Archive for the 'Sustainability' category

The enemy of progress on environmental issues

April 15, 2007 7:39 pm

I was surprised at a headline in the newspaper the other day: California (or was it just the San Francisco Bay Area) is officially in a drought this year. Strange, when just last year there was more than enough water to go around. We are being asked to save 10% of our usual water consumption this year.

One way to accomplish this is installing low-flow shower heads and installing drip irrigation systems instead of the sprinkler systems that are so ubiquitous around here. That got me thinking about how we can contribute to saving 10% of our water consumption. We already have low-flow shower heads installed. So the only thing to do extra there is turning off the water while soaping up, which should be doable.

But what about the watering system? We’re renting the house we live in, like so many people here in this hyper-priced area. We could ask our landlord to upgrade the system, but why should he? There’s not really anything in it for him. We pay the water bill, not he. It would only cause hassles. And cost him money. You can imagine how this plays out for other areas where it would be a good idea to improve the house to lessen your impact on the environment. Double-paned windows, attic and wall insulation, light fixtures that allow for energy efficient lighting to be installed (our house has the first two already, luckily). Usually there is no reason whatsoever for someone to make these improvements to a rental house.

This line of reasoning extends to a lot of other areas as well. Think about what we consider a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions (and global warming) - cars. There are millions and millions of cars on the streets that spew out tons and tons of carbon-dioxide, but work just fine, thank you. Ours does (so far, knock on wood.) There is no incentive for people to suddenly sell their old car and buy a new one. And imagine what would happen if everyone wanted to do that at the same time, owing to some miracle. Due to the enormous supply of cars, the price you could get for your old car would plummet. That would make it even less attractive, even if everyone had a change of consciousness suddenly.

All if this leads me to believe that one of the large problems that has to be solved politically to work on environmental issues is how to deal with the “installed base” (to use a software development term.) I have no idea how to do that without using taxation. It’s not like you can just push down an update over the Internet. And I know very well that talking about taxes in the U.S. is almost the same as committing political suicide. So if you are concerned about issues like this and have some bright ideas that don’t involve taxes, let’s hear them!

Is money the only effective behavior modification tool on a societal level?

April 4, 2007 9:26 am

It used to be that we were all inextricably connected to the planet and each other. We lived in small villages or other little communities, got our sustenance from farming or gathering, and bartered with each other. The baker would trade bread for horseshoes. The doctor would trade consultations for eggs. The farmer would trade grains for plows. Everyone took as much as they needed to live their lives. Manual and animal labor limited the amount of resources we could harvest. We had nowhere to put our waste, but nearby our communities, so we knew how to use and re-use things to their utmost potential.

Today, we have no idea how our actions impact the environment or society around us and far away. Machines powered by fossil fuels enable us to extract as many natural resources as we want, crave or desire from the planet. Industrial processes turn those resources into “stuff” for us to buy and use, and often use up and throw away. And machines transport our waste away from our communities.

Most of us are completely disconnected from the natural world by using money to buy stuff. All we know is that this widget or that gadget costs X.

We don’t know how much energy was used in making it. We don’t know what raw materials went into it. We don’t know how the raw materials were transported. We don’t know how production affected the environment. We don’t know how much the people working on it were paid, and whether that was a fair payment. We don’t know how discarding it will impact the environment.  

We don’t know anything except the price. And very often the people making the gadget externalize lots of costs. Especially the costs of throwing it away and how that contributes to slowly making our planet a pigsty for us to slowly suffocate in our own waste. Along with all other living beings. Everything we use and throw away still stays on the planet. It may not be in our neighborhood because it gets transported “away”, but it goes somewhere. We don’t know exactly where. We don’t know exactly how.

Since money is all we know, money seems to be the only answer to modifying behavior. That means that if a society wants to influence the way its members behave, the only way to do that is through taxation. If buying gas for your car causes the atmosphere to heat up, tax it some more to make people think of other ways of getting around. If buying a computer will cause toxic chemicals to leak into our water supplies once it’s discarded, tax it some more so people will think of other ways of accomplishing what they think they need a computer for. And use the taxes to support responsible re-use and final disposal, to support research into ways to design products with re-use in mind, to support mindsets that encourage living sustainably and lightly on the earth.

I know that lots of people bristle at the idea of taxes. It just seems to me that we as a society don’t understand anything but money, so we need to use monetary means to get to societal ends. The biggest of which is our obligation to future generations of the human species to enjoy life as we enjoy it right now.

More on pouring away gas

January 26, 2007 7:53 pm

This is something I’ve had stuck in my mind ever since I read the book “Stuff: The secret lives of everyday things” (or was it “Natural Capitalism”? I’ve lent out both books right now).

Take a wild guess at how much of the energy in the gas you put in your car actually goes towards transporting you. Don’t be afraid to lowball it. Write it down.

How did you go about it? Did you use the fact (which is fairly common knowledge) that car engines are about 30% efficient? Good. But 30% is not the answer. Did you pay attention to how the question is worded? “Towards transporting YOU”?

How about idling, energy lost in the driveline, energy lost on powering accessories in the car? With all that, about one-eighth (12.5 %) of the energy reaches the wheels. Around half of that heats the tires, road and air that the car pushes aside. That leaves about 6% or so applied to moving the car forward. When you figure in that your mass compared to the car’s mass is about 5%, that leaves less than one percent of the energy in the fuel for transporting YOU. Let’s be generous and say it’s actually one percent. Here’s a little visual of that number for you:


That’s a scary waste in my book.

Here’s more to make you think: A friend of mine, Stan King, did some calculations based on a discussion we had at a recent simplicity circle meeting at our house. I had wondered how bicycling compares to driving in terms of energy efficiency. He took on the task of figuring it out. When you convert the amount of energy needed to bike a mile and convert that to the car’s miles-per-gallon equivalent, riding a bicycle has a “miles-per-gallon” of about 650. That number makes hybrid cars pale in comparison.

When you consider that 99% of the energy in the gas is wasted on things other than transporting you, the passenger, riding a bicycle has a “miles-per-gallon” of over 6500.

Compared to that, hybrid cars seem almost like stone age technology.

This is the thinking behind our family’s decision to stick with one car, even though it creates some inconvenience. It’s also why I bike to work practically every day.

And just so you won’t think I pulled these numbers out of thin air, there’s a Wikipedia article that states a 653 mpg for bicycling, which matches Stan’s number well. The calculation on the efficiency of cars can be found in this article by Amory Lovins from July 2006. The journal this was published in can be downloaded here (3.17 MB PDF).

Try this search on Google. I promise you’ll be surprised!

5:43 pm

Doing some research for an illustration I wanted to post on this blog, I typed the following search terms into Google: aluminum can volume. What do you think a search like this would bring you? Try it out yourself. You’ll be as surprised as I was.

It’s this:


Almost every result talks about how much energy is wasted when you don’t recycle a soda can! It’s the equivalent of filling the can halfway with gas and pouring it out. If that idea won’t make you think more about recycling aluminum cans, maybe this calculation will:

Half a soda can is 6 oz. A gallon has 128 oz. So 21.333 empty cans thrown away equal a gallon of gas wasted. My car has a tank capacity of about 15 gallons (I think). So it would take 320 non-recycled cans for me to waste a tank full of gas. My car can travel about 300 miles on a tank of gas. I certainly don’t want to waste energy like that. Especially energy coming from our dwindling oil reserves. We’ll need that oil for lots of other things besides burning it for transportation. For example, most plastics are based on oil, and I wonder how many cool and wonderful gadgets and gizmos (needing plastic enclosures and parts) we won’t be able to produce in the future if we run out of oil. Pardon the digression.

Anyway, now I’ve used my illustration and even given it a little surprising Google story to go with it.