Sunday, September 16, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 10 - The Future of Enegy

For the last talk in my Top 10 sustainability related TED Talks list, we have Amory Lovins with "A 40-Year Plan for Energy."  Lovins is the chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a consultant, a physicist, and widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of energy and how we use it.

In this 27 minute talk (unusually long for TED) he lays out in plain English how we can fundamentally change the way we use and generate energy.  The recipe is really quite simple: efficiency first so we are using much less, and then the transition to renewables is much easier.

As Lovins says in this talk, "our energy future is not fate, but choice."  Here (and in many presentations like this one) he lays out a clear and simple road map for how to make the right choices.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 9 - a Salient Conversation About Geo-Engineering

Second to last in my personal list of the top 10 TED Talks on Sustainability, we have David Keith, with what is probably the most salient conversation I have seen on the web on the issue of geoengineering (which should really be called macro-climate engineering, but I don't get to pick the words). For those of you new to the conversation, the basic principle of geoengineering is that we could counter the effects of climate change by doing something drastic to the atmosphere, like pumping a lot of sulfur dioxide into the higher levels. SO2 in the stratosphere would reflect light, very much not at all like a bunch of "tiny mirrors," reducing the amount of energy getting into the lower levels of the atmosphere and having a net cooling effect.

Most of the media on geoengineering falls into one of two camps. The first is people in favor of doing it radically and preemptively instead of solving emissions problems (like the Freakonomics guys, who lost all of my respect when they did) and call everyone who disagrees with them wimps and idiots who either can't face or don't grasp the facts.  The second is people who think that any and all geoengineering is basically Jurassic Park, half-assed scientists messing with things they don't understand that are going to get us all eaten by dinosaurs.

The truth, as always, is a whole mess of gray.  Keith, however, lays out some very logical analysis of what it is, how to evaluate if it is a good idea, and raises some very good points e.g. whether or not it is a good idea, shouldn't we at least have an international treaty that says no one country can do it unilaterally?

The fact is that geoengineering is an idea, and ideas don't go away.  So we have to deal with it, like it or not.  And what Keith is arguing for here, essentially, is having a grown up conversation about the idea of messing with things that we don't really, fully understand.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 8 - Just the Facts on Climate Change

Coming into the home stretch on our Top 10 TED Talks for the Sustainability minded, we have James Hansen describing very clearly what is going on with our climate -- Spoiler Alert, it is changing in ways that are not good.

This talk is really, really informative, and Hansen is one of the top researches in his field.  That being said, make sure you have had plenty of coffee, because it is just a little dry.

This one speaks for itself, I think.  The case is pretty clear.  The timing was serendipitous for him too, because he sounds like an oracle when he talks about droughts in the bread basket.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Top 10 Ted Talks - 7 - Food That is Good for People & Planet

Number 7 in our list of sustainability related TED Talks, we have Mark Bittman (food writer for NYTimes, author of How to Cook Everything and How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) brings us a very enlightening talk on diet.  Specifically, the contemporary western diet and why is bad for the health of both people and the environment.

Bittman approaches the subject of food with love and wit, and makes plain some complex issues of how we arrived at the food system that we have and how we should change our diets to improve both our own health and the environmental impacts of our food systems.

Courtney and I have turned to How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for inspiration in our kitchen for years, and personally came to many of the same conclusions that Mr. Bittman recommends in this talk, but he does such a great job here of summarizing the issues and arriving at the correct conclusions.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 6 - Getting Real About Renewable Energy

Number 6 in my Top 10 Sustainability related TED Talks, we have a serious and sobering look at what it would actually mean to produce all of our energy from renewable sources by THeoretical Physicist and generally brilliant person David MacKay (asside from physics, he has a Ph.D in Computation and Neural Systems).

MacKay uses some very rough and simple calculations in this presentation to show that there are some very serious constraints to renewable energy technology available today, and even assuming that we can improve the technology significantly some of those constraints will never go away.  For example: potential energy per unit area is drastically lower for renewables than nuclear, or coal.

I enjoy MacKay's candid, hard nosed look at what the options really are, and the practical return to what is really important: understanding how we use energy and trying to use less.  Only then are renewable energy sources even viable as a replacement for fossil fuels.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 5 - Nature's Price Tag

 At the halfway point in our Top 10 Sustainability related TED Talks, we have one of my personal favorites (because this is an issue I think about a lot), a discussion of the economic value of natural systems by one of the preeminent thinkers on the subject, Pavan Sukhdev.

Sukhdev is a leader in the field of environmental economics and one of the most influential thinkers tackling the issues of building a sustainable future without dismantling the 21st century economy.  In this video he shares some of his research on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Project.  I am among those who believe that this is some of the most important work in the world to be done today.

Some people are very uncomfortable with the idea of putting an economic value on nature, believing that this will reduce nature in our view or that it is an extension of the 18th century notion of man's dominance over nature.  I feel that it is of the utmost importance to account for the value of nature in every system of thought, because when economists think about nature in their models, they need a language to think about its value.  The spiritual, aesthetic, and psychological value of nature must be accounted for in other systems of thought, for they cannot fit in the economists model.  If nature is valued in all systems in all languages, then we can all agree about conservation, even if we don't agree about the why.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks 4 - The Dirtiest Oil in the World

Top 10 TED Talks Number 4 (again, in no particular order): Garth Lenz tells us about the dirtiest oil in the world - the Alberta Tar Sands. Lenz begins by extolling the beauty and value of the ecosystems that are being carelessly turned over to get at the oil rich sand fields underneath, to give context to what is happening.

The Tar Sands of Canada are a very difficult subject, because while they produce the dirtiest, highest carbon fuel in the world, they are also the economic salvation of the Alberta Province, and currently one of the primary economic engines of the Canadian economy as a whole.  Before these Tar Sands were being exploited, Canada was one of the most progressive countries in the nation when it came to environmental issues, today it is one of the least.

Lenz is passionate and articulate, and his story is both personal and global - a difficult balance that he handles deftly.  This video is also rather timely, as the issue of the Keystone pipeline is once again up for grabs in the next election.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 3 - Learning the Limits

Limits are frequently the theme of Sustainability conversations, and my third Top 10 TED Talk is precisely about the limits of environmental stability.  Johan Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre, discusses his work identifying exactly what the environmental limits are, and where we are in relation to those limits.  Rockstrom lead a group of researches in developing 9 "planetary life support systems" that are being stressed by human activity, and the limits of how much we can stress them before they collapse.  The good news is, we've only crossed three of those limits!  I think you can infer the bad news.

Rockstrom is both informative and persuasive, and uses some theatrical tropes and props to help get his points across.  It is a very effective description of what exactly is meant by existing within the limits of a healthy planet.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 2 - Eating an Entire Earth

Next on my "no particular order" list of Top 10 TED Talks, Jonathan Foley describes how much land we use for food productions and shows us that we are practically eating an entire earth already.  Foley does an excellent job of describing how agriculture impacts the Earth while keeping in perspective that it is a necessary part of human existence.

I like how Foley focuses in at the end on the solutions that are needed without loosing site of the scale and scope of the problems.  As he says in the talk, Agriculture has been the most powerful force for change in the world since the last ice age, and rivals climate change in importance.

Bon Appetit!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Top 10 TED Talks - 1 - How Inequity Harms Us All

There are scores of brilliant, inspiring TED (that is Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks on almost any subject you can imagine.  There are probably dozens on sustainability and related issues.  I have used several TED talks as tools in lectures and classes to illustrate points, because many of them are done by brilliant people who have devoted their lives to one particular area of study, and I (as a generalist) could never put together such a perfect, concise presentation on the issue.

So I have decided to share my favorites with you, in no particular order.  The first is a video that really cemented in my mind what it means to talk about equity.  Social and Economic Equity are always listed as some of the primary elements of sustainability, but are often nebulously defined.  They also tend to be stated as desired outcomes a priori, unable to be justified or measured against the real world.

In this 16 minute talk, Richard Wilkinson distills some of his research into a very clear and succinct argument for greater equity as a goal in our societies.  Wilkinson studies issues of equity as they relate to health, crime, and even much more difficult to pin down measures such as "social cohesion" as the Professor Emeritus of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham in England.

One of my favorite parts is when he contrasts Japan and Sweden, and shows how two completely different systems and approaches in two wildly different cultures end in strikingly similar results.

I think this video is particularly poignant in the United States right now, since our demographics have been trending toward less and less equity for decades.  The 99% movement may not have any cohesive leadership, mission or plan, but they have felt in an emotional and unscientific way what Wilkinson has come to through years of study: the gross inequality of our current system is bad for everyone.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Day with the Nissan Leaf - Electric Transportation Land

With my in-laws coming in via train for Courtney's graduation, they decided to rent a Nissan Leaf, one of the few fully electric cars on the market right now, to get themselves around town while they're down.  For various logistical reasons, I had to pick up the Leaf a day early, and had 24 hours to use it as my primary mode of transportation.

While I am not exactly "in the market" for a fully electric car (my goals are more oriented towards driving as little as possible and living in a walkable, bikable neighborhood), I recognize that they will play an essential role in an overall shift in private transit if we ever want to kick fossil and foreign oil-based fuels.  Also, I am a bit of a technocrat, and I just love new things.

There are a number of fun features on the leaf, many of them designed specifically to give you good feelings while driving it.  From the cute sounds it makes to let you know it is on (there is no engine noise while idling, and hardly any while driving) to the little trees that "grow" on your dashboard display when you drive efficiently, the car is made to make you feel good about yourself for driving it.  And it works, a little.  Until it backfires.

When I picked up the car, the dashboard display informed me that I had about 89 miles of potential charge on the battery.  It comes up with this estimate based on the car's individual driving history, which is personalized to you if you own it but for a rental car is all over the map.  As I started to drive I was intentionally being as efficient as I possibly could, and I watched as the potential miles crept up as I drove.  From the starting point at 89 miles, I got over a hundred within 6 minutes.  But then I made a terrible, unforgivable mistake.  I was brash and foolish enough to drive over a hill.  The Leaf handled the hill just fine, acceleration and responsiveness were great, but the potential miles plummeted as I ascended.  As I climbed the hill, I had a sinking, anxious feeling that I would get to the other side and not have enough charge on the battery to get back!

That panic was unwarranted, as it turned out, the car had plenty of charge to get me where I needed to go for the full 24 hours, but in about 1 quarter mile of steep incline I used up 30 miles of potential in the battery.  As I was born and raised in a town that is all hills, with only one moderately flat street, it struck me that electric vehicles would be impractical for entire cities such as Laguna Beach, San Francisco, or any other topographically challenged locale.

Also, the  eighty to one hundred miles of potential on a full charge is more than enough for the average commute plus jaunt around town (unless you live in a sprawling mega-city like Los Angeles), but it is extremely limiting once you start thinking about traveling, or work that requires a lot of driving (sales jobs, couriers, or taxis e.g.).  So in the end, the Leaf can be an excellent commuter, if you live in a moderately sized city with no hills, but it does not provide the all around one stop shopping silver bullet to all of your transportation needs that internal combustion does.

But there never is a silver bullet is there?  The Leaf is a cool car, and fun to drive, but if we are serious about kicking foreign oil and fossil fuels, we still need better public transit, design for walkable and bikable cities, more programs like flex cars, and some internal combustion run on bio-fuels, methane, or some as yet undiscovered other renewable energy.  In other words, the solution will be a patchwork, involving all of the technologies that have been presented as silver bullets.  As it has been said by many others (Grist, Wired, to name a few) silver buckshot is the solution, and the Leaf is one attractive little pellet in that mix.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Summer & All the Good Things that it Brings

Summer officially begins June 20th in the northern hemisphere this year, and I for one cannot wait.  In 10 days the solar azimuth, or the sun's path through the sky, will arc as far north and as high overhead as it gets before the days start growing shorter, and the sun slowly retreats to the south for next winter.  This will be the "longest day" of the year.  At my latitude in Eugene the sun rises at 5:30am and doesn't set until 9pm resulting in 15.5 straight hours of sunshine!  The farther north you go, the longer the daylight lasts, and above a certain latitude (in parts of Alaska, Canada and Northern Europe for example) the sun will not set at all.  Those nearer the equator will hardly notice the difference in the day's length.

The Peas Are Taking Off

The summer's approach brings many good tidings in general, and this year a few specific good tidings for me.  Not only are the long days and fair weather conducive to a more active lifestyle, and the general quality of recreation improves significantly, but the long hours of sunshine make the garden grow fast and strong.  You may recall some of my disaster stories from the last two years of gardening, well this year we are starting to figure it out.  I have been turning a compost pile since April of last year, and at the beginning of spring I tilled up the vegetable patch in our yard and turned the compost into the patch.  So far, the vegetables we have planted love it.

We also have a few little planter boxes of herbs right by the kitchen door that are doing very well, and our one survivor from previous years, the blueberry bush, has more little green fruits than ever before.  We are about to plant a few tomatoes and plan to add some lettuce and other leafy green along the fence (which doesn't get nearly as much sun).

But this year, the best thing that summer brings with it is my wife, who has completed the Master's of Architecture program at UO and has her commencement in a week.  After three long years in Design Jail, she is a free woman once again.  The last two quarters have been fantastic (she got the studio teacher she most wanted and it was everything she hoped it would be) and her final review went extremely well.  Considering the fact that final reviews are usually a bloody affair consisting of a group of cynics tearing apart your hard work and design aesthetic, I think Courtney's face at the end of her review says it all.

Courtney in Front of Her Final Presentation
So for the rest of the summer, (in addition to my usual stuff about going green) you can expect a lot of posts about gardening, barbequing, and for the first time in a while probably some posts about traveling around Oregon, which Courtney and I are very excited about.  So I leave you with a Eugene send off, what everyone here says instead of goodbye when it is not raining: "enjoy the weather!"

Sunday, May 27, 2012

To Dream of Less Energy - Quality of Life and Energy Consumption

Energy consumption makes all things possible.  It allows us to extend our lives into the nighttime hours, it allows us to keep our homes warm or cool, it allows us to freeze food for preservation, or get it piping hot it in about a minute.  Energy, in all its forms, is the foundation of our civilization.  If an era is defined by the predominant technology (the stone age, the bronze age, the information age), then we are living, and have been for about a century, in the age of fossil energy: coal for electricity, oil for transportation.  Information Technology itself would be impossible without abundant energy, and right now the only technology we have that can provide the amount of energy needed with the consistency required is mostly coal (there is a smattering of other: hydro-electric, nuclear, natural gas, but all of them together are less than a third of coal).

There are two primary problems with this system: resource and waste.  The inputs, the raw materials, the oil pumped form the ground and coal dug out of mountains, are limited.  They are finite resources that we will one day run out of.  You can argue about when, about how much time we have left to keep burning through those resources, but you cannot argue about the fact that one day the wells will all be dry, the last heap of dirt will be devoid of useful coal.

The second problem, waste, is manifold.  When these fuels are extracted, the process often involves polluting massive amounts of water and damaging land in a way that will not be repaired for generations.  When the fuels give up their energy in combustion, they release several compounds that are degrading to the environment.  CO2, Nitrogen- and Sulfur-Oxide compounds, and particulates take their toll on air quality, and various partially combusted hydro-carbons foul our streams and water-ways.

It is almost inconceivable that we could live up to our current standards without energy, and equally inconceivable, given current technology, that we could produce enough renewable energy to replace all of the fossil energy we use.  That is why I am dreaming of less.

Technology holds many answer to a future of less energy, but human behavior is equally, if not more important. I dream of a culture that values the energy it uses in an emotional way, not just in price per kWh; where daylighting and passive cooling are as valuable to a home buyer as granite counter tops once were.

I dream of a society in which people care where their power comes from, how it got to them, and what happens in between and afterward.  Where people see a light bulb burning and think, even just once in a while, about what it means that they can run their homes into the night, keep their produce cold 24-7, turn the thermostat up or down on a whim. Where people care not just about having energy, but the kind of energy they have.

A revolution in our energy production is still a long, long way off, but a cultural revolution, or at least a cultural shift in the way we perceive energy is already under foot.  What was once a vanguard is edging into the mainstream, and today more than ever people care about energy.  Not just that they have it, but where it comes from too.  We are still a long way from a culture where everyone cares about energy, and is concerned with reducing energy consumption, but a change in the culture that uses the energy can be much, much quicker than a change in the infrastructure that delivers it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rapidly Expanding Responsibilities, and Back to Blogging

To my neglected readers (all 11 of you),

Once again, my professional life has stomped all over my burgeoning writing career.  I know, it is extremely selfish of me to leave you all for so long, but the last fiscal quarter has seen a significant uptick in the rate of inquiries at my little sustainability consulting practice, which has resulted in a couple of new clients.  At the same time, my Professorial responsibilities at Lane Community College have expanded somewhat.  The result is that all of my efforts at writing about sustainability have been sidelined by work that actually pays.

But on top of all that paying work, my financially un-recognized responsibilities have also expanded of late.  In February of this past year, I was officially elected the new chair of the Eugene Branch of the Cascadia Green Building Council.  I have been working with the branch for just over a year now, and served as the chair of the Programming Sub-Committee until the recent elections.  I am taking over from Kristen Taylor, who was the chair for 2 years before me, at a very exciting time.  Kristen over-saw a very constructive process of arriving at a 5 year vision for the branch in a series of sessions just before the election, and both the Branch at large and the Programming Committee that I used to chair have just completed a set of ambitious goals for 2012.  I am very proud to have been selected for this position, and I hope that my energy and passion will translate to good leadership for the Branch as we take the first steps towards our new vision.

With all of these new responsibilities, my writing has completely withered on the vine (much like my garden last spring), but I am finally finding my keel even once again.  As my roles and responsibilities in life are expanding at a rapid rate, I have found the David Allen approach to Getting Things Done (I won't discuss GTD here, but rest assured it is awesome - if you want to know more, consult the internet, it has much to say), and things are finally getting so manageable that I feel confident in actually returning to the blog!  I am in the process right now of re-imagining this little writing sandbox I have been kicking around in for the past few years, and turning it into something a little bit more structured.  We'll see if any good ideas come out of it, or if any of them actually work, in time.  But for now, keep your eyes peeled (all 22 of them) for more to come.

Thank you very much to the handful of regular readers who have supported me as I stumble towards a functional blog,