Monday, June 29, 2009

Does the environment fix itself with $7 per gallon gas.

Tonight I was listening to a World Affairs Council talk called Oil Scarcity and the End of Globalization by economist Jeff Rubin who talks about the end of globalization and the rise of localization. He describes it in the terms that our carbon economy will necessarily become more expensive out of scarcity. Rubin shares stories and examples about the lunacy of our non-economic pricing of oil that leads to anomalies such as Dubai having an indoor ski resort, and that the energy to provide for each skier is basically a barrel of oil, equivalent to the driving fuel for that some individual for a month.

When oil goes up in price, assumptions such as 50 mile commutes being viable will disappear, and there are other consequences as well. Definitely worth an hour of listening or at least the first 30 minutes before Q&A.

I'll write about the consequences about the rhythms of our lives and what makes conservation so difficult. It's all about time.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Anyone up for an "Infinite Summer"?

I know this is a blog on the environment, and this challenge will probably increase the rate of deforestation, but I am thinking of playing catch up on Infinite Summer where readers around the world will be taking on our modern day Ulysses, or own generational version of Gravity's Rainbow the great, demanding and endurance test Infinite Jest I have my copy ready and as always am behind. Will you join?

Our environmental mess is a result of our economic mess

Our environmental situation can be boiled down to the fact that we consume way beyond our means. We consume way beyond our means because we had access to stupid credit and we have to pay it down (or not, looks like we'll all be paying for these people's debt). Michelle Singletary of the Washington post in her latest column had this Q&A with the most intelligent thing I've read so succinctly:

Q: Why did you say student loans are not good? As long as you're paying them back, what's the deal?

A: The deal is, it's debt.

Debt = bondage.

If we rethink our economics, or environment will follow.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


our lives increasingly get abstract, detached, remote, the lives of others far away intrude and out lives close by elude. something seems awry, the center cannot hold.

act in your own way on the lives close by...near and far are one and same.

Monday, June 22, 2009

hidden treasures on the street

On Saturday in addition to riding to the bookstore, my neighborhood was holding a neighborhood garage sale so I decided to put a panier on my bike and ride around to check out the sale. Most of my garage sale hunting is usually of two kinds. Picking up things for the apartment and the other is possible eBayable merchandise. It amazes me how often we are willing to buy things that we will never use. I'm not any better.

One of the ironies of our world is that we simultaneously live in a world of scarcity and plenty. Garage sales represent so much of what we think we need, and what we have left is really what we need. Sometimes our needs change. My best score (well second best) was a print server so you can share your printer with many different computers. Now the funny thing is I already have a print server, but it was so inexpensive so I had to pick it up. Didn't look like there were going to be any takers and I had to save it from the dump (such the altruist). I picked it up and spent about an hour trying to figure if I had just bought a paper weight. I had not, then I went to ebay and found out that I had done ok. I could probably put it on ebay and sell it.

Which got me thinking, is so much of our waste our inability to have things find where they are most wanted. The internet helps, but it's not enough. How do we reduce the effort of taking what I don't want, to find it to someone that does want it. In most cases it's easiest to just buy it from the store. So maybe that's the question. What is the killer app that will give our goods a second life.

That print server will most likely end up at a friend or relatives. Households just don't have one computer anymore.

So what was my best score of the day.

I have a funny feeling I'll be having my own garage sale soon. (Total cost for the two items $3)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

requiring zoning to take into account bicycles

Yesterday I was running some errands, and being a lazy uncommitted weekend aside from some training runs and swims I had some slop time in the schedule (though in my slop I think my laundry has slopped out and may go into Monday unless I get really inspired). I decided to do as many of my errands using my bicycle. One of these included swinging to the Borders about 4 miles away to pick up a book on iPhone Development (one of the ideas I'm mulling is an app for companies to encourage alternative commuting.) Sometimes a local book store beats an internet one, and I know I should consider independent but something to be said for being in stock too. (Though the independent would have been a shorter bike ride).

Borders as oft is the case is in a strip mall, so popular in suburban areas and as I pulled in I did the usual thing one does with a vehicle, look for parking. Unfortunately, there weren't many bike racks and most people were just locking their bikes by the garbage cans (hmmm, odd symbolism). In the complex I noticed that there spaces for 4 maybe 6 bicycles. Contrast that to the number of cars. I was willing to go the other end of the strip mall and found an empty rack, but if the others had parked there instead of by the trash cans I'd be out of luck. Why so few bicycle racks?

An interesting thing that you may not know is that when one builds a large building or development, most city/county zoning laws mandate a number of parking spaces per square footage of retail. This is one of the reason suburban shopping malls resemble a wacked out Christo art piece where the mall is an island surrounded by a lily pad of asphalt. To my knowledge no corresponding zoning requirement exists for bicycles. Do people not ride bicycles because they won't find parking? Of is there no bike parking because no one rides. Probably a combination of both.

Our laws define our environment, and when willingly favor cars, people will go to cars. Japan is going to great lengths to build bicycle garages to help bike/rail commuters with vast bicycle garages. Finding parking for bicycles and relaxing social norms for sweat will help support alternative transportation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The irony...

this post is long overdue. I meant to write it during the announcement by General Motors (GM) that it was filing for bankruptcy. During that time, I opportunistically picked up a copy of Who Killed the Electric Car at the library to watch. What is ironic that so much of the movie is spent by people saying why the electric car could not be done. With the claim that ecological cars would not be profitable.

Contrast that with Toyota who is on it's third revision of the Prius, this recent NY Times article talks about the huge demand for the new car. So assuming that the Japanese and American car companies are capable of making economic analyses, why did the Japanese decide to continue pursuing alternatives to the combustion engine and the American car companies did not.

I think it might be a matter of attitude, when one focuses ones energy on avoiding something instead of channeling that same energy to the question of "what can I do to make it economical" I think that was the hybrid's brilliant solution in that instead of trying to solve all problems simultaneously (distribution, marketing, manufacturing, etc). It took it piecemeal. the original Prius was a car based on the old Tercel platform, not the space age looking car of today. It meant the innovation was cost contained.

If alternative energy vehicles was suppose to be an economic folly, it looks like someone forgot to tell Toyota. Too bad GM was maybe too smart for its own good.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Living on less, and less on the world.

One of the most popular articles on the New York Times is Pico Iyer's "The Joy of Less" that explores the wonder and joy of a simple life. It's a remembrance of the living without and what one does not mix. Less is a sense of freedom in many ways. I originally was going to post about how this relates to the environment and how the simple joys are more delightful than costly ones. My general laziness caused a delay and billionaire Mark Cuban had a blog post titled Success and Motivation 2009 in a completely different vein but had the same conclusion. If you are willing to live like a student, you have much more freedom. He even says it directly

The cheaper you can live, the greater your options. Remember that.

When we think about our financial mess and our environmental mess, the irony is the more we buy, the more we consume, the more expensive we live. We actually have less options. The more drastic our environmental imbalance, the fewer and more extreme options we have to extract ourselves. The more in debt or the more you lose at the casino, the more you feel pressure to make that one big score.

It's ironic, we are sold that the more that we can buy the more freedom we have. But you have a philosopher and a billionaire coming to the same conclusion. If we want options, perhaps we should look at less choices in what we consume so we have more choices in how we live. If you have the money to buy the best of everything, should you. Or should just spend on the best of what you really care about. The question is knowing what that really is.

Monday, June 01, 2009

How do we choose our laws.

The Texas State state house killed legislation that would allow individuals to get Solar Panel financing from local governments, and pay it back via their property taxes according to this blog post on the New York Times. The system that was proposed is similar to others in the country including California. One of the questions to ask is why?

My assumption was that it was mostly ideologically driven with arguments against government involvement in the markets. While that may be true, it's important to see if the opponents had supported other subsidies for other industries. But instead of looking at the specifics of the case, perhaps we need a different model for choosing our laws. One of my favorite is the "veil of ignorance in the original position" proposed by the Philosopher John Rawls. The premise is that we should choose our laws from a position of not knowing what our current or future state would be, that is our laws are chosen from under a veil of ignorance about our future position in society. Another way to think about it is, if you want a pie to be cut equitably, you make the person cutting the pie get the last piece.

So let's assume we don't have interests that we have today, and we don't know what interests we have. If we have the facts today that our environment is in jeopardy. What would we choose if we didn't have skin in the game. Would an oil company executive push for lobbying the same way if he didn't know he was going to be an oil executive. Would an political activist believe in taxation if he didn't know he might be an oil executive. Removing ourselves from our interests is tough to do, but it's the only way to escape the debate and get to understanding. From understanding we can start to craft reasonable alternatives.

So maybe the best alternative is not for governments to fund solar panels, but utilities. It reduces the need for new power plants (reducing capitals costs) and it allows for recurring revenue over a long term. If government fails, can business step in. Something to think about.