Taking Multi-Tasking to Task

by Nelson Harvey


If you’re listening to music, eating, writing a paper, chatting online, or talking on the phone as you read this post, take heed. Odds are that multi-tasking manifests itself in your life in one form or another, but that may mean bad news for your quality of life and your intelligence. That’s what novelist and critic Walter Kirn argues in the November issue of the Atlantic Monthly, in a truly illuminating piece titled “The Autumn of the Multi-Taskers.”

Kirn is truly one of the sharpest writers out there today, in my view, and the piece is worth a read if you can get it. He cites new research showing that when we multi-task, we employ the part of our brains involved with “visual processing and physical coordination,” while appearing to neglect “some of the higher areas related to memory and learning.” As he puts it, we concentrate on concentrating, rather than on what we’re doing.

So what’s the connection to environmental issues? The idea of moving toward “sustainability” is about getting back to the things that really matter, in our economic, political and personal lives. But we’ll never stop to think about what those things are if we’re constantly thumbing away on the Blackberry.

To me, one thing that really matters is what we mean when we use the word “freedom.” Kirn describes how when Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) like the Blackberry and Palm Pilot were first released, they came clothed in the language of freedom. Of course, what advertisers were really selling was efficiency, convenience and mobility packaged as freedom. Freedom, they said, meant giving us the world at our fingertips, wherever we were. In so doing, they made every spare moment a potential working moment. Time off-line became wasted time, and “being ‘here’ and ‘living’ suddenly became being ‘nowhere’ and doing ‘nothing,’” as Kirn puts it. If this technology offered freedom, it was freedom from the present, and from the geographical and social contexts in which we exist. It’s hard to see how such freedom could be beneficial for personal and community life.

Freedom, to me, means the freedom to unplug, as we’ve discussed here before. Given that many of us spend so much time at the keys (and I’m not talking ivories), we should take heed at Kirn’s definition of multi-tasking. To wit:

“Multitasking, a definiton: the attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often with the assistance of computers.”

Photo credit: Evilangelica


Carbon Dioxide = Food

By Adam Brock

Ecodesign is all about figuring out a way to make linear processes into cycles: transforming what’s leftover when we’re done creating something into the raw materials of something else. These “leftovers” are conventionally called pollution – but in the regeneration, they’ll be increasingly seen as valuable resources.

These days, the most pernicious leftover is the one that’s contributing to climate change. Since it looks like we’ll be stuck with emitting CO2 for the short term, it makes sense to start thinking about how we can transform it into something valuable (rather than try and stuff it underground and hope it doesn’t leak).

Sustainable Design Update reports that Cornell’s Geoffrey Coates and his start-up Novomer is developing a plastic that uses CO2 and Carbon Monoxide as a feedstock. They’ve received $6.6 million in venture capital so far, and expect their products to be cost-competitive with oil-based plastics. Sounds right on so far… but is it compostable?

CO2 Stats = A Carbon Neutral Internet?

By Adam Brock

Hot on the heels of Real Costs comes CO2 Stats, a blog widget that calculates emissions from the time you spend online and offsets them through Sustainable Travel International. Developed by Tim Sullivan and Alex Wissner-Gross, two PhD students at Harvard and Yale, CO2 Stats has the ambitious goal of “making the entire internet carbon neutral”.

I’m a little skeptical that that’ll happen anytime soon (especially given the questionable effectiveness of carbon offsets), but Sullivan and Gross’ early success is impressive: a week after its official launch, CO2 stats reaches 170,000 users per month. Now if I could just figure out a way to install the plugins on WGY, I just might become a proud CO2 Statistician.

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.

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.

Shrink the Footprint of Your Shopping Spree!

by Nelson Harvey
Whether or not you think the rise of green consumerism is enough to solve our environmental problems, there’s little doubt about one thing: it’s getting pretty sophisticated. The organization Climate Counts is a case in point. Using a scorecard of 22 performance indicators, the group grades companies on their response to climate change, asking whether they’ve inventoried their own emissions, made reductions, or taken a positive stance on climate legislation. These conclusions are drawn based on publicly available information.

But that’s only the half of it. Recently, Climate Counts partnered up with the activist telecommunications company Working Assets Wireless to design a service where customers can receive instantaneous information about a company’s climate performance over the phone. Thus, a customer considering a purchase of Dannon yogurt could send a quick text message and learn that the company had earned 50 out of a possible 100 points on the Climate Counts scale, and was “striding” compared to its competitors. (Climate Counts likes the running metaphor; the other two broad categories to describe a company’s performance are “stopped” and “starting).”

This tool rests comfortably within the framework of consumerism, since it doesn’t encourage people to ask “do I really need this product?” but rather, “which of these products is less harmful?” Its also unlikely to be the most effective method of consumer education, since it requires some effort on the part of the consumer. Product labeling efforts, like those currently being pursued by companies like Timberland or Tesco Supermarkets in Britain, are a more convenient way to get information across.

But the Climate Counts project is unique in allowing consumers to send a message (quite literally) back to companies that they’ve investigated to express their views on company policy and urge improvement. Once messages like these reach a certain volume, it becomes economic suicide for a company not to consider them. The list of brands that the organization evaluates is long and growing. Check ’em out before your next shopping trip.