Sunday, April 26, 2009

Can't miss what you never had

"What have you given up due to the recession?"

That was the question posed by MSN's Smart Spending blog--an interesting smorgasbord of tips and tricks to help you pinch pennies, and one that I read for handy how-tos like cleaning your windows with newspaper (most of the tips and tricks are also green).

And oh, the litanies of responses--soda, manicures, dinners out! Paper towels! Watering the juice! No more season tickets! No more *gasp* cable TV! Brand names!

When I read lists like that, I tend to fluctuate between "smug" and "disbelief". Smug because I would never consider a manicure a necessity, much less something I'd have to give up. Disbelief that there are people who do.

And, after a while, a little sadness--sadness for everybody who is so out of touch with their wants and needs that they have soda to give up. Giving up something implies that economic necessity has driven you to stop doing something you'd normally do. And it surprises me how many people drink soda regularly enough to say that they've given it up.

It's not so much that I'm anti-consumerist--even I buy an occasional half-liter of Diet Coke for those aspartame cravings--but that such levels of consumerism obscure the meaning of living well, providing an artificial measure of happiness that can be measured by the numbers of labels plastered all over one's pantry.

No two people are made happy by the same thing. My boyfriend and I are a case in point--we love each other, but I can't persuade him to come birdwatching with me, and he can't stoke my interest in brewing mead (though he does pick my brain about keeping yeast happy). Finding your own internal happiness and using that as a guide for one's purchases, rather than the other way around, is the key to living well. And maybe it does involve a ton of stuff, but it usually doesn't.

And in the end, that's what living naturally is all about. We're all different, we've all got different lifestyles, different environments, but we all want to be happy. But we've forgotten, or never thought to ask, what it is that makes us happy. If you keep that in mind, you'll never have to give up soda, because it'll never be around.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Semantic Pedantic

The problem with "green" is that nobody really knows what it means to "be green". Sure, you drink fair-trade organic coffee. But shipping it from Nicaragua to New York isn't exactly environmentally friendly. Or what's it mean when a food product claims to use "all-natural flavoring"? Last I checked, flavoring isn't exactly a natural thing--it doesn't grow on trees.

This means that lots of companies can make claims to be green, which are only true in the most expansive sense of the word "true". Faking it is a bad idea no matter where you do it--on labels, in bed...

We should have, rather than "green", a letter grade (which can also be green, to match the ethos), sort of how appliances have letter grades for energy efficiency. I therefore propose a universal set of criteria, clearly defined, to determine just how "green" a product is. A lawnchair made of bamboo would be greener than the plastic counterpart, but not nearly so green as one that you build yourself out of scavenged lumber, for instance.

To lay out the criteria:

Sustainability: Is the product something that can be, with proper resource allocation, perpetuated for a lifetime? This covers things made from recycled goods that can be recycled, as well as materials that are grown. If your product, on the other hand, is mined (say, that granite sink) or comes from a forest that's not managed (say, some teak furniture), then it's not sustainable.

Distance: One of the biggest contributors to pollution is getting stuff from point A to point B. Obviously, the more local, the better. But a local artist who uses materials flown in from the ass-end of the world is, in this context, less green than buying grapes from California. It should not be the final product that takes primary consideration in terms of distance traveled, but the materials used.

Biodegradable/Recyclable: Self-explanatory. Except that it doesn't matter how recyclable a product is if there's nowhere to recycle it. A case in point: cans. I don't know of a single place that takes cans where I live. For most people, it's the plastics conundrum, where they live in a place that only takes 1 or 2 plastics.

Toxicity: Does this compound release substances that are known to have toxic effects?

Corporate commitment: Does the company implement strategies to reduce waste and consumption of resources? By what percentage?

If there are any other categories you can think of, let me know. Next post will be the points that are assigned to each of these categories for the grade--and that should be interesting.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taxes, Housing, Global Warming, and a Handbag

Indulge me for a moment: about six months ago I saw the PERFECT handbag in a store (ironically it's not on the website anymore). It was also €140. Definitely not an impulse buy--not that I make many of those. For six months, I dithered--spend the money and get a perfect bag, or just put up with schlepping my L.L. Bean backpack everywhere? Don't get me wrong, I love my L.L. Bean backpack. But there are only so many times you can terrify yourself into thinking that you've forgotten your wallet only to find it sitting smugly in the next pocket, or swear that the pen you just put in has to be there, before you start thinking that there has got to be a better way to manage your stuff.

I finally did get the bag. And like all good purchases, I wish I'd bought it sooner.

I'm not in any position to make any of these types of home changes, but they are all things I'd consider doing. Alas, none of these are as simple as making a draft-catcher or lowering your thermostat before you go to bed every night. Most of these choices for lowering your energy bill require a hefty investment, but if done right, they can dramatically lower utility bills--and for now, they come with tax incentives.

So it might seem like a no-brainer to install a turbine, or get that damn leak in the roof fixed. But let's be honest--it's a lot of money. If you've so far managed to escape the recession, you've probably hunkered down and aren't inclined to spend a ton of money on anything, much less installing a new water heating system. Fair enough, in my mind--it took me six months to decide whether or not to get my bag, so I can understand debating whether to sink the cost of a new car into a heating system.

You'll notice, throughout the slide show, that the cost of the technology is coupled alongside the amount you'll save, usually expressed as a percentage of which bills get slashed. Obviously, this means that in order to break even on a $2000 tax break on a geothermal heating system that costs $8000 to install, you'll have to stay in your home for as long as it takes to run up $6000 in heating bills (if you use heating for six months of the year, and each heating bill is $200--a tad high--that means at least five years).

Obama is currently proposing a similar investment in green tech--his budget proposal includes $59 billions alotted to the development of renewable energy. It's a huge amount of money, but the potential for savings--dramatically cutting back on imported oil (even if most of it does come from Canada), no longer having to buy the lives of coal miners, possibly revitalizing the economy--are equally huge.

Which is great, but at distinct odds with the ultimate goals of the housing plan: to enable (some) homebuyers to stay in their homes. This wouldn't really be an issue if most of the homes that are victim to foreclosures were in well-planned developments, but most of these homes are in that dreaded no-man's land called suburbia. Or worse, ex-urbia (who the hell comes up with these names?). You know what I mean: the types of neighborhoods populated by McMansions, where it's a 10-minute drive to anything, where playgrounds are deserted because kids are sitting on their rapidly-expanding fat asses playing Super Mario on their Wii and thinking they're getting a workout. These are the types of homes which are worthless, and not just because of economic factors that burst the housing bubble. They're worthless for the very same reasons that New York City real estate continues to remain high-priced: functionality. Or, in their case, lack thereof.

What I call "functionality" is best described as a well-planned neighborhood, where everything is conveniently located and where you don't have to drive to get everything. Big Box stores (i.e., Walmart or Costco) require huge parking lots, and thus tend to be far removed from any residential locale, as they're ugly. If they're far removed, then you have to drive to get there. If you're driving, then there's no such thing as a "quick trip" to pick up some milk that results in just milk (something I actually do on a regular basis--milk is heavy when you're on a bike). It becomes a trip that begins in milk and ends with "Well, as long as I'm here, I might as well pick up..." So you end up buying a ton more crap that you probably didn't really need, in order to fill up the trunk of a car that's too big because you don't feel safe traveling down the freeway in anything smaller than an Explorer (oh, remember the days when SUVs were cool?).

In other words, we have a case of schizophrenic goals: one is to save the environment, the second, to save a lifestyle that is one of the most environmentally unfriendly that I can think of. Cars are one of the biggest polluters around (as anybody unlucky enough to be caught sucking tailpipe can attest to) and while they may be handy for getting you to and from that big box store, they are one of the major reasons why the US hasn't gotten around to slashing CO2 emissions to where they need to be.

And where do they need to be? That depends on who you ask. I don't think we'll ever get around to pre-Industrial age levels, nor do I particularly cherish the idea of living in the eighteenth century. But it's safe to say that we'll need extraordinary measures to keep CO2 levels below critical. As the world's population grows, as developing countries move from the present participle to the past tense, their power needs will grow, too. So while we might very well be able to reduce CO2 emissions by 20% by cutting back, that's not going to do a whole lot compared to a 40% increase by those who've just discovered the joys of the Tata Nano. ("Fuel efficiency" is one of those insidious phrases that make you feel good while continuing to contribute to a problem that wouldn't exist if you didn't buy the damn car to begin with, and if you're buying a car that small you might as well ride a bike)

We can't get somewhere without figuring out where we want to go, first. Obama made his presidency on the promise of being able to make those hard choices--let's see if he can.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Y'know? Part 3 of a series on Energy

Supporting organic farming is great--or is it?

The core problem with organic farming is that its yields are lower. I've seen numbers run the gamut from a mere 20% to 50% and sometimes more, depending on where the study was done and which crop was assessed, but the fact remains that, in order to produce the same amount of food as conventional methods of farming, you have to plant more food. If you're growing non-GMO foods, you must also contend with the possibility of a crop that's significantly weakened by non-optimal growth conditions (drought, heat, cold).

Growing food takes energy--moving water, machinery, fertilizer, etc. Therefore, organic farming takes more energy, and therefore lies in direct conflict with our earlier premise of using less energy/water.

Aside: I support organic farming, but that's because most of our organic produce comes from a small-scale local farmer. On that scale, the benefits of not poisoning the environment outweigh (at least, I think so) the detriments of additional energy expenditure. But the point of that little rant about organic is not to say that it's bad, but rather to make people realize that it's not all good.

This micro-dilemma illustrates one of the problems with our environmental policy: we don't know what we want. Actually, for the most part, we don't know that we don't know what we want. And that's a problem, because it makes successful policies impossible to implement.

Do you want to save water? Then stop supporting farming in the deserts of California--even if they are organic. Do you want to cut back on the use of fossil fuels? Support a carbon tax, or sign up for more nuclear power stations (and in the meantime increase research funding for better breeder reactors).

You'll notice I don't mention anything like turning off the tap when you're not using it. They help, but not nearly on the scale that shutting down--or starting up--an entire industry would (beef comes to mind). And when it comes to conservation measures, scale matters. One paper cup of coffee doesn't strike anybody as the difference between life and death, but scale that up by a few million, and it's no wonder doomsday conservationists love to point out how we're drowning in our own sh*t.

"Industry" is the scale that the federal government operates on, and so to effectively change policy, that's the scale environmentalists are going to have to start thinking on, too. And there's the rub: on an industrial scale, most of the best environmental policies are the worst PR--heh, it's a good thing Greenpeace doesn't read this blog, advocating nuclear power as the most environmentally sound and all that jazz.

The other stickler is the knowing-that-we-don't-know bit that I discussed earlier. This will present the biggest issues to any serious attempt at changing federal policies for how we want to safeguard our resources. It's easy to say, "Energy independence," but hard to acknowledge that this may mean paving over deserts with solar collectors and actually using Yucca Mountain for the purpose for which the $13 billion project was intended. "Resource conservation" sounds good--until you realize that it means stopping the subsidies being sent to grow millions of dollars' worth of produce in the desert.

Right now we don't know what we want to achieve, so deciding whether any of these sacrifices are worth it is difficult at best, and political suicide at the most probable. Here's hoping that we'll figure that out, and soon.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The End of Days

According to NEWSWEEK, Christianity is declining in America. Depending on where you stand on the spectrum of religiosity (devout believer vs. atheist), and which axis (monotheism vs. polytheism), this could be a great thing or a terrible thing, or a piece of non-news, some bit of fluff that takes up your bandwidth that you don't particularly care for.

I thought I was in the last category. To me, religion has always been a non-issue--I'm a scientist by training, and science and religion, while not mutually incompatible, have their differences, and I'll freely confess my bias towards a rational system of thinking. Religion doesn't interest me (except where it interferes with science), so I tend to ignore it, even though it is apparently very important to a lot of other people.

How important to how many? Well, I don't know, and more to the point, I don't care enough to go Google the answer. The point I'm about to make doesn't need exact numbers:

Could it be that this drop in religiosity is the turning point in people's relationship with the natural world?

Let's not underestimate the importance of this Jewish book in our lives (the Bible's Old Testament is the Jewish Torah, and the New Testament--well, Jesus was a Jew). To this day Creationism's bogeymen are still lobbying to have their "point of view" taught as a science (I don't mind if you teach creationism as literature, philosophy, or as part of a theology course, but it's not a science). The Bible is still being misused as the main point of denying gays the right to marry--nowhere does the Bible actually state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman (and you have to wonder what exactly transpired between Moses and Aaron, Peter and Paul). The Good Book was instrumental in shaping the American West, what with Manifest Destiny driving good Christian soldiers onwards in the wilderness, and the taming of the "savages" and the landscape.

I doubt that we will ever be rid of every Judeo-Christian presence in our lives--and I don't think that's a laudable goal, either. Man needs religion, as a psychological crutch if nothing else, and if you take away the Bible you'll end up with something else. Worse, probably.

The Christian point of view: the world is there for humans to use as they see fit, God granted dominion to Man, animals are dumb beasts that don't have souls. Hardly edifying, if you ask me. Yes, Ecclesiastes asks us to be humble and realize that we are all stardust, but by and large the Christian Bible asks us to see the world as a gift of God--and relieves us of our responsibility to the environment.

Granted, this "responsibility" is a social construct. We don't really have a responsibility to keep the world in shape. God knows, if walruses were the dominant species, we'd have been f*cked a long time ago. As it is, humans are the dominant species (in terms of effects on the planet, I know we are woefully outnumbered by six-legged creepy crawlies), and for better or worse, we are the ones calling the shots about where water goes, what gets built on which land, what trees get cut down, what animals get shot and eaten, what plants get put where, and so on.

There's nothing new about that--we've been modifying our environment for ages. But what's changed is our awareness of how our modifications affect the environment around us, and eventually, us, again. Evidence is mounting against the Christian view that "God made the world so we could use it", and for the view that we are the stewards of our own future.

The optimist in me likes to think that the decline in religion marks a new type of environmentalism, one that has nothing to do with "living in harmony" and all that hooey, but rather one based on the fact that we're all stuck on this floating rock together, and the Big Guy in the Sky isn't going to hand us a shovel when we dig ourselves in over our heads in our own sh*t. Admittedly, a ten-percent decline in the number of self-proclaimed Christians isn't going to make a hoot of difference in the grand scheme of things, but then again, every little bit helps.