, did research that women who buy makeup do make choices about the quality of the makeup they buy. For goods that are put on in private they get the best value, but here's the kicker for cosmetics that are put on in public they spend a lot more than their privately applied goods. So a disproportionate amount was spent on lipstick, since you apply it publicly.

So how do we signal ecologically without going broke. Not sure, but want to figure it out. Perhaps, tricking out a Prius so that its the super Prius may be part of the solution, you have to make sure everyone knows that it's a choice not because you don't have one.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Randy Pausch Passes Away...

Professor Randy Pausch succumbed to pancreatic cancer this morning. His last lecture served as a reminder of what we do and the why we do things, or should. I recommend checking out his last lecture, as linked here and here.

While not directly related to the environment, I thought I'd relate a story. A few months ago I finally watched the full lecture, now this was on my list of things to do but only a few months after the hub a bub was I able to watch it in its entirety. In the audience was one of my undergraduate advisers. I emailed him to see how he was doing, and it turned out that he was going to be in my neck of the woods the following week.

In life there are always opportunities, and it's a matter of seizing the moment to follow up on them. We have tons of opportunities to change the way things are, but sometimes it's just a matter of giving it a little nudge and seeing what shows up.

have a great weekend...

Could we make a house out of straw(s)....

Lately I've noticed that sometime in my life drinking straws became standard offering at restaurants. I know this wasn't always the case, since in the past I remember if I wanted a straw, I had to ask for one. Most times, I would just drink out of the glass. But now, every drink you get has a straw. The only other place that I remember straws was in fast food restaurants so you could drink out of the cup while you drove.

So is this a bottled water kind of thing? Here have a straw because our dishes are dirty you need to protect yourself from drinking out of the glass? Just like bottled water suggests your municipal water is unsafe, is dishware now unsafe? But if the straw suggests the glass is dirty, why are you drinking the soda in your dirty glass? Something doesn't add up?

However, I'm sure all those plastic straws add up somewhere, maybe in landfills? Am I missing something? Why do we now insist on straws with our drinks?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hot or not, how our vanity bites us back...

One of the big things that makes me cringe is the incredible linkage between status goods and carbon consumption and perhaps bad health. The New York Times has this story on how some granite counter tops are "hot" as in radioactive. The increasing popularity of granite countertops has driven the demand for more and more exotic varieties from Namibia and Brazil. Problem is that some of the granite has traces of uranium which is radioactive and may pose a slight increase in health risk.

There are plenty of local alternatives to mined granite, but yet we somehow need the additional status goods in our kitchen. I wonder if venerable institutions like the French Laundry have granite countertops in their kitchen. I know Momofuku, the it place of the moment in NYC does not. So how does granite countertops improve your cooking. (though I will be the first to admit, a hot pot on granite doesn't burn the countertop).

So for our status (or vanity is there a difference) we have to expend lots of energy to get it out of the ground, we're shipping rocks across oceans and across the land. It's heavy so it take more fuel, and add to that, now you have to expend energy to rip it out of your kitchen.

Hey folks lets focus on what you can do instead of what you can buy to distinguish the kind of person you are.

Portland makes it easy to change from a "carborg" to a human again. had a great story on All Things Considered on how Portland has become the most bicycle friendly city and as a result has the highest number of Bicycle Commuters. Portland really looks at the world in a worldly way, saying they aren't trying to compare themselves to other American cities but European cities. The goal is making is safe, convenient and the easiest way to get around. In short Geller, Portland's bicycle coordinator says making bicycling convenient and making cars driving more cumbersome. An innovation is the bicycle box

A quarter of all trips in the U.S. are bicycle distances of less than a mile. Something to think about. In Holland, there are dedicated bicyclist lanes to make bicyclists feel safe. When we start defining our space in human terms again, we'll become human again. In a previous post, I spoke about how it's a matter of perspective, that we look at the world in terms of car appropriate distances, it's as if we have merged with cars to become "carborgs" it's good to see that Portland is trying to make us human again.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I'm getting baked...

OK, not really but I got your attention. Last night I had a conversation with a friend's wife who is very much into all things green. She was telling me about how this past weekend the family went out to make coq au vin in a solar cooker, and I had to pause and think how cool is that. Now on the day in question, it was a bit overcast and I asked how it went, and she said pretty good. A quick internet search revealed that there are a lot of people experimenting with ways to cook using free energy as witnessed at which advertises the "Sport Solar" oven. This site has plans for making your own.

There are others, but the designs focus literally on capturing the sun's heat and concentrating it into a small area that is insulated. The principle is easy, but the control is hard. I'm not sure this is something you could use regularly but it does demonstrate that there are alternatives. A lot of our preservation in the past focused on drying foods to make them last, taking advantage of nature's energy.

Solar is extremely viable in the passive sense, from heating your water to warming a sun room. The trick is energy storage for when it is needed. I'm really glad that I had the conversation, because even though I knew of solar ovens in the past, it's good to be reminded that we are not resource poor. we just need to put our thinking caps on again and figure out a way to harness the power that we have.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

...a little voice

Yesterday I wrote about the actions I take in moving about, about when and how I move about. However, before I make any decision about how to get around, a little voice sounds in the back of mind that asks "can you do this better?" or "is this absolutely necessary?" Now, most people have a little voice in the back of their minds, some call it guilt. I think that may be too negative a spin on it, but it is meant to cause yourself to pause and ask should I do this.

As loud as my little voice is, I'm surprised at when my little voice roars, others hear crickets. I try to think why is that? Now, driving from point A to B shouldn't be that big a deal, especially if you look at the world economically. That is until it costs a lot of money. My friends and I have talked about how our social lives have changed when we now pause about running up to San Francisco for a night of fun. Before, the little voice was napping. Now the little voice is checking the wallet and speaking up.

What other little voices do we have? Sometimes my little voice goes you know you should walk or take the stairs because you could lose a little weight. (If you are watching or following the Tour de France you can relate that nothing, and I mean nothing will convince you that you should lose weight more than trying to climb a steep hill on a bicycle.) Does that little voice kick off when you are eating out and go, maybe I should pass on those french fries.

Does your little voice kick off when you leave the house and you ask yourself, "did I turn off the lights?" Is it about the environment or your pocketbook again.

But why do some people not have little voices? I think it's something about the optimism of people, that everything will be ok. That's a good thing, but there is a point where you can be delusional. Do we create little voices? Remember there was a time when we tossed litter out of our cars without abandon? What difference could it make? Or that we could treat people of a different skin color worse or better? We have little voices that remind us that all people are created.

So what does your little voice say? Does it bring you back to the world around you? Is it guilt, or is a reminder to live in the moment and think of others? Can we make the little voice something of strength instead of obligation? Or is the goal to act "right' without the little voice?

So maybe how we look at the world is a sense of perspective and impacts how we act, car or people. So how we act may be a function of what we hear from the voice within.

Monday, July 21, 2008

It's all about perspective....

2 mins. drive to various grocery stores, 5 mins drive to 101, 237 and other freeways.

This came from a post my work's internal for sale email list. What struck me was how the advantages of the location were couched in terms of how easy it was to drive to different places, especially when the distances were so short. A two minute drive in a suburban area means that you can drive about a mile under the best of conditions. In a race between a bike and car at these distances, the bike would probably win. As for walking it's probably 7 minutes. These are all walking distances, but we look at the world in terms of a car as a part of ourselves.

I remember when I use to live downtown in a major city, one of my favorite benefits was the ability to walk around the corner to my grocery store. It gave me an opportunity to notice the world around me. There use to be a time when schools bused students by how far they lived. Even high school students use to walk when families use to have one car, maybe two. Somehow, the assumption changed to everyone having a car. No wonder why we feel so indebted as a nation. Cars are definitely convenient, but defining the world in those terms seems a loss instead of a gain.

So what's a walkable distance? When do you decide to walk? To ride a bike? To drive? My local convenience store is a 10 minute walk, and 2 minute bike. For me it's a mix of time of day, weather and schedule. The little gears of my mind crank along, and what I get is....

Today or Tomorrow....

In this Weekend's Wall Street Journal, personal finance columnist Jeff Opdyke has a column on a tug of war between him and his mother about the structure of the will. The battle is over whether she should have access to her mother's (Jeff's grandmother's) inheritance in a trust or as a lump sum.

It boils down to how you look at the world, Jeff's mother is worried about living well in the today, and horrors, accidentally dying before spending all her money. While Jeff, playing the parental role here is worried about making sure his mother has enough to live reasonably over the long haul. What struck me about this column was if you replace inheritance with natural resources it sounds so much like the debate we have today over energy and the environment.

Both describe the optimism that we'll figure out something if we need it. What really struck me was this sense that if you don't spend it all you have somehow failed. The failure is maybe that we look at our lives as finite, instead of part of a continuum. I don't have children, but I always thought once you had children you stopped acting like a child and worried whether there would be enough for your kids when you were gone. But perhaps through marketing, we've emphasized the here and now as the only, and maybe our goal is to spend it all, use it all in our lifetime. Is there another way to explain the indifference that we lead our lives when it comes to the environment?

If we don't believe we have an obligation to tomorrow, no wonder why we act like there isn't one.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Shame on me.

Treehugger has a frightening statistic in this post that references a Wired blog post. This is the gist:

37 Million vs. 1.3 Billion

Truly an amazing statistic, via Wired. According to the California Energy Commission, the state with its 37 million people uses more gasoline and diesel than any other country on Earth except the US as a whole. That's more than India with its 1.1 billion people. More than China with its 1.3 billion. So while demand has been increasing in China and everybody's talking about that, they forget to look at absolute numbers: 20 billion gallon of gasoline and diesel are used each year in California, 6.7 billion gallons more than in 1988.

That really strikes to the unfairness of our way of life. The Wired post refers to a report of the California Energy Commission that provides a roadmap to energy efficiency and it's not going to be a smooth ride.

What amazes me is California is blessed with so many benefits, mild weather, fertile land, natural resources. Why are we burning so much fuel. We are in effect localvores relative to the rest of the country. What gives?

When will the madness stop...

Our American affection for green lawns has always puzzled me, since I rarely played on it and as I grew older ended up being the one mowing it. Elizabet Kolbert explores the origin and ongoing cost of lawns in America in this New Yorker article .Given that water is our next challenged resources, it's not clear whether this staple of suburban living like the remote cal de sac can persist. The greatest irony is that this symbol of nature is perhaps the most unnatural form of landscaping around.

The most walkable city...

Check this out, based on Walkscore. The enforced density of the San Francisco Bay peninsula definitely helps.

I've blogged about walk store before, it's good to seem them get some good press.

WTF Part 2...

Tonight I was driving back from San Francisco stuck in traffic, and the person ahead of me had this Subaru SUV with Obama, "Voldemort Votes Republican", recycling and ERA bumper stickers. Despite the enlightenment, the driver flicked a cigarette butt onto the road. It's tough enough to lead the good fight, but to actively lead the bad fight while in your professed values you do that. Geez. This isn't falling off the wagon, this is bandwagon while you cheer for the opposing team.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Five for Thought....

I've embarked on a "Five for Footprint" where I've challenged people to reduce their carbon footprint by 5%, which comes out to reducing your emissions for one day by not driving to work, or foregoing that paper cup, etc one day out of every 20. Taking that small step reduces your impact in that area by 5% which sounds pretty impressive. Heck I'd love to get 5% for my savings right now. In this blog post, I'm going to pursue "Five for Thought" where I share five books that have shaped my thinking in the area of responsible living for me, and I think they'll spawn some thoughts for you as well.

The first two are non-traditional "business books" that chronicle the history of two companies that challenge the conventional wisdom that you cannot do good and do well.

1. Raising the Bar by Gary Erickson, the founder of Clif Bar & Co. The pivot of the story centers around Erickson's decision to turn down an offer of $60 million dollars and instead grow the business on his own and on his own terms. He outlines the philosophy guiding Clif bar the company and details his white road, red road version of the road not traveled.

2.Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia. This is more of a traditional biography of a person and a company, it offers similar lessons from Raising the Bar. So why include it? One example is an exception, but two is a rule. These are both very successful companies that treat their employees and the planet well.

Both the above books provide a framework for running good companies. They listen to what the market wants at a deep level, which is more important than the soulless methodologies of tradition business education. Andrew Stanton, director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo says he throws away marketing reports. That's because he's trying to satisfy the customer in himself.

The next two books are related in that they deal with human psychology and shatter the myths of what make us happy.

3. Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert. The central tenet of this book is that we as humans are incredibly poor at predicting what makes us happy or unhappy. What we think will make us happy usually doesn't last, and what we think will devastate us and debilitate us, we usually get over. Even the most terrible things. I recommend this book because it helps you evaluate the wants that bombard us and help us assess whether we will be truly happy if we get this or that. Much of our consumption is in the pursuit of happiness, but most times we leave disappointed. This explains why. The other reason I like this book is the author, a professor at Harvard has a great story of his own. HIs life followed an untraditional path which should give hope to students everywhere trying to figure out their lives and worried they won't. Can you imagine that there is a full Professor at Harvard who doesn't have a high school diploma, well don't imagine. Gilbert's that person.

The next book questions whether homo economicus exists in the way that we think s/he does. Are we as rational cold animals as we claim? No, we are irrational, self-delusional animals.

4. Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. This book gives clear examples of our irrationality is not an isolated case of that someone else, but instead is us. Behavioral economics is an incredibly important branch in that it allows us to craft policies for who we are, not who we wish we are. Our limited senses and distorted time frames impact our decisions. Understanding our limitations let us thrive.

The last book in the "Five for Thought" is a classic of the voluntary simplicity movement. I don't follow everything that the program suggests, but it does influence how I live my life.

5. Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. This book is a blueprint for a life more full and one that has less impact on the planet. The book is about personal finance, or more accurately, financial independence. The personal finance movement is very much tied to the sustainable life movement and it starts here. Structured as a series of exercises, the book always returns to ask you "what do you do that deeply contributes to your happiness" and if it doesn't get rid of it.

These are five (of many) books that made me think about how we can live better. Presumably fiction has played a role in my thoughts, but that will have to be for another blog post.

I've decided I'm going to treat this as a blog meme, I'll going to tag the following to share with us what books influenced them Arduous Blog and My Open Wallet.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Carbon of Convenience

I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how I and we got here in the current predicament that we are in with global warming, growing obesity and increased garbage of our world today. One theme that kept repeatedly coming up is that we don't live lives so much of instantaneous wants, but instead we lead lives of decision avoidance. This decision avoidance is enabled by the increasing convenience our lives demand. And at the risk of circular argument, we want convenience because we don't want to decide until the last possible minute for many things of our lives.

For instance, one of the primary drivers of carbon emissions is transportation. The faster we go, the more we emit. More power, more carbon. One way of looking at this is that faster travel allows us to stick more into out limited time by compressing travel. The other way of looking at things is that because we don't have to decide or choose until the last minute, we don't and because we know that we have this faster form of travel, we take it. When I take a good hard reflection on my life, much of the time I spend at home before heading out, instead of taking mass transit is just sort of sitting there or reading. Stuff I could do just as easily on mass transit. The cost of last minuteness, of convenience drives up my carbon count.

Or take a look at disposables, we have paper cups at our coffee bars because it saves us the trip of going to our cube and grabbing our mug. This is a failure for us to plan, if you have a cup of coffee everyday, it seems the habit is that you could bring your cup from your car on your way in. But no, your habit is to grab a new cup each day. Convenience is a code word for lack of planning in many cases.

For some reason the case for convenience is that it works on a system based on consumables, we get disposables into our system and then we drop them off to be removed somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind. For some reason, we can't build convenience into out systems cost effectively. For instance what if we only had mugs at our coffee stands, and then we washed them and returned them. Restaurants do that, but the cheaper the restaurant the more the consumables. Ironic isn't it. If your poor you can't afford to keep things because you have no money, if you are richer you can't throw things away because you have too much. It gets worse, you keep shipping the new paper cups from far away places all the time, emitting carbon continuously. If you take a little inconvenience and reuse, you ship things locally saving both on the emissions of transport, but also the emissions of manufacture.

The mechanized world of convenience has a direct link to our carbon production, either in emissions or waste. Is our carbon conundrum a casualty of our desire for convenience?

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Trash will come back tomorrow...

I cannot believe that I just attended a workshop at work on headline writing that implored me to not, I repeat NOT to make allusions in headlines, to not be cute, to not split infinitives (ok, I'm being a little cute intentionally and knowingly invoking bad grammar) but hell with it, I'm doing it anyway. Because this is art not journalism today.

This weekend I had the pleasure of watching Pixar's "Wall-E" and it was better than I expected. "Wall-E" is a redux of the original Pixar movie "Luxo Jr." which gave personality to inanimate objects. However this movie came with a sledgehammer to hit home its message. Conservative critics have been condemning the movie as some sort of environmental propaganda. Well yes, it's propaganda, but in literature we have another name for it -- a parable.

** Spoiler Alert - If you don't want to know any plot elements of the movie, stop reading now, and after you have seen it you can come back. I'm pretty sure the post will be here. ***

The movie takes place in the future, where Earth has become an uninhabitable place overrun by the garbage of our lives. Unable to escape from the garbage of earth humanity leaves. Left behind on earth is a little robot "Wall-E" who spends his life compacting garbage and stacking it, and stacking it. Eventually, through the power of love Wall-E gets reunited with "human beings" who slowly realize that they had a past.

The thing about the movie is that it's about trash, and the notion that you can run away from it. But reality is that you cannot hide it away or runaway from it since eventually the trash will come out tomorrow, just like the sun. Eventually there will be nowhere else to hide it and it'll be in your face despite your best efforts.

So we can't stop producing garbage, as being part of a society that's what we can make. But we can think about how we make our garbage and what we can make our garbage out of. Nature know that the laws of physics better than we do, and that you cannot create or destroy matter. But you can cycle it in different forms. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. This we do is a must. There is a developing field called biomicry that explores biological systems as a template for man made systems. Perhaps that's the model for our goods of the future, otherwise everything just ends up as trash until all that's left is trash.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Liberté, Fraternité, Vélib-ité....

A happy Bastille Day to you. It only seems appropriate to highlight an article from the
New York Times about the surprising popularity of the rent a boat anchors in Paris. Ok, they may be as heavy as a boat anchor but really they are the Vélib or Liberty Velos. Reading the article what blew me away was how close the drop off and rental stations are, as little as 300 yards away! With over 1450 stations they are ubiquitous. Check out these stats:

In the first year, the city says, there have been 27.5 million trips in this city of roughly 2.1 million people, many of them for daily commutes. On average, there are 120,000 trips a day. And on July 27, at the conclusion here of the Tour de France, 365 lucky Vélib’ riders will be chosen to ride along for a while and cross the finish line.

While the service has had it's problems with theft, increasing congestion on streets, conflicts with traffic. It does demonstrate the feasibility of alternative transport, and this is in a city that supports alternative transportation. Paris is a great transit city with one of the top class rail and subway systems. I fondly remember asking "une carnet si vous plait" for the 10 pack of tickets for the subway. I wonder if they use le metro card now?

Another quote that struck me in the article was a technique to increase success were the following:

there were several keys to success: allowing subscriptions, so people get the sense that the bikes are free once they have paid their up-front fee; making sure the bike stations are ubiquitous and keeping the system “user-friendly.”

It reminds me of how popular the "Spare the Air" days are here in the Bay Area, when pollution counts are high mass transit goes free. Unfortunately the cost is prohibiting from continuing. Free transit systems like the various shuttle systems that exist downtowns like in Denver and Portland have proved successful for minimizing car congestion.

Could a bicycle program work here? One trend in addition to the increase in bicycle riding is the use of scooters, like the dot-com razors to move between mass transit stops. I much preferable alternative to the Segway or the floating chairs of "Wall-E" (A movie I saw this weekend I'll blog about later, it brings up a lot of themes I've been thinking about lately).

Celebrate! Have yourself some Pomme Frites and take a bike ride to exercise them off.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The either or problem....

Tonight a friend of mine had an opportunity to catch up over a couple of "games" of curling. Part of the conversation concerned what are the next steps we are planning on taking in these transitional times. He's coming off of a leave of absence and is passionate about doing something in the non-profit sector or environmental area, but it's a big leap for many reasons. That old saw about divorcé's wanting to continue to a life to which they've become accustomed to rings true. Does one go corporate and have a cush life, or does one go green and live poor. It's a tough either or choice and I think it's a false one. Let me explain why.

First off, I'm not going to go and perpetuate the myth that you can have it all. I have many a friend struggling with the expiring option of being able to have a family, it's clear in life there are trade offs, but they don't have to be this stark. We tend to think can we be environmental or can we have economic growth? That's the wrong question, the question is what problems do have in our world that need resolution and solution can remedy that in a way that is compatible with our better and worse natures.

If you were to think what things in the world have made the biggest difference in public health. You wouldn't think the internet, you wouldn't think consumer goods, etc. What probably comes to mind is our public works system for clean water and sewage removal. The number of lives saved by plumbing is astounding. Boring, but astounding. More recently, some readers may recall that there was something called regular gasoline, which was sold next to unleaded gasoline. Actually, unleaded gas came later. IF you go the the pump today you find unleaded, premium, super premium. They are all unleaded but you don't find regular. Regular gasoline had lead as an anti-knocking agent, but it became clear that the lead was making kids stupid and impeding their development. We saw this in paint too, so now lead free paints are the norm as well. We didn't go lead, it's going to kill the paint industry, well I'm sure someone used that argument. We completely changed the system where lead just didn't make sense in these products. It didn't happen instantly, there was a period of overlap, but it did happen.

Even more recently was CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons, a key compound in air conditioners and aerosols that was responsible for the ozone hole. We factored those out as well and guess what the internet happened and our economy adjusted.

Think about the upcoming transition to Digital TV next February. The naysayers who say you can have an economy or an environment with increased regulation, but you can't have both, have not spoken up about the regulation banning analog signals. No one is saying you can either have digital or analog. No they figured out a way to make everything better (except for the vast number of TVs that were instantly obsoleted)

We can have cars that run on alternative fuels and a clean environment. If we make our decisions about choices, we've got a problem. If we make the problem is how do we restructure the world where the default is better, it's not an either or, but instead a how. That's what we need to start asking ourselves. The internet has made us think things happen instantaneously, and when it doesn't happen that way we think no way it can happen. But we forget, it's the first step that matters and if you have to go that direction anyway, why hold off taking that step.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Fashion or Function.....

I was cleaning out the cupboard in a midweek chore extravaganza. It's amazing how work can drain you of any energy that even if you have the time, you can't seem to get anything done. This blog post almost fell into that category. As I've alluded to in previous posts, I'm participate in some endurance sports. One of the joys or banes of these sports is the emphasis on gear. Not just hardware like bikes, shoes and goggles. But even food, the different energy bars, electrolyte drinks, energy goops and blocks. I try to buy my electrolyte replenishment drinks in powdered form and make my own. As I was doing my cleaning, I realized that the powder I have comes in a plastic container that's a pretty healthy size and I was thinking what can I do with this jar? There must be something I can do. To give you an idea, I converted an old gatorade powder jar into a silverware drying container by punching holes in the bottom so the silverware can stand up straight and the water can drain. Then I noticed something.

Why do I even get my drink mix in a plastic jar anyway? My sugar (as you see above) comes in a little more friendly paper bag wrapping. Most people I know put their food staples into another bin after they buy it. In fact, I might use my Gu container for my baking sugar when I'm finished. It's more rectangular so it's more efficient for transport and storage. The wrapping takes less energy to make, and less oil is used in the packaging. And it's not just Gu, Clif brands electrolyte also comes in plastic tubs.

So why do we package things in plastic when we do? I get my pasta in plastic bags or paper boxes. They both work, in fact sometimes I'll put the pasta from a plastic bag into a box to save on space.

Sometimes the packaging is as much part of the experience, but other times it just is. Drink mixes might make more sense to come in paper, not plastic. When I get a chance, I'm going to write my electrolyte vendors and ask them to consider changing their packaging. As I've said before, plastic lasts forever, so if I do need to put it in a tub, I can do it, I don't need a new tub every few weeks.

Companies are getting better with their packaging. Apple has been really good about reducing their packaging, curious to see how the new iphone is packaged. My guess is it'll be tiny.

Fashion or Function, plastic or paper. Do the two line up or are they separate?

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

What constitutes a lifetime.

How long before you retire the things in your life and how do you retire them? That's the question I'm wondering about with the advent of the second coming, ehm, I mean the arrival of the 3G iPhone this Friday. Despite my desire to get one, I'll probably pass for a little while since I have a decent phone right now, despite it's horrid large antenna. And worse than that I still have phones that still work that I am slowly selling off and keep on hand for friends visiting who need a loaner phone.

So much of the things in our life work, and they work for a long time. Despite claims to planned obsolescence, most things in our lives stay functional for a long long time. They get replaced more out of fashion than function. The other day I noticed that the coffee cup that I keep in my car is 12, count that, 12 years old and it's still working. Considering that I got the cup for free for attending a computer training class, it's outlasted the knowledge that I acquired in the class. It may actually outlast the company at this rate.

That got me to thinking, what else do I have that's lasted the test of time. My cork bulletin board from college is still in use. Having traveled from coast to coast. The monitor stand I use is almost 10 years old, the plastic it's made of is going to last longer than I do. Another college relic are the plates I have for breakfast, still working after 20 years.

There are a lot of things that can give a lot of mileage, but we sell them short or just want a change. And someone's old is in most cases someone's old too.

What do you have that's lasted forever and do you think of replacing it? And why? For me, most of the time is it works, keep using it.


This was the heading of an email that my friend sent me about this Der Spiegel article about how middle eastern countries are considering polluting coal over cleaner burning oil to power their rising economies and cities like Dubai. After reading the article, I hate to say it that was my response as well. If we could only convert human silliness into energy.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Unplugged, sort of.....

Check out this article about efforts to revolutionize something so pedestrian in our everyday lives.

Worth a quick glance.

What's under your desk?

Speaking of religious conversions...

Again the LA Times is talking about how car loving Southlanders are increasingly taking the bus and mass transit. The price of gas is really making people thing about something they use to take for granted. It's like when you go swimming and you start thinking about your breathing like nothing else. One interesting side effect of the increase in mass transit is the increase in it's perceived safety. Bryanne Sykes noticed the following transformation:

"The good thing with gas getting more expensive is, more and more people are riding it," says Sykes.

In the past, when she got back to Long Beach about 9 p.m., the lonely walk to her car, down a dark street between the tracks and a park, was eerie. "I would stay on the phone with my husband as I walked," she said.

"In the last month, it's me and 10 other people with briefcases and computers," she says.

The sprawling distances of parking lots make our human scale distances forbidding and frightening, so it's good that safety in numbers is making mass transit feel safer.

Challenges still exist, the requirement to make multiple transfers dissuades people from taking mass transit. However, if citizens in one of the most car dependent places in America can share the ride more often, there is hope.

Flying off the shelves, or maybe rolling off.....

The LA Times has found religion in articles about alternative commuting. My favorite is the article is about the rise in popularity of bicycling in the car capital of the world Los Angeles. Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association observes about the new bicycle dynamic.

"We're certainly having an uptick in utility use, but we may have a corresponding decline in recreational purchasing," he said. "You can't underestimate the power of a weak economy to make people rein in some of their spending."

Looks like BAT (Bicycles as Transportation) is taking off. I expect there will be an uptick in bicycle interest with the Tour de France going on.

It's a race against our best selves.

Some things in life are meant to be savored, to serve as inspiration for others that beauty can be achieved in our life time, that perseverance and the depths of our heart can bring us home or at least give us the glory of our sense of self. That was the feeling I got going over the coverage of Nadal vs. Federer at Wimbledon. Two athletes who gave it their all and took the game to another level. Sport is majestic in that it is a metaphor that many of us can experience if not attain. When we walk onto a court with racquet and ball in hand we know the difficulty of what they make so easily. But what we wish in ourselves is not the skill to deliver and ace, but the strength to not quit and to keep moving forward while facing adversity. Oh it's cliche, it seems worn, but 5 set test, going 16 games in the fifth.

It was a good week for sports, as the Olympic Swimming Trials concluded, with Dara Torres going to her fifth Olympics at age 41. I cannot remember which coach was talking, but his advice was this, "we don't race against others, we need to remember to race against out best self"

Good advice in everything in our life.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Tale of Two Countries....

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

If I have to tell you where that opening paragraph came from and you are over 24 years old, I worry for our education system. But, it's hard to know what the current state of the "Canon" is these days. But I'll tell after the fold. Regardless, it's a nice intro to the world around us and our current tumultuous times.

This weekend were two excellent articles in the New York Times (which sadly has become my local paper living here in the San Francisco Bay area) about the two different paths Japan and the United States took after the oil crisis of the 1970s. Which according to historical accounts was much worse with people waiting in line for gas, stagflation and a super sense of malaise. President Carter at the time was telling us to turn down our thermostats, and was chided for it because it was un-American to preach for sacrifice and what a bummer it was for the country. Well, have I got news for you, turning down the thermostat is the last thing we need to worry about now if it gets any hotter. (yes I know that weather is becoming more extreme -- dramatic effect is my schtick)

The article on Japanese companies looking to leverage their acquired experience and expertise on efficient operations. The whole article is entirely quotable so I won't bother, but this is one that struck me:

“Japan taught itself decade s ago how to compete with gasoline at $4 per gallon,” said Hisakazu Tsujimoto of the Energy Conservation Center, a government research institute that promotes energy efficiency. “It will fare better than other countries in the new era of high energy costs.”

In my years of experience at different companies in booms and busts, I've learned that booms have a magical ability to paint over sins that come to roost. Once the good times come back, often the muscles needed to move quickly have atrophied after being wind assisted for too long.

That's the gist of article on how America basically saw what was coming and chose to ignore it. Now this isn't unique to Americans as Aesop nailed it with the grasshopper and the ant many years ago. But when you have the size and heft of America, can you mess up in a big way. As Nobel prize winning physicist Arno Penzias said "In the long run, technology makes us what we are already, only more so. Lazy people will be lazier, smart people will be smarter. Moving data faster does not really enter into it. It is like speeding up in a car when you are lost; the result usually just enables you to get lost over a wider area."

The crux of the article is we failed to react because we were worried about the impact of the efficiency edicts on the economy. But an economy grows not by making more of the old things, but innovating and creating on the things we're going to need. That view led to the hybrid synergy drive of the Prius. To me, almost equally sad is think of a major American bicycle manufacturer who makes bikes in the U.S. It's hard. Just like our cars our bikes are made overseas now. As I remember, fligth started not with the automobile but the bicycle. The articles are very sober reads, choose and start exercising those efficiency muscles we'll need for the future.

The opening quote is the opening paragraph from Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities"

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Time to rest....a time to free up some mindspace.

Much of our environmental crisis is the demand by "economies" to eek out more and more "efficiencies" out of whatever we are "optimizing" This includes the land as we over farm it, never giving it the chance to recover. Running factories all the time, working longer and longer days. However there is a time for rest, recovery and rejuvenation.

So as we embark on what I hope most people are receiving is a three day weekend. I'm going to be taking a break from the electronic world aside from reading the leisurely parts of the paper and an occasional email. I have a few blog posts that I'm working that have me thinking, but commitments from various sources have left little mindspace to work them out, so I'm going to free up a little space. Hope to see you Tuesday.

Happy Independence Day everyone.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Carbon Free Entertainment....

Things are getting expensive out there, and it's got me wondering what can people do to pass the time and not break the bank, nor break the planet. So in anticipation of July 4th, I'm declaring energy and financial independence for enjoying the holiday. The following are five (see a pattern here) suggestions for carbon free enjoyment this upcoming Holiday Weekend.

1) Spend time with friends and family at a bar-b-que or picnic. There are few easier ways to past the time then prepping food with friends, and then grilling them and eating the fruits of your labor. Don't forget that fruits are excellent grilling items as well. Try to avoid disposables wherever possible and when necessary get compostables.

2) Take a walk in the park, or play in the park. If you have them already play frisbee(tm), croquet, catch, badminton, volleyball or some other game with friends and family. If you don't have them be sure to ask neighbors if you can borrow them. It's a great time to get to know your community.

3) Play board games. If you are on Facebook, and it seems like here in Silicon Valley who isn't. Scrabulous made scrabble wildly popular again. So take a break from the computer and using that electricity and play in person. Again, if you don't have a Scrabble set (then what's wrong with you - just kidding). Then try to borrow one. It's inexpensive and most of the games are actually biodegradable being made of wood and cardboard. I find them at garage sales all the time and have picked up sets and left sets at work. A non biodegradable game is the travel edition which I enjoy thoroughly.

4) Watch a movie, the act of watching a movie is pretty carbon free except for the utilities and the transportation. See if you can reduce those down (at least the transport). Wall-E is a post apocalyptic version of a world of garbage. Maybe a lesson there, can't tell you since I haven't seen it yet. But I plan to.

5) Sit around the table and shoot the breeze. Isn't amazing what great stories happen when you're just talking. The great conversations of our youth were sitting late in the dorm room. I recommend listening to the Feelies to set the mood. I just read the linked article and remember the great potential of being smitten with the thought of life and the school's number two singles tennis player. Relive that over again. If you want a great shoot the breeze kind of story about shooting the breeze, here's a bonus thing to do, go to the library and check out this story.

Shopping is not a hobby, and while we live aspirational lives, we can choose what we aspire to. This is a particular moving post by Madame X, of, a personal finance blogger who blogs anonymously. The post focuses on being able to call herself a writer after many years and the awkward tie to financial capability that a job may entail. Our wealth translates into our aspirations, and perhaps our impact on the planet.

I realize that I am very lucky, and have less fears than others. As we pursue our happiness this weekend, it doesn't hurt to ask what type of life and by extension what kind of world results of our pursuits. Our liberty is impacted by what's around us and the permission of others to keep the world around us so that we have the freedom of choice as oppose to the mandate of fighting for survival.