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

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

A Melting Arctic and the Sowers of Doubt

NASA image of research in the Arctic.

NASA image of research in the Arctic—scientists sampling melt-water ponds.

Mr. X mentioned to me the other day that part of our problems with environmental policy stem from the fact that thinkers of the far-right seem to truly believe that climate change isn’t happening, or that it doesn’t matter. I’m not so sure, but I admit that I could be underestimating the anti-science worldview that seems relatively prevalent in some of these groups. But whether or not those purported skeptics “at the top” truly believe in their positions, it is quite clear that they are able to use money to manipulate public opinion further down the chain.

This issue came up with me last week, when three things happened, all in a row, and all related to Arctic ice. First, I happened upon an article in Forbes magazine from March, entitled “Updated NASA Data: Global Warming not Causing any Polar Ice Retreat“. Written by James Taylor, and linked to a graph of satellite data, it claims that any melting of polar ice caps is quite slight, and no cause for alarm (I did some research on this article; I’ll come back to that in a minute). Then, a few days later I happened to be talking to, well, let’s just say a “close relative”, who in the last decade seems to have come increasingly under the sway of far-right media. To my amazement, when the conversation turned to climate change, he began listing off point after point from the Forbes article, though without mentioning it by name. Then, thing #3—an in-depth report in the newest issue of National Geographic, on, drum roll… melting in the Arctic.

So, let’s take a quick look at how these three things intersect. Continue reading

A Call for Perspective

Wind turbines in Denmark. The nation has strong government support for wind power, and at times generates over 100% of its electricity from wind.

Wind turbines in Denmark. The nation has strong government support for wind power, and at times generates over 100% of its electricity from wind.

(Note: This is my letter to the editor that was printed in the Addison Independent this week, though they changed the title from my original above. Several of you have asked for an electronic copy or link, so here it is.)

For the last few years I have been carefully following the debate about Vermont’s solar and wind development. There have been many valid points brought up by both advocates and opponents, and there seems to be a consensus opinion forming that revolves around a middle ground of sorts. Most Vermonters do agree that we need to transition toward a renewable-energy economy, but also that common-sense guidelines should be developed with regard to the approval and siting of wind turbines, solar arrays, and their distribution networks. I do sometimes wonder, however, if the body politic is occasionally losing sight of the forest for the trees, especially when I see the tiniest of details about specific projects being debated in various public forums.

In light of this, let me attempt to bring us all back a step. In the last several centuries, we humans have benefited tremendously from the use of fossil fuels; the power they contain has underpinned most of the world’s development and wealth creation. This energy source has also enabled human populations to mushroom, and, despite a gradual slowdown, world population is still increasing by about a million people every four days. The pressures that 7 billion-plus humans are putting on the planet are beginning to break it, as oceans acidify, the planet warms, wildlife habitats shrink, soil washes away, species vanish, pollution accumulates, and sea levels rise. Though the problems are many and disparate, a good portion of them are related to the use of fossil fuels, because using them has in some ways been a bargain with the devil. Despite the benefits that these fuels have given to mankind, we now better understand that they have dangers as well, and realize that burning them is not without cost, particularly with regard to CO2 emissions. Despite efficiency improvements across the board, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are still climbing steadily, and have now passed 400-parts-per-million—higher than any time in the last four million years. Worse, these higher levels hold a hidden danger, as atmospheric CO2 is quite stable, and continues to cause warming for centuries. This warming of the planet is also likely to exacerbate all of the other problems that we humans are causing, and many of them could become mutually reinforcing, or even spiral out of control in future decades. Mankind has unknowingly, and then knowingly, been playing a very dangerous game.

Continue reading

The Fallacy of “My Part Doesn’t Count”

An oddly appropriate historical photo to help you visualize my wagon analogy.

An old photo to help you visualize my wagon analogy.

I’ve heard the exact same argument three or four times in the last few days, in what seems like a strange coincidence. To wit, “because my part is small, it doesn’t matter”. I heard an economist on NPR the other day discussing a potential carbon tax in Vermont, and he was saying that Vermont is so small compared to the rest of the world that cutting our emissions would have no measurable effect, so we should just skip the tax. Then I saw the argument in one of the Wait But Why posts, where the author discusses the cruelty of factory farming, but admits that he still eats meat from factory farms, even though he knows that “if everyone thought that way nothing would ever change”. Then there was David Brooks’ article about climate change yesterday, where he discounted a nationwide carbon tax in the U.S., on the grounds that it would have no measurable effect worldwide (which probably isn’t true).

These statements are actually difficult to counter, because they are related to what economists call the “free-rider problem”. Namely, that if someone else pays a price, and you can skip the price and yet still get the service, then it is in your rational interest to do so. Unfortunately, in the case of most sustainability issues, not acting is also a prescription for failure. Continue reading

Not So Far Off Course

Much is possible with our current systems.

Much is possible with our current systems.

Guess what?

I’ve been studying and learning and thinking for many years, trying to figure out how we can solve this environmental dilemma that we humans find ourselves in. And I’m not completely sure about the following, but—more and more I’m realizing that the workable path forward is likely to be a variation of what we’re doing now, and not some drastic departure or major paradigm shift. When you look at the big picture, we humans are not as far off the track as some fear.

That statement might cause some hand-wringing in some quarters, and it does seem a bit counter-intuitive when you see the immense damage that is being done to the planet. BUT, here’s my thinking—to fix it, we don’t need revolutionary changes, we need evolutionary ones. To explain, here are four things we don’t need— Continue reading

One Powerful Way to Change the World

“Systems should exist to serve society, and right now our capitalist system is not serving society, it is serving shareholders.” —Jay Coen Gilbert, Co-founder of B-Lab.

Fair trade matters.

Fair trade matters.

How you spend your money matters. We vote once a year for politicians, but we vote virtually every day with our dollars. And how we cast those dollar-votes really, really matters.

Every single time we spend money on a product we are reaching out with our economic power and acting on the world, often in places that are far, far away. Our dollars can support deforestation, the inhumane treatment of animals, pollution, sweatshop labor, or all manner of social ills, but they can also support fair wages, care for the environment, or community development, depending on our spending choices. These are REAL EFFECTS, and they are there whether we choose to see them or not. Continue reading

Sweatshops: Free Trade or Modern-day Slavery?

The bodies of two workers after the collapse of a sweatshop factory in Savar, Bangladesh, in 2013.

The bodies of two workers after the collapse of a sweatshop factory in Savar, Bangladesh, in 2013, where over a thousand workers were killed.

 Co-written with Joseph Bruhl

When it comes to understanding globalism and free trade, I think the world has gone crazy. I’ve written many times about the need to be informed consumers, and the power of our vote when we use our dollars to make sustainable, values-based purchases. But when it comes to many basic goods and services provided through a global economy, it’s hard to know what to think. In a complex and interconnected world, real solutions defy simple rhetoric. On the left, writers criticize the status quo and ignore basic economic truths while proffering unworkable alternatives. On the right, lovers-of-the-market can’t get beyond the basic dogma of “free trade benefits both parties.” In the middle, we find ordinary, common sense. The market provides powerful tools that lift millions to a better life. But, the market also carries tremendous risk of exacerbating inequality and deepening the misery of millions. As consumers, we must remain clear-eyed about the benefits and dangers of the market, and ensure that our dollars leverage the power of the market while minimizing its risks.

In China, anti-suicide nets surround factory dormitories. In Bangladesh, thousands of dead lie entombed in collapsed factories. In Indonesia, workers suffer as they sew our clothes for pennies an hour, while local industries in Jamaica are decimated by unfair competition. All of this tells us that something is amiss. Continue reading

It’s ALL Individual Action

It all comes down to... you. And me. And other individuals.

It all comes down to… you. And me. And other individuals.

Here’s why individual action matters—because it’s ALL individual action. It’s individual action, and only individual action, that will solve our problems. Here’s what I mean by that—National Geographic’s current issue focuses on climate change, and in their article “How to Fix It”, they have sections for actions that individuals can take, and then more sections about actions that businesses, cities, nations, and the world can take, as if there’s “us”, and then other entities beyond “us”. But it’s all “us”, when you really look at it.

Their first section on individual action is clear enough; we can all make changes. And, those changes can be dramatic—our family has made changes to our house and transportation systems that are saving about 3,000 gallons of fossil fuel a year, compared to the lifestyle that we were living ten years ago. We can all reduce consumption, and invest in efficiency, and vote with our dollars with regard to what we choose to purchase, and vote with our ballots for political leaders who are committed to moving us along in a better direction, and educate ourselves, and refocus our lives in meaningful directions. Continue reading

The Once-a-Year-or-So Blog Reflection

My future office, after I quit real life.

My future office, after I quit real life.

Whew. I’ve been crazy-busy lately, with all manner of “normal life” tasks; everything from finishing our unfinished pantry, to running kids to this activity and that, or working with the afterschool clubs at work, etc. Thus, I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking about sustainability, as always, but not that much actual writing. I jot my musings down on scraps of paper, and they end up in a pile on my desk.

Then, in the middle of all of this, I found another blog that I really like, “Wait But Why“, which gives me yet another thing to do. But, their posts about artificial intelligence, and EV’s, and several others are right in line with the topics I write about here, along with a few, like their post on procrastination, that aren’t, but that one does apply to me personally (and is both freakily accurate and humorous). Their main writer, Tim Urban, appears to read, research, and write nearly full-time, while his partner runs the “business side” of their blog, which appears to include ads on their pages, and some sort of sales of retail items related to their topics. Now, I’m pretty envious of this idea, especially as I struggle along with real life and kids and work, when I would dearly, dearly love to sit and read, research, think, and write every day, and play with fruit trees and permaculture swales. BUT, and here’s my main point of the day… Continue reading