Category Archives: Sustainable Lifestyles

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.
Continue reading

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.

 

 

A Real-life, Solar-Powered Chain Saw

Another step away from fossil fuel...

Another step away from fossil fuel…

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

No Perfect System—Yet

Mason jars---good for some things.

Jars—good for some things.

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.

And therein lies the rub. 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

The Packaging and Transportation Part

Moving cargo by sea is remarkably efficient in terms of carbon emissions per ton.

Moving cargo by sea is remarkably efficient in terms of carbon emissions—as low as 10 grams per ton per kilometer.

In my last, I argued that it might be a more sustainable path for people to avoid striving for self-sufficiency, and to embrace trade and efficiency instead. I’m a bit uncomfortable with this conclusion (two posts that led to this are here and here), because the quest for efficiency, when coupled with market forces, can have severe downsides. If efficiency is the only goal, then production often ends up taking a toll on people, animals, or the environment. But despite these problems that need addressed, I’m quite certain that the underlying  premise is a correct one.  This, in turn, leads to yet another logical conclusion—the “packaging and transportation” part of that last discussion.

Just to recap, here’s the train o’ logic so far—trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency and productivity, which leads to the group being better off. Efforts toward self-sufficiency run counter to this, and are nearly always inherently less efficient. Since efficiency is, by definition, “not wasting time, effort, or materials”, then it follows that its opposite—inefficiency—is wasteful, and (other things being equal) that the efficient path would be the more sustainable one. To expand on this, let’s look at two other common “sustainable” trends that are perhaps as prevalent as trying to be self-sufficient— Continue reading

Packaging, Transportation, and Doing-It-Yourself

Making apple cider on a small scale. Just one of many, many things you can do "yourself".

Making apple cider on a small scale. Just one of many, many things a person can “do themselves”.

And, drum roll, I find myself having ANOTHER thought about how efficiency and productivity affect our vision of what a more sustainable future might look like. Here’s the deal—there seems to be a very strong tendency, among those who endeavor to envision how future sustainable cultures and societies might function, to admire and strive for self-sufficiency, and to push for doing more things ourselves. In fact, it seems to be a near-universal trend in the world of “sustainable” ideas. It isn’t a totally bad inclination; “doing-it-yourself” often results in much more varied and interesting day-to-day work, more well-roundedness in terms of skills and knowledge, and more resilience in the face of adverse economic times. BUT, there is a huge downside—self-sufficiency and do-it-yourself activities run counter to some of those fundamental economic laws I keep talking about, namely that all-important idea that I’ve discussed before, that trade leads to specialization, which leads to efficiency, which leads to productivity, which leads to the group being better off. And when you violate those laws often enough, you can easily end up with the opposite, where things are going downhill.

So, let me give you some examples of this. When I give it some thought, I realize that there are a lot of things I can do myself. A lot. Just to mention a few, let me see… I can make pasta from scratch, fell timber and mill my own wood flooring, do all the plumbing and electrical in my house, pull and rebuild automotive engines, bake bread, can tomatoes, grow all manner of produce, train my dogs, build a barn, design solar systems, raise chickens and eggs, keep bees and raise honey, make hummus, and who knows what else.

Beekeeping, in the "things I can do" category.

Beekeeping, in the “things I can do” category.

And, if I put my mind to it, there’s even more I’m sure I could learn to do, and/or would like to learn to do—graft fruit trees, make maple syrup, grind mustard seed to make mustard, butcher my own large animals, learn much more about permaculture and agriculture, get fluent in Spanish, sew my own clothes, spin my own thread, design websites, make yogurt, etc., etc., the list goes on. And there’s no end, ever, to how long this particular list might be.

BUT, there’s a problem. Continue reading

Rob Greenfield on Recklessness

"Pounding each other's faces for the sake of entertainment" = reckless?

“Pounding each other’s faces for the sake of entertainment”—a form of recklessness?

You might not be familiar with Rob Greenfield, but he’s a young guy who lives with no money, travels the world on his bike, does as much good as he can for all the people he meets, eats free food from grocery store dumpsters, and writes about it on the internet. I admire the guy, even though I don’t think that we can all live quite like he does. I like his perspective on many things, and this bit that he wrote on “recklessness” really caught my eye. This was in a piece about why he doesn’t have health insurance, and I can’t say that I agree with him, necessarily, on that part. BUT—this part for sure is worth reading. I’ll paste a big chunk of it here; I don’t think he’d mind one bit. (Link to his whole article here).

Some would say I’m being reckless by not having health insurance, but I urge those who think this to assess the blatant recklessness of our society and question whether you are being reckless as well. To me being reckless is eating fast food, even on a weekly basis. To me being reckless is smoking cigarettes. To me being reckless is eating too much meat and too little veggies and fruits. To me being reckless is choosing to spend my days dormant and getting no exercise. To me being reckless is slaving away at a job that results in vast amounts of stress and relationship strains. To me the American culture is beyond reckless in so many of our simple daily actions. Recklessness is purely a matter of perspective.

We are reckless with our lands that we poison with herbicides and pesticides and strip of all the nutrients through industrial farming. Continue reading