Archive for the ‘environmentalism’ Category

Environmental drama

April 20, 2010

About 10 minutes ago I caught the distant eye of a Greenpeace canvasser of the hyper aggressive, college campus variety. So, as I approached, I geared up for that moment of Seinfeld-ian awkwardness. I steeled myself for the snub. I held my breath and prepared to quell the inevitable surge of conflicting emotions that canvassers always bring to the surface: the guilt, the sympathy, the cringe inducing, wallet clutching cheapness…I practiced the snub in my head. I was determined. Should I fail, I said to myself, I’ll just voice a half-assed phrase of support without breaking stride. “Love the enthusiasm!” or some such.

But then the dude didn’t even look me in the eye! *He* snubbed me. I am flabbergasted.

See, I feel like I’m always singled out for special attention from enviro-type canvassers. They (used to) take one look at my long hair and scruffy demeanor and just zero in. This time, however, my hair is short for the first time in recent memory, I’m walking with (an affect of) purpose, and I’m wearing a conservative suit. So I guess these signals allowed the canvasser to predict — correctly, of course — that I was a lost cause. Still, it stings a little.


But here’s the irony: I am in costume, for class. In a couple hours I’ll debut my role as the hard-nosed mayor of a fictional rust belt burg hoping to court developers to start work on a new asphalt plant in the industrial zone of the city. During my term in office, I’ve been very successful in re-zoning the city to facilitate economic development, apparently, and I intend to continue bringing in jobs whilst greasing the palms of my construction industry buddies. This asphalt plant may be yet another source of pollution, but it will save the city millions on various construction projects including new highways and a new airport runway, for which I’ve even received Department of Transportation funding! (Thank you, ARRA 2009.) As long as the ambient air quality comes out better than the low state/federal standards, I’m set.

But, what’s this? Now I have to quash a pesky community group!

Said group claims, with moral fervor and regrettably solid public health evidence, that the proposed plant will disproportionately effect their predominantly low income African American neighborhood. This constitutes environmental racism, they say, and all their rabble rousing has created a firestorm of controversy that could empower my opponents at the City Council and jeopardize my political career. (cue: diminished chord!)

Luckily, their avenues of legal redress are limited, especially because the developers voluntarily performed an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and received unanimous approval from the Zoning and Building Authority. But the local Department of Environmental Quality is complaining that the EIA isn’t comprehensive enough, though they don’t have the authority to do anything about it — except to invoke the little known “fail safe” option! (aaand…another chord). Said option empowers the Director of DEQ to delay the permitting process — which is a perilous business, since I have deadlines to worry about for this ARRA money.

Meanwhile, the community group is lobbying the City Council to establish a special Planning Council just for their neighborhood. Of course, I could veto such an initiative — but if I register opposition, I’ll come off as the bad guy. That said, if I just go along with it then other neighborhoods might imitate this tactic. And then I’ll be swimming in community initiatives and the costly legal and bureaucratic hurdles that they present.

So: I favor the status quo. The best way to maintain it would be to buy the compliance of the community folks and other city officials — which reminds me of the excellent scene in Back to School where Rodney Dangerfield scoffs at the ivory tower economics professor who forgot to factor mafia kickbacks into his calculations.

Since corruption is not an option, I could do the next best thing and offer a substantial “development assistance and neighborhood risk reduction package,” or similar, to try to cut down health risks. But much of this funding would have to come from reducing the tax break for the developers *and* requiring them to match the city’s contribution. They aren’t likely to be super happy about that, though of course they’ve already invested a ton of money in buying the site, conducting their EIA, etc…so they are in fairly deep and they become my natural allies in this situation.

We’ll see how the drama plays out. Let’s just hope that the community organizers don’t put together an 80’s montage and break dancing contest — because then they’ll be sure to triumph at the last moment!


PSA: Cell Phone Radiation

March 4, 2010

The latest Environmental Working Group PSA seeks to raise our awareness of radiation generated by cell phones, and proffers a number of interesting recommendations.

My favorite is #3: LISTEN MORE, TALK LESS
According to EWG, “Your phone emits radiation when you talk or text, but not when you’re receiving messages. Listening more and talking less reduces your exposures.”

But if you refrain from talking, won’t your unfortunate conversation partner talk even more, to fill in the awkward gaps? Is their health less important than your own? Of course, if they’re in the know, they’ll also try to keep from talking…aaaand hilarity ensues.

Supermodels were annoying enough *before* I saw this video

November 20, 2009

Once again I’m baffled by a youtube video and I don’t know what to do except post it here; this time it’s a promo for featuring models disrobing in support of climate change legislation (??)

What the hell? It’s asinine and annoying. And you could argue that it reinforces the patriarchy’s preoccupation with gazing at female flesh, and that the women involved could pass for young girls and should probably eat something — but those are baseline critiques for the fashion industry in general.

In this case I’m more annoyed because this is actually a serious issue re-cast in the trivial language of sexy advertising. Why do you see this for climate change but not for health care reform or, like, foreign policy objectives?

But I’m MOST annoyed at myself because I actually clicked on it and watched the thing! (Dejected sigh)

Fight Climate Change with Epistemology

September 22, 2009

I don’t want knowledge, I want certainty!

– random sample from that 90’s-tastic Trent Reznor/David Bowie album

President Obama spoke to the UN Climate change summit in NYC today (text available here). He said:

“We know what needs to be done. We know that our planet’s future depends on a global commitment to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution. We know that if we put the right rules and incentives in place, we will unleash the creative power of our best scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to build a better world.”

Wow, we know everything! It is pretty uncanny that “We” happen to have all this ultimate knowledge sitting around…though I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising since “We” (God/the State/the patriarchy) always seem to come up with all the neat and correct answers right when you need them.

Unfortunately, climate change is an extremely complicated non-linear animal — for example, the possible carbon feedback loops (like melting tundra releasing previously trapped carbon into the atmosphere) are pretty much unpredictable at this point. David W. Orr from Yale writes: “Given the roughly 30-year lag between what comes out of our tail pipes and smokestacks, the climate change-driven weather effects we now see are being caused by emissions that occurred in the late 1970s. What is in store 30 years ahead when the forcing effects of our present 387 parts per million of CO2 are manifest? Or further out when, say, the warming and acidifying effects of 450 parts per million of CO2 — or higher — on the oceans have significantly diminished their capacities to absorb carbon? No one knows for certain, but trends in predictive climate science suggest that they will be much worse than once thought.”

So there’s a real element of uncertainty here. (Usually when people say stuff like this, they are trying to suggest that anthropogenic climate change doesn’t exist — I’m going to defer to many years of empirical evidence and broad scientific consensus on the matter and suggest that it does.) In calling attention to this uncertainty, I’m trying to play the old post-modernist game of subverting modernist narratives of progress. I admit I’m a little rusty at it.

When “we” claim to know everything and thus claim the ability to dictate the solution to climate change (hey, just like those one-shot solutions to poverty, famine, water shortage, etc. How are those working out?) you can be sure that said solution is going to be lucrative for all the right people and pretty securely fastened to already problematic patterns of “development.”

Should we cease to care about climate change? No. But we could learn something from Adam D. Sacks who decries “our failure to understand that greenhouse gases are not a cause but a symptom, and addressing the symptom will do little but leave us with a devil’s sack full of many other symptoms, possibly somewhat less rapidly lethal but lethal nonetheless.” Which is to say, building new technology and making grandiose pronouncements about cutting greenhouse emissions is not good enough — we have to address the whys and wherefores of how our civilization got into this mess in the first place.

Sacks goes on: “Living sustainably means, in Derrick Jensen’s elegantly simple definition, that whatever we do, we can do it indefinitely. We cannot use up anything more or faster than nature provides, we don’t poison the air, water, or soil, and we respect the web of life of which we are an intricate part. We are not separate from nature, or above it, or in any way qualified to supervise it. The evidence is ample and overwhelming; all we have to do is be brave enough to look.”

But why bother looking when we already know everything?


May 5, 2009

I think this is going to be my fiscal policy mantra from now on.

I feel like I’m rarely in agreement with economic orthodoxy — but yeah, wouldn’t economists tend to agree with me on this point? Why should I pay tax on *my* income — value which I have added — when I could be paying a tax on value which I have consumed or depleted in some way, via pollution for example?

Like I said in my previous post, value ultimately comes from the biosphere rather than from human industry. If we want better environmental outcomes, we should recognize this. Fiscal policy-wise that means the government should tax our consumption of natural value (i.e. natural resources) rather than taxing value added via human industry. That way we have an incentive to actually use less, which we clearly need to do.

In related news, I am officially in love (or intense like) with Herman Daly from whom I took this idea. I also dig the folks over at the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

Troubling Heirarchy: (Rambling About) Sustainability, The Wire, and Chinese Politics

April 5, 2009

Sometimes when you spend a lot of time thinking about a set of topics they tend to bleed into each other in weird ways.

Julian Wong over at The Green Leap Forward has written a pretty good summary of eco-design principles. The gist is that we always need to use a holistic or systems thinking approach, taking the biosphere and the community into account — especially when designing stuff that will establish patterns of life and pathways for future design, e.g. infrastructure. This is not a new concept for environmentalists. But one of the reasons that Wong’s analysis is cool (and indeed his whole blog is excellent) is that he talks explicitly about the way institutions work to make eco-design next to impossible:

“If we think about the essential functions of a city, we would probably come up with a list including housing, food, clean water and air, electricity, mobility and access, education, jobs, recreation, and perhaps a few others. The problem is that these seemingly disparate functions are always designed, created and managed in silos. Occasionally, a master plan will envisage interactions between the various functions, but once such plan leaves the planner’s office and gets in the hands of the developers, operators and administrators, the sectoral boxes firmly take over. The result? A lot of waste, and policies and procedures working at cross-purposes with each other. A simple case in point is the food-water-energy trilemma–a lack of coordinated policies addressing these fundamental needs has led to narrow policies addressing each individually, but ignoring the resulting trade-offs.”

Thesis (that I won’t be able to prove): The kind of sectoral inefficiency that Wong is talking about is at the heart of any hierarchical structure. Special interests or individual actors will always seek to advance their own agendas from within, to move farther up the power ladder, and/or avoid descending a rung on said ladder. This makes community building difficult, stifles creativity, nixes any possibility of systemic change, and leads to unsustainable outcomes. Economic theory holds that people are rationally self-interested — I’m claiming that hierarchy exacerbates this, leading to undesirable outcomes.

Here’s a short video for color/flavor:

Evidence/Argument: Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the Chinese government, an extremely rigid hierarchy. Each element within (be it ministry, interest group, individual, etc.) is paranoid, acting to secure their own position or advance it at all times. Local officials see themselves as being at the top of a little hierarchy and so they take advantage of their position via corruption, extortion, excessive taxation, and/or brutal suppression of those below them. Anyone who would oppose them will find their options very limited: usually they can only get their way by jumping to the next level of the bigger hierarchy i.e. using whatever means necessary to focus the central government’s attention on their issue. This is always a risky move.

(In Season 1 of The Wire, when MacNulty steps outside of the chain of command to pressure Major Rawls to initiate an investigation of the Barksdale drug outfit, he’s taking a similar risk.)

Now. The Wire is not only enthralling (on par in this respect with the good seasons of Gilmore Girls) but also unique: it is a frank presentation of hierarchy. The main locus of The Wire is institutional, rather than individual. Unlike most TV, the narrative doesn’t focus on the quandaries and triumphs of one or two protagonists. Sure, there are protagonists — but the story centers upon the way that folks negotiate the world, especially how they relate to the often hostile social institutions that pervade their lives. Characters who try to move outside of the hierarchy, who don’t take a realist approach to their work or who seek the moral high ground usually end up getting killed or marginalized (sent off to an undesirable post, for example.)

This doesn’t mean there’s no contention — otherwise why watch the show? Similarly, there has been a strong current of scholarship showing that the political environment in China is actually quite dynamic, rather than stolid. Social protests (and other extra-institutional actions) have increased across the countryside — and there’s also evidence that a lot of wrangling goes on *inside* China’s supposedly monolithic institutions of governance.

Brookings scholar Ken Lieberthal used a case study of energy bureaucracy to examine this type of infighting in China back in the 1980’s. In his recent book “China’s Water Warriors” Andrew C. Mertha builds on Lieberthal’s work to show that “policy activists” (elements strongly in favor of a particular policy or government action) continuously exert pressure on, and even within, the Party and government. Of course the system is weighted in favor of those “activists” who support the status quo, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a daily struggle going on or that the political winds might not shift.

In The Wire, each character must balance professional ethics with family obligations, ambition or career goals, and the desire to have an easy life. People are pulled in different directions in this way. For example, Lt. Daniels has to threaten his superiors with media exposure in order to get the Major Crimes unit running — a very risky move which is detrimental to his short term standing. (Ultimately, though, Daniels’ vigilante reputation becomes beneficial to his career when an activist Mayor comes to power circa season 4.)

My point about The Wire is that everyone on the show (even the dealers!) is well aware that the War on Drugs is horrible, wasteful, tragic, etc. — but each person keeps it going because they have to maintain their place in the system. Dreams of doing good or making substantial change are always compromised in the end. The quickest way to happiness in The Wire is to simply recede from the action and become a wise dimwit a la Shakespeare’s fools. (McNulty does go this route in Season 4 and much of Season 5, for example)

My point about Chinese politics is similar: it is a system that rewards conformity. This doesn’t mean that China, like the ailing city of Baltimore as portrayed on The Wire, doesn’t undergo political change — such a claim would be absurd given recent history. But it does mean that change is generally driven by whatever is perceived by folks on the top of the hierarchy as helping them climb even higher.

My point about sustainability, mostly stolen from Mr. Wong, is that calls for long term planning, community-based design and resource management, and conscientious group-oriented goal setting. None of these things happen very easily in hierarchical systems since one person/group’s priorities will always override those of the person/group below them — so short term benefit at the top of the ladder outweighs long term benefit at the bottom. This concept has been enmeshed in environmental thought for a long time because a core issue for us tree-huggers is that Nature is always at the bottom, and thus always getting thoroughly screwed by us.

Conclusion: If you were into po mo theory, you could argue that our preference for hierarchy stems from the prevalence of binary power relationships (gay/straight, black/white, humanity/nature, boy/girl, etc.) that reinforce themselves via our language and culture. Perhaps this is so. But I’m going to argue that the reason we find ourselves relying on hierarchy to organize so much of life is that it’s efficient, especially for top-down management on a large scale — the primary activity of powerful corporations and the state.

The problem with hierarchy is that it narrows each person’s field of interest, enhancing our (natural) selfishness while detracting from a) our view of larger social structures and their often deleterious effects and b) our concern for the long term effects of our actions.

So maybe we should empower organizations that don’t operate on such a large scale. This might engender community, moral action and awareness, as well as to make sustainability that much more feasible. Rambling finished!

The Coal Economy

September 19, 2008

I’m probably going to be reading and writing about China, the environment, and energy policy for what remains of the semester…so I thought I might use this forum to offer periodically some speculations on various related things.

So In his latest “We Can Solve It” email, The Man Himself Al Gore sums up current US energy policy with aplomb (a quality notoriously absent from his 2000 presidential bid.) He says: “We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the future of human civilization.” Word. But we don’t want oil stealing the limelight!

Of course US foreign policy has been driven by considerations of oil at least since World War I (before that it was cotton) but oil is not the source of most of the energy that you and I use. Coal is. Furthermore, the trade that we’ve built with China over the past few decades is also coal powered.

Now consider the fact that China now produces more greenhouse gases then any other country, having recently overtaken the US for that dubious distinction. While per-capita energy use in China is very low, this is because the majority of China’s outrageously large population are farmers who don’t use much energy. Most of the energy used in China comes from coal and goes towards the industrial sector. Coal has fueled Chinese development — it’s primarily used to power the extraction of steel and other minerals as well as the manufacture of consumer goods for US and European markets. These activities bring in enough revenue for the PRC to have billions laying around to lend the US. The other source of revenue is the 25% income tax on Foreign Direct Investment, mostly levied upon corporations who also want to produce things for export.

So when China lends us money, it’s because our consumption is the source of their revenue. They need us to stay afloat. American mass consumerism depends on electricity that is also primarily powered by coal. So, what we have is a vast system for extracting and burning coal — they extract it and burn it so as to make and sell stuff to us; we extract it and burn it so as to buy things from them. The very fact that I can type this post (on my Made-in-Taiwan laptop) and you can read it (presumably on yours) is predicated upon this relationship.

In light of this thought, check out this ad from “We Can Solve It”:

Like I said in my previous post, we’re all familiar with what happens when you elect representatives of the oil industry to high political office. It’s bad. So I’d be in favor of “breaking big oil’s lock on the government.” But if you agree with my above statement that the Chinese and US economy are linked inexorably through coal production and consumption, then in order to stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere we would have to stop (and retool) the whole machine. We would have to stop the global economy and change out its rusty old engine.

Besides the fact that this would be catastrophic to our daily lives, both here and in China, it’s also completely impossible for governments to undergo such an action.

I’m currently interning at an outfit whose goal is to use the market and a growing network of business/civil society folk around the world to try to fix the problem not by lobbying government per se but by promoting investment in renewable energy, which is a very dynamic industry right now. It’s exciting stuff. But I don’t believe this tactic will be very effective, simply because it’s grounded in the very market ideology that created the problem.

Facts Trump Krugman’s Wager

August 2, 2008

Paul Krugman wrote an excellent column about the ridiculous off-shore drilling controversy. He writes:

“If a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.”

So Krugman is both confronting the ineptitude of politics-as-usual in the face of looming environmental crisis and showing up John McCain for the tool that he is. These are important truths that should be written about more often.

However, there is some misleading rhetoric in Krugman’s column that blurs the issue quite a bit. Krugman writes:

Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.

We shouldn’t be debating about something that has only a 5% percent chance of happening. We should focus on what is and most certainly will happen i.e. a global temperature rise of several degrees. It’s pretty obvious that a 10 degree increase would be catastrophic but considering that it took only a few degrees (Celsius) to shift us out of the last ice age, we need to “get real” as it were.

Also, since I was subjected to Catholic schooling for many years, I have to take issue with Krugman’s rhetorical variation on Pascal’s wager:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Pascal’s wager is a logical trick which implies that you should believe in God even in the absence of empirical evidence. Krugman’s version goes like this: If global warming exists and you believe in it, you will go to Heaven. If global warming doesn’t exist and you believe in it, nothing will happen. If global warming does exist and you don’t believe in it, you will go to Hell! Hence, you better believe.

But global warming and the accompanying convergence of environmental crises is not a myth, not an object of religious devotion. Rather it is a scientific fact based on rigorously reviewed empirical evidence.

Here are some facts to think about, fellow Krugman readers:

  • Every living system is in decline, and that decline is accelerating
  • 70% of biologists view the present era as part of a mass extinction event, possibly one of the fastest ever, according to a 1998 survey by the American Museum of Natural History.
  • The global economic system is a subsystem of the biosphere — It would cost an estimated 35 trillion dollars a year to do what nature is doing for us for nothing (thanks David Suzuki)
  • We have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 30 to 35% — an astonishing figure
  • 95% of old growth forests in the US are gone and will not grow back
  • In the past 50 years we have observed a 50% increase speed and duration of hurricanes.
  • In the past 50 years we have observed the destruction of 90 percent of the big fish in the sea
  • There will be 150 million environmental refugees by mid-century according to UN estimates

Government is very responsive to the needs of the rich and powerful, hence there is a vested interest in keeping these facts under wraps.

There is hope

August 1, 2008

This just in: MIT researchers, up to their necks in old fashioned Yankee ingenuity, may have revealed an elegant solution to our energy problem!

What’s really interesting about this is that the process is described as “artificial photosynthesis” i.e. Nature already figured out the best chemical solution to the energy problem, all we had to do was imitate her.

The question remains whether we can transmit this insight to other global crises as well.

Check out this video for yet another breakthrough from the folks at MIT, published in a recent issue of Science. It’s about “a sophisticated, yet affordable, method to turn ordinary glass into a high-tech solar concentrator.”

I Hate “Go Green” Eco-Chique Consumerist Bullshit

July 18, 2008

As you’ve no doubt noticed, “going green” is super trendy — and annoying as hell.

Clorox has a new line of “green” products to help nature. Now you can end environmental crisis (and be a better person) simply by purchasing a different type of chemical to clean your house! Wow, thanks Clorox Company.

A story: a few weeks ago I was watching PBS and I saw a commercial for a global warming documentary sponsored by the Shell Corporation. Let me tell you, I was *so* pleased to discover that oil companies are now on the front line of the crusade for ecological awareness! Wonderful.

Another story: Recently the Adult Ed program where I work had its annual graduation ceremony at a church in Bay Ridge. Being a forward thinking community organization, the theme chosen for the event was (you guessed it) “go green” and it featured projects and decorations that the students had put together in class to express this idea. I helped take care of kids during the show, I served food afterwards, and at the end of the event I got saddled with trash duty.

(…dramatic pause…)

The mountain of trash! Uneaten food, plastic tablecloths, cups, and silverware, paper cups and napkins, balloons, etc. Bags and bags of it, straight into the landfill where it will remain long after you and I are dead.

Go Green?

Fuck you!