Tuesday, December 30, 2008
More than a billion gallons of coal ash have spilled from a coal-burning power plant in eastern Tennessee since Dec. 22, when a retention wall at the plant burst. That's billion with a "B," which means the amount of gunk spilled is about 100 times larger than the mess from the Exxon Valdez disaster. Gray sludge has spread across 300 acres, wiped out three homes, oozed into a tributary of the Tennessee River, and made a lot of local residents worried about their health and water supplies. Coal ash contains mercury and traces of heavy metals like arsenic and uranium. In the wake of the spill, high levels of arsenic have been found in some rivers and wells near the spill site, though authorities insist that drinking water is still safe. Enviros are seizing the opportunity to point out that "clean coal" is an oxymoron.
For those of you in Massachusetts interested in eliminating the local impacts of coal pollution (or really those of you anywhere wanting to help eliminate the global impacts of coal pollution) - sign this petition to shut down Dominion's Salem coal plant: http://www.stoptheplantnow.org/petition.htm
Monday, December 29, 2008
We had a blower door test done recently and found all of our leaks and under-insulated spots. There were a lot of them, and we’ve got a guy coming soon to fill in the parts of the roof with no insulation as an immediate first step. The next steps are to seal up all of the holes and gaps in the floor, get the walls insulated, update the windows, and hopefully put in some new windows on a Southwest wall. Before sealing up that tight though, we need to find a good solution to air quality and moisture – a ventilation system with a heat exchange that can work in our old house. It will be interesting to see how close we can get to a ‘super-insulated’ house that we can heat with the sun and some body heat. Starting from scratch it’s easier – I always think of the Rocky Mountain Institute headquarters that doesn’t need a heating system, and on cold overcast days, they throw tennis ball down the hall for the dog for auxiliary heat.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Education is too often overlooked in these matters, yet it is vitally important - it shapes our thought and patterns of thought that create our unsustainable systems (and then say "we didn't do it, there's nothing we can do about it"). This is key both for the immediate-term green jobs training, particularly in our community colleges, but also in all disciplines and throughout our education systems to breakout of these thought-traps and create sustainable systems - economic, infrastructure, social, energy, engineering, building, health, transportation, monetary - all kinds of systems.
OPINION: Letter to the New Education Secretaryby Worldwatch Institute on December 19, 2008
Worldwatch is pleased to publish this open letter from prominent education and environment leaders urging the newly nominated U.S. education secretary, Arne Duncan, to consider the importance of education in carrying out President-elect Barack Obama's environmental agenda.
Dear Mr. Duncan:
Congratulations on your nomination. As you jump into the daunting challenge of bolstering our sagging education system, you have a powerful opportunity presented by the need to create a carbon-free economy.
President-elect Obama has astutely perceived the linkages between climate change, economic stimulus, energy security, and job training by declaring that the transition to a green economy is his "top priority." The missing link in this system is the critical role that education can play in quickly making the green economy a reality. By working with him to include a major role for education in his green economy plans, you'll help advance his agenda - and yours.
Transforming our nation's economic, energy, and environmental systems to move toward a green economy will require a level of expertise, innovation, and cooperative effort unseen since the 1940s to meet the challenges involved... Read the rest at the Worldwatch site._________________________________
Monday, December 15, 2008
Check out the new Brochure from the MSLS Programme at BTH!
Friday, December 05, 2008
350 also makes things a bit simpler. For a long time negotiators and organizations, countries, regions making climate commitments have called for percentage reductions – 10% reductions by 2010 – reduced from what? Usually 1990 levels, but sometimes from emissions rates in 2000, or 2005, or 2006… sometimes the answer depended on what the emissions rates were like in a given baseline year. So it was getting confusing. And it also wasn’t that relevant.
We often get the dynamics of even the simplest systems confused. It’s just how our brains work. So to help, we often use the example of the bathtub. The facet is GHG emissions. The tub is the atmosphere. The drain are carbon “sinks” that remove carbon from the atmosphere. The highest the bathtub was ever full of water – over the 800,000 years that ice-core data shows was about 280 – that’s 280 parts per million. The lowest was about 180. Now 180 or 280 in a million might not sound like a lot, but it’s the difference between warm periods and ice ages. Since the industrial revolution, we’ve busted through that 280, and are sitting around 380. Scientists are calling for a return to 350 as a safe level for keeping our climate relatively stable, and hence limiting the disruption and destruction brought to our civilization.
Now think about what that means for the bathtub. We’re at 380. If we cut global emissions by 90% next year… we’ll still be moving in the wrong direction. At the end of the year, we’ll have more than 380 in the bathtub. Right now a lot of the strongest commitments out there, are talking about 20-30% cuts by 2020. Cuts in emissions. Think of the bathtub. The Sustainability Institute has developed a helpful simulator that allows you to play around with the faucet and see what it means in terms of emissions and atmospheric concentrations.
The colleges and universities that are building the ACUPCC have agreed to make plans for climate neutrality. That’s net-zero emissions. That’s turning the faucet off. (Recall if every institution in the world did that tomorrow, we’d still be at 380, and need to get carbon negative to get down to our safe 350). Now, the ACUPCC is still quite flexible, most schools, at least at first, will still create plans with much longer time horizons than we really need – but they will get started, with an end goal in mind that is necessary, not convenient. And I bet as they get going – and as everyone else gets going (the government, businesses, each of us) we’ll find we can pull those long range dates in and hit targets much more aggressively, at the pace we need to.
So 350 helps us get our heads around the scope of this challenge. The need for really dramatic action, quickly. It’s a rallying cry we need. It’s having a real impact in the COP negotiations going on in Poland right now. Check out www.350.org. Check out the 350 video. Rate it. Pass it on. Stay going.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Well, it’s been two months since I last posted – and it’s been a hell of a stretch. Among the highlights: first African American President, global economic meltdown, the end of Wall St, $700 billion bailouts, looming collapse of the Big 3, we got to go to Bioneers, the AASHE conference and Greenbuild, IPCC researchers gave up on safe climate scenario as we haven’t acted fast enough, Greenspan found “a flaw” in his thinking… It is this last one that I think may be the most significant.
I’ve seen some attempts to articulate how this meltdown is another symptom of “un-sustainability” – not separate from all of the other symptoms – climate change, toxins in the soil, air, water, and breast milk, erosion, terrorism, the wealth gap, etc… I’ll try to give my own here, but given the complexity of it all, it’s no easy task.
The story, and Greenspan’s own thinking about the “flaw” – that the banks would keep this from happening (wouldn’t take on so much risk) to protect their own self-interest – has been presented in the old “free-market” vs. “regulation” dichotomy. I think this is a false dichotomy and misses the point. It’s not a big “I told you so” moment for those who favor strong government regulation – though it should be a significant opportunity for “no regulation at any cost” crowd to take pause, and rethink the assumptions on which that theory (much abused and misrepresented overtime and when put into practice) is based. It’s that blind faith to a theory – a construct of human thought – unwavering in the face of significant evidence to the contrary is dangerous.
In his testimony Greenspan said “I was shocked because I'd been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.'' And indeed that evidence was there, but only if you only look at the evidence you want. Of course, standards of living rose, technology developed, we are able to have more stuff and (theoretically) more leisure time (although we ironically have less). But at the same time we’ve been responsible for mass extinctions, an unthinkable plummet in cultural diversity, spreading toxins throughout the globe and our own bodies, and a breakdown in the social fabric. Our economic system is too complex to let run wild towards a goal that doesn’t necessarily improve our lives (GDP growth). It’s also too complex to simply regulate this and that as problems arise.
But if we step back, and look at how the system operates on the principle level, it’s impossible not to see the evidence that this is just a minor foreshadowing of what’s to come if we don’t make some fundamental changes to how our global society operates. Our population is growing exponentially, our technological prowess is growing exponentially, our demand for more stuff is growing exponentially (site China and India, or Wal-Mart death stampedes), and to drive this economic engine in our foolish pursuit of a false goal… we systematically weaken the natural systems we depend on – physically destroying them and flooding them with foreign substances (from the earth’s crust, or that we produce) at rates far faster than they can handle…. And undermine the social systems we depend on through abuses of power that create barriers to people’s capacity to meet their needs. This is a very big flaw. I don’t think Greenspan really saw the light, or appreciated the magnitude of the flaw in our way of thinking, but he saw a hint of it.
The underlying assumptions were further revealed through this defense: “We cannot expect perfection in any area where forecasting is required,” he said. “We have to do our best but not expect infallibility or omniscience”…“If we are right 60 percent of the time in forecasting, we are doing exceptionally well; that means we are wrong 40 percent of the time. Forecasting never gets to the point where it is 100 percent accurate.” This reliance on forecasting dismisses the notion that we have self-determination, that we can create the future we want. It says that because we built such a big and complex society, we’re stuck riding this rollercoaster – even as we see the end of the tracks hanging over the canyon. And this type of tinkering – changing interest rates, adjusting money supply – is like trying to make little steering corrections to stay on the tracks. Of course the answer isn’t to instead create a giant regulator for the rollercoaster. It’s to get off the rollercoaster. And to backcast – to be realistic about where we are and intentional about where we want to end up. Then we can get to work together to get there.
What was amazing was to see the “shock” – he obviously believed it to be true, absolutely. His worldview was shattered (a little bit). And he didn’t try to hide it – he showed us how strong our blind-spots can be, and how when we recognize them, we can acknowledge that (and hopefully start thinking differently). I give him great credit for getting up and stating it plainly.
Representative John Yarmuth called Greenspan, Former Treasury Secretary Snow, and SEC Chairman Cox “three Bill Buckners” for letting this slip by. Hopefully we will all find the big flaw before all of humanity experiences the proverbial '86 Series on the global scale. Stay going…
Thursday, October 02, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
This story hit the Independent yesterday, and I really hope these preliminary findings are exaggerated, or not what they seem:
Exclusive: The methane time bomb
Arctic scientists discover new global warming threat as melting permafrost releases millions of tons of a gas 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide
Tuesday, 23 September 2008
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
Often people make the mistake of thinking that sustainability is all about limits, having less stuff, being restricted in terms of what we can do. In fact, it is the opposite. By recklessly pursuing physical growth in a "take-make-waste" economy - thinking we're getting more - we're actually getting less - now and in the future.
As the Footprint Network points out, the financial collapse happening around us right now is a stark reminder of what can happen when debt and spending are allowed to grow out of control, with no responsibility and no acknowledgment of the natural limits that every system is subject to - whether it's the laws of thermodynamics on the planetary scale, or the rules of accounting for a business. You can only cheat the system for so long, and we've been cheating the system for too long. We continue to see examples of organizations, communities, cities, and now entire economies hitting the funnel walls - Enron, New Orleans, Houston/Galveston, Lehman/Bear/Freddie/Fannie/AIG.
Of course the good news is, that to avoid this collapse, all we need to do is be respectful of those limits. And these limits will not limit us. Constraints breed creativity - the rules of music enable artists to create beautiful songs as opposed to jumbles of noise, the rules of soccer make a fun game as opposed to an aimless group of people chasing a ball, tough engineering challenges with unusual constraints spur innovation, the list goes on. And accepting the challenge of operating all of our institutions, organizations, businesses and within the constraints of the sustainability principles will help us come together and engage in the most gratifying work imaginable - creating better lives for ourselves, our families, our communities, those around the world while contributing to the health and well-being of all other life. So we can move-on from this myth that acknowledging the reality of the limits that the laws of nature represent will cause problems for us - it only opens up opportunities and is our way forward for improving our quality of life.
To learn more about ecological footprinting, the Footprint Network, and Overshoot Day, check out: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Sunday, August 03, 2008
We are working on implementing a permaculture design at our new place - starting off by watching the sun arch through the sky over the year, and standing out in rain storms to see how the water flows. We've started putting in some berms by hand to get the contours right and slow down the water during storms. Another first step was setting up a good composting system to catch all of the nutrients we can that come through our household system. I've started chipping away at the lawn and putting in some 'experimental' crops - a tiny wheat field that is sort of growing... Fruit and nut trees are another short term step that will need a few years before really paying off, but a great way to diversify the harvest and maximize the use of perennial crops. Even a small plot can get overwhelming, but by just immersing yourself and observing, you can learn a lot, and enjoy the experimentation. The beauty of the diversity is that when a few things just flop, you've got a few dozen more things that will probably do well. If we can imagine a world where everyone does this - in their backyards, apartment balconies, and windowsills - and we get creative with public spaces, parks, highway medians, sidewalk plantings, and the like - we can start to imagine significant shifts in the global food system, and the possibility of sustainable production for 9+ billion. Stay going.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Al Gore gave an incredibly important speech last week, as I’m sure you’ve heard. The challenge is for the US to dramatically reduce our demand, increase our efficiency, and retool our infrastructure in 10 years to produce all of our electricity with no carbon emissions. Echoing JFK’s man-on-the-moon in a decade vision, the challenge sets an ambitious, but achievable goal.
Of course, not everybody thinks so. The responses have been predictable:
1) 1) Gore is a gas-bag (or something to that effect)
2) 2) It’s impossible
3) 3) It will cripple the economy
4) 4) It’s political posturing
5) 5) It’s out of touch with the rest of the world
6) 6) He didn’t tell us exactly how to do it
Of those, I’d say the only one that has any real merit might be #1, and that’s a matter of opinion. The rest reflect only the assumptions we make about what’s possible, about what we want out of life, about why we’re here, and about what are our moral responsibilities to ourselves, other people in our country and around the world, other species, and future generations. The approach is exactly the kind we need. It recognizes the urgency of the problem, and the scale and scope of what’s needed. It moves us past rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
(As an aside, the speech has also brought up criticism that people have been saying “we only have 10 years to deal with this” for over 10 years – I think that’s true, and there’s no doubt we’re locked into real, and painful climate change already. In that respect we’ve already failed. The emissions we are putting out today, will continue to have an effect for the coming 100+ years, changing the climate in ways we cannot predict and will have difficulty adapting to. Now it’s a question of how much and to what degree. So it’s not a “10 years or else” call, we’re already in “or else” now it’s how much “or else” and to set a hard, but achievable stretch goal like this, will hopefully help to wake us up and snap us into action).
The challenge takes a backcasting approach, which is the only way we’ll make the kinds of shifts needed to change our trajectory.
It has the potential to tap into our American drive to be leaders and help others. Something we haven’t shown in quite a while, particularly in the climate negotiations. For a quick eye-opener as to the sorts of reactions our policy is causing, check out this article from the Indian publication Down to Earth. An excerpt:
“In all this, the US has fast-tracked its own climate attack. It had already scored a coup, bringing all major emitters—China and India included—into one group, so blurring, indeed removing, the difference between rich countries legally required to take action and others. It cajoled countries like India by offering amnesty: join my club and I will protect you from taking commitments. Now, with the domestic mood changing, the US has changed tack. Instead of no commitments, it wants China and India to take on voluntary targets—‘aspirational’ in its language. The two are brought in, and the US ends up protecting itself, for the targets for action are set not for the interim (2020), but for 2050. Long enough for it to agree to do nothing, increase its emissions and grow. Climate-murder. But who cares?”
Gore's challenge alone, of course won’t make it happen. But it’s another important piece of a growing puzzle of hopeful developments. More and more sectors are getting started in measuring and planning their reductions, and taking early actions around green building, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment has nearly 560 schools, representing over 4.6 million students developing plans to go climate neutral. The US Conference of Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement has up over 840 mayors signed on to meet Kyoto targets. The US Climate Action Partnership between big businesses and big greens is calling for federal action. The We Campaign is getting the word out. 1Sky is focusing on federal action. Green for All is driving the creation of a green economy, and is not going to allow politicians to spin internalizing the cost of carbon as a burden on the poor. As Van Jones said on a conference call yesterday “they don’t speak for us – we speak for ourselves.” And 350.org is rallying people from around the world to demand action to get our atmospheric concentrations of CO2 back down to 350ppm. Even oil man T. Boone Pickens has his ambitious Picken’s Plan to bring huge amounts of wind power from the middle of the country to the coasts (in my view, a case of the means justifying the end).
And there are real solutions out there. My business partner has been deep into research on the potential for developing long-range transmission on a DC grid, a big players from business and government here in the US are starting to take these concepts seriously. Lester Brown just released a great piece on the return to thermal solar plants that can generate the MWs needed to make-up a meaningful piece of our energy mix, while addressing some of the solar-storage concerns (i.e. using solar electricity at night). On the demand side, it’s so much about design. It doesn’t need to cost more – we can build better buildings with lower capital costs and dramatically lower operating costs through smart, holistic integrated design. RMI has a host of compelling case studies, laid-out in a very digestible fashion that shows it’s possible. And don’t forget to put the two together – with dramatically lower demand, ramping up renewable to replace fossil fuels starts to look a lot easier, and the concept of no new coal, decommissioning existing coal, and not having to touch the nuclear waste issue, becomes feasible. So the solutions are out there. And we can get there in such a way that we create domestic jobs, revive local communities, and create the kind of sustainable economic development – the growth of value, not stuff – that we need. What’s been missing, but what we’re starting to see more and more is the vision and political will needed to really get it going. We need to get rid of the perverse subsidies for fossil fuels, and start to account for their true costs. We need to put that price on carbon.
Anyway, watch the speech if you haven’t already. And get behind this idea and all the others that will help us realize this goal and our vision for a sustainable, restorative society. Stay going.
I have always tried to steer well-clear of politics in this blog. The reason is simple – sustainability is inherently non-partisan, and we’ve been living in a highly partisan world, and commenting on politics at all can run the risk of politicizing the real issue – that everyone can stand behind – to do what we can to ensure the sustainability of human civilization, and promote its ongoing evolution and improvement.
But waking up to Obama’s speech in Berlin this morning, I can’t help but share it. He hit so many of the really core issues in ways that made sense in the context of the ‘issues of today’ – touching on the details of what we face – while at the same time pointing upstream to the root causes of those issues. And he articulated why it’s important to come together as one world to face our real enemy, our common enemy, of unsustainability. Of course he didn’t use those words, but that is what it’s about – from global warming to terrorism, from democracy to Zimbabwe, from nukes to Darfur, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine – these are all completed interrelated, and too often we try to deal with their complexity by separating them and pretending they are not – that one is more important than the other. We create a fantasy world and try to apply theories to it. This speech does a good job of moving away from that, of acknowledging the complexity, the problems, the challenges, but focusing on the aspirations we all hold, which is the most likely way for us to come together to overcome them. With these aspirations we can imagine the future we want and work together to create it. This is hard work - not just pick-up-a-shovel-and-put-your-back-into-it hard work - but also the hard work of looking inside, identifying the assumptions we have and the patterns of thought we go through in making choices and how those choices affect others and the rest of the world. This is not easy to do - we have very ingrained ways of thinking and ideas about how the world works, how it necessarily has to work, and it is those thoughts, that spawn the actions, that make the world actually work that way. We have an opportunity with this leader to undertake that work in a meaningful way. So much of it depends on what we Americans think, and as a result how we act, what we buy, who we vote for, etc.
He was speaking in Berlin, so there is of course a theme of walls, and walls coming down. He notes how we can’t keep putting up walls and turning inward as nations and cultures and expecting good things to come. The world is too small and interrelated for that in this century. Shell has been doing scenario planning on the global scale for years. One of the most frightening negative / worst case scenarios that they identify as a possibility is the “Fortress World” – where walls (literal physical walls as well as cultural and policy walls) go up in an overzealous attempt to satisfy our need for protection, not by addressing the root cause, but by applying a band-aid to the cancer. I don’t think Obama is being naïve in suggesting we work together and actually address upstream causes – he recognizes the real, immediate dangers of the challenges we face, and the need to stand strong against those – from rouge states to terrorism to global climate disruption - but we can do that while at the same time addressing the real, underlying problems fueling those challenges. We need those walls in our minds to come down as well. Stay going.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
If you didn't feel guilty about your TV habits already, here's a new reason: a chemical used in making flat-screen televisions has been found to be a potent greenhouse gas, 17,000 times stronger than carbon dioxide. In a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, atmospheric chemist Michael Prather called nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, "the missing greenhouse gas," and warned that the climate could suffer as the chemical is produced in ever greater amounts to meet soaring demand for LCD displays. If all of the NF3 produced in 2008 were released into the atmosphere, it would have as much warming effect as 67 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the study found -- about the same as the annual CO2 emissions of Austria. NF3 isn't covered by the Kyoto Protocol because it was only being produced in tiny amounts in 1997 when the treaty was negotiated. Ironically, NF3 was developed as an alternative to perfluorocarbons, greenhouse gases that are governed by Kyoto.sources: The Guardian, CNet News, The Press Association
Monday, June 16, 2008
I'm thrilled to pass on the announcement below about distance learning courses from the master's in strategic leadership towards sustainability program. Of course, it just won't be the same as being in Karlskrona, swimming around the archipelago and enjoying Thursday nights at the Rotundan, but I'm sure it will be an incredibly valuable and effective way to get a much deeper understanding of SSD very quickly. Stay going...
Do you have any friends/family members/colleagues who are interested in learning about sustainability, but cannot commit to the one-year MSLS degree in Karlskrona?
We are launching some new distance courses related to sustainability. You can view a brochure of 3 of them side by side, here. There are two courses at a Bachelor's level and one course at a Master's level. All of them are 100% online, part time, with free tuition, and possible to complete while still working or studying elsewhere.
The Master's course is a 'light' version of our Intro course in the MSLS programme. It offers an excellent introduction to the core concepts of Strategic Sustainable Development (i.e. The Natural Step Framework). I attach a second brochure which has some more information specifically about that course. The application process for this Master's level course will open Monday June 16th, so please pass this along to anyone you know who might be interested. Since the tuition covered by the Swedish government, this will be a popular option for many people. We are limiting this initial course offering to the first 60 qualified applicants. You do not need to be a currently registered student to participate in this course.
If you are on the digest version of the Yahoo group, you may not see the attached file, but if you are interested in learning more, please visit http://www.bth.se/site/sustaina
Reminder: The application for this Master's level course opens June 16th (not before) and closes June 30th.
I would be grateful if you could pass this along to anyone you feel would be well suited for this course.
Any questions about the course content can be directed to sustainabilitydistancelearning
Monday, June 09, 2008
While a commonly expected impact is more frequent, and more intense, storms, that is not the focus of the book. Instead, Tidwell pulls on his intimate knowledge of the coastal zone around New Orleans to show that Katrina was a model for what any big storm hitting any major city will be like with 3 feet of sea level rise. That’s because our activities around New Orleans have replicated a 3-foot rise, by allowing what is essentially a 3-foot sink in the land mass around the city. Before the years of Army Corps of Engineers projects to build levees and dams towards the mouth of the Mississippi, there was a dynamic equilibrium in the delta area, where land was washed away, and new land was deposited by the river. With the earth works, the new land washed right through, leaving only the washing away, with the end result of what basically equated to a 3-foot rise in sea level. The outer islands have been disappearing, marshes sinking underwater, and the natural defenses to the coastal city dissolving.
Without these defenses to slow the storm down, without the millions of blades of grass providing some friction, the storm hit the city full on with disastrous affect. Putting the pieces together, the book paints a frighteningly clear picture of how exposed our coastal cities will be to storms with sea level rise.
The book also runs through much of the more common aspects of climate disruption – its causes and impacts – and the maddening lack of response from us. Towards the end, it also, refreshingly, gets into the heartening opportunities that we have to minimize the damage we’ve already created. I think one little example in particular is worth quoting at length:
Here’s what gives me hope: In the middle of the U.S. Capitol, stands a tall and shiny symbol of rural America. It’s a twenty-ton corn granary, full of organically fertilized, Maryland-raised corn. Every few weeks during the winter, a Mennonite farmer forty miles away dispatches a feed truck to refill this two-story tall, cylindrical granary. Then, in the shadow of high-rise apartment buildings within earshot of D.C. subway trains, fifty families in and around my neighborhood come at their convenience to withdraw the fuel the need to heat their homes with corn-burning, climate-friendly stoves.
This first-in-the-world urban corn cooperative exists because the granary exists. And the granary exists because my city government in Takoma Park, Maryland, has a policy of fighting global warming. Indeed, the granary itself sits on city property at the public works compound. Among other things, Takoma Park’s leaders recently purchased wind energy to power all government buildings. And in 2002 the city worked creatively with local citizens, farmers, and private industry to establish this unique granary system that’s now being replicated in other parts of the region.
After I installed my own corn stove on September 11, 2001, I told people I was fighting terrorism. Now I tell people I’m fighting hurricanes, too. And so are many of my neighbors thanks to the outpouring of creativity and problem solving that comes when elected officials adopt innovative policies that convert common problems into public gain. The Takoma Park granary, at no cost to taxpayers whatsoever, has reduced the heating bills of lots of people. It’s helped preserve at least two Maryland farms, enhanced the bottom line of a stove-manufacturing company in Minnesota, and oh yeah, kept hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in the process. It’s also made local politicians look very, very good…
So imagine – just imagine – what would happen if we did this sort of thing on a national scale. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to a policy of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. What made that national commitment particularly audacious was that it required lots of technology that simply didn’t exist in 1961. So we had a policy – go to the moon – but not the technology to get there, and still we succeeded in eight short years.
It’s the opposite with global warming. We have all the technology we need to solve the problem, we just don’t have a policy.
A policy is coming. Hopefully it will be soon enough, and hopefully it will be strong enough. There are plenty of effective models out there. The growing momentum of international (Kyoto, iCAP), regional (RGGI, WCI), state (AB 32), local (US Mayors), and institutional (ACUPCC, US CAP) plus the promise of Obama or McCain in the White House guarantee that we’ll have a policy. If the vested interests in coal, oil, and nuclear make the wise decision to spend their money on creating safe solutions instead of on PR campaigns against the laws of thermodynamics it has a shot at happening soon enough and being strong enough.
One aspect I like about the example above is that the corn for the stoves that he talks about is local and organic. The biofuel debate rages on under the assumption that the agricultural system is necessarily dependent on fossil fuels, pesticides, chemical inputs, lots of transport, and subsidies. With innovative policies and concerted focus on high-yield, low-input, sustainable agriculture, we could do a lot more with a lot less and address another huge and fundamental sustainability challenge around destructive agricultural practices. Imagine extensive permaculture design incorporated into the medians of our expansive highway systems providing food, fuel, and jobs for the surrounding local areas. There is plenty to rethink. Stay going.
I’m on my way home from the 2008 ACUPCC Climate Leadership Summit in Grand Rapids, MI. It was a great success with about 150-200 people in attendance – mostly college and university presidents or their senior-level representatives, plus some sponsors, staff and colleagues. Ray Anderson was the keynote – his speech was great, as usual. The video of him talking is available here: . We also heard a good talk from Mayor Cownie, of Des Moines, who has been a driving force behind the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, and called on mayors and ACUPCC presidents to work together to meet their respective climate commitments – something I’m sure we’ll be hearing more about.
The event was generously hosted by the Wege Foundation, started by Peter Wege, who used to run the family business – Steelcase, Inc. – a big office furniture company based in Grand Rapids. I got a copy of Wege’s book, Economicology: The Eleventh Commandment, which I just read on the trip home (clearly, it’s a quick read). The book runs through highlights and quotes from Wege’s favorite thinkers, and in the process draws out his concept of Economicology. In many ways, it’s essentially another way of saying ‘sustainability’ – with the focus, as the word suggests, on the potential for a mutually beneficial marriage of economics and ecology, instead of the common view that the benefit of the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. That is the trade-off mentality that is so deeply ingrained into our thinking – in many ways from birth and through the media – but in particular in economic classes in higher ed.
The book pulls from many great sources – some of which I was familiar with, some I wasn’t – and hits all the big topics – consumption, over-population, non-renewable resources, GDP vs. well-being, quantum physics, systems thinking, etc. A main tenant of Economicology is the 6 “E’s” – Economics, Environment, Ecology, Ethics, Empathy, and Education – all of which are inseparable and vitally important. Again, this is less a departure from sustainability as it is looking at it from a different angle in a different light. While in some ways it doesn’t have the cohesion or rigor of some other frameworks or approaches, that’s not really its intent – the intent is to bring those concepts to everyone (particularly those in business) in plain language, and in that I think it does a brilliant job.
Given that the Summit, and much of our work of late, focused on higher education, it is particularly heartening to see that element come through in the book. Two of the big themes in sustainability with regard to higher ed, are 1) the need for structural shifts to allow for more collaboration and work across the disciplines and 2) the need for an explicit articulation of sustainability – creating a healthy, just, thriving, sustainable society – as the goal for higher education. Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University, and chair of the ACUPCC, addressed the second point brilliantly in his closing remarks at the summit, saying something to the affect that we can’t just keep trying to do good science with ever-greater specialization, and hope that the outcomes are useful or commercially viable.
The mandate of the higher ed sector is to fulfill education, research, and public service missions to create a thriving civil society. What is a thriving civil society other than one in which we meet our needs today without sacrificing the ability of future generations to meet their needs. We so often lose sight of the most fundamental aspect of our activities – to what end they serve. The Sustainability Principles provide that definition of success on the principle level, and in combination with an understanding of basic Human Needs, enable us to make decisions and design cities, buildings, processes, goods, and services in ways that meet needs today and tomorrow.
Wege quotes H.G. Wells, writing on the heels of the Depression in 1939, who said with regard to the importance of an expanded world vision for the future: “and since the existing educational organizations of the world do not provide anything like that vision, nor establish the necessary conceptions of right conduct that arise from it, it (the world vision) needs to be rebuilt even more than the political framework needs to be rebuilt.”
Later, Wege notes that “We have to pull together the world’s intelligence to solve the tremendous challenges we face. Technology alone cannot solve them. Religion in itself cannot, nor can government. Our best hopes are to work through the world’s universities to link industry and technology in a union I’ve called Economicology.”
Call it what you like, it’s great stuff, and the kind of thinking we need more of – particularly from people of influence. It’s tremendously reassuring to come across another great leader in this regard. Stay going.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
He eloquently highlights an analogy that we use a lot in fight against climate change – the fight to abolish slavery (Hawken dives into this comparison as well in Blessed Unrest). The core issues are essentially the same – vested interests that would have to adapt argue that the morally correct route would devastate the economy. It didn’t then and it won’t now.
The article is available online here: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/rfk_manifesto200805?currentPage=1.
He also outlines a few priorities for immediate action – doing a great job of succinctly describing the major policy shifts that would accelerate the shift, giving us a chance at avoiding the worst impacts of climate disruption, and developing a resilient economy. Cap and trade is the first, and all but an inevitability (we just need to ensure that it’s strong, clear, and effective). The second is a grid overhaul and a shift to DC transmission to allow the scaling up of clean energy. The Greenland team has been working on this issue, and will be taking that work to the next level, so you’ll most likely be seeing more on the subject here in coming months. And of course the big surge in efficiency: buildings that are net-positive in energy production, dramatic increases in vehicle mileage, better urban planning, etc. I’m just back from an interesting event with a group of university facilities managers to co-draft a resource for facilities professionals on their role in implementing the ACUPCC – this kind of dramatic efficiency increases will be key – beyond the add-on approaches to truly integrated design. The RMI Built Environment Team has a great new web resource with case studies of the projects on which they’ve fostered this approach.
Exciting stuff. There are signs the shift is starting to happen – we’ve just got to do our best to do it right, while doing it quickly. The Myanmar devastation offers another stark reminder as to why. Stay going.
Saturday, May 03, 2008
Paul Hawken has written some of the most influential books in the sustainability movement – clearly articulating the latest thinking and usually driving it further. Among his big ones are The Ecology of Commerce – which changed the lives of many people, including Ray Anderson, founder of Interface carpet, who has since become an incredible role-model for sustainable business, and went on to write his own very influential book, which has also changed many lives: Mid-Course Correction. He was also a co-author of Natural Capitalism, which was the one that really did it for me.
So, Blessed Unrest – the subtitle pretty much sums it up: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. The largest movement doesn’t have a name. It’s been referred to as the “movement of movements.” It consists of 1-2 million environmental, social justice, and indigenous people’s rights organizations, and hundreds of millions of people.
People have been noticing this phenomenon in various ways for years. I first really consciously recognized its existence in 2005, but hadn’t really seen it articulated. We talked about it in various ways in Sweden. Manfred Max-Neef referred to its participants as the “mosquitoes.” Pestering the deeply entrenched, established, and powerful interests of unfettered self-interest in order to protect the (very large) segments of global human society and the ecological systems (upon which we all depend) that so often bear the brunt of that self-interest – in essence working to stop unsustainable activity and create a sustainable society. The workings of this entrenched self-interest is well articulated in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man – particularly the eloquence with which the author describes how the negative – mostly unintended – consequences are less the result of diabolical, immoral, individuals (although there are some driving these processes) and more the result of outdated worldviews and dogmatic, oversimplified ideas about economic development and the best ways to design our society to meet human needs.
Back to the book – in addition to exploring this movement, and attempting to enhance it by facilitating its interconnections, primarily through the social networking site WiserEarth (go sign-up and join, and connect to the Stratleade organization!) – Blessed Unrest does a great job of driving home a central point of sustainability, and one I try to convey on this blog. That is that sustainability is not merely environmentalism, and it is as much about social systems and social justice. He closes with a great line while talking about how it makes sense that the environmental movement is getting on the social justice bus, and the social justice movement is getting on the environmental bus, “because in the end, there is only one bus.”
A great example of this concept that has been exploding is the green collar jobs phenomenon – an immensely powerful, and important message, and a exciting vehicle for creating a sustainable society. Van Jones has emerged as a great spokesman for this movement, and it is one we should all look for ways to support in our communities, businesses, personal lives, etc. Fast Company recently ran a great piece on Van and green collar jobs – worth the read.
Blessed Unrest provides a good background on the environmental and social justice movements and does a good job setting the historical context. It covers globalization and its discontents and the importance of Seattle, the rights of business (see previous post for a related discussion on the burden of proof), the inherent interconnectedness of all of us, and our common ancestry of the single cell, and much more, in a coherent storyline. It shows how in many ways this movement is emerging to serve as the collective immune system for the ‘organism’ that is humanity in the biosphere. The increased communication and partnership between NGOs, social entrepreneurs, and change agents is a big part of this. I’ve been experiencing some of the effectiveness of those kinds of partnership through the ambassador program we’ve been developing to help grow the ACUPCC.
All around, exciting stuff, and one to put on the ‘must read’ list. Stay going…
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Last week the LA Times ran the following story about a report by the National Toxicology Program (part of the National Institutes of Health), which says there is concern about the affects of Bisphenol A (BPA) – a common synthetic chemical used in polycarbonate plastic – on human health (and therefore other forms of life).
A controversial, estrogen-like chemical in plastic could be harming the development of children's brains and reproductive organs, a federal health agency concluded in a report released Tuesday.
The full story is here:
From a sustainability perspective this comes as no surprise. Sustainability Principle 2 states that in a sustainable society nature is not subject to systematically increasing concentrations of substances produced by society (such as synthetic chemicals). With all the plastics, including the additives, plasticizers, by-products, etc., that are persistent and foreign to natural systems, there is no doubt that our production, use, and disposal of them results in their systematic increase in nature. Living systems and organisms (including us) haven’t co-evolved with these compounds, and they are toxic. Shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
This brings us to a core concept in creating a sustainable society – where falls the burden of proof. Right now it falls on the citizens, and our representative groups to respond to potential threats, and to prove that they are indeed threats, and battle through layers of bureaucracy, inertia, and special interests to secure the elimination (or partial elimination) of those threats. The burden of proof should, of course, fall on any of us that produce and sell a product, to ensure that to the best of our knowledge and that of the scientific community it is safe, and if greater knowledge reveals that it is not safe, we should no longer be able to produce and sell it.
From an organizational perspective, companies that rely on BPA might be surprised, and will now have to react. Nalgene is trying to tactfully back away, saying they’ll stop using BPA in their water bottles because they think their customers will want that, even though they maintain it’s safe – so as to dampen the impact with the funnel walls, which could come in the form of litigation or loss of customers. Wal-mart has said it will adjust and stop selling baby bottles with BPA. It’s good their being responsive to the information, but the reactive approach is more expensive.
The Trunk & Branches:
By sticking to the “trunk and branches” of sustainability – the 4 sustainability principles – organizations can strategically move out of this reactive mode (or at least have the best chance possible of doing so). Instead of only trying to keep up with every study and judge which is serious, and what we can get away with, we can all (in our various roles in our various organizations) identify and champion creative ways to systematically eliminate our violations of sustainability principles.
Friday, April 25, 2008
And a good, quick way to take some political action - check out www.PowerVote.org and sign the pledge... let's rally up around the common enemy of unsustainability, move past the partisan politics, and amp it up on redesigning our society so we can thrive and improve our quality of life by living within sustainability constraints.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
I studied in Zim for a few months in the fall of ’99, when things were still pretty good, and the country was a model for African independence and success. That spring was the election that really changed all of that – it was clear the vote was stolen and that Democracy in Zimbabwe was over. Since then the situation has deteriorated – land seizures, voter intimidation, cronyism, outrageous spending on personal luxuries while the population starves… it gets worse. Our prof from my time there has kept us posted over the years with inside accounts of what’s happening on the ground. It’s heart breaking.
Hyperinflation has been out of control for years – current stats are around 150,000% or something ridiculous, with unemployment at 80%. Clearly, the situation is unsustainable.
Recently, a colleague mentioned that we need to deepen the dialogue around sustainability – to address questions like ‘is it possible to have a sustainable dictatorship?’ For me, the question illustrates how approaching sustainability without a concrete working definition can create confusion. And, as confusion can stifle action, or lead to misguided action, this can be dangerous in the face of the urgent threat of unsustainability.
Using the 4 Sustainability Principles as our definition of a sustainable society, we know it’s not possible to have a sustainable dictatorship. The 4th principle states that in a sustainable society, people are not subject to conditions that systematically undermine their capacity to meet their basic needs. The situation in Zimbabwe is clearly causing circumstances that make it impossible for people to meet their basic need for subsistence – to simply stay alive – some are being killed, more are starving. This is not a sustainable society –something needs to give, and something will.
More generally speaking, the circumstances resulting from dictatorships are not always so dire. But, by definition, a dictatorship systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Participation – another basic need that we all have. It systematically undermines people’s capacity to meet their need for Freedom, as well. So by definition, it’s not possible to have a sustainable dictatorship. That’s not to say they can’t last for a long time. We know we can exhibit unsustainable behavior for long periods of time. But we also know at some point there will be undesirable consequences for people and other life. There are basic, underlying design flaws. Dictatorships are a dramatic illustration as to how abuses of power create unsustainable situations and negative impacts. They’re also a good example of how sustainability is not just about the environment. It’s about people live fulfilling lives on planet earth.
That’s a tough thing to do in Zimbabwe right now. And the situation has no easy answers – the country’s entrenched in downward spiral, created and influenced by a complex blend of historical context, cultural realities, international pressures, forces of the global economy, and so much more. Of course a return to democracy, a transfer of power, and a win for the opposition would be a huge step, and one I pray will come soon. There have been many calls but little action from the international community, no oil, of course - although China's been showing interest, presumably due to the food export potential. But as we know, we're all in this together, and while this may seem like an unfortunate, but isolated and irrelevant situation from our lives, it's not. For the people of Zimbabwe; Stay going.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
But for now, just a quick note on a happier topic - Tulane University just publicly announced that they were the 500th signatory to the ACUPCC. This is a huge landmark for the initiative - putting it halfway to its goal of 1000 signatories - and incredible powerful to have it come from Tulane, which is still feeling the effects first hand of what climate disruption can bring.
For the full press release, check out - http://tulane.edu/news/releases/pr_031808.cfm.
The announcement also timed up with the first meeting of the CGI U - Clinton Global Initiative University - which is garnering great commitments from students, faculty, and administrators to create positive change. www.cgiu.org.
And while we're on the topic of garnering commitments and bringing the ACUPCC closer to 1,000, check out the Facebook page we've created to help students and alumni get involved and encourage their presidents to sign on - http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=32064695003
much more to follow in coming months... in the meantime, stay going.
Friday, February 22, 2008
A new article in Science looks like we might have another 'silver bullet' for the climate crisis:
Chemists at the University of California Los Angeles said the crystals — which go by the name zeolitic imidazolate frameworks, or ZIFs — can be tailored to absorb and trap specific molecules.
"The technical challenge of selectively removing carbon dioxide has been overcome," said UCLA chemistry professor Omar Yaghi in a statement.
This is clearly great news - a could be a big piece of an intermediate solution. I think it's important to remember at the same time that increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are but one sustainability challenge (albeit one that is of great magnitude, urgency, and to which we all contribute). There are still many sustainability issues associated with our fossil fuel based economy - the physical destruction of nature from coal mining, the social injustices of exploitative oil extraction, etc. So let's hope this works, and at the same time keep our eyes on the big prize, of a holistic, comprehensive vision of a truly sustainable, healthy, just, and caring society.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
From "There Are Limits To Growth But No Limits To Love"
....OPERATE FROM LOVE. One is not allowed to say that seriously any more. Anyone who calls upon the human capacity for love, generosity, wisdom, will be met with a hail of cynicism. "Of all scarce resources, love is the scarcest," I have heard people say.
I just don't believe that. Love is not a scarce resource, it is an untapped one. Our jazzed-up, hustling, quantitative culture does not know how to tap it, how to discuss it, or even what it means.
I am a child of that culture myself, and worse, a scientifically trained one. I have been educated to trust in rationality, not in love. But I have also been trained to see whole systems, and the more I do that, the more I see that rationality and love are in fact the same thing. What is love, but the ability to identify with someone or something beyond your own skin? Love is the expansion of boundaries, the realization that another person, or family, or piece of land, or nation, or the whole earth is so intimately connected to you that your welfare and his, her, or its welfare are one and the same.
In truth, of course, we are all intimately interconnected with each other and with the earth. We have always been. Love has always been a practical idea, as well as a moral one. Now it is not only practical but urgent. It is time to accept the astonishing notion that to be rational, to ensure our own self-preservation, what is required of us is to be GOOD. We have to look far into the future, care for and share the resources of the earth, and moderate our numbers and desires. We have to -- and we can -- create a culture that draws out of us not only our technical creativity and our entrepreneurial cleverness, but also our morality.
Nothing is more difficult than to practice goodness within a system whose rules, goals, and information streams are geared to individualism, competitiveness, and cynicism. But it can be done. We can be patient with ourselves and others as we all confront a changing world. We can empathize with resistance to change; there is some clinging to the ways of unsustainability within each of us. We can include everyone in the challenge; everyone will be needed. We can listen to the cynicism around us and pity those who indulge in it, but refuse to indulge in it ourselves.
The world can never pass safely through the adventure of bringing itself to sustainability if people do not view themselves and others with compassion. That compassion is there, within all of us, just waiting to be used, the greatest resource of all, and one with no limits.