October 28, 2007
By Adam Brock
The last decade has seen the environmental movement shift from pointing fingers at the Man to seducing him instead. After thirty long years of trying to guilt-trip companies into improving their environmental performance, it’s now considered much more effective to meet business on its own terms by showing that cutting down on energy and other resources can be profitable.
But despite all the hubris, the alliance of business and environmentalism remains an uneasy one: for every unexploited opportunity for increasing efficiency through resource savings, there’s another instance where rescuing the planet and quarterly earnings just don’t jive. After all, there’s a pretty serious divergence in their fundamental assumptions; corporations need to grow or die, while environmentalists maintain that unchecked growth is what’s killing us.
Last week’s BusinessWeek took aim at this conflict of interest with a profile of Auden Schendler, the disgruntled sustainability advocate at Aspen Skiing Co. The story relates struggle after struggle between Schendler and his higher-ups to make improvements that, all told, barely made a dent in the company’s environmental impact. When he tried to install CFLs in one of the resort buildings, he was told that the quality of light put out by fluorescents would detract from the hotel’s five-star ambience; after a long hard struggle, he managed to get approval for a $1 million solar array to provide a fraction of a percent of Aspen’s energy needs.
One of Schendler’s most vocal criticisms is of renewable energy credits, a system currently used by hundreds of institutions (including Aspen and NYU) that purports to offset electricity emissions by paying to support development of renewables. After doing some digging, Schendler couldn’t find any renewable energy that had come online as a result of Aspen’s RECs, and was forced to conclude that, much like personal carbon credits, the whole setup was too dubious to support. The BusinessWeek article seems to agree, explaining that the current price of RECs offers little incentive for renewable producers to ramp up:
Even many wind-power developers that stand to profit from RECs concede that producers making $91 a megawatt hour aren’t going to expand production for another $2. “At this price, they’re not very meaningful for the developer,” says John Calaway, chief development officer for U.S. wind power at Babcock and Brown, an investment bank that funds new wind projects. “It doesn’t support building something that wouldn’t otherwise be built.”
The dubious economics of energy credits aside, Schendler faces a more serious challenge: trying to green a company whose very basis is an environmentally destructive luxury activity. No matter how much Aspen reduces its carbon emissions, its clients will release thousands of tons of greenhouse gases just in getting themselves there. No matter how many LEED points Aspen’s new buildings achieve, they’ll still be sitting vacant for much of the year.
If Aspen Skiing Co. is serious about sustainability, it needs to completely redefine its mission, figuring out how to profit from actively regenerating the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. Anything less is a profitable hyporcrisy. If Auden Schendler’s experience thus far is any indication, it doesn’t sound like the “natural capitalism” approach is cutting it – so how can the message get through before it’s too late? Legislation? Consumer rebellion? What are your thoughts?
October 26, 2007
By Adam Brock
Soon after starting WGY, I developed the “Three Shades of Green” to describe what I saw as the main approaches to sustainability. The framework has been useful shorthand for identifying different sets of verdy values, and it’s become an integral part of my thinking about the regeneration.
But, like any metaphor, the original Three Shades didn’t quite capture the way things really work: by positing them as a hierarchy, I’d fallen into that perilous and outdated trap of linear thinking. What follows is an update of the Lime, Grass and Forest spiel with a slightly more integrative perspective.
Sustainability is shaping up to be the buzzword of the decade. Global warming is now an acknowledged crisis – one that seems to be happening more swiftly than any scientist could have anticipated – and we’ve finally begun a public discussion about how (and how much) to cut our greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy.
Still, a fundamental question remains unanswered: what, exactly, are we trying to sustain? A growing economy? General human happiness? Biodiversity? Ask ten different environmentalists and you’ll get ten different answers. But while there’s hardly a consensus on the kind of sustainable society we’re trying to build, there do exist certain patterns in the way environmental thinkers tend to group themselves. I’ve identified three such patterns, given them cute names, and called them the Three Shades of Green. Here goes:
First up is Lime Green – or, if you prefer, “sustainability lite.” The Lime Greens, whatever their conventional political affiliation, can be considered the conservatives of the regeneration: they’re trying to sustain as much as possible of the world we currently live in. You can count most corporations and national governments in the Lime camp, as well as everyday citizens just becoming exposed to environmentalism. Lime is the color of institutions going green for the brownie points, as in this recent ad touting Chevrolet’s green cred: “The environment and your commute. Can’t we all just get along? It’s as simple as driving a more fuel-efficient car.”
Ahh… if only it were that simple. But while Lime-colored solutions like hybrids and carbon offsets can provide crucial gateways into greener ways of living, most sustainability thinkers contend that these solutions simply won’t be enough to avert the planetary devastation we’re currently experiencing. Instead, creating an ecologically integrated society will demand much more fundamental shifts: in our politics, in our systems of production and consumption, and in our attitudes towards nature.
Enter Grass Green, the middle shade. Grassies are trying to sustain the best parts of our current way of life – material prosperity, personal freedom – while reinventing the institutions that have led to our current social and environmental devastation. They embrace zero-waste production systems, open-source technologies, innovative new materials and progressive government initiatives: think Cradle to Cradle, nanotubes, and carbon taxes. Compared to the Lime mantra of “more of the same, only greener,” the Grass approach offers something truly substantive: a marriage of industry and ecology, one that promises to provide us with ever-rising standards of living while simultaneously healing the planet.
Yet there are many environmentalists who would call even this vision nothing more than a deranged fairytale. Our pursuit of technology and economic growth, these folks claim, are themselves a product of our dominating attitude towards nature, and we can’t achieve sustainability until we leave them in the dust. These are the Forest Greens – the revolutionaries. Instead of dealing with climate change, social inequality, and peak energy one by one, say the Foresters, we need to cut to the root of our problems and “solve for pattern.” This means leaving behind our current mechanistic, rational way of thinking, and beginning to see ourselves as part of an infinitely complex, ever-changing system. Oh, and we’ll also need to localize our economies and drastically reduce our levels of consumption in the process. In short, the Forest Greens want to sustain the web of life – and they’re willing to rethink some of the basic assumptions of human civilization in order to do so.
As the most radical shade, Forest Green isn’t without some serious limitations of its own. For one thing, its purism often renders it utopian and unrealistic: whatever you happen to think of Forest Green theory, at the moment it’s pretty hard to put into practice outside of ecovillages and backyard gardens. Also, it’s traditionally been a rural movement, and therefore not very applicable to the cities in which most of us live.
It’s tempting to see these three shades as a competition, with each one vying for their place in the sustainable future. But thinking about which shade is “better” is like asking which species of frog is “supposed” to be in the rainforest. The truth is, the Three Shades of Green are as interdependent as anything else in nature, and we’ll need all of them to get us through the next few decades.
Sure, green consumerism might ultimately be a dead end – but right now, it’s the only force that can start shifting attitudes on a society-wide scale. Sure, the Grassies might have a misplaced faith in technological progress – but they’re bound to come up with some truly worldchanging stuff in the process. And sure, the ecocentric outlook of Forest Green might not work for most of us as a way of life. But it can provide valuable guidance as we move away from our 20th-century consumerist habits, and towards something better for ourselves and the planet.
So don’t fret too much if you think you’re not “green enough” – the fact that you’re even wondering if you’re green enough means you’re on the right track. Instead, pick a shade, any shade, and get to work. We’ve got a lot to accomplish together.
Photo credit: flickr/shakkai
October 14, 2007
By Adam Brock
Reading Joel Makower’s most recent article on Cooler, a carbon-neutral online retail portal, I came across UC Berkeley’s Lifecycle Climate Footprint Calculator – one of the best tools I’ve seen yet for quantifying environmental impact. What sets the Berkeley tool apart is that it attempts to put a number on the emissions that are more than one step removed from our consumer choices. From the methodology report (PDF):
The model assumes that consumers are ultimately responsible for not only end‐use impacts, such as air emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in automobiles, but also the indirect environmental impacts resulting from the production of goods and services throughout the commodity and service chains.
The Berkeley researchers are tackling head-on the question at the heart of any environmental impact assessment: how far back do you go? If you’re footprinting, say, a banana, do you include the emissions from producing the fertilizer used to grow it? What about the emissions from the mining operations used to extract the phosphorous for the fertilizer? Ideally, it should all be factored in – but practically, it’s another story. Trying to collect and crunch all that data is a pretty insurmountable process.
So how did Berkeley do it? By piggybacking on another clever tool, Carnegie Mellon’s Economic Input-Output Life Cycle Assessment (EIO-LCA). Rather than trace back the impact from every individual product and process, EIO-LCA assumes that emissions between sectors of the economy match up with economic activity between those sectors, data that’s readily available. Drawing from a matrix provided by the Department of Commerce, the model will show, for instance, that a million dollars of economic activity in aluminum production also generates $258,000 in alumina refining and $168,000 in power generation and supply – numbers that can then be used to estimate emissions from those secondary activities.
Neither Berkeley’s tool nor the Carnegie Mellon database it draws from can be considered entirely accurate; it’s an admittedly shaky assumption, for one, that carbon emissions are directly tied to dollars. Still, these tools at least try to capture what nothing else, at this point, can: the ways in which our consumer choices reverberate back through the economy. It’s an important consideration – and one that the fledgling science of ecofootprinting has yet to account for.
October 9, 2007
By Adam Brock
Solar power is often seen as the great unrealized hope of renewable energy. While wind and biofuels are now serious economic contenders, solar power always seems to be on the verge of some breakthrough or another that will make it cost-competitive – and yet it remains as expensive as ever. With enough government support, it’s likely that some of these “wonder processes” actually would make solar viable, but as it stands, the numbers just don’t work.
Oil Drum yesterday posted a fascinating look at one of these wonder processes – one that uses a waste material, to boot. Engineer-poet, the post’s author, explains that the silicon for most of today’s PV panels is manufactured using a costly process that was developed for semiconductors. But a number of techniques have been developed recently to utilize silicon that’s in a less pure state. Evergreen Solar has been working on one such process, which makes silicon ribbons “directly from a molten silicon bath”.
Meanwhile, raw silicon has been piling up for years as a byproduct of phosphorous mining for fertilizer production. Engineer-Poet proposes applying Evergreen’s process to this stockpile, which, according to his calculations, would be able to generate 48 gigawatts of power every year. “For the rough price of 1 year of the war in Iraq,” he writes, “we could make peak PV generation equal to about half of the nameplate capacity of every generator on the US grid.”
Is the age of cheap solar power finally upon us, or is Engineer-Poet’s solution the latest flash in the PV pan? Decide for yourself… I’m gonna go take a molten silicon bath.
October 2, 2007
By Adam Brock
I might as well be honest – my iPod Mini is falling apart. The aluminum case has been banged up for a while now, and the battery life has been steadily declining. Recently the plastic panel on top came off, and I figured it might be time for an upgrade. But then I had second thoughts: if I shell out 200 bucks for a shiny black Nano, I won’t just be buying an mp3 player. I’ll also be buying the toxic chemicals used to make it, the cardboard used to package it, the oil used to ship it from China. Suddenly, keeping the old Mini around didn’t seem so bad, after all.
My predicament is, of course, hardly unique. In an age when it’s shameful to own a cell phone that’s more than two years old, we find ourselves under constant pressure to keep up with the latest technowizardry, while the consequences of it all remain hidden to the consumer – and, all too often, the producer as well. Technological progress has given us unprecedented opportunities, many of them unquestionably good for our wellbeing. But is this progress permanent? Can we maintain the current dizzying pace of technological change while making the transition to a zero-waste society?
Ask Bruce Sterling, Alex Steffen, or Bill McDonough, and you’ll get a resounding yes. With dematerialization, cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, nanotechnology, ubiquitous computing and a gazillion other technologies in the pipeline, we’re supposedly due for a second industrial revolution that will make us even more prosperous and halt environmental destruction at the same time. Sounds great, right? Increasingly, though, verdy folks are coming to the conclusion that this cybernetic daydreaming is a little unrealistic, if not downright scary.
Here’s the thing: with bigger tools come less precision. As our technologies become more and more intricate, implicating more and more of the globe in the process, the less we’re able to completely understand them – and the more potential there is for unintended, and potentially disastrous, repercussions. Just look at fossil fuels: It’s obvious from today’s vantage point that structuring our society around ever-increasing consumption of a finite, polluting energy source wasn’t the best idea. But nobody had the mental framework to understand that back in 1850. In the same vein, today’s technofixes might easily turn out to be tomorrow’s technodisasters. Colony Collapse Disorder, the adverse health effects of electromagnetic radiation, and the disruption of global climate patterns by large-scale windfarms are just a few examples of how “good” technologies might be doing us harm in ways we don’t realize.
This isn’t to say that technological innovation is a bad thing; we’re going to have to be damn innovative, after all, to reorganize the fundamental structures of our society in a matter of decades. Technology will be a critical component of the sustainable future – but only if we can learn to control it more effectively than we do now. Last week, Karl Schroeder declared on Worldchanging that “technology is legislation”: for better or worse, it has the potential to change our lives much faster than either political action or shifts in values. If that’s the case, then our challenge is to draft that legislation much more carefully, in a way that enriches communities and biomes as well as quarterly earnings.
That means devising regulated, corruption-proof methods of quantifying ecological footprints. It means harnessing the power of peer-generated media to wrest ourselves from corporate brainwashing, and cultivate instead a culture of involvement. It means partnering with the “technologies” of biological systems to provide for our human needs with a fraction of the energy input. And it means developing efficient methods for turning wastes into resources.
But it’s not just new technologies that need to be examined critically. From internal combustion engines to YouTube, we’ve got to take a long hard look at the consequences of our current technologies, not only on the health of the planet but on our communities and psyches, as well. We seem to take it as a given that once a technology is here, it’s here to stay – but the truth is, it’s in our hands to accept or reject innovation. Technology needs us a lot more than we need it.
As we each begin to reorient our lifestyles away from mindless growth and towards mindful sufficiency, it’s time to ask if the technologies we take for granted are doing more harm than good, and to start figuring out how to unplug from those things that we can’t in good conscience justify. The answers will be different for each of us, depending on our lifestyles, values, and finances – but the important thing is that we start asking.
For my part, I’ve decided to let go of flying, television, imported produce, riding in cars, and buying things that plug in – while at the same time hanging on to my cell phone, refrigerator and laptop (which I seem to be tethered to these days). Is my response extreme? Sure, when you compare it to the current lifestyles of most of the overdeveloped world. But as I’ve pointed out before, consumerism is really what’s extreme; my techno-diet brings me a lot more in line with the way humans have lived for most of our existence.
While I feel morally obligated to reduce my personal footprint, it’s not just about abstract principles of energy and waste. The choices I’m making have very real, and very positive, effects on my daily life: the more I let go of junk technology, the more alive I’m starting to feel. Unplugging allows me to stop worrying about trivial stuff like lost luggage or being able to afford a new gadget, and pay attention to what really matters. Like eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep. Or keeping in touch with my friends and family… or designing a protective case so that my trusty iPod can last a little bit longer.