Archive for January, 2008

Just Push an ecoButton?

Before you read the real part, do something quick for me? If you’re running Windows, go to the Start Menu, Control Panel, and click into Power Options. Set some power-saving options for when you aren’t using your computer, if you haven’t already- no reason to keep it on full power when you abandon it for something more interesting.

Ok, that was pretty easy, right? But don’t you wish there was a green colored button with a picture of the world on it that you could just push to make it happen? None of that annoying dragging the mouse all across the screen and clicking on a thing then dragging the mouse again and more clicking?

Rejoice, lazy ones, the EcoButton is here. Engadget covered the big green thing today. Just plug it in to a USB port and then push it, and your computer goes into “ecomode”. Press any key on the keyboard, and it will return from that happy green yonder and tell you how much carbon you saved while it was away. Their website is astounding. I don’t mean the good kind of astounding. Green logos and sidebars, a picture of children planting trees, and a prominent mention of carbon emissions on every page? This isn’t just greenwashing, it’s greenbashing you over the head with greenwashing.

No amount of green plastic or planting children will hide the fundamentally silly idea: spend 30 seconds and set up your computer to do this all the time, or buy a manufactured plastic thing and waste a USB port and push a button every time and then get a distracting screen when you start up again. This doohicky is for sale in bulk to cooperations as a promotional item- like the pens and key chains and stress things you get at job fairs or the end of a fiscal year, if your company pretends to love you. Now, they can give you the ecobutton! It’s a green worthless giveaway!

No, it is not. Well, ok it is worthless, but not green. Do not be seduced by the ecobutton at your next job fair or trade event. It has betrayed its stated principles, and you need that USB port for your rocket launcher anyway.

These doodads and gadgets to make your life greener rile me up. They make a mockery of the considered thought and purposeful effort that are the basis of sustainable decisions. An “ecobutton” to put an “ecomode” on your PC? How wonderful! Is ecobutton 2.0 the one we push to reduce dependency on fossil fuels? I’ll wait for the upgrade, thanks!

You feel like an easy green change? The easiest I know of? Do the power saving thing I talked about at the beginning. If you’re not running Windows don’t rely on those directions, but I promise you it’s easy even if you have to figure out how to do it yourself. Better yet, turn off your computer when you’re not using it, and unplug it from the wall. Unplug doohicky chargers and your TV. Put them all on the same surge protector and unplug it- make it really easy. These things all draw power even when they’re not being used, and it’s all wasted.

Note- Unplugging the Tivo/DVR will result in it not taping MacGyver reruns for you, so leave it in. And my Gentleman Friend, a computer type, is of the opinion that turning off computers more than once a year is bad for them because then they die? I don’t understand this idea, and I do feel like if your computer dies because it hated being turned off so much, maybe it’s best to just let it go, but fair warning.

Words, words, words

Bush did his last State of The Union gig last night, which usually ends up being a very cathartic political experience for me. I invited a few people over to heckle. I don’t remember which channel we watched it on, but the camera person managed to locate all the sleeping and yawning people in the audience and show closeups of them during the blather, so it was very entertaining- all until the Democratic response, which actually made the President’s speech look good.

While the president has addressed climate issues in the last couple of SOTUs, this year he said greenhouse gases exist and that we should do something about it- big talk! His plan is to let his successor take care of it, though- he’s proposing a three-year commitment to give $2 billion to an international fund, so that other countries can develop clean technologies. This allows him a two-year getaway, plus it’s a bad idea in the first place. First off, $2 billion is a small sum and shows indicative of Bush’s real lack of concern about these issues- even the UAE beat Bush by 2 weeks and $13 billion, and Japan set up it’s own international fund this weekend with $10 billion in financing. Secondly, if we’re in such a financial crunch, why are we giving money to other countries for technologies we don’t have enough of here at home?

Invest the $2 billion in the US for clean technology, Bush, then we can sell it to the rest of the world. That will give us something valuable to export, stimulate the economy,  create good jobs, and it’s a lot better than that ridiculous plan of yours to mail me a $600 check to fix the recession.

Sunday Special: The Skeptical Environmentalist

I keep wanting to start off by calling it “interesting” since no other pale word sums it up better, but it’s actually not that interesting. It’s not entirely Lomborg’s fault: he’s a statistician, and he hasn’t written a book, he’s written a statistical review. He quotes numbers from concerned environmentalists (and Lomborg claims to have once been one of them) and then looks up the data to present it in graphs to show whether or not the envirotypes are credible and should be as worked up as they are. His answer is, almost uniformly, that we have no environmental problem, and actually everything is on average just fine.

So his book is long, and in general it’s just a bunch of numbers and charts. I won’t argue with them- others have better than I can– plus, that’d make me as boring as him. I will point out, though, that he very confidently estimates that the price of oil will stay between 20$/barrel and 27$/ until 2020, and certainly not go above the high estimate of 30$/ before then. Good for a morning chuckle! And good for a reminder that data projections are helpful if nothing about the world changes.

His extensive use of footnotes breeds trust, but it’s not difficult to notice (even sleepily on the bus in the morning) that he only provides the answers to very specific questions- he’s massaging his message as much as he claims the environmentalists do. He also does a nice job of painting every concerned environmentalist as some kind of foaming-at-the-mouth, fact-ignoring nut job, which isn’t so much the case, but the normal helpful types don’t make for good debunking. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it to be sneaky: I think he actually believes his work would help the environmental movement move forward- considering the debate that followed it, maybe he did.

Also, I skimmed the entire chapter on global warming- he was writing in 2001, so I’m pretty sure whatever he has to say about it today is different, given the 2007 IPCC report.

I found his analysis of pesticides and organic farming intriguing- he pointed out that, since pesticides and intensive farming methods increase crop yields, a return to organic farming would lead to mass starvation (or require huge conversions of land area to farming). Are the organic pop tarts I bought Tuesday then a bad idea? For global reasons, not the other more obvious ones- and yes, they were pretty good, thanks. First, organic farming is such a limited endeavor- small market, sometimes expensive product- so that starvation isn’t an issue from mass conversion of farms for now. Second, he only uses large scale farming as an example, whereas it would probably do people good to grow their own vegetables (and it’s cheapest to grow organic foods, since you don’t have to really do anything to them but pay attention)- through community gardens, balcony gardens- spaces that may be carved out in urban and suburban areas. Local, personal, and small-scale food production makes the supply of food more robust, and could add much to the diet of low-income types who may not have a decent vegetable selection at a store nearby, or even the money to purchase relatively expensive-per-calorie foods. So organic farming could be just what some groups need, as opposed to a looming threat to everybody’s welfare. And he doesn’t mention- since he didn’t know- that recent study results indicate that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown types.

One thing that bothered me about the very foundation of the book is that, while at the beginning, Lomborg claimed to have been concerned about the environment himself, he makes judgments throughout the book based entirely on cost analysis, presumably because he’s trying to be very objective about things, and costs are the only way to be objective. Now, cost analysis is not such a bad thing, and it can be wonderful- but it leads him to conclusions divorced from sense.  For instance: the amount of waste produced by Americans isn’t a problem, since it’s cheap to throw things away and we have a place to store it (he demonstrates how all of our trash from the 20th century would fit in a portion of Woodward County, Oklahoma). I’m pretty sure those irrational, subjective residents of Woodward County would find that to be ridiculous. And I’m even more sure that citizens of Italy could tell Lomborg a thing or two about how trash disposal is easer to make sweeping generalizations about than do. More than that, though, it’s not just the cost, or lack thereof, of throwing stuff away that matters. Waste is evidence of a design flaw- it’s a mistake in the system. That we tolerate it is more an indication that society is unbalanced than that society is wisely minimizing cost. To top it off, Lomborg offers no hints on how things will work when China and India and other hugely populous developing nations get to be as prosperous and wasteful as Americans.

One of his main points is that there are bigger problems left than global warming and pollution, and spending money on areas like poverty and hunger will do more good for more people than spending money on global warming or pollution. For some proposed solutions, that’s certainly the case. And he does make a strong argument that chemicals in our environment cause more fear than harm.

He’s had years of critiques, and he’s posted responses to some. The wikipedia site has some great general review and links to arguments for and against his work- honestly, I’d recommend just reading that and skipping the book all together. It’s worth noting that this work was charged with scientific dishonesty by a Danish research ministry- he wasn’t found guilty of intentional dishonesty, since it was determined he had no training in environmental science or the issues he discussed- but it opened up a whole can of worms, including appeals and scientists signing petitions for and against the book and so on.

The arguments about the book are much more interesting than the book itself, so unless you love slightly outdated numbers, skip it. He’s written a newer one- Cool It- in 2007 so maybe that’s more relevant.

The Composter Is In

UPS finally allowed me to have my package today, so ta-daa!
composter in box

She’s a NatureMill Plus, and she’s surprisingly soft and light.composter mixer The deal is, I put stuff in the top, along with sawdust (or other “browns” like all-purpose flour), baking soda, and dirt, then I plug it in. In two weeks, all that undergoes a messy metamorphosis into very strong dirt. There’s a picture of it open- it’s got a heating element and a mixing bar, then I push a button and it dumps itself into a tray to “cure”.

Now, I am aware this is not “real” composting. I am aware that I should build a container and put it in the sun and dump in some worms, then watch it lovingly and take its pH level and turn it and drain it and coddle it and all that rot. (Hah!). My parents taught me how to for-real compost, though since we lived in the woods it was actually more like “put this in that pile and let nature occur”. In this apartment though, and my next apartment, I have no woods or even yard, and very little sun, and no place to experiment. Plus, let’s see how the new housemates handle rabid guerrilla recycling before I spring worms on them.

What’s in it for you? Why, you’ll receive fresh pictures of my first few batches, of course, plus I’m now taking applications for loads of uber-dirt, to be delivered every two weeks or thereabouts.

I need to go dig up two cups of regular lame dirt to get this baby going- but then, I can eat a banana, cut the peel into 4in-pieces, and watch the magic happen.

Gratuitous accessories shot:

naturemill accessories


Abu Dhabi announced plans for a $15bn state investment in clean energy technologies, including the world’s largest hydrogen plant and a new sustainable city. All this while I was dumping my closets on the floor yesterday in a search for sustainability. It’s thrilling that the capital of the UAE, whose fantastic wealth is based squarely on oil and natural gas deposits, is the one taking this huge, important, exciting step. After all, they have the money to burn- but their government also understands that dependency on oil is not a desirable political or economic strategy.

In a moment of dramatic irony, Bush visited the sustainable city last week and thought it was just great. Maybe if the UAE doesn’t need all that oil now, they’ll sell it to us cheap! Maureen Dowd put it well:

You know you’re in trouble when your Middle East oil pump is greener than you are.

Progress: Purge

Step 1: Empty the contents of my closets onto the floor.

Fortunately, I don’t have much storage space, so that didn’t go as badly as it sounds. I also cleaned out and repacked the containers under my bed, and stowed 95% of the Christmas stuff (last year it took until March, so this is pretty good for me). Left to do: dig out the corners where I’ve been storing more stuff, since as I said, I don’t have much storage space. It is projected that, in these corners, I will find over 30 yards of various fabrics and my college diploma.

donation pileI have a gigantic pile of stuff to donate in my hallway, precisely where I can stumble over it then remember to put other things in it. Contents: ping pong equipment (but no balls), 4 very similar rugs, clothing, 2 pillows I’ve never liked, a metal basket, sunglasses I’ve never worn (or seen before), cleats, and a night light. Among other bits. It’s all in good enough condition to be used, and I’m not going to use any of it.

Step 2: Banish the pile. There are a lot of ways for me to get rid of this: Craigslist (free or sale), Freecycle (like Craigslist, only everything’s free), the Salvation Army, and yard sales come to mind. I tend to take all my things to the Salvation Army- since they’re close by, and I know they’ll take it all at once and use as much as they can. Plus, I don’t have anything worth enough time or money to make reselling or listing it free online make sense.

I still have a lot of stuff left, but now it’s all stuff that I can and want to use. A very persuasive school of decluttering rids one of all unessentials- but that’s not for me. I’m not anti-materialistic at all- I’m not getting rid of things just to not have things. I found a surprising number of items that I don’t want and don’t need floating around in my apartment. There is plenty of stuff- my glass penguin, my shelves of books- that I don’t actually need, but I appreciate having in my space, so long as I have space (not like I take them camping with me or anything- just a few of the books). Plus, keeping random stuff around means I can save money by buying in advance and in bulk, and have all that I need for architectural and personal projects. So, the bits of foam board and cotton scraps stay. Though I do need a new place to store them. Ack! Acquisition! But only of the useful kind.

Fake Plastic Fish, a blog about consumption, waste, and plastic, wrote an interesting post last week on a similar idea of purposeful consumption. Her point was, people tend to over-consume items because they don’t respect, or like, or care anything about, the items that they use or have. Similarly, by clearing my place of the things I don’t want and putting them to good reuse, I have more time and space to respect my other things- and maybe even use them- I’ve been meaning to make a quilt from some of those scraps for years.

I’m moving!

In actual reality, not here online. This is part of my January plan to Reduce. Well, it’s part of that, and a whole lot more. The plan was to clean out my clutter, but it got me to thinking.

I live alone in a 1-bedroom apartment, with a relatively large bedroom, normal bathroom, smallish kitchen (though it’ll fit at least 7 people during a party), generous living room, balcony, and a library. Yes, a library- it was the dining room, but it works better lined with books, and who needs dining rooms? My rent isn’t bad, especially for the space I have and the location, and recycling is possible, though in this apartment complex the system is abysmal- exciting trash chutes by every elevator, but only three recycling bins for the entire complex, which is about 7 3-5 story apartment buildings.

Still. I can live in less space, and I want to live in less space. I expand to fill my space, so the only way for me to seriously reduce clutter is to have less space- the stuff I clean out of my apartment now will just be replaced soon, unless I flee. I could just have a stuff embargo- not get anything until this apartment is Spartan. But then I’d just be paying for empty space, and I am certainly not a modernist. No, I want to fill my space efficiently, but I want to fill less space. (For less money).

In looking around for a new home, it became apparent that I would need housemates. After a brief personal crisis (but what if they drink my orange juice or make sounds?), I accepted this idea. And I found a place!

Not only is my new place smaller, I’ll still have my own room and bathroom, exclusive use of three closets (storage space is crucial, different post), and a shared living room and big kitchen and a deck. That’s not the best part, though. I’ll be within easy walking distance of my work, two Metro stops, a weekly farmer’s market, several grocery stores, and Old Town Alexandria- in fact, the house is right on the edge of Old Town. Plus, since it’s in a cityish place, it’s actually difficult for me to drive- the time spent finding parking will make walking more efficient. How sustainable is that!?

Yes, that is actually what my brain excitement has boiled down to. It’s not just a cheaper, cool new place with some old friends- excitement enough, but I bask in how much more sustainable my lifestyle will be when I move. The way I feel about this is akin to not eating store cookies because of the packaging- the perspective is skewed from the way I used to weight decisions, and the way I see most people weight decisions. It’s new to me, but it’s a settling perspective, I’m getting more comfortable with it, and I like the decisions that it’s leading me into. Is this a drug- like runners run because they get endorphin waves- am I on a sustainability high?

I do hope somebody starts making cookies in recyclable packaging.

The Polar Bear Shuffle

You probably heard that the Bush administration decided to open Alaskan oilfields for exploratory drilling last year, and then declared that the licenses for drilling would go on sale on Feb. 6th of this year. Meanwhile, the same department (Interior) making the drilling sale decisions has also stalled a call on whether or not polar bears are a threatened species- topical, because about 16,000 of them live in the same area that will be put up for sale. A house committee today advised the department to classify the bears before the sale, though I have no idea if that’s a binding command.

“Rushing to allow drilling in polar bear habitat before protecting the bear would be the epitome of this administration’s backward energy policy, a policy of drill first and ask questions later,” Rep. Ed Markey said at a hearing of the House (of Representatives) Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which he chairs.

An administration official in charge of investigating the endangered status of the bear isn’t arguing.

Hall has previously acknowledged there is no substantial scientific uncertainty, as defined under the Endangered Species Act, about the polar bear case. He said the volume of material from scientists and public hearings caused the delay in making the decision on whether to list the bear as threatened.

Ah, so it’s the backlog, not the facts, that prevent the administration from going forward with the assessment. I see.

Polar bears are scientifically proven to be adorable, especially when they are branded and marketed, as Berlin’s zoo’s Knut has shown. Now that Das Eisbaer is big enough to look more like one of those head-ripping-off bears instead of an awkward fluff ball, his star might be fading. Fortunately the Nuernberg Zoo is filling the gap with Flocke, the one cub rescued from a total of three born to two different mothers. One mother ate her two babies, and Flocke looked to be in similar danger from her own mother, so she’s being hand-reared now. Adorable!

Just as those squeezable stuffed Knuts are a proxy for the real predatory, baby-eating deal, the objection to beginning drilling in Alaska because of polar bear populations is a proxy for larger questions on global warming and fossil fuel use. Sad, that these bears are projected to die because of melting sea ice due to global warming caused in significant part by fossil fuel emissions, and we’re invading their homeland to drill for more fossil fuels to burn to create emissions to, well, you know. The drilling will go ahead with an estimated 1/3-1/2 chance of an oil spill, according to the participating drilling companies. Last time I checked in real places, this isn’t an acceptable rate of failure, but it’ll do for drilling in wildlife refuges!

The drilling will reduce our dependence on foreign oil which I think is great, but it won’t do a lick to reduce our dependence on oil, which I find to be totally lame, and it puts me off the whole idea. You may argue that renewable energy sources are just too expensive to substitute right now, and that’s correct, and it will continue to be correct until we actually invest serious time, money, and government attention in those sources. There’s a fun catch-22 for anyone who sees the irony in “free” markets.

Anyway, fuzzy as bears are, I think this story would be more compelling for me personally if penguins were threatened. They don’t eat their babies, but they do vomit in their mouths! Awwwww!

Oh my, California

Sure, we’re all a bit jealous that they’ve got fantastic mountains and beaches and vineyards just laying around, and it’s easy to roll their citizenry into one granola-munching stereotype, but whatever you look askance at them for, you have to admit they sure come up with a lot of interesting ideas. Some better than others, of course. In a proposed set of building energy efficiency standards, due to be approved on January 30th of this year, the California Energy Commission mandated the installation in all homes of a “Programmable Communicating Thermostat”. The PCTs would be linked into a radio network controlled by energy utilities, and if there was an emergency or demand was too high, those utilities could remotely change the level of the thermostats to reduce loads on the power grid. Faster than you can say “Eric Blair”, people got all worked up about government interventionism. Rightly, I think- it’s an interesting technology, and it’s a useful application of it, but even if the mandatory nature of the box installation doesn’t bug you, the vagueness of the rule should.

The thermostat control would be exercised only in cases of need… said Adam Gottlieb, a spokesman for the California Energy Commission.

Utilities know how to interpret the new mandate, he said, and when to apply it, even though the definitions are not specified in the document.

Exemptions for people with health problems and other special cases were also promised, but no mention of them is made in the standards. As quoted in the IHT, a spokeswoman for the pilot program of the radio network controlling the thermostats said the network is secure and impossible to hack, which I think is spokespersonese for “Will you stop asking me technical questions if I say it’s foolproof?”

Since the kerfluffle, the standard has been changed, to make opting into the radio-control part of the program optional- but installation of the devices in new buildings remains mandatory.  What have we learned?  California isn’t as government-control-happy as some people like to imagine, and invocations of “Big Brother” are getting really boring.  Won’t someone please write a new definitive work of fictional authoritarianism so we can beat that to death for a while?

As much as I don’t like the idea of the mandatory participation in the fuzzily defined program, if I lived in California, I’d sign up to let them radio-control my thermostat.  Honestly, it won’t do them much good- my thermostat is accurate to within 10 degrees, and I lose all the heat or AC out of my unsealed windows 15 minutes after my unit shudders off, so I don’t keep it on much (and while it’s on, it sounds like someone is driving a dump truck up and down my hall- but that’s only annoying for me, really).  And if they worked the program out to be more specific and secure, to include the special exceptions, and to be more open to public debate in the first place, well, I’d probably be ok with doing it involuntarily.  After all, it’s a public utility- it’s not a right- and we’re happy enough paying to use its juice the rest of the time.   But when things get rough, we refuse to unplug the TV or put on a sweater?  Good grief, it’s not like they want us to pay for the electricity we don’t use- it’d even lower your bill some.

If you want a steady supply of electrons to keep your fishtank and lights and Cuisinart and AC on all the time, build your own plant, and suck off that- no one is making you connect to the grid in the first place.  Duuuuude, if we all had solar panels or windmills or biomass collections for our composters, the grid wouldn’t be stretched so thin already.

Paralyzed in Aisle 6

So now that I care about packaging, source of my food, taste, and nutritional content, I need to take a handler with me to the grocery store. Sometimes it’s not so bad. Fruits and vegetables- organic? If no, how about just not gross-looking? Check. Eggs, organic/cage-free, check. Milk (after a brief “organic in nonrecycleable or regular in recyclable carton?” dilemma), check. OJ, biggest jug with largest pulp content. Check. Bread. Anything non-tasteless and Organic? No (rain curses upon the large bakery distributors). Anything non-tasteless? Check. Chicken without added water or hormones? Maybe.

So, my diet is unvaried, but at least by sticking to those items, I can shop within my ethical choices and with some expediency. I usually spend about two minutes in the cookie aisle salivating, but reminding myself wistfully that they never taste as good as I imagine, I’ll eat them too fast if I buy them, I haven’t been to the gym in a while, and on and on. Drool, drool. The last argument I come to, and the one that suffices for me where no others will, is I feel guilty throwing the 2-3 layers of packaging away afterwards, and thus taint any joy in their consumption. Frankly, if it stops me buying sub-par cookies, I will continue to nurse my irrational packaging guilt.

Shopping for anything else has become frustrating, though. Last weekend, I attempted to make a quick run to the grocery to pick up a few drinks and snacks for a gathering. Chips and coke, in and out. Once there, though, I spent a half hour in the aisle, calculating. What’s more efficient- coke in 2L bottles, or coke in cans? Bottle caps aren’t recyclable, plastic isn’t efficiently recycled, whereas cardboard and aluminum cans are fully recyclable. Which one costs less? Which one is packed most efficiently to minimize shipping costs? I turned away from the coke and to the chips. I was in Shopper’s, and they don’t carry any organic chips. Some are “natural” or “all-natural” but that doesn’t mean anything. What tastes good and is not boring and not expensive and not completely unhealthy and has the least packaging and is maybe a little environmentally friendly? Argh, nothing, so pick up some bags of various pretzels and and one bag of corn chips that look a little less processed, and sulkily return to the coke. I picked up a couple of bottles, on the assumption that they contain less product, and I’d have less left over.

I lost a lot of time, and ended up with 6 products chosen on no basis other than exasperation. In a different grocery store, this scenario might have played out better- Giant has a selection of organic corn chips that taste pretty good, and Harris Teeter, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s generally have all those yuppie organic snack things too. But still.

What to do? Shop somewhere else for snack foods, first off. Change my definition of snacks, and serve more fruit/veggies and fewer chips at parties. And a 60-second rule on chip selection- “If no organic/recyclable packaging chips are seen within 60 seconds, just grab something. They’re just chips.

As for the coke, I regretted my bottle decision. As my gentleman friend pointed out, we have a little less leftover coke, sure, but since it’s all in the same bottle, we now have flat leftover coke. Cans from here on out- decision made.

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