Category Archives: Big Picture

Coming Soon—Your World, Disrupted

Google's self-driving car...

Google’s self-driving car, a possible forerunner to “Transportation as a Service”, or “TaaS”.

Imagine this—fully autonomous cars, legal in all fifty states by 2021. And shortly after that—no more car dealerships. Cars that last for half a million miles, but that very few people own. Radical disruption of the oil industry. No more gas stations. An extra trillion dollars a year in US consumers’ pockets. People paying to have their used gas cars towed away and disposed of. Unused pipelines.

These and more are the stunning predictions in a new report from a noted technology research group, whose authors see an approaching “perfect storm” of economic disruption, driven by self-reinforcing feedback loops that revolve around the combination of dropping prices and increased capabilities of electric vehicles, renewable power, and self-driving control systems.

Basically, they envision an entire transportation system that is akin to today’s Uber, but one that is coupled with electric vehicles and autonomous driving in ways that result in plummeting costs, and they predict that this unbalancing of costs will have ramifications that will upend much of life as we know it. Perhaps more importantly, they also conclude that this shift will happen much, much sooner than nearly anyone thinks it will. In fact, they predict that sales of new gas-powered vehicles to consumers will cease as soon as seven years from now. Continue reading

All the Really Big Questions

city at night

Toronto at night.

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.

  1. 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?

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Smart Kids’ Burden

The world is on their shoulders...

The world is on their shoulders…

(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.
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No Time for Despair

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.

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.

 

Image credit: Giraffe—Kris Arnold, Flickr Creative Commons.

 

 

Nuance, Thoughtfulness, and a Measured Approach

Taborri pic for presentations cropped slightly

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.

Best,

tb

Making Sense of Economic Growth

When is a new road a good thing? Road building in Kenya.

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

Me on TV

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…

 

Imagine…

Wind power...

Wind power: more in store by 2050…

Times have changed. In years past when I gave talks about sustainable living I would spend considerable time, perhaps half of each presentation, trying to convince people that we do indeed have an environmental problem here on our green and blue marble.  Today, though, for better or for worse, most people don’t seem to need convincing. This could be because our problems are worse now, or it could be that there is an increased awareness and acceptance of the idea that we need to quit damaging the planet. Either way, what people could use today is some sort of hope that we can indeed do this thing; that we can surmount these huge challenges facing us. And, as I’ve written before, I’m more optimistic than I used to be. We have the tools and technology that we need; we don’t necessarily need new inventions or grand technological breakthroughs. What we do need, though, is a workable common vision of where we’re going.

So, let’s imagine where we could be by the year 2050, if we put our minds to it—even if no new technologies come along to help us. In no particular order, here are some things that we might see. Some of these will be more difficult than others to achieve; I’ll discuss some of the difficulties at the end.

(Click here to listen to John Lennon’s “Imagine” song—to me at least, it seems to set the appropriate mood.) Continue reading

Even RE Isn’t Free, and Other Thoughts

Beautiful berries---to ship or not to ship?

Beautiful berries—to ship or not to ship?

First, I just wanted to let everyone know that I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save” on a partially-completed post yesterday, and then had to quickly delete it, but not before the program sent out the “new post” notices. So, if you got a “new post” notice with a bad link in it, that’s why. Sorry,..

Second, some thoughts on the packaging post. Mr. X had a really important observation that deserves mention. He agreed with the underlying ideas about efficient production, and to paraphrase his comments, “It would be better to grow strawberries in California and ship them to Arizona in self-driving vehicles powered by renewable power, and to put solar generation in Arizona and ship the power to California via high-voltage-DC lines…” But he took issue with my statement that the $2 price on the vinegar in the store reflects its entire cost, and he is indeed correct. That $2 price does not take into account all the costs that companies push off onto third-parties, the “negative externalities”. Whether it’s global warming from fossil fuel use, or downstream effects from plastic pollution, or abuses of workers through unfair labor practices, the jug of vinegar has costs that might not be reflected in its price on the shelf. Though, even if those hidden costs doubled the store price of the vinegar, my underlying point would still hold (and he agreed)—efficient production would be the least wasteful and therefore the most sustainable, within reason.

Again, this is another case where we need to focus on actual problems, and in this case the problem would be negative externalities, and the best solution for those is… good government. But, I digress…

A few other thoughts here. With regard to trade, packaging, and shipping—common sense still applies. The only way to get fresh blackberries in January in the US is to buy ones that have been flown up from South America. Despite the richness created in our lives when we can have fresh berries in January, it probably isn’t worth the cost. Even if the plane was somehow powered by renewable power, we need to realize that even renewable power has a cost—dammed rivers, land given over to solar farms, etc. So although using renewable energy is a goal, we need to balance it with the goal of reduced consumption.

The high-carbon way to get the berries...

The high-carbon way to get the berries… A 747 cargo flight in Anchorage, Alaska.

Related, while I think it’s better to choose packaged items over trying to make everything at home, it’s still a perfectly valid goal to strive for reduced packaging. And some home production can indeed make sense. An example in my life— Continue reading

Cause for Optimism

Just one of many recent changes---practical electric vehicles for ordinary people.

Practical electric vehicles for ordinary people—just one of many changes in recent years.

If you haven’t noticed, things are changing out there.

I titled the letter to the editor that I wrote last month “A Call for Perspective“, and in it I argued that we all need to take a wider view on issues such as renewable energy, so that as we go forward we can head in directions that make long-term sense for the planet.  Well, the other week I was working with a student on renewable energy topics, and it occurred to me that we also need to keep things in perspective as we look backwards. When we do, we notice that there has been a tremendous amount of change in the last four or five years, and much of it is positive.

So, without turning this into a huge long post, let me just point out some changes, in no particular order. In the last few years, solar and wind generation have each more than doubled, both in the U.S. and worldwide. Solar prices have dropped by half, (and will likely continue to drop), PV cell efficiencies have gone up, and wind power is now one of the cheapest ways for utilities in many parts of the country to add capacity. Continue reading