Saturday, January 31, 2009

Keeping Up with the Joneses

Many Americans may not care about their energy use, but they may care if their neighbors are doing a better job conserving.

The New York Times reports today that utility companies in Sacramento, Seattle, and elsewhere are learning that the human desire to compete is often a stronger motivator than the desire to do good. In pilot programs around the country, energy customers get smiley faces (and sometimes frowns) on their utility bills, as well as bar graphs comparing their own energy use to that of their neighbors.

A reality cable TV show, Energy Smackdown, takes it a step further:

Friday, January 30, 2009

Pop Quiz: What's the #1 Thing You Can Do to Slow Climate Change?

A. Replace all your light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescents (CFLs)
B. Trade in your car for a hybrid such as the Toyota Prius
C. Conduct a home-energy audit, add insulation, and install double-paned windows
D. Plant a vegetable garden and try to rely mostly on locally-sourced food

According to Bill McKibben, the correct answer would be E, none of the above. In a recent article in Orion, he argues that the immediacy and scale of the climate crisis turns the old adage, "think globally, act locally" on its head. What's needed most urgently is not little practical steps, but concerted political action to influence legislation in favor of limiting carbon emissions.

He makes an excellent point. Dedicated environmentalists make up a small percentage of the population. Alone, all their efforts to reduce their own carbon footprints add up to, well, just about zilch. By all means, people should keep doing what they can to reduce their own impact. But "the trick is to take that 5 percent of people who really care and make them count for far more than 5 percent." And that can only happen when they mobilize politically.

This argument makes intuitive sense. For every environmentalist out there counting every pound of carbon he or she emits, there are twenty others who could care less. So until the laws change, nothing changes.

Yet environmentalists are often timid in voicing this reality. They don't want anyone to stop doing these little things so they frame the issue in terms of mostly superficial individual actions. "Change your light bulbs, put out your recycling, and you're doing your part" seems to be the message.

The first order of business is for that dedicated 5 percent to dedicate more of their energy lobbying for structural change--the most important of which right now is a steep price on carbon.

At the same time, we might also inject a bit of reality into the conversation about what constitutes "saving the planet." If environmentalism's main message is that changing light bulbs and other slight modifications to business as usual is enough, then that's all we can expect people to do. If we admit that individual actions such as these are futile without accompanying changes to our laws, some people may indeed stop bothering to make even these small concessions. But a few may add their voice to that dedicated 5 percent and rally for real change.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

High-Tech Vest Puts Bike Speed on Display

Wired, Forbes, and the Telegraph have all reported on the Speed Vest, recently introduced by DIY inventors Brady Clark and Mykle Hansen. The vest, which displays a bike rider's speed in large illuminated numerals on the back, is designed to make others aware that bicycling is a fast, efficient way of getting around.

"Have you ever outpaced cars and been honked at? Had a car almost wipe you out while making a turn?" the inventors write. "The Speed Vest was invented because we were curious to know if putting more information in front of drivers might change their awareness of bicyclists. That, and we suspect a lot of people don’t realize that an average person can bike 10-15 mph (15-25 km/h).

You can't buy one of these yet, but bike advocacy organizations can borrow a prototype version for outreach and education by contacting Learn more about the mechanics here and read an interview here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Most Radical Thing You Can Do

(Above, the world in motion: an animation of all the world's commercial flights over a 24-hour period from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.)

Rebecca Solnit writes in Orion:
We are going to have to stay home a lot more in the future. For us that’s about giving things up. But the situation looks quite different from the other side of all our divides.
Read more.

ioby Me

If "Localize Me" is the new "Biggie Size Me," ioby is the Happy Meal of environmental action networks.

This nascent Brooklyn-based nonprofit start-up promises to connect donors and volunteers with local environmental projects. It looks like it will be a great incubator for innovative ideas and getting-involvedness.

Got a great project or some cash or time to spare? Learn more here or watch this snappy video:

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Crash Course

You may have heard of peak oil, but what about "peak dollars"? Ben McGrath touches on the term in his excellent article in this week's New Yorker on the recent spike in popularity of the doomsayer movement. (Abstract here and an audio interview here.)

In simple terms, peak dollars is the notion that the U.S. monetary system (and by extension, our economy) faces eventual breakdown due to our fairly recent decision (in the seventies) to completely unlink the dollar from the gold standard. This makes it very easy for the U.S. government to issue bonds, many to foreign investors and governments, essentially borrowing more dollars into existence. This can lead to inflation, which erodes the value of individual savings accounts, discouraging saving and forcing people to put their money in risky investments to keep up.

As long as GDP continues to grow exponentially (at some percentage every year), the government is able to service its growing debts, and the economy stays afloat. But the important point here is that the monetary system we've created for ourselves assumes and essentially requires that our economy (and, by extension, our resource use) keep growing exponentially and indefinitely.

The problem, of course, is that natural resources are finite. Some argue we're not even close to running out and that technology will provide the necessary efficiencies to keep up business as usual for quite some time. The doomers, on the other hand, think we're going to run out of resources a lot sooner than we think and that the whole economic system will collapse.

Who's right? I don't know. Dystopians have certainly been wrong in the past, but as McGrath says, "they only have to be right once."

What seems more likely than sudden collapse is a sort of herky-jerky unraveling--a bunch of dips and jumps that trend downward, forcing us to eventually cast a much more critical eye at some of our most deeply held assumptions about our economy.

Whatever direction we think our current economic crisis is going to lead, it's important we learn as much as we can about the conditions that are required for short-term growth to resume and long-term growth to continue. The easiest-to-digest explanation of all this that I've found is a series of videos from economist Chris Martensen called the Crash Course. It's long but utterly fascinating and even a touch optimistic in its own Debbie Doomer way.

Volunteer to Save the Economy

"THIS week, President Obama called upon all Americans to volunteer, to pitch in and give back. We hope that the president is serious about this challenge, because providing more opportunities for national and community service won’t just lift the nation’s spirit, it could help save the economy."

More from the New York Times Op-Ed Page.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Later, Jeeves

Americans have always been a little uneasy about the idea of having servants. So we've outsourced the labor to an army of helpers--caterers, pet groomers, housekeepers, daycare workers, cooks, maintenance people, etc.

That may be changing.

Now that many of us are a bit strapped for cash, we've started doing more of the jobs we've paid others to do ourselves. The New York Times reports that it's hurting small business people--and that's true--but it also may represent a good thing. Recession or no recession, we're probably entering a time when our economy--and our earth--won't be able to generate enough of a surplus to let us all live like little kings. Like it or not, we're going to have to learn to do more for ourselves.

And that has other benefits as well. Namely, our roles will become less specialized, which will make our society more resilient in the face of a crisis. The economic downturn has shown that big changes can occur very quickly. The more Americans who have the skills to take care of themselves, the better. Plus, learning how to cook and share a meal with family, grow some of our own food, and fix things around the house, for instance, can produce their own feelings of satisfaction.

Target has actually launched a new ad campaign about this:

An even better scenario is that people use all the stuff they already own to enjoy themselves instead of going out and buying more.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sustainable Happiness: A Top Ten List

Feeling like crap watching the world go to hell? It's high time you turned to science. The good folks at Yes! magazine have put together a list of ten things scientists tell us we can do to make ourselves happy--and fortunately none of them require any money.

Best of all, the treacly photo of a smiley heart face drawn in chocolate syrup on the top of a cappuccino that they post with the article will instantly put you in a sufficiently dismal state of mind to test out the ten tips.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Congressman Who Bikes to Work

Earl Blumenauer, a bowtie-wearing U.S. congressman from Portland, Oregon, gets a nice writeup in the New York Times today for his work in helping to bring transportation and sustainability issues into the mainstream. “We have been flogging this bicycle thing for 20 years,” he says. “All of a sudden it’s hot."

You go Earl.

Why Are Things Falling Apart?

Oil is great stuff. It's cheap, energy dense, and until recently it's been fairly easy to get. Richard Heinberg argues in this short video that it's starting to run out--and with it the basis for our entire economy.

A Fistful of Dollars lets individuals anywhere in the world make micro-loans to people who need them to start or expand a business, buy seeds for farming, or for many other reasons. It's a cool organization. By linking you up with lending partners in the country where the loan is dispersed, Kiva allows you to browse loan requests, track repayment progress, and so on. I lent $25 to Sonia in Peru, which was part of a $1,000 loan that let her buy fertilizer, rent bulls to plow her fields, and invest in a pharmacy that a relative runs in Lima.

So try making a loan. They're short-term, and when they're repaid, you can get your money back or choose to reinvest.

Here's an entertaining video explaining the process that was made by a Kiva volunteer with a fondness for British arena rock and Google Earth.

A Fistful Of Dollars: The Story of a Loan from Kieran Ball on Vimeo.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Drivers (Desperately) Wanted

Dear American,

You deserve a brand-new car.

But what's that you say? You're about to lose your job? No problem. Check out our new ad.


America 3.0

Here's an interesting lecture/speech from Jon Taplin on the state of the United States. He takes the long view in examining the current crisis and suggests how we might get out of our current decline. Watch the video or read the text.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The New New Thing

More than any other book on my shelf, the one I just finished reading is perhaps the most comically out of sync with the times. In such a gloomy economic moment as this, it was bizarre reading about Silicon Valley in the late nineties, a time when seemingly dozens of young multimillionaires were minted with each IPO.

The New New Thing, by Michael Lewis, documents the manic rise of Jim Clark, who earned billions founding internet start-ups, such as Netscape. His most important "innovation," however, was helping to drop-kick the U.S. economy into the new era of the bubble.

Clark helped usher in a mentality that has stuck with us even after the Internet bubble popped in 2000. No longer did investors judge companies on such traditional metrics as profits. Instead they sized up a company by considering how fast and how furiously its perceived value might grow. A long track record was no longer essential; it became a liability. As long as stocks were going up and investors were getting rich, the fewer details companies provided, the better.

Bubbles are nothing new, of course. (The textbook example is the tulip mania of 1637.) But until Clark and his ilk in Silicon Valley came along and proved it possible to become billionaires practically overnight did the bubble become the national obsession and a huge part of our economic lifeblood.

Now that the latest bubble (real estate) has popped with such disastrous consequences, we're not sure what to do. Investors don't seem to feel like investing in much of anything outside of Treasury bonds, and the government's plan is to simply pump more money into the economy in the hope that it will jump start growth. We know we've been burned by the boom-and-bust bubble popping cycle of the past, but it seems very unlikely that we'll be able to get our economy back to its previous level without another bubble. In other words, we're on the lookout for a new new thing.

This predicament relates directly to an even bigger predicament: global warming. Interestingly, Eric Janszen suggested in Harper's last year that the next bubble is probably going to be in the green technology sector.

If it is, the best case scenario would be that the overvaluation (and inevitable collapse) of green tech stocks would leave us with a lot of badly needed alternative energy infrastructure. More likely, Janszen predicts, it would leave us with not much more than wreckage. Many of the dollars invested would be wasted, as they are in any bubble, in hiking up stock prices rather than in any substantive improvements to our infrastructure.

Our ecological problems are very real and getting worse. The solution, however, is not to encourage a speculative bubble in the green tech sector. It's true that alternative energy and the like is destined to be a growing industry. We can certainly wring a lot more efficiency out of our system. However, when politicians promise that the green technology industry will be the next big source of jobs and economic growth, there is a problem.

If the goal is slowing down climate change--and that must be our goal if we're to avoid a host of irreversible ecological disasters--we can't rely on the kind of speculative growth, even "green" growth, that has fueled previous bubbles.

The new new thing can't simply be another bubble, even if it has a green tint to it. As tempting as it might be to imagine a green tech boom saving our economic butts and making us rich once again, such a scenario is not a long-term solution to the global warming calamity.

The new new thing can't be another moneymaking scheme--it has to be political, and it has to mean big changes to the social order.

As Thomas Friedman says, the so called green revolution hasn't been a revolution at all; it's been a party. A real revolution requires sacrifice and entails real change.

This brings me back to the billionaire Internet idea guy, Jim Clark.

I read about his exploits, his greed, his hunger for the new new thing during the dot com heyday with a mixture of aversion and fascination. Always restless, forever moving in new directions, here was a guy who embodied an important strand of the American character. While Clark's motivation appeared to be money and an inability to sit still, his brand of restlessness and his constant need to innovate and experiment are what we need right now. Badly.

Just as Clark looked at markets with an eye for drastic change, we have to be willing to look at our political and social institutions. We need to create the conditions for innovation and experimentation in the way we organize our society. We need to energize and speed up the political process and encourage change--not merely grope around for the next bubble and hope we can return to business as usual.

What will the new new thing be? Let's hope it's not another dead-end economic bubble. The innovation we desperately need probably won't be found in the world of finance or technology. Rather, it will be an idea that shakes up, knocks down, subverts, or revolutionizes the approach we take to solving our collective problems.

Hey, Obama, Direct Bailout Money to Mass Transit

Faced with the task of choosing how to spend massive amounts of cash to kick start the economy, the Obama administration would do well to heed the advice of six individuals whose letters to the editor were published in today's New York Times. Each calls for more money to be spent on trains, buses, and other forms of mass transit. If we want to boost efficiency, loosen the petroleum industry's stranglehold on our society, and improve our quality of life, spending on public transport--not the highway system or on more auto industry bailouts--is the right approach.

"Can we not demand something tangible and useful for the tremendous investments we are making in our economy?" writes David Morris from Missoula, Montana. Yes we can.

Read all the letters here.