Tag Archives: win-win-win

How green is my lawn

Or, what exactly is it we’re trying to do?

I recently moved from a semi-tiny apartment to a house (don’t ask). Included in the package is a relatively small lawn. Despite its smallness, it bothers me for at least two reasons. The first is personal; I grew up in a pretty large and definitely suburban house with a typically large lawn. It was before the days of lawn services, so it fell to my teenage self to mow the acre of really hilly and only sometimes green expanse. That, by the way, is one of the (many) reasons I vowed to never become a dweller in the supposedly idyllic ‘burbs.

I know many will disagree with this aversion, but let me have my rant.

My second distaste for lawns came about as I became increasingly (and I hope not obnoxiously) a proselytizing environmentalist.

In my classes, as I describe the goals of sustainability, starting from the 3Rs through the triple bottom line and beyond, I use lawn mowing and lawns as an example. I first show a picture of a lawn mower and ask the class how, if they were tasked with making it greener, they would go about it. I get the obvious answers regarding fuel efficiency and recycled materials.

But then I push them further and, usually with some prodding, get them to think about lawns themselves rather than lawn mowers. I do this by asking them to take a step back and question what it is we’re really trying to do. A pedagogical goal of  mine is getting my students to question assumptions and thereby arrive at more sustainable solutions. So, the answer, in this case, is that we are trying to create landscapes around our buildings. But, I ask them, are lawns the only or best way to go about this?

Because we take lawns for granted, they often seem to be the only approach. That means it takes a conceptual leap to get past traditional lawns.

So the question becomes not how to make a more environmental lawnmower, but how to landscape more environmentally. Lawns are nice for picnics, Frisbees and dogs (or dogs catching Frisbees while devouring our picnics). But that doesn’t justify surrounding our houses or, even more egregiously, suburban office buildings with innumerable acres of non-indigenous (virtually all lawn grasses are not native to North America), unnecessary and – here’s the big point – resource intensive artificial carpets.

This whole topic came to mind the other day when the blog Earther posted “Lawns Are an Ecological Disaster.” The article provided supporting data for what I’d been saying for years:

  • There are 40 million acres of lawn in the US, nearly half the total acreage of our major crops
  • We collectively spend more money on landscaping – primarily on lawns – than on foreign aid (roughly $50 billion dollars)
  • We use 580 million gallons of gas each year for lawn mowers.
  • We apply 67 million pounds of pesticides – many carcinogenic or untested – to lawns each year.
  • 30% – 60% of municipal drinking water is used for lawn watering

Image credit: David Bergman

Nor is this new news. Elizabeth Kolbert, among others, wrote about it in depth in the New Yorker back in 2008.

There are yet more issues with lawns, but, hey, this blog is about EcoOptimism. In the class discussion, we eventually get around to the alternative of indigenous planting, though it usually takes, as mentioned above, some prodding. I show them landscapes of wildflowers, xeriscaping and edible lawns.

An edible lawn. Image credit.

An office surrounded by wildflowers and indigenous grasses. Image credit: David Bergman

I also startle them a bit with images of goats, rather than lawnmowers, keeping grass to acceptable height.

Nature’s lawn mower. Available, of course, from Amazon. Image credit

This alternative to lawns can take some getting used to. When I recently tried to convince some clients to plant wildflowers in their small urban front yard, they said the pictures I showed them looked like weeds in the Southwest. (They also wanted paving instead of a lawn because it was easier to maintain.)

Many of us think of lawns as being part of nature and therefore something desirable. But unlike forests, lawns are carbon positive. (This is an unfortunate term and unintuitively means that something – grass in this case – emits more carbon into the atmosphere than is removed.) They are also “monocultures.” Forests and other ecosystems are diverse, with their many plants and animals creating self-sufficient, resilient regions. Lawns, on the other hand, can’t exist without being created and maintained – at great natural and financial expense – by humans.

Looked at this way, getting rid of lawns is, as we like to point out here, win-win-win: ecologically, economically and, harking back to my childhood lawn mowing nemesis, a time-saver.

 

The Distillery: December 22, 2017

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.


Our end of the year Distillery is newsworthy updates to some recent – and not-so-recent – posts.
And here’s hoping that 2018 will bring us more EcoOptimism. (Because, well, 2017.)

On intergenerational rights (Original Distillery post date: 12/5/17. Original EcoOptimism post date: 4/1/13)
From Grist.org:
December 12, 2017

Trump’s lawyers tried (and probably failed) to throw out the kids’ climate lawsuit


Image source: Our Children’s Trust/Facebook via cbcradio

EcoOptimism’s take: Despite first the Obama administration’s efforts and now Trump’s, this groundbreaking lawsuit continues to move forward.

On a related note, a different approach to environmental rights:
From Thinkprogress.org:
December 22, 2017

The radical movement to make environmental protections a constitutional right

Alleghany National Forest.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Panoramio/Diego González

EcoOptimism’s take: You’d think that the right to a healthy environment for those who are alive NOW, would be a more straightforward concept than the intergenerational version. According to this post, though, it’s currently a constitutional right in only two states, Pennsylvania and Montana. But it’s being used to challenge pro-industry, anti-environment legislation.

On the economic benefits of addressing climate change (Original EcoOptimism post “Surprise: Environmentalism Actually Boosts the Economy,” date: 1/19/2015)
From the Los Angeles Times
December 12, 2017

California’s cap-and-trade climate program could generate more than $8 billion by 2027, report says

Source: Flickr

EcoOptimism’s take: The premise of EcoOptimism is that good environmental policy is good business, or to steal from the famous line about General Motors, “What’s good for the environment is good for the country.”

On the movement by local governments to take the lead in climate action (Original Distillery post date: 11/17/17)
From USA Today
December 5, 2017

Obama praises mayors as ‘new face’ of leadership on climate change in Trump era

From CityLab
December 5, 2017

Lab Report: Obama Calls Cities ‘The New Face of Leadership’ on Climate Change

credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

EcoOptimism’s take: Damn, we miss him

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:
Cellphones
Computers
Anything else that quickly becomes outdated technology
Anything that requires a lot maintenance.
Cars
Home Appliances
Homes
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

The Distillery: September 28, 2017

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 the aftermath of 9/11, at a gathering I attended here in New York City, a participant said she didn’t want to hear about the opportunities in the face of the disaster, that it was emotionally just wrong and, though she didn’t use those words, “too soon.”

Of course, she was right in that moment. But in the longer run, disasters can indeed represent opportunities, especially in avoiding or mitigating future ones. While it may still be considered too early to look at Harvey, Irma and Maria in this regard (as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in dismissing climate change as a factor, has made a point of saying), Japan’s 2011 earthquake and NYC’s Superstorm Sandy are far enough behind us that we can look more objectively. One of the things we can specifically address is making the electrical grid more resilient.

From Yale Environment 360:
September 12, 2017
Rebuilding from 2011 Earthquake, Japanese Towns Choose to Go Off the Grid

The destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Creative Commons via David Suzuki Foundation

EcoOptimism’s take: In the NYC blackout caused by Superstorm Sandy, virtually everything below 34th Street, including our Lower East Side neighborhood, went dark for days. NYU’s campus at Washington Square Park was the exception. A recently installed co-generation plant kicked in, allowing the campus to separate from the ConEd grid so that power there remained on. NYU opened its doors so that not just students, but also the nearby community could at least charge their cellphones…

From The New York Times:
How N.Y.U. Stayed (Partly) Warm and Lighted
November 12, 2012

Source: http://slideplayer.com/slide/9360514/

EcoOptimism’s take: “Microgrids” are becoming a mainstay of resilience, so that when a disaster occurs or something goes wrong in the power grid, that one event doesn’t take down entire regions. Hoboken, NJ is putting this into application…

From CityLab:
To Stormproof Hoboken, a Microgrid
August 24, 2016

Image source: Huffington Post

EcoOptimism’s take: Microgrids, by definition, are subsets within the national or regional grid. They can be defined by an area as small as a few blocks or larger – perhaps a mid-size city like Hoboken.

And they can serve multiple purposes:

From Columbia University’s University’s Earth Institute:
Microgrids: Taking Steps Toward the 21st Century Smart Grid
April 18, 2017

Source: www.microgridinstitute.org

EcoOptimism’s take: Microgrids also enable locally generated power such as solar or wind to better co-exist with the larger grid. In doing this, they not only enhance resilience, but overcome the dubious objection quoted by some that these renewable energy sources endanger the nation’s aging power grid.

Which brings us full circle to the role of renewable energy in resilience…

From Grist.org:
Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.
September 22, 2017

And:
From RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute):
Rebuilding the Caribbean for a Resilient and Renewable Future
September 22, 2017

Image source: RMI.org

EcoOptimism’s take: In the face of disasters, this makes the combination of microgrids and renewable energy one of those win-win-win solutions that EcoOptimism is so fond of.

A Positive – and EcoOptimistic – Outlook

I recently came across this great post citing the reasons 2015 will be the year that changes the socio/economic/political world of energy production and thereby undermines climate denial. The post is by Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption, and presents some convincing evidence that it isn’t the politicians (though he cites the US/China deal) or the public, but the business world that will come around.

There has been a lot of discussion about not just climate denial but science denial. We’ve tried for years, starting perhaps with Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, to convince the public by using science – and sometimes by using fear — that climate change is real. Many people have indeed been convinced, but it’s still less than a majority.

In Gilding’s post, he writes: “…science is now largely irrelevant in this process [of convincing people]. If the scientific evidence was going to shift the system, it would have done so by now….” He continues “What we have to look for instead is evidence of shifts in the human response, not the ecological one.”

The cover of the March 2015 issue of National Geographic

The cover of the March 2015 issue of National Geographic

He goes on to cite six reasons that the human – and especially the business – response is changing. I’ll list them here, but you should go to his post to read the explanations:

  1. The US China Climate deal – how change really occurs
  2. Collapse in oil prices [Which would seem counterintuitive, but many, including Gilding, have argued otherwise.]
  3. Solar price falls set to continue
  4. Market prices reflect economic disruption
  5. The political power of big business starts to shift sides
  6. Physical impacts accelerating and driving economic and security impact

While this list, without his explanations, seems a bit vague and jargon-y, it basically amounts to an EcoOptimistic outlook, that the economics of energy will cause businesses to come around to the realization that fossil fuels have no future economically as opposed to environmentally. “[W]hile many climate activists focus on the political power and influence of the fossil fuel industry, I see an industry scrambling to defend itself against overwhelming forces that will see it destroyed – not in a mighty moral crusade but something far more brutal and fast – the market turning on it.”

According to a Treehugger post, even the National Bank of Abu Dhabi — yes a Middle East bank heavily invested in fossil fuels — has concluded that “‘fossil fuels can no longer compete with solar technologies on price’, and that the majority of the $US48 trillion needed to meet global energy demand over the next 20 years will come from renewables.”

This goes to the core of EcoOptimism: that, contrary to the public perception, there is a synergy between economic and ecological goals.

There is much more in Gilding’s post. Though he doesn’t refer to it, the issue of our unfortunate inability to think in the long term lurks in the background. We humans concentrate on short term needs and issues. Long term ones are too often not considered in our decision making, especially when that long term is intangible and may not be in our lifetimes. This explains why some environmentalists now emphasize what the impacts will be on our children.

Businesses, too, driven by quarterly profits and reports, tend to think in the short term. But they’re now beginning to see the long term issues. When your primary resource appears destined to become what Wall Street calls a stranded asset, that gets the attention of board rooms.

What Gilding does discuss is another barrier: realizing the scale of an issue, but not being able to cope with it and, therefore, ignoring or even denying it. “This is not climate denial but an example of “implicatory denial”, the rather bizarre ability of humans to accept a risk but then stop processing the implications, just because those implications are so overwhelming.” That’s where the economic influences take over. If convincing the public (and Republican electeds) through either science or fear isn’t working, perhaps newly enlightened businesses – especially those that contribute to political campaigns – can.

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.

Will 2015 bring legalization of hemp?

Hemp products. Images: screen grabs

Hemp products. Images: screenshots

There was a bit of excitement in the enviro blogworld last year, with posts boasting titles like “President Signs Farm Bill Legalizing Hemp” and “U.S. House of Representatives Votes to Legalize Industrial Hemp.” The legislation, some say, is a byproduct of the legalization of marijuana in some states, even though the two are vastly different with the main difference being that you can’t get high from hemp.

The Farm Bill legislation’s potential impact was overstated. It allowed growth only for research purposes by states and colleges, and even that turned out to be thwarted by the DEA.

The reason the federal government made hemp growth illegal is the subject of several theories. The most often cited is that the DEA can’t see the difference between the two when they are looking for marijuana farms. A more conspiratorial theory holds that the cotton industry, fearing competition, was behind the ban.

Last year brought attempts to finally legalize the potentially lucrative crop. Alas, the hoopla is not quite warranted.

I’ve written before about the fantastic qualities of hemp and how unfortunate – make that ridiculous – that it is illegal to grow in the US. In that 2012 post, I noted a bill that would rectify the situation. The bill was even co-sponsored by a Republican. That legislation failed. 2014 brought similar attempts to legalize a situation that has already been legalized in many states despite the federal ban.

Unfortunately, a Republican controlled Congress is even less likely to pass legislation in 2015. This despite the fact that hemp farming is seen by many as a job creator – which should make it a Republican darling — and, by the libertarian branch of the party, the ban is regarded as unnecessary government regulation.

Image source: relegalize.info

Image source: relegalize.info

As I noted in the previous post regarding hemp, it is incredibly versatile. Until 1619, farmers in Virginia were required to grow it. During WWII, its growth was temporarily legalized because of the military need for products made from it, including rope and parachutes. The federal government promoted a “Hemp for Victory” program.

Currently it is legal to make products in the US utilizing hemp, but illegal to grow the raw material. Much of it instead is imported from Canada, where growing it is allowed.

This blog is about synergistic environmental and economic solutions. In addition to hemp’s value to both farmers and the economy, it is a hardy crop, light in water and nutrient and fertilizer requirements. That qualifies hemp legalization as a perfect EcoOptimism win-win-win topic.

But despite the WWII precedent, despite the increasing understanding that hemp is not marijuana, and despite the combined economic and environmental logic behind legalization, 2015 is unlikely to see positive movement on federal legislation. For that, we’ll probably have to wait until at least 2017 and a new Congress, hopefully with an enlightened President. Not a very EcoOptimistic conclusion, but still there’s hope.

2014 Word of the Year

Silos, but not the type we mean. Image source: Wikipedia.

Silos, but not the type we mean. Image source: Wikipedia.

If two years constitutes a tradition, then I guess EcoOptimism’s Word of the Year is now a tradition.

Two years ago, I chose resilience. At that point, pre-Sandy, its meaning in an environmental context was not well known. Now, it seems, it’s used everywhere. 2013’s word was transparency. Again, its general usage was understood, but I was referring to the availability of environmental and health information of chemicals, products and materials. In fact, the previous post to this one talked about, among other things, the issue that the impacts of many chemicals and process – the post was about fracking – are still not known and, if they become known, the information is not made transparent enough.

For 2014, EcoOptimism’s Word of the Year is silos. Once again, it’s a word that is understood in its traditional meaning, i.e. a container, usually but not always cylindrical and tall, to hold grain or other materials. It can also refer to an underground container that holds missiles before they are launched.

What we are interested in here is its newer usage as a container for information or groups of people. In our highly technical world, knowledge tends to be segregated into topics and people tend to be separated into professions. That’s a problem for a topic like sustainability which often requires multidisciplinary approaches to complex (or “wicked”) problems.

(In fact, wicked problems was a runner up for this year’s word. Perhaps I’ll reserve it for 2015. Phew, I won’t have to sweat coming up with something next December.)

Ecological problems are nothing if not complex. Think about the extraordinary computing ability it takes to create climate forecasts. But behind the unfathomable amount of bytes of information required is human-generated information, taken from many fields. The fields of course include climatology, but also delve into chemistry, biology, physics and even “soft” sciences like sociology and population growth. That means scientists, engineers and others have to emerge out of their professional silos to exchange information and, sometimes, to work together. The same is true for that 2012 word, resilience. It involves (again) climatology but also meteorology, geography, civil engineering, architecture, urban planning, emergency management, etc. The information and the people have to be networked in order to come up with plans and solutions that might actually work.

Working alone, any of those professions will likely come to conclusions that don’t take into account all the factors, resulting in unintended side effects. A civil engineer proposal to build flood gates may not realize that it causes other areas to flood. A design for a building might not raise critical machinery above flood levels. (That’s what happened during Superstorm Sandy at both the Con Ed plant that exploded and NYU-Langone Hospital.)

What’s instead required comes in the form of an unwieldy word: desiloization. (It’s probably not even a word; spellcheck hasn’t the faintest what to do with it.) More simply, we refer to breaking down silos. It’s the way we get to EcoOptimism-style win-win-win approaches. So what we actually need is the opposite of our Word of the Year. But there’s no way I was going to choose desiloization.

The Elusive Silver Bullet

silverbullet

I just returned from Greenbuild, the annual conference and expo for architect, engineers, planners, builders and others involved in the green construction sector. The event, which has grown hugely in size (the opening plenary and dinner were held in the New Orleans Superdome!), was simultaneously over and underwhelming.

I went in part to cover it for the magazine Traditional Home, which has covered my work before. My job was to live tweet the things I found at Greenbuild that might be of interest to Traditional Home readers.

That turned out to be a bit of a challenge as many of the booths were displaying products that, while they were part and parcel of green building, were not photogenic or attention grabbing in obvious ways. (At the best of show announcement, I sat next to an editor, who groaned about the unsexiness of most of the winners, complaining they were making his job harder because they weren’t easy to write about.)

A window, even a triple paned one, doesn’t make for a sexy photo. Photo: David Bergman

A window, even a triple paned one, doesn’t make for a sexy photo. Photo: David Bergman

I did find plenty to tweet about (like this and this), but the experience reminded me that much of sustainability is not photogenic or headline grabbing. Wind and solar farms can be eye candy, as can futuristic concept buildings and cars. We tend, therefore to glom onto these images and adopt them as the goal, as the silver bullets that will solve our environmental problems.

But they’re not. Not because they aren’t good ideas, but because they are attempts at stand-alone solutions. There are, with the possible exception of a carbon fee, no silver bullet solutions. Our environmental issues are systemic ones and therefore need to be addressed systemically. That’s why a carbon tax is high on the EcoOptimism list. It addresses the systemic conjoined problems of climate disruption and consumption, not with a single “solution” such as solar panels, but by changing the game. By levelling the playing field of energy prices so that carbon emitters no longer get a free ride, it both makes “alternative” renewable energy sources the better economic choice and impacts our consumption patterns.

For instance, travel would probably become more expensive (at least until reliance on fossil fuels diminished) so maybe we’d stick closer to home, spending our money in local economies, having business meetings by Skype and having more time for family and friends. Not a bad tradeoff.

McMansions would become more expensive to heat and cool, encouraging the nascent movement toward smaller, more efficient and more urban homes. Out with two-story foyers and vestigial grand living rooms. In with homes that are better attuned to the ways we actually live. (I can hear the Agenda 21ers screaming now.)

But a carbon tax is not really what I wanted to write about. This post is about the false hope of – the desire for – a silver bullet. Much as I dislike extending the gun metaphor, the better approach is like buckshot. It’s deploying many tactics (yikes, more military terms), including the aforementioned solar and wind farms or the boring mechanical systems that dominated Greenbuild. It’s many tactics that, when taken as a greater whole, comprise a systemic approach: a change in overall strategies and mindsets.

That’s what it will take to solve this multipronged combination of serious problems. No one technical feat or government regulation—excepting perhaps carbon fees — is going to address climate disruption, ecosystem health, human health, social equity and the economy. They’re solvable; as the EcoOptimist, I’d better believe so. But they need to be addressed as intertwined issues, attacked on multiple fronts. (I just can’t seem get away from these military metaphors.)

In that sense, Greenbuild, as visually dull as parts of it may have been, is on the right track by putting lots of mini solutions out there. On occasion they get tied together, as happened with the demonstration house built for the show. Designed and constructed for the Make it Right foundation, the house pulled together ideas ranging from solar panels and state of the art insulation to locally procured furnishings. And the finished “LivingHome” will be dismantled and then reassembled in New Orlean’s Ninth Ward before being turned over to new inhabitants. (Parsons the New School for Design, where I teach, did something similar with its “Empowerhouse” entry in the Solar Decathlon.)

The LivingHome was more photogenic. Photo: David Bergman

The LivingHome was more photogenic. Photo: David Bergman

These aren’t exactly systemic solutions. A single house can’t be. But they’re steps along the path to rethinking and reanalyzing approaches to problems. Now if we can just please have a carbon fee, the stage will be set for some truly systemic answers.

Some Earth Week Optimism

Hunter Lovins speaking at The New School.

Hunter Lovins speaking at The New School. Photo: David Bergman

 

Amidst some intense deadlines, I’d started a couple of EcoOptimism posts in the past few weeks, and then discarded them because they weren’t, well, optimistic.

In my EcoOptimist-in-chief role, I sometimes find myself in a hypocritical position when I rail on a topic without presenting at least the silver lining. So I canned the critique of a new chair that was eco but, in my opinion anyway, quite ugly and counterproductive to the perception of ecodesign. And I bit my digital tongue when I began a rant on yet another round of climate deniers’ contorted and illiterate BS.

My malaise was released the other day when, concurrent with the completion of a major deadline, I attended a talk with green business expert Hunter Lovins. A prolific author and speaker, Lovins keynoted a New School student–organized event called (and I’ll try to reign in my non-EcoOptimist snarkiness here) Sustainapalooza.

The gist of Lovins talk was a twist on the old phrase “what’s good for GM is good for the country,” modernizing it into “what’s good for the environment is good for business.” Or to put it the other way around, in Lovins’ words, “the assault on the environment is also an assault on the economy.” Citing sources and businesses including the Harvard Business Review, Unilever and even Goldman Sachs, she emphasized that companies focusing on environmental performance are also leading in economic performance, particularly in the long run.  (That long run vision is strengthened, as Lovins noted, by the decision of people such as Paul Polman of Unilever to stop filing quarterly reports, a policy I’ve long advocated since the pressure of quarterly reports only serves to encourage short term thinking at the expense of looking at the bigger picture.)

Central to her talk was what she and John Fullerton have labeled The Regenerative Economy or, as they titled it in their FastCo article last fall, “transform[ing] global finance into a force for good.” In its current state, she explained, “our economy has become a financial system that expects human beings to serve its dictates and desires, rather than serving basic human needs and delivering prosperity in ways that can long endure.” In other words we work for the financial system instead of the financial system working for us. The needs of the financial system determine the economy, which determines the impacts on the planet when it should be the other way around.

A slide from Lovins’ presentation

A slide from Lovins’ presentation

 

Lovins cited a plethora of stats that support the premise of EcoOptimism:

  • A greener economy could create between 15 million to 60 million jobs worldwide over the next two decades. It represents a potential $10 trillion dollar economy.
  • The regenerative energy economy employs almost 3 million people TODAY – more than fossil fuel.
  • Green jobs increased five times faster than jobs in any other industry
  • Switching to renewables will cost 2% – 6% of world GDP – a bargain compared to the 20% of GCP that climate change impacts will amount to.
  • Companies in the Dow Jones sustainability Index outperform the general market.

Lovins’ talk was not without realism. She referenced the conventional business stance and the political climate (or would that be anti-climate?). And she criticized herself. “If I was any damn good at this,” she commented, we’d have made more progress. That’s unfair self-criticism, I’d say, being as she’s far from the only one who’s been unable to break our socio-political quagmire. But let’s not detract from the optimism here by diving back into that topic.