September 4, 2007
By Adam Brock
A couple nights ago, a friend and I were wandering around Williamsburg, trading summer adventure tales and picking wildflower bouquets from vacant lots. We rounded a corner and came upon the old Domino Sugar Factory, a hulking brown edifice on the waterfront just north of the Willamsburg Bridge. Personally, I’ve always found it comforting that Domino, one of the last major relics of the neighborhood’s industrial past, is still around. As the rest of the once-scruffy W’burg waterfront begins to take on the glitz and glamour of the skyline across the river, the Domino complex remains, stubbornly resisting the inevitable.
No more. According to Atlantic Yards Report, the site has been bought by a developer and is now slated for a gargantuan redevelopment plan – 2.8 million square feet, to be exact. Turns out that the very lot I was picking flowers from, currently surrounded by modest walkups and 1-story warehouses, is slated to be a 120-foot tower. No wonder the Atlantic Yards folks are paying attention – the “New Domino” is looking like a sequel to Bruce Ratner’s vilified megadevelopment a couple miles to the south.
Now forget, just for a moment, that the real estate industry has this town in the palm of its hand. Forget the fact that the development plans are already underway and, as Curbed put it, “prying it loose at this point will take an effort of herculean force—not to mention hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, presumably from city coffers.” Let’s just take a moment to think about what, hypothetically, could be done with this building: a major waterfront landmark in a diverse, rapidly growing cultural district, in a city that (in theory, at least) is finally beginning to support the development of green, walkable communities. If this were Europe, the municipal government wouldn’t let developers anywhere near a site with this much potential.
But this is New York, and so it’s up to us, the concerned citizens, to convince the city that the Domino site deserves more than another set of towers. A group of local artists have begun doing just that, rallying to put up a giant “save domino” sign on a nearby apartment and putting together an alternate proposal calling for a massive cultural center in the vein of London’s Tate Modern.
Sounds like a good start to me – but integrating culture into the development plan is only the half of it. I see acres of potential for agritecture, providing the neighborhood with jobs and fresh produce. I see a native plant green roof, attracting wildlife and absorbing stormwater. I see those two industrial chutes turned into children’s slides, like in Germany’s acclaimed Landschaftspark. And I still see plenty of room left over in the six-square-block site for affordable housing, overpriced yuppie housing, a museum, and performance space.
Part of the philosophy of ecodesign is to harmonize the many interests at stake in a project – those of the developers, the artists and the working class, but also those of the waterfowl, the climate, and future generations. Sounds idealistic? Look at nature. Natural systems are constantly maintaining a balance between seemingly opposing forces, creating a dynamic equilibrium that works to everybody’s benefit. Extending that approach to social systems means sitting down with all the interested parties (or their human representatives) and getting people talking.
In the case of Domino, I have no doubt that it’s possible to provide both housing and cultural amenities, to design a development that enhances the community while still turning a profit – but only if everyone involved is willing to work together. Can Domino be saved? At this point, probably not. But as an exercise in imagining what our city could become with the right support, it sure doesn’t hurt to try.
August 18, 2007
By Adam Brock
On the airplane flight back from India, I happened to catch an episode of Get Fresh With Sara Snow, the Discovery Health channel’s foray into the hot new category of green living shows. The episode I saw had the somewhat perplexing theme of living a “decadent green” life in the city; in it, Ms. Snow ran around New York interviewing eco-conscious gourmet chefs, retailers and fashionistas about guilt-free ways to live it up.
Staring groggily at the 7-inch screen on the back of 32B, I was a little unsure what to make of Sara Snow and her lime green escapades. On one hand, I was elated – if this is what they’re showing on airplanes, the purgatory of mainstream entertainment, ethical and sustainable living must really be hitting the big time. Millions of travelers will henceforth leave their cramped, stale flights with the invaluable knowledge that local food tastes delicious and that bamboo is a rapidly renewable and infinitely useful material.
But still. Fig truffles dipped in organic dark chocolate? Thousand-dollar recycled paper dresses? Sara certainly got one thing right: this stuff is decadent, in the original sense of the word. Get Fresh, my first exposure to American media in two months, confirmed what my friends and family had been telling me for months – green is everywhere. Not only that, it’s cool. As ecofuturist Bruce Sterling put it in one of his more exuberant viridian notes, “You’re going to get Corporate Green whether you like it or not. Green is as sexy as it’s ever going to get, right now, 02007.”
And therein lies the problem. Because, as anybody who’s made it past high school knows, most cool things don’t stay cool for long. And with the way the media has been drooling over anything with a verdant hue lately, we’re on the verge of experiencing green burnout on a massive scale… especially once Americans realize that they’ll have to change a lot more than their lightbulbs to make any sort of meaningful reduction in their impact.
So is the greening of the mainstream, then, the best thing to happen for the survival of the planet, or the worst? It depends on where it goes from here. To be sure, corporate green certainly has the potential to catalyze change on a truly massive scale. Like it or not, we live in a world where our values are defined by what we consume, and the fact that people are choosing to consume in a more responsible way says a lot about the rapidly changing times.
We won’t be making real progress as a society, though, until we realize that the consumerist lifestyle is itself is something we can choose – or reject. Because no matter how green corporate America gets, there’s still a contradiction inherent in its intentions. GE might be putting out an admirable effort to fight climate change, but they’re still, at the end of the day, in the business of selling more washing machines. To that end, they’ll spend millions of dollars to convince us that we need new, more efficient ones, when in fact we never truly needed any washing machines in the first place. What would it look like to create a society centered not on disposable excess, but on healthy sufficiency and well-thought-out austerity? What would it take to end our fifty year flirtation with the ostentatious and the ephemeral, in search of something more meaningful, durable and fair? We won’t know until we try.
Lime green outlets like Get Fresh With Sara Snow can be an essential gateway into deeper green ways of thinking, but they’re just that: gateways. If the American public doesn’t move beyond the culture of More – and a lot of powerful interests depend on that not happening – then runaway climate change, and a million other symptoms of ecological collapse, are practically unavoidable. It’s the spend-away-our-problems mentality that got us here in the first place, and no amount of FSC-certified oak coffee tables will bring us any closer to environmental, social or personal salvation. The always-astute George Monbiot summed it up best in an editorial on Celsias last week: “There is an inherent conflict between the aspirational lifestyle journalism which makes readers feel better about themselves and sells country kitchens and the central demand of environmentalism: that we should consume less.”
Now that’s a message you wouldn’t expect to see on the back of an airplane seat anytime soon. But these are strange times. The roaring pace of honest action in the last year has surprised even the optimist in me, and news sources like BBC and Newsweek are starting to take stabs at the very system they’re a part of. So what’ll it be? Green backlash or full-on green revolution? Get ready for an intense 2008.
Photo credit: flickr
May 22, 2007
By Adam Brock
The big news coming from NYU’s Sustainability Taskforce this past month was the announcement of the campus greening projects that will receive funding next year. In January, the taskforce asked students, faculty and administration to submit proposals for making NYU more sustainable. Of the nearly 50 that were considered, fifteen were given the go-ahead. Among the winners:
- A demonstration “healthy landscape” garden, using native plants and water-saving techniques that will enable it to sustain itself with very little maintenance.
- A pilot project (led by WGY’s own Nelson Harvey) to run an NYU vehicle on waste vegetable oil.
- The EcoPod, an indoor gardening container constructed from materials from NYU’s waste stream.
- A comprehensive “guide to green living,” to be distributed to all incoming freshmen as part of their welcome materials.
- A collaboration with NYC bike workshop Time’s Up! to conduct a survey of bike racks on campus and to refurbish and distribute abandoned bicycles to students.
All in all, the funded projects seem to me a diverse and promising set – there’s certainly no lack of creative approaches to campus greening among the NYU community [full disclosure: one of my own proposals, a program to encourage energy conservation in the residence halls, was also selected]. Given the passion and enthusiasm of their orchestrators, I’m sure that this year’s crop of projects will result in successful, creative and highly visible results.
But for all their panache, the projects being funded are merely window dressing on what, come May 2008, will still be a fundamentally unsustainable campus. One vehicle will be running on biofuel, while 70 others continue to use petroleum. One dining hall will offer organic produce, while ten others will serve unhealthy processed food shipped from thousands of miles away. And most importantly, NYU’s 50,000 students will still be learning from professors who teach as if 20th-century concepts like neoliberal economics, advertising-based marketing, and discrete, disconnected disciplines were still valid. In short, the taskforce is a welcome proxy for a true administrative push for a sustainable NYU – but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. A university this large can’t hope to make any real headway by throwing $250,000 towards the cause; in comparison, it spends 33 times that amount on office equipment every year.
NYU’s struggle to define its approach towards sustainability is one that every institution is facing, or will have to face soon. The extent to which these institutions can incorporate ecological thinking will determine how successfully they meet the challenges of the next century. It’s a whole lot easier, though, to talk about embracing sustainability than it is to actually do it. Making these insitutions sustainable in even the grass green sense will require them to be fundamentally restructured from the inside out, something that will take far more than just bright ideas. For all the recent talk of “corporate green”, the values of the grass and forest green movements – transparency, localization, unconsumption – are still far from mainstream. Bringing them to the fore means shifting the values of hundreds of millions of people, people who like their lives just fine the way they are, thank you very much.
It’s difficult for any organization as large as NYU to change rapidly: the decisionmaking structure is long and diffuse, many stakeholders have a vested interest in the status quo, and important financial decisions are subject to an understandable amount of skepticism. But the world is changing around us. Ideas, values, and most importantly, our natural systems are evolving far faster than most of our institutions can keep up with. In particular, climate change and the end of the fossil fuel era will bring about massive transformation in the next decade, whether we like it or not.
The challenge, then, will be not to instigate change but to guide it: away from isolationism, greenwashing and expensive last-ditch efforts, and towards equity, community and elegant solutions. With these values in mind, I eagerly await the results of NYU’s first green steps – but I’ll hold my applause till sustainability on campus is on its feet and running.
In a recent post, Adam noted a neat new computer plugin called RealCosts, which allows the user to see the carbon footprint of various potential purchases. While this is certainly a heartening step toward an accurate accounting system for our purchasing decisions, it got me thinking that any computer widget that came close to calculating the actual cost of a product made with oil would have to account for a heck of a lot more than just carbon. Local pollution, infrastructure investments made with public dollars, and the exorbitant military cost of guarding oil from the Persian Gulf would all need to be factored in, as would the economic liability of markets dependent on the roller coaster of crude oil prices.
The price of gasoline doesn’t factor in hidden costs like oil spills
But what if all these things were considered? What would it do to the price of oil, and what would that mean in economic terms? Because of the many and complicated variables involved, estimates vary wildly, from an increase of a few cents per barrel to a jump of nearly $100. Resources for the Future economist Ian W.H. Parry wrote a 2003 paper that considered the economic impacts of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, traffic congestion and auto accidents. He found that all of these impacts aggregated could justify a gasoline tax of just over $1 per gallon, which is 2.5 times the current U.S. gasoline tax rate. Taking a narrower focus, transportation researcher Kenneth Small of UC Irvine has estimated that the additional illness and death generated by auto emissions in the Los Angeles Basin alone could add over 40 cents to the price of a gallon of gas, which translates to roughly eight additional dollars per barrel for the oil that it is derived from.
Auto emissions coat L.A. in a blanket of smog (from flickr/steven-buss)
Calculating the cost of carbon emissions is even more assumption-dependent than traffic congestion or smog, because it depends on a suite of variables including global emissions rates, climate sensitivity, the potential for extreme climate shifts, and the discount rate that you apply to the well being of future generations. Nevertheless, economists have lived up to their reputation in this realm and attempted to measure the seemingly un-measurable yet again. Wesleyan economist Gary Yohe told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2006 that the average from about 100 estimates in the published economics literature was $11 per barrel of oil.
So we’ve broached about $20 extra per per barrel, all without even mentioning oil infrastructure or military costs. Obviously, accounting for these drives the price up further. Tax breaks and publicly funded ports and pipelines provided between $1.1 and $2.3 billion to the oil industry in 1995, according to a study for Greenpeace by economist Ted Kaplow. The largest tax break currently given to industry comes through something called “accelerated depreciation,” which allows companies to deduct capital expenses from their taxable income more quickly than capital equipment ages and becomes obsolete.
Tax exemptions granted to the Navy for harbor construction projects are borne by the public at large, but since harbors are critical transfer points from oil tankers to inland locales, they grant between $600 and $650 million a year in indirect subsidies to oil. Royalty relief for drilling on federal lands provides another several hundred million dollars in savings to oil companies annually.
Pipelines and other infrastructure represent a hidden form of subsidy for oil companies
For all the controversy over what to include when calculating oil subsidies, the cost that seems to infuriate both liberals and conservative hawks alike is that associated with guarding foreign oil as it makes its way from under their sand into our tanks. According to a 2005 study by the conservative National Defense Council Foundation, the military allocated about 49.1 billion for that purpose alone in 2003. The NDCF estimated that accounting for that along with all the other costs of oil could add more than $7 to the price of gasoline derived from Persian Gulf crude.
Protection of overseas U.S. oil supplies may have cost nearly $50 billion in 2003
If oil is underpriced, then what do we do about it? The clear answer is two-pronged: impose taxes and cut subsidies. Things like carbon taxes or congestion charging go part way toward accounting for the damages of oil, but an overarching tax is needed that incorporates all of its adverse impacts. Congressional Democrats have already begun chipping away at the subsidy side by attacking royalty relief given to companies who drill on public lands, and a recent bill from New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the “End Oil Aid Act of 2007,” goes much further in that direction. Clearly, no one knows precisely the correct surcharge to place on a barrel of oil, but as has been said many times before, the right number is not zero.
There is undoubtedly a role for consciousness-raising in this process; one can imagine a plugin to your web browser that calculates an oil surcharge for the product you’re checking out based the share of U.S. petroleum imports used to produce it. But given the immense complexity of attaching any hard numbers to the cost of oil, I think we can be encouraged that they’ve even done it for carbon emissions.
March 18, 2007
An Oil Platform
Despite the myriad indicators painting a positive picture for the future of clean technology, there are many bumps in the road ahead. Achieving large-scale competitiveness with fossil fuels will be much more difficult if Congress does not pass carbon legislation, since people in more carbon intensive industries are working furiously to bring new electrons to market. Saudi Arabia has about 25 percent of global proven oil reserves under its sands, and could continue supplying oil at current rates for 90 years. The country maintains a level of spare capacity that could allow the Saudis to engineer a price collapse if expensive oil continues to encourage renewable technology. Even if the world moves away from Middle Eastern oil, private companies have achieved advances in the technology of oil extraction that make previously uneconomic deposits in places like the Gulf of Mexico look very attractive. Many in the industry also believe that they can increase the rate of recovery from existing wells from 30 percent to 50 or 60 percent within a decade, a jump that would augment global reserves substantially. Vijay Vaitheeswaran, a correspondent for The Economist magazine, notes in his forthcoming book “Zoom” that although BP and Shell are spending about 2 billion per year on renewable technologies, each is spending around $15 billion per year on oil, and this ratio is typical of major oil companies.
An oil sands mining operation
Perhaps the most ominous threat to the future of clean technology lies in a range of carbon-based alternative energies that will become economically viable if oil prices stay high. Notable here are the coal bed methane deposits in the American west and the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Both of these sources are incredibly resource intensive to produce, and could effectively undo any reductions achieved by carbon legislation if burned on a large scale. Nevertheless, interest in these fields is growing: Peter Tertzakian of Canadian investment firm ARC Financial estimates that investments in the Alberta tar sands in the coming years will add up to around $60 billion.
Which energy technologies will prevail?
These examples serve to illustrate that rising oil prices do more then benefit clean technology: they drive oil exploration and investment in climatically reckless fossil-based alternatives. Whether the cleaner path will win out remains an open question; companies and countries are pumping money into fuel cell research even as they shore up petroleum reserves. Steering the energy future in a greener direction will take political leadership. The core purpose of government is to direct its resources toward development that serves the best interests of society: and nothing would serve those interests more than the advancement of clean technology.