Tracing it Back, and Farther Back Still

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.


Fertilizer Waste to Solar Panels: Too Good to be True?

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.

Broken Robots: Technology Reconsidered

By Adam Brock

Broken Robots

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.

Agritecture Evolves

As we seek to reintroduce natural systems into the urban landscape, and rising energy costs make local food increasingly desirable, intensive urban agriculture is shaping up to be a critical component of self-sufficient cities. Jetson Green reports on the latest vertical farming proposal, this one from Seattle: the Center for Urban Agriculture, conceived by local firm Mithun.

The winner of the Cascadia Region Green Building Council’s Living Building Challenge, Mithun’s proposal deftly integrates human and natural systems to function like a living organism. The proposal aims for self-sufficiency in energy (via PV panels with hydrogen storage) and water (via rooftop rainwater harvesting), while providing more than 300 affordable housing units and 40,000 square feet of vertical farming – all on a 3/4 acre footprint.

Of course, the Center for Urban Agriculture is just a proposal, and even if it were to be self-sufficient in energy, water and food, the details of how it would work from a financial perspective are far from clear. As I delve deeper into my ecological site plan for the Domino Sugar Factory, I’ll be taking a close look at proposals like Mithun’s and Dickson Despommier’s Vertical Farm Project to see just how workable they are.

Best in the Viz

By Adam Brock

Superfund365Last Saturday I attended “Environmental Awareness through Ecovisualization,” a panel talk put on by Eyebeam as part of last weekend’s Conflux fest in Williamsburg. Defined by panelist Tiffany Holmes as site-specific, often dynamic displays of environmental data, ecovisualizations present the often obtuse statistics of sustainability in an easily understandable manner – and many of them are damn cool to look at, too.

Tiffany began the proceedings with a brief rundown of some of ecoviz art’s influences, from Richard Long‘s earthworks to Jackie Brookner’s Prima Lingua, a sculpture of a giant tongue covered in moss that cleans polluted water. Next, she introduced her current project, 7000 Oaks and Counting, which uses the combination of an interactive website, a kiosk animation, and sculptures of trees to raise awareness of the environmental impact of everyday action in an Illinois research center.

Next up was Michael Mandiberg, creator of the Real Costs Firefox plugin I covered a few months back. Michael used most of his alloted fifteen minutes to introduce Eyebeam’s Ecoviz Challenge, an open contest to create graphic icons or ecovizualizations to raise awareness about an environmental issue.

Brooke Singer of Preemptive Media spoke next, introducing a couple projects of her own: Air, which gathers data from portable air-quality monitors roving the city and sends it to a centralized database; and Superfund365, a website that profiles the backstory of a different superfund site every day.

By this point, I’d noticed a conspicuous pattern: nearly all of the examples from the panel were grassy to the max. Of course, with Eyebeam’s mission at the nexus of art and emerging technologies, this makes a certain amount of sense. But the way I see it, there’s no reason why ecovisualization has to entail GPS, air sensors or plasma displays – objects that can incur significant environmental impacts in their own right.

Which is why I thought the best ecovisualization presented was the last: Eve Moscher’s “High Water Line“. As the name implies, the brilliantly simple project involves drawing a chalk line at the 10-foot-above-sea level point throughout the entire five boroughs, to highlight the impact climate change will have on the city.

Interestingly, Mosher described it as a perfomance piece, with passerby as the audience. While the chalk might only last a day or two, the psychological impact Mosher incurs on pedestrians by explaining the piece lasts far longer. That’s why, to me, “High Water Mark” is so successful: the understanding that the ground beneath your feet will one day be submerged is something that no website, no matter how slick and interactive, can replicate. Here’s to hoping the other panelists, and the participants in Eyebeam’s contest, will take note.

Image credit:

Trending Green

Whenever I want to check in on the public pulse of a given meme, I run a Google Trends search: the nifty little app charts the volume of Google searches and news reference over time, for any set of phrases you give it.

Recently, I ran a query on how key environmental issues stack up against other hot topics in the news – namely, Iraq and American Idol. This comparison (shown below) proves that, as hyped, the climate crisis is finally becoming one of the Big Issues, though it’s still nowhere near as interesting to surfers as the country’s top TV show during its finals.


Our other looming environmental crisis, meanwhile, isn’t seeing anywhere close to the search volume as climate change. Although gas prices are on the rise and petroleum reserves are dangerously low, interest in peak oil seems to have waned since the post-Katrina gas shock.


…wonder where these lines will end up by the 2008 election?

Bright Green Baby Steps

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.