Monthly Archives: March 2013

A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A few years back, I attended the GreenBuild expo when it was in Boston. I try not to incur the footprint and cost of travelling to conferences (not to mention the discomfort that only begins to describe air travel these days), but this was a relaxing train ride from NYC. While there, I walked a few frigid (and empty) blocks to a meeting that was being held at the coincidentally scheduled Build Boston expo. As I entered that show’s exhibit floor, I noticed an immediate and distinct difference. There was a strong smell of new materials – akin to that new car smell – that was totally absent from GreenBuild. The eco-materials and products at the green show were devoid, according to my discerning nose at least, of the telltale scents that probably indicated the presence of volatile organic compounds and assorted endocrine disruptors.

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

I was reminded of that experience when I attended back to back trade shows this past week. On Wednesday, I spent the day at LEDucation 7, an industry show and conference revolving around the advances in LED lighting. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the group that organizes LEDucation.) Then the next day I walked the Architectural Digest Home Design Show.

I looked at both through the lens of ecodesign and found both encouraging and discouraging points.

LEDucation, obviously, is about LEDs and, hence, concerned with energy efficiency. Having attended that show in each of its seven years, watching the growing number of exhibitors and attendees is itself an indicator of the level of interest. With the evolution of LED technology, some of the attention is shifting from displays of raw technology to more sophisticated characteristics like color rendition and control of glare – qualities that affect public acceptance of the mysterious new guy who’s trying to replace the familiar light bulbs we’ve grown up with and that have been the worldwide standard since the late nineteenth century. Not an easy task.

The evolution of LEDs has been exciting to see, and the emphasis is broadening from a singular goal of energy efficiency to embrace some of the wider goals of comfort: how does the lighting look and make you feel? How well does it do its job from both a technical and a perceptual gauge?

What was missing, with perhaps the sole exception of one of my favorite new companies, Little Footprint Lighting, was any attention to other ecodesign criteria such as sustainable materials and finishes, future upgradability or disposal/recycling.

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from electronics (shown in bowls from left)

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from discarded electronics (shown in bowls from left)

This is not entirely the industry’s fault. One rationale is that the biggest environmental impact of lighting – by far – is in energy consumption.  (I’ve personally confirmed this by creating LCAs or Life Cycle Analyses on some of my own lighting designs.) Another factor, at least until relatively recently, has been that LEED (the de facto eco-rating system for buildings) did not count eco-materials and finishes used in mechanical equipment including lighting.

So there is a narrow eco focus within the lighting industry. The cutting edge research and development at most companies is in new light sources, without involving the wider picture. On the other hand, there are inventive, usually smaller, companies producing light fixtures from recycled and renewable materials. Unfortunately, they tend to not incorporate light sources other than those incandescent “toasters,” as I call them, or problematic compact fluorescents. Until recently, I could lay claim with my Fire & Water designs to being the only company tackling both energy efficiency and ecodesign. Happily, with the presence of companies such as Little Footprint, that is no longer true.

But the separation between design and ecodesign remains; products, by and large, are either categorized as ecodesigned or “regular” design. I’ve posited the disappearance of this division in my “Green Design as (Un)usual” sequence. Prior to the 1960s or so, we had “Design as Usual,” in which environmentalism was not a concern.  To be more accurate, Design as Usual before the Industrial Revolution necessarily meant designing to accommodate nature because there was no other choice. The advent of modern building techniques and systems, like central heating and air conditioning, changed that dependency – for both better and worse – leading to the globalization of architecture; the same split-level or glass tower could be built anywhere, regardless of climate.

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

The sixties and seventies brought us “Green Design as Unusual” – experiments in ecodesign that, more often than not, were far from the mainstream. Earthships, adobe huts and the like. (That’s an unfair overgeneralization, of course.)

Our present period, with perhaps just a bit of rose-colored vision, could be called “Green Design as Usual” in that we’re beginning to see ecodesign included more frequently and in more (I hate to use the word) ordinary projects. On the near horizon, is a return to Design as Usual, redefined now to implicitly included ecological goals.

But we’re not there yet, as was made very apparent by my second trade show tour of the week, the AD Home Design Show. I went in expecting to find a growing emphasis on green design, with much of it falling into the category of greenwashing as businesses attempted to cash in on the movement. While I didn’t find as much greenwash, it wasn’t for the reasons I would have liked. Rather, there was appallingly little evidence of green design – not even the lip service green leaf signs that were sporadically displayed in previous years to flag the “earth friendly.” At one of the few booths that outwardly wore its green colors, Listone Giordano, I asked whether their product literature included information on their renewably sourced woods. When they answered no, I thought they were going to explain that their clients no longer needed it spelled out. Instead they said that their clients were not interested. Not a good indicator of our potential to achieve Green Design as Usual, let alone progressing beyond.

In fact, if there was a discernible theme to the show, I would have to say it was “excess.” Not what I would have expected amidst just the barest hints of recovery from the Great Recession (in which the building and design industries were among the worst hit). Stashed incongruously within the over-the-top and out-of-the-budget appliance displays, there was a lone small booth showing pervious paving. My bet is that no one outside of a few fellow greenies noticed it.

Perhaps the best (or is it the worst?) example of this excess was a display of color glass, flower-shaped urinals. Yes it’s a desirable goal to better integrate nature into our buildings. As the study of biophilia tells us, it generally makes us feel, work, learn and heal better. And there’s also the science of biomimicry: studying how nature does things in order to improve our own methods. But making a urinal look like a flower could constitute only the shallowest definition of biomimicry. (As opposed to a urinal that maybe used natural enzymes to break down the waste into nutrients.) You might say that, rather than learning from nature, these designs piss on it.

glass urinals

The observation is not an inaccurate metaphor, unfortunately, for the state of far too much design – even these days, more than 40 years after the first Earth Day. We still regard nature as a resource that we can endlessly take things from and dump things into. My complaint about lighting had to do with seeing light fixtures only in terms of their energy consumption and not as part of a larger system of flows of materials and energy, constrained by the finite limits of a planet. There’s only so much aluminum or oil or neodymium (a rare earth metal used in electronics) to be had. But if the LEDucation displays are any indicator, the lighting industry is at least addressing a part of the problem. Purveyors of brass encrusted commercial-style ranges for homes can’t even make that claim.


I know this isn’t exactly an optimistic observation for a blog called EcoOptimism, but it does no good to be blind to reality. The positive take-away is that there are still many eyes to help open, many businesses (and their customers) who do not yet realize that green business is (or can be) good business. What we’re seeing is not so much a direction that’s failed as one that is still finding its footing.




The Bee-cautionary Principle

I go on at times about the significance of the precautionary principle, the idea that “if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an act.”

Illustration: Peter Harris via Building Green

Illustration: Peter Harris via Building Green

Here in the U.S., regulations tend to work strongly in the opposite direction in a sort of innocent-until-proven-guilty approach to things like synthetic chemicals. This means we can be subjected to substances that are suspected of being dangerous to our health or to the environment up until the point (and perhaps after) they are proved dangerous.

Europe, on the other hand, has adopted the precautionary principle as policy: “the precautionary principle may be invoked when a phenomenon, product or process may have a dangerous effect, identified by a scientific and objective evaluation, if this evaluation does not allow the risk to be determined with sufficient certainty.”

What a disappointment, then, that in the face of the potentially disastrous bee colony collapse disorder, and mounting evidence that neonicotinoid pesticides are a major part of the cause, Britain along with Germany and Spain are pushing to defeat a ban.

Image source: Inhabitat

Image source: Inhabitat

Bees have a crucial role, far beyond their occasional annoying habit of stinging us when provoked. They are the great pollinators, without which many types of agriculture would be close to impossible. A true die-off of pollinating bees could trigger a food disaster. (This is just one example of the free services provided to us by nature; services that we tend to destroy without understanding the costs or ramifications.)

This ties together two fundamental concepts of environmentalism: the precautionary principle and the valuation of nature’s services. Neither one receives nearly the amount of attention deserved. Ignorance of either one of these, let alone both, paves the way for catastrophically bad decisions.

Biking and the Fallacy of Zero-sum Environmental Thinking

The great James T. Kirk once said (or is it ‘will say’ since it takes place about 270 years from now?) “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” My much less quotable version of this might be “I don’t believe in the zero-sum scenario” — at least not in the case of environmentalism, where I like to point out the many win-win and win-win-win scenarios.

A zero-sum game is “a situation in which a gain by one person or side must be matched by a loss by another person or side.” Because of misperceptions of competing interests, environmental issues are often seen as resulting in, at best, zero-sum results. Gains for the environment, for example, are seen as necessarily won at the expense of jobs or energy prices. Developed countries are pitted against developing countries. You get the idea.

On a smaller — and therefore perhaps more personal — scale, bicycling as an alternative form of transportation often ends up in verbal skirmishes with drivers (played out in the news and, sometimes, the courts), who see bike lanes as stealing space from vehicle lanes, and business owners, who fear shoppers won’t come if they can’t park in front.

(Yes, the bicycle light had just turned red.)

(Yes, the bicycle light had just turned red.)

There are, of course, some valid complaints about cycling. Here in NYC, there is a sort of Wild West legacy of riding in which cyclists until recently had no safe turf. Hence a fend-for-yourself attitude developed whereby many, especially delivery bikers, would ride wherever and however they could to get where they needed to be. Since drivers gave them no respect, the feeling became mutual. (I don’t, by the way, have any such rationale for cyclists who scare or endanger pedestrians.)

With the recent expansion of bike lanes here and elsewhere and an accompanying growth in cycling, both bicyclists and drivers are in a transitional learning period. Cyclists – especially the “old timers” – need to adjust to the fact that they are now a legitimate part of cities’ transportation networks and, as such, need to be responsible. (I’ve been cycling in NYC for over 30 years both for utility and recreation, and have more recently become more, um, law-abiding, in part to be a cycling “ambassador” and offset some of the ill-will generated by more selfish riders.) Drivers, for their part, should realize that every bicycle represents one less car and, therefore, that much less traffic congestion and that many more available parking spaces. Win-win, like I said.

A NYC safety campaign poster. (The real bike lane is on the left side of this street.)

A NYC safety campaign poster. (The real bike lane is on the left side of this street.)


Actually, it’s better than that, with at least three wins we can tally. But let’s back up slightly to a story that made headlines last week. Washington state Representative Ed Orcutt believes bicyclists get a literal free ride in that they don’t pay gas taxes while using roads. (The bigger headliner was that he also said that cyclists pollute because they exhale more carbon dioxide while pedaling. He later partially retracted that Onion-ready statement.) Never mind that gas taxes often don’t cover a lot of the costs of road construction and maintenance, or that the idea of person plus a 30-pound bicycle, utilizing a space maybe 2 feet wide by 4 feet long, contributes any sizeable wear to roads compared to a 4000-pound, 16’ long by 6’ wide car is ludicrous.

Amount of space required to transport 60 people by bus, by bike and by car. “The image succinctly illustrates the greater space efficiency of bus and bicycle travel,” spokesperson for the Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF), Mr Stephen Hodge said. “In the space it takes to accommodate 60 cars, cities can accommodate around sixteen buses or more than 600 bikes. Image source

Amount of space required to transport 60 people by bus, by bike and by car. “The image succinctly illustrates the greater space efficiency of bus and bicycle travel,” spokesperson for the Cycling Promotion Fund (CPF), Mr Stephen Hodge said. “In the space it takes to accommodate 60 cars, cities can accommodate around sixteen buses or more than 600 bikes. Image source


Orcutt isn’t alone in proposing bicycle taxes. Special fees have been proposed in adjacent Oregon (and I thought the Pacific Northwest was the bastion of treehuggers!), are in place in Hawaii, and sales taxes are actually being levied in Colorado Springs. I’ve written about perverse subsidies (here and here); these are perverse taxes in that they discourage an activity that is beneficial to society.

Let’s enumerate some of those beneficial aspects of cycling.

  1. Cycling is virtually emissions free. I say virtually because the human pedal power comes from calories which, of course, come from food. But the incrementally larger amount of food needed to generate that human power is negligible, especially when compared to the power required for other means of transportation.
  2. As mentioned above, cycling requires far less infrastructure and space than most other types of mobility. This also means that…
  3. Cycling reduces traffic congestion and saves time for all, including drivers. This is true even after accounting for traffic lanes removed for bike lanes.
  4. Bicycles have a weight-to-person ratio of around 1:5 as opposed to cars, which are something like 22:1 (if there are no passengers). Even with four passengers, the ratio is still around 6:1. That’s a lot more material and resources consumed per person. (Before you write in, yes, I know that doesn’t account for miles travelled.)
  5. Cycling also has public health benefits. Driving, as a sedentary “activity,” can’t make that claim. In an age of obesity and lethargy, we all benefit from the reduced health costs.

So we have a many-times win if we are looking at the supposed tradeoff between cycling and driving. How about the interests of businesses?  Here in NYC and, I’m guessing, elsewhere, proposals for bike lanes that reduce the number of parking spaces or make curbside access more difficult inevitably elicit objections from storeowners who fear that customers will choose other stores where they can get from their cars to the store more readily. The fallacy in their thinking is that, in urban shopping districts, most customers are local and are therefore on either foot or bicycle. So a bike lane serves to entice more customers, not fewer. This has been documented:

….businesses on Eighth and Ninth Avenues in New York saw a 50 percent increase in sales receipts after protected bike lanes were installed on the corridor. On San Francisco’s Valencia Street, two-thirds of the merchants said bike lanes had been good for business….[and there’s] a Memphis neighborhood where people, without authorization, spent $500 on paint and made their own bike lanes. Six months later, commercial rents on the strip had doubled, and all the storefronts – half of which had been vacant – were full.

That initial concerned reaction from storeowners is understandable in the context of our car-centric culture. And like the common but incorrect assumption that adding lanes to highways reduces congestion, it intuitively makes sense. You know all that advice about intuition and trusting your gut? It’s not always right. Data tend to be more conclusive.

Are there losers when space or funding is taken from cars for bicycles? Certainly. But all pointers seem to indicate that there are far more winners, including among drivers and storeowners. Since I started here with a quote from Star Trek, it seems fitting (if geeky) to conclude with one, this time from Mr. Spock:  “logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The few here are a smaller subset of the small number who drive in cities, a fraction relative to the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists and the good of the public in general.

The basis of EcoOptimism is the win-win symbiotic ecological and economic solution. Environmental initiatives, when implemented well, result in more jobs, a stronger economy, a healthier population and, for our added convenience, a world we can still live in.


The opposite of multi-tasking?

A Wrongest Product Award nominee

We’re all in favor of multifunction products, as in having one product that can do many things, thus saving material as well as, perhaps, precious space in micro apartments. Think of a day-bed or a camera-smartphone. But this thing, a “Breakfast Sandwich Maker” by Hamilton Beach, strikes us as almost the opposite: many products – albeit stacked – to do one just thing. And probably not well.breakfastsandwichmaker

My favorite reader comment:

Another $30 countertop appliance that I will inevitably purchase, use 5 times and leave it in a state of utter neglect in the bowels of my cabinets, and bitch about how it does nothing but collect dust and take up space for a minimum of two years. At that point it may be brought out to the back, shot, and buried.

Found on (which looks to be an appropriately named treasure trove for Worst Product Award nominations!) via Gizmodo

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at)

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Word

Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester.

There, the word is now meaningless. There’s a linguistic term for this effect: semantic satiation. Supposedly it’s only temporary, so we may in time retrieve the proper use of the word. Good thing, too, because its current usage both is incorrect and has overtaken its use as an important environmental concept.

First, the incorrect part. The word sequester has several related meanings: to  set apart, as in sequester a jury; to legally seize, as in hold until a law or court order is complied with;  to place in custody. Note that, in all those cases, the sequestration is temporary (as, oddly enough, is semantic satiation). That would mean that the items sequestered from the federal budget are to be returned when (if?) the government gets its act together enough to, er, govern.

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

But I’m not concerned with that misappropriation (pun intended) of the word. My objection has to do with its prior usage in the context of the environment and climate change. The word is used there to refer to sequestering carbon, as in temporarily removing it from the atmosphere.  It’s the reason tree planting is often an integral part of fighting climate change; trees draw carbon (in the form of CO2) from the atmosphere and convert it to oxygen while retaining the carbon in the tree’s cells. So we refer to plants in general and trees especially as carbon sequesterers. The fewer forests we have, the less CO2 is absorbed. And burning trees or forests re-releases the carbon back into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels are also carbon sequesterers since they are composed of the remains of ancient animals and plants (which are, of course, carbon based). Burn that fuel, and all the carbon that’s been stored there for millennia goes into the atmosphere.

The other great natural carbon sequesterers (or “carbon dumps”) are the oceans. They currently absorb a huge percentage of both natural and anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and they can continue to absorb more. And there are proposals to increase, via geoengineering, the amount of carbon stored in the oceans. Problem is: the oceans’ chemistry changes as more carbon is absorbed, and mucking with ecosystems that are so fundamental to the planet’s workings carries the potential of unforeseeable risks.

There are other methods of carbon sequestration, often referred to these days as carbon capture and storage or CSS. Storing it underground, perhaps in large natural geological caverns (or ones left over after drilling operations), is one such suggestion. But this brings us back to my initial problem with the current use of the word sequester: that a sequester is temporary. At best, carbon sequestration merely defers the problem to later generations, assuming the oceans can handle it or our underground storage systems don’t leak. At worst, it deceives us into thinking we can continue emitting carbon as we currently do (or emit increasing amounts).

Were the budget sequester actually a sequester, it too would just be kicking the bucket down the road in that the funds would be restored at some (presumably near) future point. I’ll leave it Washington pundits to discuss whether that would be better or worse than the sequester we’ve got. But in its environmental usage, carbon sequestration, except perhaps in the case of reforestation, is not a solution. It’s only a temporary mitigation. And that’s if it works according to plan.

Sometimes the succinct version says it best…

EcoOptimism doesn’t have to be predicated on being anti-corporation — after all, there are some good eggs out there, just as there are more than a few positive aspects to a market economy — but it’s hard to get around the problems resulting from the current “reign of the corporation.”

Dave Johnson at the Campaign for America’s Future has saved me from penning (and you from reading) a much longer and less succinct post:

Our Current Economic Mess, Explained With Headlines

He writes: “I was doing research, gathering headlines for a post. But the headlines told a story of their own. So here they are:”


November 2010, Corporate Profits Hit New Record, U.S. Workers Still Struggling


January 2011, Profits Are Booming. Why Aren’t Jobs?

May 2011, Corporate Profits At All-Time High As Recovery Stumbles

June 2011, Since 2009, 88 Percent Of Income Growth Went To Corporate Profits, Just One Percent Went To Wages

July 2011, Corporate profits’ share of pie most in 60 years

July 2011, A Boom in Corporate Profits, a Bust in Jobs, Wages

August 2011, Companies near record profits amid high unemployment

October 2011, While Corporate Profits Are At 60-Year High, Main Street Businesses Continue To Struggle

November 2011, GDP revised downward; corporate profits up


February 2012, Corporate Margins And Profits Are Increasing, But Workers’ Wages Aren’t

May 2012, Corporate Profits Return To Prerecession Levels, But Job Growth And Investment Remain Weak

June 2012, Corporate Profits Just Hit An All-Time High, Wages Just Hit An All-Time Low

July 2012, The Economy Stinks, but at Least Corporate Profits Are at 60-Year Highs!

December 2012, Corporate profits hit all-time high as wages drop to record low


Today, March 4, 2013, Corporate Profits Have Risen Almost 20 Times Faster Than Workers’ Incomes Since 2008