The Wrong Kind of Urban Farming

by Nelson Harvey

If you don’t think there’s much farming in New York City, then you’re absolutely right.

But that doesn’t stop millions of dollars in federal farm subsidies from flowing to city residents each year. The map at right is a distribution of individuals living in Manhattan who currently receive farm subsidies, often via “pass-through” arrangements where companies that they own or invest in forward them a slice of the government assistance check.

With the 2007 Farm Bill passed the House and currently under review in the Senate, this graphic highlights the urgent need for reform. Farm subsidies are supposed to support farms when crop prices are low and encourage the survival of small family farms, making the current arrangement seem like a rather perverse use of government funds. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the current subsidy structure also heavily favors a small group of companies, with the top 1 percent of beneficiaries receiving 17 percent of funds while the bottom 80 percent receive just 16 percent. As the EWG points out, this is money that could be spent on conservation incentive or nutrition programs.

The problem isn’t just reserved to New York City; in fact, it’s a national one, as this excellent series in the Washington Post clearly illustrates. Much of the wrangling over the 2007 farm bill in recent months has focused on ways to better direct farm subsidies. This is one of those rare questions that unites anti-government libertarians and environmentalists alike. I’m a newcomer to the subject, but the organization Environmental Defense is not, and they’ve got an excellent list of 12 “Fresh Ideas” for reforming farm policy. Make sure your Senator has his priorities straight, before it’s too late!


Paying the Climate Bill, Equitably

By Nelson Harvey

The biggest question currently confounding the human attempt to deal with climate change is not one of technology or economics. Repeated analyses have shown that we can achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions by ramping up existing technologies, for a fairly modest cost in terms of Gross World Product (GWP). Rather, the most difficult question facing us is one of ethics.

Who is responsible for dealing with climate change? This question is as old as the problem itself, and it evokes many muddy ethical issues. Should rich countries responsible for most of our greenhouse gas emissions be the ones to pay, or should rapidly industrializing nations like China and India also chip in? Such questions have undermined international agreement on the issue since the Kyoto Protocol was drafted in the late 1990’s.

But what if we could attack this seemingly subjective question quantitatively? An organization called Eco-Equity has taken an initial step in that direction by developing an index called the ‘Greenhouse Development Rights Framework.’ I saw Eco-Equity co-founder Paul Baer speak at the NYU Law School last week, where he explained the assumptions behind this new tool for allocating climate change responsibility.

Inequality of wealth is widely acknowledged as a cause of inaction on climate change, since no poor country wants to sacrifice their right to economic development to solve a problem caused by rich nations. Thus, Eco-Equity assumes that no global solution will work if it makes inequality worse. The Development Rights Framework reasons that people with incomes below a certain ‘development threshold’ (about $9,000 annually) should not be required to pay to address climate change.

The idea that poorer nations shouldn’t pay was incorporated into the Kyoto Protocol. But in allocating responsibility among individuals rather than nations, the Eco-Equity approach picks up on an important fact: It’s rich people, not just rich countries, who contribute disproportionately to climate change. Therefore, anyone with an income above the development threshold should be required to contribute, including rich people living in poor countries.

So how does this approach change the way we allocate responsibility? Take the case of China vs. the United States. China may be emitting more greenhouse gases than the U.S. at present, but becuase of historical emissions rates and per capita wealth, they are required to pay a relatively smaller portion of the bill than we are. For example, if the total cost of climate change were 1 percent of GWP, China would pay $42 billion to the U.S.’s share of $214 billion.

Given the historical role of inequality in limiting progress on climate change, the Eco-Equity approch assumes that dealing with it may be the key to a solution. As Baer put it when he spoke at NYU, rich people are the only ones with the means to deal with climate change. Unless they step up to the plate, it’s likely that no one will.

Cracks in the Foundation: Green Business Encounters its Paradoxes

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?

Three Shades of Green

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

Avoiding Harmful Solutions

by Nelson Harvey

Arguments for rapid action on global warming are often framed in terms of the precautionary principle: given the potentially catastrophic consequences of the problem, we’re better off taking action to prevent them, even if some uncertainty remains about just how bad they’ll be. But in thinking about the legislation and technologies intended to combat global warming, it’s important to remember that even the most attractive solutions will likely have problems of their own.

Of course, global warming itself is an unintended consequence. The large-scale adoption of petroleum-based fuels in the 19th century was viewed at the time as a remarkable example of progress, enhancing personal mobility, manufacturing, and basic living standards in ways that hugely benefited the human race. Given the spell of of technological innovation that pervaded that period, any doomsday projections about petroleum causing a global environmental crisis would likely have been dismissed out of hand.

It’s arguable whether science at the time of the industrial revolution could have even suggested how severe a problem global warming would eventually become, or whether economics could have predicted the oligopolistic oil markets of today. But the basic tendency, letting excitement about a solution blind us to it’s potential risks, is one that continues to manifest itself in many forms. Cass Sunstein, a legal theorist and professor at the University of Chicago, discusses the issue eloquently in his 2005 essay “Cost Benefit Analysis and the Environment.”

Sunstein evokes the controversial case of the ban on DDT, the harmful neurotoxin contained in some pesticides that Rachel Carson railed against in her seminal book “Silent Spring.” While the health effects of the ban in wealthy countries have almost certainly been positive, it may be a different picture in poor countries, where the chemical was one of the most widely-used treatments for malaria. Sunstein also brings up opposition to genetically modified foods. He claims that that banning them based on concerns about human health could have the perverse effect of eliminating their potential to improve global food security.

These are both fiercely debated issues, but another contemporary example is the effect of the Clean Air Act on power plant efficiency. This famous piece of environmental legislation has had a hugely positive effect on air pollution in the U.S., reducing emissions of pollutants like nitrous oxide and particulate matter by at least 30 percent since 1970. Much of this reduction has come because of requirements in the act that oil coal-fired power plants feature new emissions reduction technology when they are renovated. The downside of this, though, is that it decreases the plants’ overall efficiency, requiring it to burn more coal than they previously would have, and thus emit more carbon dioxide.

How do we minimize our exposure to such unintended consequences, while still taking the steps necessary to deal with current problems? It’s a tall order. One potential starting place was outlined by Adam in a recent post: let’s do all we can to implement ecological solutions that rely on mechanisms we understand.

The risk of complex technological schemes is that a malfunction could give us far more than we bargained for. Ideas like injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere to reflect solar radiation (proposed in today’s NYT), or seeding the oceans with iron to increase their uptake of carbon dioxide, carry huge burdens of risk and uncertainty to match their potential payoffs. By focusing on what we know first, at least we can be sure that our “solutions” don’t leave us worse off than the problem we intended to solve.

East-West Poetics

by Nelson Harvey


If you heard skyscrapers called “vertical rivers,” it probably wouldn’t make much sense, at least until poet Gary Snyder explained it to you. “They’re rivers because they’re filled with concrete, and that’s [rock] aggregate, from river beds,” said Snyder, speaking Thursday night at Columbia University. The legendary poet and environmental activist was in town to give a talk with a particular focus on East Asia, and although his river imagery was the highlight for me, he had many interesting things to say about spirituality and nature in that region.

Snyder, who has been called “the laureate of the Deep Ecology Movement,” is also deeply immersed in Zen literature and practice. Beginning in the 1960’s, he spent more than 10 years studying in China and Japan, and has fused east and west in his poetry ever since. Like many western environmentalists and social critics (WGY authors included!), Snyder began with a fairly romantic vision of how people in eastern countries interact with nature. This is on display in much of his early work, but it has evolved over time.

“What philosophies and religions say and teach is not what societies are going to do,” said Snyder, referring to the increasingly large divide between the respect for nature expoused by Japan’s Shinto religion and the breakneck pace of industrialization in that country. “What the Japanese love is their romantic idea of nature, expressed in much of their poetry. But Japan is an ecological disaster!”

This contradiction takes some interesting forms in Japan (like cement plants digging into sacred mountains), and it also raises a vexing question: Do cultural beliefs about the importance of nature stand any chance in the face of global economic competition? Whatever the answer, perhaps we can take comfort in Snyder’s poetic view of the situation. Skyscrapers may be making rivers vertical, but they are vertical “only for now,” said Snyder. Eventually they’ll run again.

Footprint Forward Week

By Adam Brock

NYU is huge – like, small city huge. Making progress towards sustainability in an institution of 70,000 people can be a slow and often painstaking process. But every so often, I get the chance to work on something really incredible that makes it all worth it.


My favorite campus greening project so far this semester is Footprint Forward, a university-wide challenge to live with as miniscule an impact as possible for a week. Participants will have the opportunity to calculate their footprints before and after the challenge, but Footprint Forward isn’t intended to be a competition. Rather, it’s an opportunity to build community and discover how low-impact living can enrich their own health as well as that of the planet.

The week will kick off with a lecture by our neighborhood low impact expert, No Impact Man, to be followed by an introduction to ecofootprinting led by yours truly. A group called the Gallatin Consciousness will be using the week to start a campaign to ban bottled water on campus, and we’ll be cosponsoring a talk by “Post-Carbon Cities” author Daniel Lerch. With a participant handbook, a plethora of volunteer opportunities and workshops, and even a Footprint Forward blog, there should be no shortage of chances for participants to connect and share tips.

As part of the community-building spirit of the program, we’re extending an open invitation to the New York community at large – so if you live in the area and are interested in participating, you can sign up here.