Tag Archives: externalities

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism Post, Part 2

Beyond the Ban:
Plastics Alternatives and Mitigation

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.

In just the short span since our recent post on the scourge of plastics, there have been more announcements of new or proposed bans on plastic straws and other types of plastics. (This week, Starbucks announced it will stop using plastic straws.) Rather than keep enumerating these individually, I’ve created a page, “Keeping Tabs on Plastics Bans,” with a list organized by type of entity – country, locality, company –  and type of plastics – bags, straws, packaging, microbeads. The list provides an easily graspable view of the extent of the movement, and will be updated as additional bans are set.


As promised in that previous post, we’re going to focus here a bit on some alternative proposals and materials. Dealing with plastics – as with most environmental issues – can be broken down into two approaches: what to do once the problem is happening versus how to prevent the problem in the first place. These are commonly referred to respectively as adaptation versus mitigation. Years ago, I also heard this described as “front of tailpipe” and “back of tailpipe,” the metaphor being pollution from cars, which can be dealt with either by filtering it in the exhaust pipe (that would be the “end of tailpipe”) by, for example, a catalytic converter, or by modifying the engine so that the pollution is prevented or at least diminished before it occurs. As you can imagine, heading off the problem is preferable to fixing it afterward.

In the case of plastics, we have a combination of damage already done along with a continuing stream of new plastics adding to the damage. Where plastic refuse has accumulated, such as in ocean gyres, the only remedy is to somehow, laboriously, retrieve it. Another adaptive after-the-fact approach is recycling. That at least keeps it out of the waste stream. (In theory, anyway. Less than 10% of plastic in the US is actually recycled. And, as others have noted, recycling shifts the responsibility – environmental and economic – from the actual producers of the plastic onto us, the consumers)

Image: Ocean Cleanup Project via EcoWatch

EcoOptimism’s take: Whether this type of ocean plastic reclamation would actually have a significant impact, given the scale of the problem and size of the oceans, is a topic of debate. But in any case, upstream prevention would be a much better solution, at least in terms of addressing a continuing problem.

The better solution would have been to not produce the plastic in the first place. We’re well beyond that option, obviously. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to avoid further exacerbating the problem through mitigation, meaning let’s not make more plastic if we can avoid it.

Plastic is so ubiquitous at this point that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. But there are indeed alternatives, both mitigative and adaptative.

Some of those solutions exist right in front of us, or at least in other places we can adapt from. A well-known one in some environmental circles is the Indian tiffin box. The tiffin involves a system in which lunches for workers and school children are packed at home in the morning and then distributed through a remarkable system by dabbawalas. The relevant idea here is that the home prepared meals arrive in tiffin boxes made of stacked metal dishes rather than disposable take out containers and, after the meal, are picked up and returned to each family’s kitchen for reuse.

Two dabbawalas in Mumbai delivering meals packed in tiffin carriers. Image credit: Wikipedia

This system has found a modern interpretation in Brussels where the city has introduced the Tiffin Project. People sign up for the project, purchase tiffin containers and bring them when they purchase take out foods. They even get a 5% discount on their orders.

From Treehugger
April 13, 2018

“Brussels has an ingenious solution to wasteful takeout containers”

EcoOptimism’s take: as optimistic as we like to be, it’s hard to imagine such a system succeeding here. As the Treehugger post notes, the system works best with small, local restaurants and “helps people discover new places to eat.” Takeout food in much of this country tends to come from large chains with familiar menus.

Tiffin boxes, if not the delivery system, have found their way west. You can even buy them on Amazon and elsewhere, with a Western interpretation:

A better-known example of a plastic substitute is, of course, the reusable cloth bag. They’ve become so ubiquitous that you’ll find them for sale (branded, of course) in all kinds of stores – not just the eco-oriented ones like Whole Foods, but conventional stores, too. And they’re an almost inevitable part of events. We have a (reusable) bag full of reusable bags that we’ve accumulated from fundraisers, trade shows and promotions. Too many, in fact.

Image credit: David Bergman

But there are times when a cloth bag just won’t cut it. For those, there are forms of plastic that are not made from oil and that can decompose after use.

The first plastics invented were made from plants. (The word cellophane refers to the fact that it was made of cellulose: plant fiber.) A famous photo shows Henry Ford swinging an axe against the bioplastic trunk of a Model T to show the material’s strength. (The axe was actually covered with fabric but made for an impressive display nonetheless.) As the story goes, he wanted to make his cars with bioplastic, but the steel industry had other ideas about that.

Image from HemmingsDaily

Bioplastics are getting renewed interest for applications such as plastic utensils made from potato starch. The main caveats here are how well they decompose or recycle and that the plant starches not be taken from foods. The solution to the latter is to use crop byproducts such as wheat chaff as opposed to the grain.

Image credit: www.ecoproducts.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In addition to the points above, bioplastics, for now, are not quite as versatile as synthetic plastics, but applications are broadening and have wide potential. 

But there’s now a renewed interest in bioplastics. A case in point:

From Engadget:
March 2, 2018

“Lego will soon make bricks out of sugarcane bioplastics”

EcoOptimism’s take: While it’s exciting to think that all those future Lego creations might not end up buried forever in landfills, this announcement is a bit misleading because, for now, it’s only Lego’s landscape elements, comprising about 1% – 2% of their production, not the iconic bricks.

But it’s not likely that all synthetic plastics can be substituted with bioplastics. And that leads us to a back-of-tailpipe types of mitigation. Among them are technologies that break down plastics.

From The Guardian:
April 16, 2018

“Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles”

Credit: Still image from video in The Guardian

From Grist:
March 2, 2018

“Mealworms munch on Styrofoam without dying, shock scientists”

Image credit: Geek.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In our Parsons School of Design Sustainable Systems course, we have the students try this out. Though they tend to be grossed out by the mealworms (see photo above!), they get to see that it actually works.

Still, these last two are after-the-fact approaches and, not to belabor the point, we’d be much better off not incurring the problem of more plastics on the first place.

Take My Computer. Please. (The Case Against Ownership)

I was looking at a photo of an old telephone the other day – one from before cellphones and even before cordless phones. It was a classic Henry Dreyfuss table top phone from the days when Ma Bell – the original AT&T – was the only game in town and, for that matter, the only game in the entire country. The phone model choices back then were only slightly better than Henry Ford’s policy of allowing customers to “have a car painted any color so long as it’s black.” Slightly better because you could, in fact, get this phone in an assortment of colors and in three styles. (Remember the “Princess Phone?”)

Henry Dreyfuss designed telephone, Model 500, 1953. source: Cooper Hewitt https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/11/07/model-500-telephone-henry-dreyfuss/

But that’s not my point.

Back then you didn’t buy a phone. When you got a phone number and account for your home, it came with a phone, or maybe a few. They were sturdy things, well-made and designed. They almost never broke and, when they did, all you needed to do was tell the phone company and they would come over and either repair or replace it. At no charge, if I recall correctly.

Our kitchen table phone once stopped working. The repair guy came out to the house, pulled the top off and water came pouring out. One of my little sisters, you see, had decided it was dirty and needed cleaning – by pouring water over it.

That memory may have become slightly embellished over time, but the point is that the telephone guy replaced it. No questions asked. Imagine Apple or Samsung doing that. He just unplugged it. (Actually, I don’t think they were attached by plugs back then. The wires were screwed into the wall jack.) And then just attached a new phone. More likely it was one that had been repaired, but just looked new. It didn’t matter; it worked.

Here’s the real point. Could this old-fashioned system make more sense than ownership? There’s a good case for this from both the consumer and manufacturer points of view, and environmentally as well.

I don’t really want a computer. I want what a computer can do. I don’t really want to own and be responsible for the maintenance of a washer and dryer. I want clean and dry clothes. (Yeah, I know I should use a clothesline instead of a dryer, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.)

I don’t even want a car. I want mobility. And ideally I want to be able to get around with different types of cars for different tasks. Some days a bigger car to carry a lot of stuff and maybe some friends, but on other days it’s just me going a short distance.

I realize my needs are undoubtedly different from someone not living in a city. But as a city dweller, I was overjoyed when Zipcar came to town and I could get rid of the clunker city car I kept for occasional errands and excursions, and whose insurance and maintenance were ridiculously expensive for the little bit of driving I did each month.

This is all part of the “sharing economy.” An old example of this might be a laundromat. A newer example is Zipcar. Newer still is the concept of “tool libraries.” A few years ago, a study found that a cordless drill purchased by a consumer had an average usage time of under 10 minutes. Typically, someone went to a hardware store to buy one, maybe to hang some shelves, and then the drill spent the rest of its life in a closet. Hardly a good use of either money or materials. An answer to this gross inefficiency is being able to go to a tool library and check out a drill (or a circular saw or a tall ladder) for a few days.

Berkeley Tool Lending Library. source: Berkeley Public Library https://www.berkeleypubliclibrary.org/locations/tool-lending-library

You might complain that it’s inconvenient to have to go that library for a ladder. But it’s also inconvenient to go to Lowes or online to Amazon, select which one you want, spend a hunk of money and then store it as dead weight for most of the rest of the time.

On an entirely different level, this is beginning to happen on a commercial scale. There’s even precedent. Back when copiers were big, expensive and prone to breaking down, offices usually didn’t buy them. They rented or leased them from Xerox or a competitor, who frequently charged them by the copy. Maintaining it was Xerox’s problem, not the office’s. (Which was a good thing because they broke down a lot.)

Philips Lighting recently signed with Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to provide “lighting as a service” rather than the more typical method of selling light fixtures and bulbs. For the airport, this means that not only do they not have worry about maintenance, they also will always have state-of-the-art lighting. What’s more they won’t have to worry about how to dispose of it later on.

Therein lies one of the not-so-obvious environmental benefits. Because Philips retains ownership of the lighting, when it comes time to replace it for remodeling or demolition, they will have to deal with its end of life. That means they will need to design that in – how the lighting can be dismantled for least cost recycling or reuse. Previously, when they sold the lighting, they didn’t have to be concerned with the end-of-life. It was someone else’s problem.

Imagine now that this was true for all your electronics – that Dell or Apple or Samsung had to take it back when you were done, and then had to deal with disposal. Suddenly, they’d be concerned with how to design so that products could be easily taken apart. And, by the way, that would also pave the way for easier repairs, which the company would be interested in since repairs and maintenance would be their responsibility.

But how does such a company make money in this arrangement? Yes, they lose the sale, but they gain a stream of income as their customers effectively rent instead of buying. And that stream of income is steadier, more predictable, less susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy.

True to the ideals of EcoOptimism, it’s a win-win-win deal.

Here are some things I’d rather not own, but still want to use:
Anything else that quickly becomes outdated technology
Anything that requires a lot maintenance.
Home Appliances
Formal Attire (I’m lucky to have a hand-me-down tux, but if I didn’t…)

Spied at Parsons School of Design:

Flyer at Parsons School of Design. photo: David Bergman

Surprise: Environmentalism Actually Boosts the Economy

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

One of the premises of EcoOptimism is that environmental actions and solutions complement the economy. Too often, the assumption – particularly within the business world and among conservatives – is that the opposite is true. They believe, sometimes fervently, that environmental rules and regulation are a drag on the economy, causing job losses and working against the interests of capitalism and growth.

But by almost all capitalist measures, environmentalism has proved to be an aid to the economy. I was struck by this with an assortment of posts all in one day. The first was a report stating the U.S. solar industry now employs close to 174,000 jobs and grew at a rate of 28% in the past year, nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy. Few sectors, including oil, can make a claim like that. In fact, 1.3% of the jobs created in the past year were in solar industries.

Source: SustainableBusiness.com. Their caption reads: “This year, the solar industry expects to add 35,000 jobs, bringing the total to 210,060, a 20.9% increase.”

Source: SustainableBusiness.com. Their caption reads: “This year, the solar industry expects to add 35,000 jobs, bringing the total to 210,060, a 20.9% increase.”

A related post compared this to the number of jobs created in fossil fuel industries last year. The oil and gas industry, including pipeline construction, added just 19,000 jobs, compared to solar’s 31,000. And according to the US Energy Information Administration, coal mining jobs fell by 11.3% in 2012, a year in which solar jobs grew by 13%.

Bear in mind that this is looking at only solar jobs and related growth, not the entire arena of renewables. Wind is another area of rapid growth compared to the rest of the economy. A new report from the advocacy group Oceana found that “offshore wind [in the Atlantic] would produce twice the number of jobs and twice the amount of energy as offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean.” As would be expected, pro-oil advocacy groups, who are promoting drilling for gas and oil off the East Coast, claim that that would create thousands of jobs and generate millions of dollars in revenue for states. Oceana says, though, those numbers are inflated because they are based on drilling in sites that are not economically viable. (Especially as the price of oil falls as it has in recent weeks.)

offshore wind stats

Furthermore, according to Oceana, drilling could put other jobs and industries, including fishing and tourism, at risk. This could have a much great economic impact: a potential loss of 1.4 million jobs and over $95 billion in gross domestic product. Wind, on the other hand, poses little risk. (Bird kills, while a concern, are smaller offshore and, in any case, are far lower than the aviary impact of air pollution and global climate disruption.)

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

All this makes renewable energy, to put it in Republican terms, a “job creator.” If only the Republican Party weren’t beholden to fossil fuel interests, perhaps they would see that and would see that this is, in EcoOptimism terms, a win-win solution.

Peak Oil is Irrelevant

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Peak oil has been predicted since the 1950s to occur by various near-future dates, originally as early as 1965. The prediction that US oil production would peak in the 1970s was, in fact, accurate, but new discoveries – including North American sources involving fracking and tar sands – keep pushing the timeline outward. Some say we will always find new oil sources, though economic theory states they will also get inexorably more expensive.

Recent discussions have revived the peak oil debate. A Business Insider article last spring claimed “it is probably safe to say we have slayed “peak oil” once and for all, thanks to the combination new shale oil and gas production techniques and declining fuel use.” It was counterpointed here. But I basically don’t care.

All the talk of peak oil, that we are running out of fossil fuels and therefore need alternatives — or that we’re not and therefore there’s nothing to worry about — is a distraction. In fact, it’s worse than a distraction; it’s misleading because it makes people think that the goal is to find more oil. And that then gives people the impression that since we, in fact, do have existing and yet-to-be-found sources, we don’t have any energy problems. That’s a dangerous path.

The problem is not a lack of carbon-based fuels. The problem is that, if we use those fuels, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere far off the critical balance needed to maintain the climate. In other words, those sources – coal, oil, gas – must be left in the ground. Burning them is nothing less than suicide.

The only reason we should really care about peak oil is that it means oil will be getting increasingly expensive and, as that happens, renewable sources will become more competitive. (And that’s before factoring in technical and manufacturing advances for renewables. And certainly before factoring in the unaccounted for “external” costs of non-renewables. When you do that, renewables simply become an even more overwhelmingly obvious choice.)

In many of my environmental classes, I start with a slide that shouts “It’s not just about climate change.” And it isn’t: we have a litany of other serious environmental concerns that shouldn’t – can’t – be neglected as we address human-caused climate disruption. But in the case of carbon-based fossil fuels, it really is all about climate change. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not is irrelevant. Whether we have oil spills or polluted water from fracking is almost irrelevant, too.  (With emphasis on the word “almost.”) The carbon within fossil fuels must be left sequestered in the ground.

That leads to one more point. Those untapped fuels are sometimes referred to as “stranded assets.” Those poor assets, left stranded. (Or perhaps more to the point, those poor, poor owners of those assets.) We should really think of them, though, not as stranded assets, but as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

So we want to strand those WMDs, err, assets. It’s an EcoOptimistic solution in that it addresses both ecological and economic issues and puts us on a path to improving our lives as well. The oil industry may not see it that way, but their definitions of economics and human wellbeing are, to put it mildly, different from yours (I suspect) and mine.

A Grammar Mnemonic to Save the World

You’ve all heard it – at least I hope you have – starting, probably, sometime in grade school: “i before e except after c.”  (Are you listening, all you caffeinated Keiths and Sheilas? And I suppose it’s a bit too late for Einstein.) Taking some editorial license, I’d like to propose a modification for the purposes of environmentalism and economics: “i before e especially after c.”

I’m not referring to the letters i, e and c here, but rather to some words beginning with those letters. The “i” is for internalize; the “e” is for externalize; and the “c?” Well, that’s for carbon. So what I’m saying here in a more or less catchy albeit derivative way is we should internalize costs, in particular, environmental costs, rather than externalizing them as we currently do in most cases. And that this is especially important when the costs involve carbon.


© David Bergman

Let me back up a moment for those who have not had the misfortune of either an economics background or regular encounters with the word “externalize.” (If you haven’t, you may need to internalize that word so that you can toss it around in, say, dinner conversations with your climate change denying relatives.) An externality, as used in the dismal science, is often defined as “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” It amounts to a rebuttal of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” because an externality is, in effect, a free lunch for the party causing the cost.

Externalities are, arguably, the primary reason our capitalist system screws the environment (and us along with it). From a business’s point of view, why care about costs that you don’t have to pay for? The obvious response is to make the person or company causing the environmental costs pay for them. In the case of climate disruption and carbon emissions, the method is some form of carbon pricing, preferably a cap and dividend system like that promoted by eco-stalwarts Bill McKibben and James Hansen, and first introduced as legislation in 2009. A carbon fee would be a more direct route, but cap and dividend would offset the increased price of carbon-emitting forms of energy. In theory, that should have been more acceptable – if not actually desirable – but our head-in-the-sand, hands-in-the-money legislators thought otherwise.

The i-before-e rule can be applied to many industries. It’s most often talked about in terms of power plants. But here’s another example to ponder: if airlines or aircraft manufacturers had to pay a fee for the carbon emissions of their planes, that would have at least two effects. It would increase the costs of air travel so passengers would make more accurate decisions about when and where to fly (and could choose to use their carbon dividends to pay the higher but environmentally correct costs). Perhaps more significantly, it would shift the responsibility and the incentive to develop less polluting planes and engines to the industry. The same would hold true for manufacturers of products ranging from cars to cable boxes. (I hate that the cable boxes we’re forced to accept from the cable TV monopolies are huge suckers of vampire energy. I recently asked Time Warner if they had Energy Star-rated boxes – which do exist – and got an apathetic “nah” for a reply.)

The original “i before e except after c” is usually followed by the disclaimer “or when sounded as ‘a’ as in neighbor and weigh.” Aside from the fact that there’s a, um, surfeit (that seemed to be the appropriate word to use here) of exceptions, it’s a somewhat unfortunate addition when added to our version since we’re referring to weighing the cost of carbon in order to promote better communities among neighbors. Okay, so that last part’s a bit of a stretch. But I don’t think it means I have to forfeit the idea, unless you’re going to get feisty on me. The fact that the English language is a mess, breaking rules left and right and undoubtedly causing externalities of its own, shouldn’t keep us from adopting this eco-mnemonic.

It’s Not the Economy vs the Environment

What to make of the mixed message in Sunday’s New York Times op-ed by David Leonhardt? Dispelling the prevalent and stubborn myth that environmental measures are a drag on economic recovery is critical to efforts to gain public and political support. Leonhardt attempts to help, but misses some of the most important points.

In a piece with the overused title “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (and, speaking of mixed messages,  the opposing title, “It’s Easy Being Green,” is just as cliché), Leonhardt at first downplays the promise and economic viability of a national policy to address climate change. “The alternative-energy sector may ultimately employ millions of people. But raising the cost of the energy that households and businesses use every day — a necessary effect of helping the climate — is not exactly a recipe for an economic boom.” With that, he seems to validate the environment versus economy faceoff.

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

He then tempers that a bit when he writes “Alternative energy may not be a solution to our economic problems. But neither is it guaranteed to make those problems much worse, despite the continuing claims of opponents.” Faint praise, but at least it’s not condemnation.

And he starts to get it right with “The stronger argument for a major government response to climate change is the more obvious argument: climate change.” Problem is: climate change, in and of itself, has not proved to be a strong enough argument, at least not in our current head-in-the-sands, corporate-driven political arena. It’s clear that in a head to head battle, even with a public relations boost from Sandy and Nemo and the like, the environment still loses out to the economy. So it doesn’t help when Leonhardt continues:

In some cases, [government environmental programs] may even save taxpayers money over the long run. In most cases, however, they probably will not. Government agencies, like households and businesses, use dirty energy today because it is cheaper. And while it’s true that new clean-energy companies may help the economy by earning profits and employing workers, the same is true of coal and oil companies.

Leonhardt misses the boat in exactly the same way, as I pointed out last week, the pro-nuclear power advocates do – seeing only parts of pictures rather than wholes. When he says dirty energy is cheaper, he is looking only at a partial set of costs, ignoring major “external costs” like public health, resource depletion and national security. The savings he refers to are merely the direct ones like reduced energy bills and (inconclusively, in his mind) new jobs. Those are well and fine, but it’s incomplete accounting.

This is the same reason elected officials from coal mining states think they’re doing the right thing in opposing environmental regulations on coal; the loss of coal industry jobs, according to this type of partial accounting, will hurt their constituents. But when true costs such as the health costs for miners and those living nearby and the costs of polluted waters and ravaged land are taken into account, that calculation is turned on its head. (Help me out here – I read a post just last week which cited numbers for exactly this example, but I can’t find it now. Send me the link if you have it.)

The costs of coal mining are far more than just CO2 emissions. Image source

The costs of coal mining are far more than just CO2 emissions. Image source

The same point can be made with mass transit. The benefits are not only in the reduced fuel consumption and air pollution that people tend to focus on, but also in time saved due to less congestion and even improved well-being arising from commuting less stressfully as a passenger rather than a frustrated driver. Not to mention the fact that you can safely text your heart away. (See “Public Transportation Saved 865 Million Hours Of Delay On US Roads In 2011.”)

At the very bottom of his column, Leonhardt almost gets it. “In the end, the strongest economic argument for an aggressive response to climate change is not the much trumpeted windfall of green jobs. It’s the fact that the economy won’t function very well in a world full of droughts, hurricanes and heat waves.” Ahah, now we’re talking about the larger picture, or at least some of it. But it’s so far down at the end that it’s all but a footnote, and an incomplete one at that.

Yes, in that battle for public support, if it’s the environment versus the economy – especially in a troubled economic time like this – the environment’s gonna lose.  But that’s an entirely wrong scenario, one created by the limited vision of conventional political-economic thinking (and avidly supported by corporate self-interests). I’ve noted this in earlier posts as, of course, others have as well. In a blog post wonderfully titled “It’s not the economy, it’s the stupid paradigm,” Paula Williams writes “the economy and the environment are not separate (contrary to the claims of many economists).”

Public support for environmentalism has been waning since the start of the Great Recession, and not just in the US, as Greenbiz.com notes.

Across eighteen countries, public concern about all six issues – water pollution, fresh water shortages, natural resource depletion, air pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss – is way down from its peak in 2009, with double-digit falls in the proportion of the public considering them “very serious.”

[O]ur figures suggest people are starting to tune…out [messages of doom and gloom]. Ultimately, the challenge for the environmental movement is to articulate an alternative to our current economic model that empowers people rather than constrains them, and that is politically achievable in difficult times.

The alternative economic model is the understanding that our environmental solutions are our economic solutions. That, along with the observation that those combined solutions – contrary once again to the claims of many economists and others — will also improve the quality of our lives, is the foundation of EcoOptimism.


News we like

Focusing on the optimism aspect of our blog here, my usual late night tour of the interwebs caught a slew of headlines that left me in a better mood than I started – indications that the business as usual status quo is being questioned, sometimes in high places, and principles of EcoOptimism are getting more attention. Here, for your end of the week boost, are a few of them.

From The Economist, a realization that growth unfettered is not necessarily good:

“A new form of radical centrist politics is needed to tackle inequality without hurting economic growth”

Some quotes (taken out of order):

In America the share of national income going to the top 0.01% (some 16,000 families) has risen from just over 1% in 1980 to almost 5% now—an even bigger slice than the top 0.01% got in the Gilded Age.

[I]nequality has reached a stage where it can be inefficient and bad for growth.               

Even the sort of inequality produced by meritocracy can hurt growth. If income gaps get wide enough, they can lead to less equality of opportunity, especially in education.

Here’s the positive take-away:

The priority should be a Rooseveltian attack on monopolies and vested interests, be they state-owned enterprises in China or big banks on Wall Street.


From Grist.com:

“The greener the industry, the higher the job-growth rate”








According to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute, “Industries that support a higher number of “green” workers who are making goods and services more environmentally friendly have experienced a higher rate of growth over the last decade than industries with fewer green jobs.”

The 2010 result: “3.1 million green jobs nationwide in renewable energy, water management, recycling, and various positions that help improve the efficiency and environmental footprint of a company or institution.”

From Greenbiz.com:

“Natural capital accounting gets a push at Global Green Growth Forum”

image source: ForumForTheFuture.org









One of the positive outcomes achieved on the sidelines of the Rio+20 conference, as highlighted by Jo Mackness at GreenBiz on June 26, was progress made on natural capital accounting. Fifty-seven countries and 86 companies, for instance, signed a World Bank-organized communiqué committing signatories to account for the value of clean air, clean water and forests in their decision-making.


From ThinkProgress.org:

“Federal Reserve Official Calls For Placing Limits On The Size Of Big Banks” 

image source: Huffington Post










[Federal Reserve Board Governor Daniel ]Tarullo said that, in order to keep big banks from growing so large that they threaten the entire financial system, they should be limited in size to a certain percentage of the overall economy.

“[T]he Fed should block any merger or acquisition this group of big banks attempts to make,” which it is allowed to do under Dodd-Frank.


The string of positivism actually began a bit earlier in the week with a post from The Atlantic’s new site Quartz:

“Does Ben Bernanke want to replace GDP with a happiness index?”

image source: Redefining Progress








In a prerecorded talk for a conference this past summer, Bernanke said, ”…we should seek better and more-direct measurements of economic well-being, the ultimate objective of our policy decisions.”

Rather, Bernanke suggests that survey measures of happiness and life satisfaction should take their place alongside GDP as measures of how a nation is doing. In doing so, he joined current British Prime Minister David Cameron, who said ”it’s time we focused not just on GDP but on GWB—general wellbeing” and former French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he would ”fight to make all international organisations change their statistical systems by following the recommendations” of the Stiglitz report. He refers to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s committee’s work proclaiming “the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being.  The emphasis is in the original.

It’s good to end the week on an up note. Would be great if I could make a habit of this….

Planets Are People, My Friends

Let’s try this out and see where it takes us. In the blogworld a few days ago, I came across a post about a river in New Zealand being given official legal personhood. Elsewhere in the world, animals and nature are being awarded human-like rights. And just last week, a group of prominent scientists including Stephen Hawking declared that there is no unique difference between humans and other animals.

Call that point #1. Point 2: In the US, as we all know, corporations are people. (Some would say corporations are animals, so I guess that makes sense, though a few would say that’s an insult to animals.)

All this makes it but a minor leap to conclude that, if animals, rivers, forests and corporations have legal rights, why not the planet? You know, Gaia, Mother Earth and all that. This, of course, could profoundly change how we see ourselves — legally and morally — in relation to the other occupants, both living and inert, of this planet.

But I’ve got another reason for contemplating this vast, to put it mildly, extension of the definition of personhood. I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about the fundamental economics explanation for pollution: externalities. A decent definition of an externality is “an effect of a purchase or use decision by one set of parties on others who did not have a choice and whose interests were not taken into account.” A classic example would be the evil factory dumping its effluent into a river.  The cost of that pollution is borne by the people and governments downstream. Similarly, when a fossil fuel burning power plant dumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, its owners don’t pay for the resulting climate disruption. Want a more tangible example? Look at the towns whose water sources are being polluted by nearby fracking.

But what if nature – the planet – had rights and, furthermore, had standing in court? What if nature could sue for damages? Would that, in effect, lay the economic and legal groundwork for internalizing those externalities? Among other outcomes, we could have the equivalent of carbon pricing – without involving the government so it wouldn’t be vulnerable to attack as a tax.

We can take this idea – odd as it may sound – further and say that the Earth owns all the natural resources “onboard.” You want some steel? First you have to buy the ore from Earth Inc. (Notice that twist? If the planet becomes a corporation, it has rights through that legal standing as well.) Same for baby seals (unless the seals themselves are granted rights), or for oil or the Amazon rainforest.





Logo by Lori Greenberg/Bergworks

There is at least one major problem, aside that is from figuring out who the signatories on Earth Inc.’s checking account are. Mother Nature would be the biggest monopoly imaginable. OPEC’s oligopoly would seem like an unfettered free market in comparison. And imagine an antitrust suit against the Earth.

Could this be a conservative’s dream? A solution based upon free market principles and an expansion of both individual (if you can get your head around seeing the planet as an individual) rights and property rights.

Yeah, there are a lot of details to be worked out in this hypothetical monetizing of the Earth. Some ethical ones, too. Would it amount to commoditizing nature? That’s bad, right? Right? Is it worse than assigning no value to nature, which is essentially what the market does now?

Corporations, of course, have shareholders. I propose that every person on the planet be granted a share in Earth Inc. (Yes, I know. What about animals and rivers and forests? If they have personhood rights, shouldn’t they have shares in Earth inc. as well? Yes, they should, but the problem is figuring out who represents them, as well as who their signatories are.  I didn’t say this would be simple.)

So if the planet’s resources are polluted or drawn down, compensation is paid to the shareholders. Now that sounds really odd. The effect would be higher prices for many industrial processes and products as those companies had to pay fees to Earth Inc., but those fees would be redistributed back to us, the shareholders. Many things would be more expensive, but we’d get money back in the form of dividends. In theory, we’d be no worse off financially, but we’d be paying the true cost of things and making our consumption choices more accurately.

In a modern context, all of this evolves from philosophies of animal rights. Kant said treating animals well is “good practice” for treating humans well. (Not trying to show off here and I’m certainly no Kant expert. It’s part of the material I cover in one of my Parsons courses.) “We can judge the heart of man by his treatment of animals.” In his world, though, animals were considered non-sentient (which, in case you’ve been mislead by Star Trek episodes, means non-feeling, not non-thinking) and soul-less, barely more than the mechanical vessels described by Descartes.

Just as there are varying beliefs as to what constitutes a soul, there are ethics and religions that believe the Earth has a soul. But that isn’t the issue here, at least as long as we’re defining corporations as people; I don’t think anyone could argue that a corporation has a soul.

Could this possibly work? I’m treading here into the realms of economics, law, ethics, religion and who knows what else. But maybe this type of fundamental re-envisioning is just what we need.

How wise is political wisdom?

In a post a few weeks ago, I discussed why environmentalism is not a topic in the election, and why the public doesn’t seem interested. I wrote: “… the public lack of support is, in part, a Catch-22. Politicians don’t put it on their agendas because they are told people aren’t interested. Then people think it’s not important because no one is talking about it. This is what’s known as a positive feedback loop. Too bad its effect isn’t so positive.” (Is it bad form to be quoting myself already?)

Well, it turns out there is somewhat more positive news out there. A new study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication investigated what the effect would be on a candidacy if the candidate were to come out in support of climate initiatives. Surprisingly, their finding is voters do want to hear views on global warming and that such a stand would benefit candidates more than it would hurt them. Even more surprising, Republican candidates would not lose votes overall. The study found:

  • A majority of all registered voters (55%) say they will consider candidates’ views on global warming when deciding how to vote.
  • Among these climate change issue voters, large majorities believe global warming is happening and support action by the U.S. to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.
  • Independents lean toward “climate action” and look more like Democrats than Republicans on the issue.
  • A pro-climate action position wins votes among Democrats and Independents, and has little negative impact with Republican voters.
  • These patterns are found nationally and among ten swing states.

So, what’s going on? Why the difference between the common political “wisdom” and these findings? “80 percent support action to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs,” the study reports, but that’s different from what we hear elsewhere, and way far different from what that political wisdom believes.







Yes, it’s a cheap shot and I lifted the image from a Tee Shirt site.

The explanation, of course, lies in where the money and influence come from. No new news there. And it still leaves us with the question of how to balance that undue influence. Maybe with better slogans? That might be a start at least.

There’s a lot of other interesting info within that Yale study. One that particularly grabbed me was this chart:









Though the title reads like something only a policy wonk would be interested in, its implications are significant. Among other conclusions, it says that more than half of Republicans (and of course higher percentages of Dems and Independents) believe that oil companies should be responsible for hidden costs. In my post “Where’s the (true cost) in beef?” I discussed “true costs” and externalities, both of which are similar to “hidden costs.”

Why is this significant? The largest component of hidden costs or externalities in the oil industry, even when spills are included, is climate disruption. The largest causal factor there is carbon emissions.  And what’s the simplest way to tie carbon emissions to the hidden costs of climate disruption? Carbon pricing.

According to that chart, somewhere around 60% – 65% of voters support true costing of oil. Stands to reason, then, they should support carbon pricing. Yet mention of any kind of carbon pricing, whether it’s called a carbon tax or cap-and-dividend, falls into the black hole of politics.

It’s a disconnect, obviously. “We like this idea,” polls indicate, but not when you call it something else. Which brings us right back to the issue of communication and EcoOptimism. A lot of people have been concluding lately that rational or scientific explanations and arguments do not work in the public sphere. With that in mind, I’m very curious to read the new book Language Intelligence: Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga.









It’s written not by a semiologist or a political flack, but by the head of ClimateProgress and claims to “reveal the secrets of the world’s greatest and most memorable communicators.” If a climate wonk like Romm can help us find ways to more effectively get “the word” out, then we may have solved a significant part of that disconnect, and be better able to make the case for EcoOptimism.

Where’s the (true cost in) beef?








EcoOptimism states we can simultaneously solve our economic and ecological problems while improving, rather than diminishing, our lives. One of the critical steps in finding the ways to do this is through a concept called true costing. This involves figuring out what all the costs of something are – not just what you pay directly, but also counting what you and everyone else pays indirectly. For instance, the true cost of gasoline is not only the price at the pump, but also the costs of, among other things, related air pollution, climate change and human health.  Last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting debuted a short animated video, “The Price of Gas,” showing just that.

If instead you want to calculate the true cost of driving as opposed to only the fuel, then the categories of costs (called external costs or externalities by economists) would include things like wear and tear on roads (paid in taxes), costs of accidents (paid in health and auto insurance, lost working time, lost life), cost of time spent in traffic jams (lost working and leisure time), cost of land devoted to roads, etc.

Unless those costs are figured in, you can’t make an accurate decision on whether to buy or do something. And free-market capitalism depends on the accuracy of prices and information. Without it, bad decisions are made.

Some true costs are really surprising. Vegetarians and environmentalists have long talked about the ecological impacts of eating meat. Now the Center for Investigative Reporting has posted a video, “The hidden costs of hamburgers,” showing in easily understood terms what those impacts – and their dollar values – are.






Image from “The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers”

A nearly simultaneous story reveals that when the Department of Agriculture rolled out an internal program suggesting that employees participate in “Meatless Mondays” – the idea that, for just one day a week, not eating meat would reduce environment impacts – the cattle industry raised a huge stink (insert your own methane joke here), saying it was “a slap in the face of the people who every day are working to make sure we have food on the table.” Note that the USDA program didn’t even address the benefits to personal health.  To my thinking, the argument against going vegy would be a lot stronger if there wasn’t also that pesky issue of cholesterol and heart disease – and the external costs that tend to accompany illness and death.

The USDA succumbed and withdrew the program. Once again, corporate self-interests prevailed over the public’s interest, over individuals’ health and over common sense. It’s almost enough to make the EcoOptimistic lose our optimism. (Especially when it seems eating certain fried industrial chicken sandwiches can be promoted as a socio-political statement!) But it’s going to take more than that to get us to back off. When enough folks understand the win-win-win aspects of shifts – of little tweaks — like these, common sense and self-interest will prevail.

Is there a design aspect to this? Dunno. Maybe in packaging and educating? As with many EcoOptimism areas, a major component lies in communicating the win-win-win scenario. (BTW, is it time for an abbreviation?  Constantly writing out or reading win-win-win is going to get annoying really fast. Does “triple-win” work? Evoking the triple bottom line makes sense.) How can designers get the word out?  As long as we have externalities (meaning we don’t at least have something resembling carbon pricing), there’ll be a need to make the costs apparent in other ways than the price at the register. The CRI video is one step. Perhaps a new cow parade, this time with messaging? And with a little, um, methane offgassing for added emphasis?

I’m not much of a tofu, let alone tofurkey, fan. But I can certainly go one day a week without meat (that’s easy – in fact, I prefer the idea of Meatless Weekdays), especially when it’s better not only for both me and the environment, but my wallet as well. I got no beef with that.