Have you ever felt like your intellectual efforts were too narrowly focused? Or, that you were missing broader truths somehow? Both have occurred to me lately as I teach some of the esoteric details of economic theory in my AP Macroeconomics course. This is because most economics course material is more-or-less focused on only one type of economic system (a relatively free market economy), and only one general type of government (various forms of democracy). At the same time, it is clear that most macroeconomic thinkers fall way short of grasping the relationship between the market economy as we know it and the environmental destruction of the planet that we see all around. Is it possible that the ENTIRE economic system that we study is doomed to fail in the long run; that it is incompatible with sustainable human life on the planet? (I don’t actually think it is, but it is a question worth pondering).
I focused several lessons recently on these topics, but to help my students really grasp how these things are related, I gave them the following assignment. I’ll just put the assignment in this post, and in future posts I’ll explore some of the possible answers. I have friends who differ from me politically, some who are libertarian, and others who are quite conservative, and I wonder what answers they would give to these questions. So, without further ado–
All the Really Big Questions AP Macro Research and Writing Assignment
There are not really correct or incorrect answers here, but what is your thinking with regard to the following questions and topics? Don’t just make things up! There are varying opinions on all of these, but use your critical thinking skills. Your worldview should be cohesive!!! These three topics are deeply and completely interrelated.
Our economic system. From a worldwide perspective, is capitalism as we know it a good system? Why or why not? What would a “good system” of economics achieve? Is China on the right track with large degrees of state control? Is South Korea, with government support of certain industries? The US? Europe? Does success in one country come at the expense of another, or can all countries achieve success and prosperity? If “capitalism” isn’t an ideal system, what would replace it?
Hmmm, it seems that I don’t have time to write long posts. So, I’ll just write some short ones instead. Short post number one– the diffusion of innovation theory really helps make sense of our transition to electric vehicles. As I’ve long held, EVs are clearly better vehicles. They’re mechanically more simple, smoother, quieter, quicker, more reliable, they require less maintenance, they’re cheaper to operate, AND they can be powered with renewable power, AND the entire fuel distribution network (the electric grid, in this case) is dramatically more efficient, AND the vehicles themselves are more efficient (regenerative braking, no wasted heat…). EVs will also help solve the indeterminacy problems of renewable generation, and the list goes on. Eventually we will all drive EVs, and gas-powered cars with tailpipes spewing filth will be seen as archaic.
Because I have long seen this, I would be listed as a “visionary” in the diffusion of innovation model, and because I have acted on these ideas and bought two EVs, I am also an “early adopter”.
A pattern that many have noticed, however, as they study technology, is that diffusion often gets stuck between the early adopters and more widespread use. They call this barrier “The Chasm”. Early adopters typically adopt the innovation for reasons other than purely economic ones—in my case, I bought EV’s to lower my carbon footprint, and to try to do my part in getting humankind to operate in a more sustainable fashion. But the next phase of adoption, the early majority, consists of people who adopt the technology largely for economic reasons; they are pragmatists. “The chasm”, this barrier to adoption between the early adopter and the early majority, is something of a chicken and egg problem— in the case of EV’s, the lack of market share prevents the economies of scale from bringing down costs, and the higher costs prevent the market from expanding.
But, I’m pretty sure that right now, today, we are witnessing the electric vehicle crossing this adoption chasm after being a bit stuck for several years. And the reason? Tesla, and particularly the Model 3. The Model S (S, not 3!) has been groundbreaking in many, many ways, but it is still a $90,000 vehicle that most people can’t afford. The Model 3, however, promises to be a true game-changer.
Jumping-the-chasm impetus number one— the Tesla Model 3.
With a sticker price of below $40,000, and a range of over 200 miles, the Model 3 is likely to propel electric cars solidly into the mainstream (and 400,000 people have already paid deposits to ensure their place in the queue to get one). From there, all those natural advantages that EVs have will propel ever-further adoption—the chasm will have been crossed.
In addition, the announcement of the Model 3 prompted Chevrolet to do something akin to a magic hat trick Continue reading →
(The following is a transcript of the speech that I gave at the National Honor Society induction at our school last spring. Mr. X read it at the time, and felt that I should publish it here. In light of current challenges to environmental policy in the US, I think he might be right.)
Hey kids! Here I am, with my speech!
First, I just want to tell you all that it’s quite an honor for you all to ask me to do this. A few weeks ago Chloe, and Matt, Nihdi, and a few others all came into my room and stood around my desk and kind of stared at me… it was a little bit freaky. I didn’t quite know what they were up to, but then they asked me to come and do this talk tonight. And like I said, I am honored that you asked. So, the kids told me that speech should be not too long, and maybe inspirational. Hmmm. Then Mr. Berryhill told me that it could also be “aspirational”. Hmmmm.
So I thought about this for a few days. What could I tell you guys that was inspirational?
So as some of you know, I live up north of Middlebury, and I drive an hour each way in my electric car. I like to drive anyway, and I enjoy the time; I sometimes tell people that it’s a break between kids at home and kids at work. Anyway, it’s some good thinking time, I seem to work through a lot of mental problems on my drives. So I was thinking about what I could tell you guys that was “inspirational”.
And then I had this little epiphany, just driving along, because it really struck me that life itself was pretty inspirational. We’re all pretty lucky, to live where we do, in the times that we do. AND, holy moly, for you guys, just starting out, it should be even more inspirational. Continue reading →
A new woodstove in the Bruhl house. Efficiency—still the goose that lays the golden egg…
Well, our trusty 1972 Vermont Castings Defiant woodstove, a hand-me-down from a close relative, finally had to be retired. It had developed enough air leaks that it was easy to overfire, and each time it got too hot it cracked or warped a little bit more, to the point where it was becoming difficult to keep it in check and was becoming a slight safety hazard. So, we went shopping for a new one, and settled on a large Dutchwest model (Dutchwest is now owned by Vermont Castings), the 2479, a non-catalytic stove that meets the strictest EPA emissions standards.
And, since I feel that efficiency is one large key to our sustainable future, I’m writing this post because I’m amazed at the improved efficiency of this new stove. I didn’t quite believe that the old Defiant could be topped— I burn well-seasoned hardwood, and we burn hot, clean fires. But, whereas older stoves might have been 40-50% efficient, the new ones with carefully designed secondary burn chambers are 80% or more efficient, and the result is much more heat from the wood that is burned. The difference is noticeable—the new stove brings the house up to temperature far faster than the Defiant ever did, AND does it with less wood. Continue reading →
Video above: Nature is beautiful, and fragile, and it needs our protection.
Ok, I desperately need to write a post here, and to catch up a bit. I ran for State Rep, it was fun, we ran a strong campaign, the election was close, but I didn’t quite make it. So, now I’ve been trying to catch back up with all the things in my life that got put on hold during the race. And, despite a lack of posts here for the past five months, I’ve certainly had plenty of sustainability thoughts. In fact, that might be part of the problem with getting started again, because I’m not quite sure where to begin. So, a short post here about a simple idea—
I read something that Al Gore said the other week after the election, that “There’s no time for despair“. I think he’s right. True, we now seem to have a Trump administration that threatens to halt or reverse progress on protecting the environment. BUT, I’ve said all along, for years and years—individual action comes first (one such post here) and government action will follow, eventually, when there becomes a critical mass of voters. With a Trump administration we may have a setback on the government side of things, but we still have individual action. We can still affect the demand side of these equations, and this is an equally powerful tool.
And, in the “no time for despair” department, the challenges in the world have not abated. 2016 is nearly certain to be the hottest year on record. Giraffes were just recently listed as being in danger of extinction. Elephants, gorillas, and lions might all soon be gone from the wild or even extinct. Coral reefs have suffered devastating bleaching and die-off events, worldwide. Monarch butterfly numbers have plunged by 90% or more, in just the last decade. Humankind is still growing by 200,000 or more people every day, and human development is causing devastating habitat loss worldwide. Seas are being overfished, plastic pollution of the oceans continues unabated. This depressing list goes on. (I expected this– I wrote a post in 2014, “Brace Yourself“, about how things will get worse before they get better).
Giraffe in Kenya. Recent studies have shown giraffe numbers to be dropping precipitously.
On the other hand—the good news also continues nearly unabated. The world installed 73 gigawatts of solar last year (that’s about 200 megawatts every day), and almost as much wind generation, and those numbers are still increasing. Thirty or more countries have reached grid parity with regard to solar, and grid-parity for the entire world is expected by the end of 2017. Panels are increasingly efficient, as are the production lines that make them, and new panels today pay back their energy debt in only two years. Battery technology is improving, with power densities doubling in the last five years, even as prices have fallen by more than half. Affordable electric vehicles are coming off of production lines today that go well over 200 miles on a charge. More charging stations for electric vehicles are being installed daily, and many of them are powered by renewable energy. Tesla just announced a new solar roof that it will soon sell at prices similar to conventional roofs. President Obama recently expanded a marine protected area northwest of Hawaii to include over a half million square miles, making it the largest protected area on the planet. Underground high-voltage DC lines are being built to move renewable power long distances, including one in my state of Vermont. LED lighting continues to be perfected, and is an order of magnitude more efficient than the incandescent bulbs of yesteryear. Net-zero houses are becoming common. World poverty has been cut in half in the last twenty years. This list of good things goes, on, too, at the same time as the list of bad things.
So we’re in a race, and the outcome isn’t exactly clear. That’s why I agree with Al Gore’s statement—we don’t have time for despair. Yes, many of us are deeply concerned about the impact of a Trump administration with regard to sustainability. Yes, government action in the US is likely to halt or even reverse in some cases. But we still have the power of demand, and we still have the power of individual action. So channel your concern into making a difference. Buy or lease an electric vehicle. Install solar panels or buy renewable power. Reduce your consumption. Weatherize your house. Join a group that is part of the solution. Vote with your dollars when you shop. Buy organic, and Fair Trade. Buy quality products from socially responsible producers and make them last. And don’t give up on the political process—there will be more elections, and more votes. It’s going to be a long hard slog, and there will be some setbacks, but eventually we will prevail.
I don’t wear a suit all that often; it took me a while to dig up a picture where I looked like a candidate…
Well, it’s official—I’m running for state office; there’s my grainy mug shot above. Local people have asked me to run for a position on the state legislature, and after initially rejecting the idea, I decided that I probably could be of service. I have the background and broad life experience required of a good legislator, and I should do my civic duty. It isn’t like I haven’t thought about these things—I’ve been thinking and writing about public policy for many years.
So, this blog has obviously focused mostly on sustainability, though in these pages are also political topics—musings on economic systems, markets, trade policies, taxes, and the like. Most of my underlying political philosophy is in here, in one place or another. The challenge, though, upon being elected, is that I would be helping to create policy that has real impacts, on real people, both for good and bad. With policy, the devil is nearly always in the details. There are often issues where there is broad general agreement, but where the nitty-gritty is extremely difficult to parse. In our state, the recent failure of a bill that would have legalized marijuana is a case in point—there seemed to be broad general agreement on the matter, but the House and Senate, and members within those bodies, were unable to reach agreement on the details of implementation. So it is and will be with positions that I’ve advocated here. Sure, we can all agree in a general sense that we need to move toward renewable power. But how, and how fast, and in what places? What other areas of policy would be affected by this path or that?
Then, there is the fact that there is much, much more that has to be done by government than to just work on environmental topics, and many of those pressing concerns are competing for the same pool of limited funds. The result is that serving in the legislature would require large measures of nuance and thoughtfulness, and in many cases, measured approaches that might work in the real world, but might also fail to fully satisfy anyone. But, it also seems like a fun and interesting challenge, and should the citizens here deem me fit to be elected, I will work hard to both be their voice, and to help provide leadership, direction, and vision as to where we are going as a state.
On the practical side, I will likely be putting a pause on writing new material here, perhaps until the election in November. I am certainly not stopping permanently, though, and rest assured that sustainability is and will remain something that I will continue to ponder. Without factoring in environmental issues, we have no long-term future.
I took a risk, and I think it paid off. I have an electric car, and a cordless electric lawnmower, and fully-functional battery-powered construction tools. But a chain saw? I was pretty skeptical, but I was also intrigued by the potential advantages—push-button starting, light weight, not having to mess with gasoline mixes, no finicky carburetors to keep adjusted. So I spent some time watching YouTube videos of electric saws, and decided that one of the larger ones might indeed work as well as my Jonsered gas saws.
So I took bit of a gamble, and ordered one from Amazon. It’s an 80-volt, 18-inch Greenworks saw, and comes with a 2-amp-hour lithium-ion battery and a 30-minute quick charger. I also ordered a second battery. Three days ago the package showed up on the porch, and I have to say, I’m really impressed with it so far, so much so that I’ve already made arrangements to sell the gas saws.
Ok, before I go on, it’s obviously only indirectly “solar powered”, because I charge the batteries at home from my net-zero solar set-up. But that was one of my goals– to further reduce my fossil-fuel use. When I charge them at home, they are indeed solar powered. But back to the saw—
Without this being a full-on power tool review, let me give you some of my have-used-it-for-three-days thoughts— Continue reading →
Ack! Two of my post ideas have come into conflict, which has resulted in some cognitive dissonance here in my quest for a better path forward. To wit—post idea #1, from a year ago, the posts “Plastic Trash and Whack-a-mole“, and then “Two Sides of the Very Same Coin“, where I was rather horrified at the damage that plastics are causing , and decided to look into not using plastics in the kitchen, and to also reduce the amounts of trash and recycling that we generate. The short version of a zero-plastic, zero-trash lifestyle—practice some Minimalism, store food in mason jars, shop with reusable bags, and buy things from the bulk and produce sections that aren’t packaged. This sounded like a thoughtful, more sustainable path forward.
But, much of this doesn’t mesh well with ideas from my recent explorations of self-sufficiency, packaging, and transportation, in the posts “Packaging, Transportation, and Doing it Yourself“, and “The Packaging and Transportation Part“. In those posts, I argue that we’re far more efficient, and therefore less wasteful, if we let specialization, productivity, and economies of scale work their magic. To do otherwise, as in trying to do everything yourself, for example, is inefficient, and therefore wasteful, and thus a faulty path forward.
Is a new road a good thing that will improve people’s lives, or is it environmental destruction in action? It is difficult to know using current economic measures. Road building in Kenya.
Here’s an abstract to help get us started today—though economic growth could wreck the planet, it is not necessarily going to do so. But it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between “good” growth and “bad” growth, in part because most indexes that we measure economic change with are too blunt. I’m going to suggest some alternatives here, which might bring some clarity to our understanding of economic growth, and which could help us navigate a path toward genuine prosperity.
Making Sense of Economic Growth
It is very common to read arguments about how dangerous economic growth is—how it is destroying the planet, how exponential growth can’t continue, and how it must be stopped. In fact, some environmentalists have long advocated various forms of “de-growth”. And yet, it is very clear that not all economic growth is bad. Growth and economic development will be critically necessary to bring poor nations out of poverty, and there are plenty of other examples of growth that simultaneously help people and help to protect the environment. On the other hand, there are certainly many cases where growth is indeed quite damaging.
Why Current Measures are Inadequate
Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to judge good growth from bad growth, and this is partly because the ways in which we measure growth are somewhat flawed. Since the 1930’s, growth has been most commonly measured as growth in total production of goods and services, in the form of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. While never intended to be a measure of the overall social progress of a nation, it has been used as a proxy for that virtually since its inception (a good New York Times article about this: “The Rise and Fall of the G.D.P.“). Over the years, plenty of criticism has been directed toward GDP, as much of what it measures as positive growth is actually detrimental to society. Noted thinkers Frijof Capra and Hazel Henderson give a short summary of this argument in a report about qualitative growth—
“Social costs, like those of accidents, wars, litigation, and health care, are added as positive contributions to the GDP, as are ‘defensive expenditures’ on mitigating pollution and similar externalities, and [yet] the undifferentiated growth of this crude quantitative index is considered to be the sign of a healthy economy…”
Another flaw of GDP is that it while it mostly ignores social costs, it completely ignores Continue reading →
Ha, I’m famous! Ok, not really, but I did do an interview segment for the local community television show. It’s not my preferred form of delivery, I’d much rather write, but I suppose it turned out ok. So if you’re interested, here’s my balding head talking to the camera…
(I suspect this link might not stay linked to the right video—the frame below should be for “Middlebury Five-O, Today’s Guest: Taborri Bruhl”. I’ll try to keep an eye on it to keep it linked correctly.)
In other news, I think I’ve made some serious progress with regard to how we should think about economic growth. That post coming within a week…