The Somebody Else’s Problem Field

Science fiction has a habit of becoming fact. Star Trek’s communicator is perhaps the most renowned example. In a more recent one, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future opens with a devastating, deadly heat wave in India. Another of his books, New York 2140, takes place in a NYC flooded by rising sea levels, which is not yet an example.

Cover of Ministry for the Future

The Ministry for the Future is part of a growing genre of fiction
(for now) centered around climate change that’s been dubbed Cli-Fi.

Whereas the Star Trek communicator took 32 years (yes, I looked it up) to make a real-world flip phone appearance, Robinson’s India scenario took a mere two years, occurring even in the same location.

Sometimes science fiction scenarios are more about concepts than inventions or events. In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the spaceship “Bistromath” was mysteriously made invisible by something called The Somebody Else’s Problem field. If you look it up in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Wiki (because where else would you look it up?), you’ll find “An S.E.P. can run almost indefinitely … and is able to do so because it utilises a person’s natural tendency to ignore things they don’t easily accept.”

Cover of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

A famous phrase from The Hitchhiker’s Guide is “Don’t Panic.”
It could substitute for climate change deniers accusing
‘believers’ of being climate alarmists. (And, yes, this is my old beat up copy.)

Another fan site explains further that the S.E.P. field “relies on people’s natural disposition not to see anything they don’t want to, weren’t expecting, or can’t explain.”

The direct quote in The Hitchhikers Guide, in the expert words of Ford Prefect, says “An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem.”

(The Ford Prefect, by the way, was a line of British cars in production until 1961, 17 years before the Hitchhiker radio show was broadcast. So maybe that constitutes a reverse of science fiction foretelling the real world.)

If you want a real-world application of the S.E.P. field, Wikipedia cites a 1976 article on bureaucratic inaction on low-income housing as an example of the principle of somebody else’s problem.

Climate change deniers have often employed something like this as one of their, perhaps unconscious, excuses. Something that we can’t see because we don’t want to is the equivalent of a child covering their ears and saying “I can’t hear you; I can’t hear you.”

If they can no longer maintain that it doesn’t exist – which is pretty difficult to argue in the face of record-breaking heatwaves around the world, record-breaking droughts, deadly floods and wildfires in places that have never had them – they can still ignore it because it’s something that happens to somebody else (unless they can’t water their expansive lawn in California, in which case it becomes a nuisance) or something that is caused by somebody else. “China produces more CO2 than the US does so why should we have to reduce ours.”

It’s not science fiction, but there’s another concept that comes into play here: confirmation bias. Psychology Today defines confirmation bias as something that happens “[w]hen people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, [so] they end up believing it to be true.” Trump’s “Big Lie” is, of course, an all-too-current example.

Senator James Inhofe using a snowball to confirm his bias

Senator James Inhofe using a snowball to confirm his bias

The S.E.P. field’s application was in allowing the ship to be invisible. Until very recently, the climate crisis had a built-in S.E.P. field in that its impacts were invisible. You can’t see CO2. Rising sea levels were merely a prediction. A global temperature change of 1o was imperceptible and sounds insignificant. Now, while you still can’t see CO2, its impacts are unavoidably visible. If they haven’t affected deniers directly, they can see it in the news. (Unless, of course, they only watch Fox News, which exists to promote conservative confirmation bias.)

Now that the impacts are visible, one would think that deniers’ S.E.P. fields would fail, that their cloaking device (to bring this back to Star Trek) had blown an EPS conduit or isolinear circuit or something. But confirmation bias is strong, especially in our severely polarized culture. What will it take to overcome it? How we turn deniers into alarmists? It’s a shame we don’t have Vulcan mindmelds to pull them out of their parallel universe.

I Used to Love Flying

And maybe I can again. This starts out non-EcoOptimistically, but it doesn’t end that way.

I like seeing cities. I like seeing museums. I like seeing ancient ruins. I like seeing family members who live on the other side of the continent. Sometimes I need to go sit on a remote beach. (I admit, I’m not a hiking, canoeing, snorkeling kind of guy. I can see you wagging your finger: “you call yourself an environmentalist?”)

But you gotta fly to do a lot of that.

Now, I love flying. Just not the kind of flying we have to endure these days to do any of those things I like. In fact, I used to be a pilot – not 787s; just the kind with one propeller on the nose and two seats behind me. I found it fun (if intense) and beautiful, and I still love to watch planes landing. I even co-write a book back then on learning how to fly.

The problem is the commercial version isn’t fun anymore and, maybe more problematically, it’s one of the nastiest unsustainable things anyone – especially an environmentalist who doesn’t want to be a hypocrite – can do.

First, the not-fun part. You’ve been there. Crammed in a noisy metal cylinder, with a stranger six inches away and your knees practically in your lap. The food’s no longer bad because there isn’t any. Lines to get to the gate; lines at the gate; rushing to see if there’s an overhead compartment left; more lines to get out. Fly the friendly skies? It’s no wonder United Airlines had to retire that slogan.

And, then there’s the eco-pessimistic side. Some stats from the BBC:
“Around 2.4% of global CO2 emissions come from aviation. Together with other gases and the water vapour trails produced by aircraft, the industry is responsible for around 5% of global warming.”

The vast majority (90%) of people don’t ever fly*, but for those who fly frequently it can easily become the largest part of their carbon footprint. “One round?trip flight between New York and San Francisco generates two to three tons of carbon dioxide emissions per passenger, more than 10 percent of the annual carbon footprint of the typical American.” I often ask my students to calculate their ecofootprint using an online calculator, and then to redo it with less flying. Since many of them come from overseas, flying to and from New York a few times a year is a major part of their footprint. But what can they do? Not fly back home during breaks? That knowledge can instill “carbon guilt” and leave them with despair, since they don’t really have an alternative.

And what’s an environmentalist to do? How can I justify flying to the Galapagos to ‘see nature?’ Or fly to a conference on sustainability?

* Within that remaining 10%, there’s an increasing subset that, as noted by Lloyd Alter in Treehugger, flies in private jets. The carbon footprint of those is many-fold the already high footprint of flying commercial.

And here’s another, less talked about, factor. What about all those natural resources? Think about the aluminum, carbon fiber, copper, plastic and synthetic fabrics that all those huge containers are made of, and what happens to them when the plane is retired after 15 or 20 years. Most of those massive A380s, those double-decked 600-seat behemoths, have ended up in aircraft “boneyards,” some after less than ten years of use, alongside thousands of their grounded brethren.

Aerial view of the Tucson, AZ aircraft boneyard

That’s a lot of not only materials, but also embodied (sometimes called upfront) carbon: the energy it took to make those materials. It may be trivial compared to the fuel those planes gobbled up in their short lifetimes, but the combination of that embodied energy and the “stranded,” essentially landfilled, materials is not insignificant.

Some of the parts in those planes can be salvaged, often for use in other planes. And there are designers who have been creative with what they’ve found in the boneyards, making cool furniture and even buildings.

Motoart’s “Albatross Elevator Desk”

“747 Wing House,” by David Hertz Architect

Hotel Costa Verde in Costa Rica

Recycled aluminum tiles made from aircraft hulls

Not actually part of an airplane, this was, I was told, part of a modular system used to make temporary runways on beaches in WWII. It came from a boneyard, and I explored using them to screen a carport on a project.

There is an ecooptimistic side or two. First, we don’t have to fly as much, at least for business, courtesy of our digital world; we’ve all learned how to zoom. I do almost all my meetings that way, even when I could have subway’d there. (Luckily, I live somewhere that I don’t need a car.) And one of the few positive things to arise from Covid is that I’ve discovered I can have guest speakers in my classes who are anywhere in the world.

It doesn’t mean I can do everything without flying; I can just do a lot more without it.

And there are a couple of other causes for hope on the near horizon. (Yep, that’s an intentional pun.)

  • Biofuels are getting extensive testing and are on the verge of becoming legally accepted for jet fuel.
  • And beyond biofuels might be this… (I love it, btw, when my interest in flying overlaps with my sustainability side – this is from a site I follow for completely non-eco reasons.)
    “Long Haul Flights Could Be Powered By Fuel Made From Thin Air”
  • And a formerly pie-in-the-(almost literal)-sky EcoOptimist part is the near-reality of electric planes. They’re only slightly behind the curve from electric vehicles. They’ll still require energy in the form of electricity, but at least they won’t be spewing greenhouse gasses into the upper atmosphere. And more and more of the electricity is going to be from renewables.

The “Wright Spirit” uses an existing airframe and transforms it with electric engines. It’s supposed to start service in 2026. https://www.weflywright.com/

United Airlines is buying 100 of these 19 passenger electric planes. (And Mesa Airlines, which is affiliated with United, is buying an additional 100.) They’re also supposed to start service in 2026.

This NASA experimental design is what the industry calls ‘clean sheet,’ meaning it’s designed from scratch, not a variation on an existing plane. (NASA.gov)

Artist rendering of Zunum Aero aircraft flying over Seattle
Source: Zunum Aero

And then there are dirigibles. Put aside those horrific images of the Hindenburg. It was filled with highly flammable hydrogen. Dirigibles since then are filled with helium, which has supply issues, but is much safer.

Otto dirigible

This 6-passenger one will get around 10x the mpg of a jet while costing, they claim, less than 1/6th of the operating costs. It will go 460 mph, more than 2/3rds the speed of a passenger jet. It will be faster than most turboprops and have a much longer range. And it’ll be a lot more comfortable. https://ottoaviation.com/celera-500l

Hybrid Air Vehicles says, “from 2026 Airlander will transport up to 100 passengers on short haul journeys, with 90% fewer emissions.” Slower than conventional airplanes (but much safer than that dirigible that everyone thinks of), it will probably be more like taking a boat.
The bigger market for dirigibles will probably be for freight, with a huge savings over the cost and environmental impact of conventional air freight.

So, while I’m sure the tin cans will still be cheek by jowl with unmasked people coughing and kneeing me, I’ll feel a little less hypocritical flying to the occasional conference to gather with other environmentalists or spending a holiday now and then with my nieces.

I wouldn’t exactly call that full-fledge EcoOptimism, but perhaps it’s closer to eco-neutral.

Will Lawyers Save the World?

With deference to Shakespeare, maybe we don’t kill all the lawyers.

Shakespeare with quote

Despite the growingly alarming evidence and warnings, the needle has barely moved with either politicians or ‘civilians’ in terms of accepting and acting on the climate emergency. That would appear to leave us with the necessity of going beyond the court of public opinion and into the court of law. And that’s precisely what’s been happening. In earlier posts, we’ve documented some of this path in terms of lawsuits seeking to recognize the rights of nature and suits, in particular those by youth, alleging that their right to a future is being jeopardized by inaction. (here, here and here)

So, here’s a question and perhaps a way of looking at this. If shouting fire in a crowded theater is a crime (technically, whether it actually is a crime depends on some specifics), should it also be illegal to say there is no fire when in fact there is one? That’s exactly what Exxon did for years. They knew as early as 1981 that fossil fuels were connected to climate change yet spent decades denying it and funding thinktanks and researchers that promoted climate denial. Several states and New York City have sued Exxon Mobil for “lying to shareholders and to the public about the costs and consequences of climate change.” (It’s a move straight out of the tobacco industry’s playbook, i.e., “nothing to see here.”) The lawsuits have been unsuccessful to date, but I doubt the effort is over.

In that fire-in-a-theater example, one of the criteria for considering it a crime is whether that fire is a “clear and present danger.” Back when Exxon was busy denying what they knew to be true, maybe it was only a clear danger. Well, now it’s most definitely also a present danger as well.

I occasionally intersperse EcoOptimism posts with something I call “The Distillery.” These contain synopses of encouraging environmental news articles, often presented topically. I preface the series each time writing, “We can all use some positive news these days.”

Herewith, in the format of The Distillery, is an extensive compendium of news on the fronts of rights of people and rights of nature. The latter, by the way, often seeks to give nature rights equivalent to or similar to the rights of people, so associating these two approaches is not as unrelated as it might seem.

Given the number of legal actions (which, putting aside our short attention spans, is a good thing), I’ve kept the descriptions and commentary short. But you can always follow the links for more detailed info.

Also in the name of one of those annoying webspeak of the moment, TL:DR, I’ve organized this into categories of lawsuits:

Rights of Nature
Lawsuits brought by the next generation
Lawsuits brought by governments, i.e., the grown ups 

Rights of Nature Category:

I’ve written about environmental lawsuits in the name of nature’s rights. But they’ve usually been brought by people on behalf of nature. Renowned environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert brings us the story of nature suing on its own behalf. As she notes and as we document below, this case is different. “Mary Jane’s case is a first. Never before has an inanimate slice of nature tried to defend its rights in an American courtroom.”

Her article, which is expansive in the style of The New Yorker, documents the history of nature having rights and suing for them going back half a century. In a Supreme Court case that ruled against nature, the dissenting view noted that ships and corporations are considered “legal personalities,” so nature should be viewed that way as well. That opinion also brings up a larger topic of corporations being defined as people. (Made infamous by Mitt Romney’s off-the-cuff statement “Corporations are people.”) The Supreme Court agreed in its ruling in the “Citizens United” case which, arguably, has ruined the American electoral system.

photo of Lake Mary Jane

Photo credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife. [I found this image via “Reasons to be Cheerful,” a blog founded by musician, environmentalist and avid cyclist David Byrne.]

From The New Yorker:
April 11,2022
“A Lake in Florida Suing to Protect Itself”

And  a lot of other places are covering it, too:

From The Guardian:
May 1, 2021
“Streams and lakes have rights, a US county decided. Now they’re suing Florida”

From Reasons to be Cheerful:
April 22, 2022
“Does This Water Have Legal Rights?”

From Inhabitat:
May 4, 2021
“Florida waterways demand their rights”

In the New Yorker article, Kolbert has what, I think, is the most salient line: “In an effort to protect herself, Mary Jane is suing.” She adds, “There have also been several cases brought by entire species; for instance, the palila, a critically endangered bird, successfully sued Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources for allowing feral goats to graze on its last remaining bit of habitat.”

EcoOptimism’s take: The Mary Jane court case takes what might be a more direct route to establishing nature’s rights. Instead of people suing on behalf of nature, the plaintiffs in this suit – Boggy Branch, Wilde Cypress Branch, Lake Hart, Lake Mary Jane and Crosby Island Marsh – apparently are the waterways themselves. They are suing a developer whose project would destroy 63 plus acres of wetlands and 33 acres of streams.

Perhaps accompanying the movement to at least acknowledge if not recognize indigenous inhabitants’ claims to what was their ancestral land before colonialism, there is also a movement in the form of lawsuits to protect the ecology of those lands.

From Grist:
April 18, 2022
How rights of nature and wild rice could stop a pipeline

This builds on an 1837 treaty between the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the U.S. government, adding in 2018 a law recognizing the rights of a local wild rice called Manoomin. Perhaps what’s interesting here is that, though the law has to do with the Ojibwe, it’s about the rights of the rice, not the Ojibwe. The lawsuit says the rice would be endangered by a pipeline that would run from Canada through the wild rice beds.

In the more traditional method of claiming nature has rights, there is a subset of legal actions brought by First Nations:

From Grist:
March 1, 2022
“Do salmon have rights?”

This case is a suit based on the rights of an American First Nation, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, but is back in the more traditional approach to asserting the rights of nature, The suit claims that the declining salmon population is the result of hydroelectric dams supplying the City of Seattle.

The Ross Dam on the Skagit River

The Ross Dam on the Skagit River. Credit Wiki Commons

From National Geographic:
April 15, 2022

This Canadian river is now legally a person. It’s not the only one.

This National Geographic article first profiles the Magpie River on the lands of the Innu First Nation, which has been granted personhood, and then goes on to discuss the general movement granting rights to rivers globally.


Lawsuits Brought by the Next Generation:

Image source

One of the challenging issues in fighting the climate crisis is that it hasn’t been (until now, maybe – cases in point wildfires, hurricanes, droughts) readily visible. In that sense, it may not affect the generations that created it, but will affect those following them. (I wrote about this concept, “intergenerational remote tyranny,” in an earlier post.) The lawsuit filed by a group of US children in 2015 has had many ups and downs but is still proceeding. This is by no means the first such suit. I wrote about several of them in a post back in 2017.

Many of the legal actions that are taken by youth allege that government policies – or, more accurately, the lack of them – endanger their futures. What that means is governments have abandoned what is arguably their most fundamental purpose: protecting their citizens.

EcoOptimism has looked at this, in particular with the post “Stealing from the Future.”

youth lawsuit

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

From Gizmodo:
March 29, 2022
“’I Should Be Able to Go Outside’: Why a Utah Teen Is Suing Over Polluted Air”

Seven young activists, led by a fifteen-year-old, are suing the state of Utah. The suit was filed with the assistance of Our Children’s Trust, the same organization that represented 21 youth in Juliana v. United States. Like that suit, this one says the issue is that the rights of this generation to a healthy and safe life have been unconstitutionally violated.

As I was about to post this article, in came an email from Our Children’s Trust announcing a new lawsuit:

We have huge news to share: 14 young people in Hawai‘i filed a new constitutional climate lawsuit today against the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation (HDOT), HDOT Director Jade Butay, Government David Ige, and the State of Hawai‘i!

Our Childrens' Trust Hawai'i lawsuit

Our Children’s Trust Hawai’i lawsuit

And from overseas, more lawsuits by youth:

From Gizmodo: 
April 30, 2021
“Climate Youth Win Landmark Victory in Germany’s Top Court”

This one’s a little older, but strikes a similar approach:

From The Guardian:
Sept 3, 2020
“Portuguese children sue 33 countries over climate change at European court”


Lawsuits Brought by Governments, i.e., the Grown Ups:

Suits against Big Oil have been wending their way through the courts in the US, with several state attorneys general  – and now some cities – leading the effort, though the literal jury is still out. But by the same token, this kind of suit is gaining more traction elsewhere.

From The Guardian:
June 1, 2021
“Shell’s historic loss in The Hague is a turning point in the fight against big oil”

and

June 1, 2021
“Court orders Royal Dutch Shell to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030”

Courtroom photo

Photo: Friends of the Earth Europe

From Grist:
May 25, 2021
“Can the ‘right to a healthy environment’ stop Exxon’s expansion in Guyana?”

From CNN:
Jan 14, 2021
“France taken to court over ‘climate inaction’ in landmark case”

ExxonMobil map of oil sites

Map of ExxonMobil’s offshore Guyana oil discovery sites as of February 11, 2020

EcoOptimism’s take: This case is filed by an interesting combo of a Guyanese scientist and an indigenous youth. If you search ‘ExxonMobil in Guyana,’ you actually come up with an ExxonMobil site boasting about its operations and exploration off the coast there.

Perhaps the broadest move in this direction is the coining of the word ‘ecocide’ along with its legal definition. The draft of a new law, proposed by an international group of legal experts, says ecocide is “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

From The Guardian:
June 22, 2021
“Legal experts worldwide draw up ‘historic’ definition of ecocide”

EcoOptimism’s take: I’m sure some will attack this as climate alarmism, but, well, they’re wrong. And it defies the core concept of EcoOptimism, but there are times when optimism needs to be put aside in order to make the point.

EcoOptimism’s overall take: Where politicians have failed us, spurred on by the clout and finances of industry, perhaps we need to bypass both. So, let’s not follow Shakespeare’s famous line. Turns out we need those lawyers.

 

Plastic Bags: It’s an “It Depends” Situation

Or, rather, should we just skip the question?plastic bag in tree

The eco-blog Treehugger this week has a grouping of posts on plastic bags that’s intended to leave you wondering.

Perhaps you’d thought that, amidst the many complicated environmental issues, plastic bags was a no-brainer. Plastic bad, paper OK, cloth best. Not so quick, though.

There was a study a few years ago, a very dense Life Cycle Assessment, that concluded reusable cloth bags were not a better choice than plastic bags. Their conclusion, with lots of background calculations, was that, given the resources required to make and maintain cloth bags, you had to reuse an organic cotton cloth bag up to 20,000 times in order for it to be environmentally preferable. It left us do-good well-intentioned folks scratching our heads.

Now along comes a study (you can’t access it easily, but the Treehugger post gives you the summary) that says another factor in favor of not banning plastic bags is, surprisingly, their reuse. The study said that, in many places where plastic bags were banned, sales of other types of plastic bags went up.

And I’ve heard this from many folks. “If plastic bags are banned,” which they are now in New York State, “what will I put my garbage in?” (In NYC, our kitchens are often too small for regular size garbage pails that use those larger garbage bags.) Or “what will I use to pick up my dog’s poop with?” The thinking goes that, when people don’t have plastic bags from groceries, they’ll have to buy kitchen garbage bags or dog poop bags.

The pat answers are to not make as much garbage (composting cuts down a third of household garbage in my experience) or to use (supposedly) biodegradable poop bags.

So perhaps considering plastic bags to be in the single-use plastics category is misplaced. We can, instead, put them in the double-use category. (I think I just invented that.) Never mind that, in my experience, those bags can barely last one use and, more often than not, have holes in them that tend to leak nasty stuff out when filled with garbage. And dog poop? Not goin’ there.

(Check out, btw, “Plastic Bag,” narrated tongue in cheek by Werner Herzog. Then again, I think it’s tongue in cheek, it’s sometimes a bit hard to tell with him.)

Screen shot from "Plastic Bag"

Screen shot from “Plastic Bag”

Then there’s the question of whether the environmental issues have been fully taken into account. That plastic bag vs canvas bag equation, I’m pretty sure, didn’t look at the related issues of ocean life – two of the parallel Treehugger posts (here and here) bring up that part – or even litter. Sometimes they focus almost entirely on carbon emissions. Quantifying for objectivity is fine, and often, useful. But what about issues that are hard to quantify, perhaps because they’re subjective? What’s the value of a dead turtle, suffocated in a plastic bag, or a whale whose stomach is filled with bags and toothbrushes and Bic lighters? Or the esthetic cost of bags snagged in tree branches.

And now we can add the health impacts of microplastics in humans as well as in other creatures.

microplastics on finger

The carbon part of the picture is hardly irrelevant and, of course, has an additional story. As the fossil fuel industry realizes its future as a fuel is narrowing, its focus has shifted to promoting plastics as another way to boost petroleum sales. This movement was further fueled (sorry) by the pandemic which, initially at least, cut down fuel consumption by significant amounts as people commuted and traveled much less.

And lest you want to factor in recycling, in the case of plastic bags, that’s a myth. Even when you can find recycling programs that accept them, they rarely get recycled. And recycling facilities hate them because they get caught in their machines.

So, are bans a good idea? They certainly have taken off. My database of bans and regulations has grown greatly since I began it a few years ago, though it’s perhaps telling that the growth slowed considerably during the pandemic.

plastic bags in ocean

My environmental roots say ‘hell yes,’ get rid of those nasty things. But the part of me that studies Life Cycle Assessment says hang on a moment, maybe, counterintuitively, we’ve got this wrong. And then my ever-split thinking counters the counter thoughts by asking if those studies really have got it right.

It gets sooo complicated. My conclusion rests on a non-objective thought: we can’t let this message get so complicated. People are confused enough about environmental issues and, along with that, overwhelmed by both the complexity and the gravity of things. We get bogged down in it, not sure what to do or even if what we can do matters. We need simple – perhaps simplistic – approaches and advice, even if perhaps plastic bags aren’t as bad as many of us say; even if perhaps they’re better than some of the alternatives. But the message and the public support erode when it gets unclear. Even if we’re a bit wrong on this specific question – and I’m not convinced we are – we need to have make things simple and easy so we can get to the bigger picture.

 

The Hills are Alive (Again. Maybe.)

image of mountaintop removal mining

Image: mountainroadshow.com via WMKY.org

I’ve always been highly skeptical of the coal industry’s claims that the ecosystems of the mountains they blow up – because it’s a cheaper way to get to the coal veins – will be restored when they’re finished. But I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

This would seem to be at least partially the case in the example of this former mountaintop removal mining site in Kentucky, as profiled in The New York Times. In the images, it doesn’t exactly look like the verdant rolling forested hills that the mines decimated, but it is green and planted.

Back in 2010, a study by the NRDC supported my skepticism. But a 2017 post by the Yale School of the Environment’s blog profiled a more optimistic outlook in a program by Green Forest Work, who have planted nearly 4 million trees across more than 6,000 acres. That, though, is a non-profit project made necessary by the inaction of the coal mining industry in fulfilling their reclamation promises.

screengrab: Appalachian Mountain Advocates

What’s perhaps more significant at the Kentucky project is the plan to build a solar farm on top of it. In true EcoOptimistic win-win-win fashion, this somewhat restores and gives a purpose back to this landscape, creates new jobs in an area with a declining industrial base – thus helping to show that eliminating coal-generated electricity is not an economy killer – and continues the path to convince remaining skeptics that renewable energy is a realistic alternative to fossil fuels.

It also reinforces my daydream of being able to somehow sit down with DINO and dinosaur Joe Manchin to show him the error of his ways, his misplaced view that he is protecting his coal miner constituents, or more likely his coal mining industry backers. As many others have questioned, is it really a misinformed altruism on behalf of hard-working voters or is it a result of his financial backing? In other words, is it people or fossil fuel interests that he thinks he is defending?

If it’s the latter – which is probable since, according to The Times again, “Manchin has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator in the current election cycle” –  well, that daydream of mine is rather more of a pipe dream. No logical argument will sway him away from the money. That’s despite the fact that those industries are a dying economic sector that no amount of climate denial and legal maneuvering will protect in the long run, and that he’d be doing those industries a favor by helping them redirect into renewable energy.

Then there’s Manchin’s recent statement that “the climate thing” is something “we probably can come to agreement much easier than anything else.” Whatever that means.

The question here is whether the replanting of destroyed mountaintops, accompanied by solar farms, legitimizes mountaintop removal mining. Does it pave the way to allowing more decimating of Appalachian ecosystems? It’s great to find locations for solar farms without displacing other uses or existing ecosystems. But it shouldn’t be used as the justification for more mining.

solar panels on rolling hills

Solar panels on French hillside. Image credit

It’s more than a bit of a stretch, but if we imagine pitched roofs as a kind of artificial rolling geography, we can find another piece of win-win-win news in the continuing development of solar roof shingles. Tesla has been at this for a while, but there are horror stories of complications and unexpected costs. A roofing company (which Tesla isn’t) just announced its new product (also here), which it claims will obviate these issues.

GAF Energy solar roof

Image: GAF Energy

The idea of solar roof shingles is great. Why create a second layer on top of a roof when the solar panels can BE the roof? Adding conventional panels means paying for both the roof and the panels as well as adding weight and creating potential maintenance headaches. So combining them reduces costs and makes for an easier installation either when building a new roof or replacing an existing one. It also gets rid of those ugly panels. (That’s the third part, in this case, of the EcoOptimist win-win-win scenario.)

As with the solar panels on former coal mines, roofs are a logical choice for harvesting solar energy. (Airports and big box stores are, too.) The difference is that, with solar roof shingles, ecosystems aren’t being destroyed first.

Can We Be Optimistic? (2021 installment)

I’ve written posts like this at the end of the last few years. I’ve even copied the title from the previous versions. (What? You expect originality from a professor who’s bleary eyed from grading papers at the end of the semester?) It’s difficult to be the EcoOptimist these days when there is so much news on the negative side. I won’t – and you probably don’t need me to – start enumerating it. And I’d be violating my self-anointed title and role.

So, instead I’m focusing here on some of the more positive news – news that perhaps will help motivate us for the coming year. Here’s a selection.

I have a post in the works, btw, on how unexpected types of legal actions, here and elsewhere, are having an impact. I’ll try to make use of the holiday downtime to finish that one. Meanwhile…

from Gizmodo
December 15, 2021
Microbes May Be Evolving to Eat Plastic:
The latest research findings from our dystopian present

plastic waste

Image: Chalmers University of Technology

EcoOptimism’s Take: From my favorite environmental-blog-that-isn’t-an-environmental-blog, comes this news about the tiny organisms that may eat our way out of our century of plastics. There have been other reports of forms of life with a diet of plastics, but this sounds like a hopeful step.

There’s a bit of SciFi dystopianism here in that the study says these microbes didn’t just naturally have this appetite – they’re evolving that way.

“We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution — a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” according to Prof Aleksej Zelezniak at Chalmers University of Technology 

In other words, our environmental failings have altered the DNA of bacteria.  Dunno about you, but I find that a bit scary.

Putting my Jurassic Park paranoia aside, the downside here, and it shouldn’t outweigh the positive, is that, as the article mentions, this does not mitigate the issue; it doesn’t help stop the problem from occurring. It merely deals with what we already have and what will still be produced. This is an unfortunate byproduct of well-intentioned ’solutions.’ It’s the problem with, for example, geoengineering. While it’s arguable that we have reached the point (pardon my non-ecooptimism) where we will need to do this to address the climate emergency, it doesn’t stop carbon emissions and, in fact, can worsen the problem by leading us to think that we don’t have to.

Still, I welcome the idea of providing sustenance to these – hopefully friendly – critters. Bear in mind that, given the amount of plastics out there for feasting upon, we might be welcoming our new microscopic neighbors everywhere.

And then there’s this different approach to remediating plastics using nature:

from Microfiber Innovation Challenge
Squitex
Seaming, Coating and fibers from self-healing materials

image of squid

image: WSTale.com

EcoOptimism’s Take: Biomimicry, design inspired by nature, gets us to some of the coolest ideas – things we mere humans, who have just a tidbit of the knowledge gained by nature over 3.8 billion years, could never come up with on our own. In this case, it’s a self-healing fiber that can reduce microfibers in the ocean, made from squid’s tentacles combined with genetic resequencing (arguably something nature has been doing all along in the form of evolution, or so it seems to this non-scientist). So addressing the problem of microfibers in the waters might come from creatures who live in that water.

Will squid become our next octopuses: creatures far smarter than we thought?

from Reuters
September 29, 2021
Democrats weigh first nationwide fee on plastic in U.S. budget negotiations

Snapple sign boasting about switching to plastic

photo: David Bergman

EcoOptimism’s Take: Does this have a chance in an intractably partisan Congress that can’t even accept the urgency of the climate crisis? And where any fee, even one that seems to be a capitalist laissez faire approach that internalizes those pesky externalities inherent in single-use plastics, is dead on arrival? Prove me wrong. Please. Don’t make me become an EcoRealist.

from Gizmodo
December 14, 2021
Dell’s Concept Luna Could Be the Future of Laptop Design

image of modular laptop

Image: Framework

image of modular mobile phone

image: Fairphone

EcoOptimism’s Take: Right to repair laws have been all the rage (well, perhaps that’s an overstatement) this year. But to really make those work, products have to be repairable – and not have things like batteries and RAM soldered in as many Apple and other manufacturers do. That goes hand in hand with making electronics modular so that items like those as well as screens, keyboards and motherboards are removable and replaceable.

I recently had to buy a new laptop because one of the keys became stuck. The repair shop told me it would be too expensive to be worthwhile. (The laptop was just out of warranty, of course.) Similarly, on the previous laptop that caused me to purchase the one that then developed a hatred for the letter A, a cracked screen was not worth replacing. (It valiantly, if expensively, gave its life by breaking my fall when I fell backwards onto the backpack it was in.)

Modular electronics offer the hope of being both repairable and upgradeable, which help keep electronics from becoming ‘e-waste.’ Efforts to accomplish this date back to a student project at Stanford ‘s School of Design Thinking (as if other school’s design programs don’t include thinking!) quite a few years ago. And Motorola’s original modular phone, Project Ara, was a great idea, but never caught on. Its less adventurous successor, the Moto Z is still finding its feet.

But its concept has been replaced by Fairphone, which, unfortunately is not available in the US. Nor is their more recently released Framework modular laptop. (Crossing my fingers it will be more available when my current laptop decides to develop a small but insidious problem that defies economical repair.) But now, signaling the mass market potential, Dell is taking a shot at the idea. It’s a shame that my Dell with the malfunctioning keyboard came out a couple of years too early.

from NPR
December 14, 2021
The largest city in the U.S. bans natural gas in new buildings

image of cooktop with both gas and induction burners

Image: ABT

EcoOptimism’s Take: Banning gas appliances is a concept that took root, of course, in California. Those appliances, ranging from stoves to boilers and heat pumps, have both environmental and health issues. Their use emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to the fact that 40% of the country’s carbon emissions comes from buildings. (It’s even higher – 50% – in NYC because using public transportation instead of cars emits less carbon, and that means buildings are a higher percentage of the total.)

And from a health point of view, combustion gases in enclosed spaces like kitchens are also deadly for us humans, not merely bad for the atmosphere. They’re the reason we have carbon monoxide detectors in our homes.

Banning gas appliances in new buildings is a big deal. Many people still prefer gas stoves, though. Fortunately, induction cookers and electric ovens are darn good alternatives. They still require energy, but local emissions are reduced because the electricity needed comes from power plants which are usually located outside cities and are more efficient. 

Here’s yet another way to look at it: energy efficiency. With a gas stove, you’re heating not just the food, but the area around the stove as well. Not so with an induction cooktop. It heats only the pot or pan. It’s also what makes it safer.

Now I just have to convince my chef client to forget the “now we’re cooking with gas” slogan, which originated as a natural gas industry campaign in the 1930s and that, unfortunately, implies doing a good job.

“Can we be optimistic?” has an implied negative tone to it. Wouldn’t it be great if I can change that title for my 2022 end of the year EcoOptimism post?

Plastic Free July, with some updates to my list of bans

This having been Plastic Free July (it’s not too late to make your Plastic Free commitments!), I’ve updated the EcoOptimism list of Plastic Bans Worldwide.

screen shot of Plastics Bans webpage from EcoOptimism

screen shot from EcoOptimism’s Plastic Bans Worldwide

Australia has a fragmented policy that, for instance, stresses reducing plastics at beaches. On a more advanced level, they are attempting to ban microbeads. However, the phaseout is voluntary. But the most interesting part is that they are including bioplastics in the plastic phase out plans, acknowledging that bioplastics are not the great solution most people think they are. While it’s nice that they aren’t petroleum-based, their compostability is misleading. Despite being (mostly) plant based, they don’t break down in standard compost facilities, instead requiring higher heat and sunlight. Furthermore, they muck up recycling streams when they get included with other plastics and it may be impossible to tell them from other plastics because they are included in the catchall number 7 “other” plastics category.

New York State is banning (by Jan 1, 2024) those little bottles of toiletries used in hotel rooms. (But they were so cute!)

There are many bans in effect or going into effect in European countries, but the EU as a whole is taking on some measures including a target for recycling of 90% of plastic bottles by 2029 and 50% of plastic packaging by 2025.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence (I doubt it) that Mattel announced earlier this month the “Barbie Loves the Ocean” line. In their writeup, Inhabitat says it’s made from 90% recycled ocean-bound plastic parts sourced within 50 kilometers of waterways in areas that are lacking formal waste collection systems. But like Lego’s announcement a couple of years ago that it would make parts from recycled plastic, this is somewhat misleading in that it is only a small part of their production. (To be fair, according to Mattel, “The launch is in line with Mattel’s goal to achieve 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic materials across all its products and packaging by 2030.”)

image of Barbie Loves the Ocean

Image from Mattel website

Perhaps more significantly, they also announced a takeback program called PlayBack. Though less press-worthy at first glance (which, after all, is what gets press – and therefore notice), it’s their start of what’s called Extended Producer Responsibility, a concept that’s becoming less conceptual in which manufacturers take responsibility for their products throughout the product’s lifetime, including the end of life, so that fewer things end up in landfills.

While Plastic-free July is well and good, the idea of a plastic-free month strikes me as similar to meatless Mondays. Why only one month of no single-use plastics or only one day a week of no meat?

This UN banner from back in May gets it right: “No More Single-use Plastic.” Period.

photo of UN single-use plastic banner

Photo credit: David Bergman

“Can We Be Hopeful?” Revisited

0Biden environmental appointees

(I had originally planned to post this near the beginning of the year, but it hardly seemed appropriate amidst the events of January 6. With the Biden administration now in office, it feels more timely.)

Slightly over a year ago, for my end of 2019 post, I wrote “Can we be hopeful?” In it, I said that, as bad as that year was environmentally, under a president who single-handedly set us back to whatever year ExxonMobil wanted him to, there was room – and need – for seeing the potential for a positive turn in the climate emergency.  But that was before massive wildfires, a record-breaking hurricane season, arctic waters that didn’t freeze when they’re supposed to, and numerous floods and heat waves beyond what used to be the norm.

Much of the optimistic viewpoint then was dependent on electing a new president. Any new president.

Perhaps the environmentally horrific events, though they may be overwhelmed in newsworthiness by the COVID-19 pandemic, have served to sway some of the deniers. It’s way too much to hope that they will all be convinced, but we already had a majority of the public onboard; it’s the politicians who have been the most obstructive. Perhaps the further swing in their constituents’ beliefs (I hate when people refer to ‘believing’ in climate change), will overwhelm their fealty to oil industry financial support. But, then again, maybe that’s the EcoOptimist in me.

The gist of that year-old post was that we needed both hope and fear. Fear of what can happen (or is happening) and hope that we can still prevent the worst. It’s a combined carrot and stick, I wrote.

Teaching my first class after Trump’s election in 2016, I barely held back tears, saying that the window on preventing the worst scenario of the climate emergency was closing. (I was also fearful for the immigration status and safety of the many international students in my classes.)

In an earlier draft of this post, pre-inauguration, I had written: while President-elect Biden is not as strong an environmentalist as many of us would have wanted, there’s no comparison to the windmills-cause-cancer malignancy of the outgoing administration. (Trump also said wind turbines are bad because they kill birds, but then authorized oil companies to “inadvertently” kill birds. Hypocrisy and politics seem to go together when they are convenient.)

Editing this delayed post now, just after Biden’s “Climate Day,” his executive orders are wonderfully exceeding our reserved hopes. (As a policy and economics geek when I’m not in my ecodesign role, I especially love that he is eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel companies.)

But is it too late, as I semi-tearfully feared after the 2016 election? Dunno. Some studies say the path past a 1.5° rise is set, that that train has left the station. (The metaphor is appropriate because, like trains, climate change ‘s momentum is hard to slow down.)  But I think the mindset it generates is unhelpful because it leaves us with only fatalism and no reason for action. Even if it’s true, we still can affect, if not that perhaps pre-ordained path, the further degree of impact. This isn’t merely EcoOptimism; it’s really the only way to move forward.

So, all in all, we have more reasons to affirmatively answer the question “Can We Be Hopeful?” than we did four years. And far more than we did a year ago.

Raising a glass of organic champagne.

Pandemics and US deregulation be damned. Plastic bans are not getting derailed.

NYS's plastic bag ban now enforced

It’s back, baby

As I wrote about several months ago, single-use plastic bans and fees have taken a back seat to the urgency of the COVID pandemic. First, there was the mistaken idea that plastic bags were necessary for sanitary reasons. Bag manufacturers did their best to take advantage of this. (As they have for decades as shown in the appropriately if cutely titled report, “Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions,” from the Changing Markets Foundation.) And then there was just the fact that there have been more pressing things for governments to deal with.

The glut of oil resulting from less travel and manufacturing has created a need for the fossil fuel industry to find other ways to utilize those “stranded assets,” and the primary direction is to increase plastic production, whose raw material is oil. But in Earther, Gizmodo’s sub-blog, Bruce Kahn documents the potential for “peak plastic” and a counterreaction in which governments are creating more bans and fees. (The US has, unsurprisingly, given our current regime, been an exception, but one hopes that will begin to change on January 20th.)

As evidence – maybe – of this, the U.S. Plastics Pact has brought together some of the major users of plastics, Coca Cola, Nestle and Unilever, with notable environmental organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund to phase out unnecessary plastic packaging and make sure other single-use plastics are recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. Forgive my cynicism, but I’m both dubious of this actually happening and suspicious of the terms recyclable, compostable and reusable.

But this blog is about optimism.

The big news this week, here at least, is that New York State’s ban, delayed from earlier in the year, is finally going to get enforced. Celebrating this belated event, I’ve added a few more entries in my Plastics Bans Worldwide database.

Canada’s ban moves forward: https://environmentaldefence.ca/2020/10/09/canada-ban-six-single-use-plastic-items-next-year/

England bans single-use plastic straws, stir-sticks and cotton swabs with plastic stems: https://www.treehugger.com/plastic-straws-banned-in-england-5080319

Scotland goes further and bans plastic straws, plates, knives and forks and polystyrene cups: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/scotland-ban-plastic-single-use-straws-cutlery-cotton-buds-england-b990587.html

New Jersey’s comprehensive plastic ban, called “This is the single most comprehensive plastics and paper reduction bill in the nation,” by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator and Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck, is a step closer to becoming law: https://www.ecowatch.com/new-jersey-plastics-ban-2647824015.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2 New York State’s plastics ban also calls for a 5-cent fee on paper bags. NJ goes a step further with a ban on them.

Foam packaging and containers haven’t, until recently, been as scrutinized, but that’s changing. NYC banned Styrofoam takeout containers and packaging peanuts last year, but it has sizable loopholes and enforcement is spotty. The latest ban, the first one by a state, comes from Maryland: https://www.ecowatch.com/maryland-foam-container-ban-2647845717.html

California, ever the environmental leader, is adding a new approach. Not exactly a ban and a bit off the mark considering the problems of plastic recycling, is incrementally requiring recycled content in liquids containers: https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/09/25/california-passes-first-in-nation-plastics-recycling-law/

Falling down the WELL

No, the caps are not for emphasis. The WELL is a very early digital community, still extant, that sprung out of the keyboards of the founders of the Whole Earth Review, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, in 1985, a long time before people started talking about “the net.” The name WELL stands for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. It’s self-described as being “widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born.”

It’s what the internet should have become. The fact that it still exists is somewhat startling.

I first stumbled onto (into?) the WELL via one of my virtual – and unbeknownst to him – mentors, the science fiction writer cum futurist Bruce Sterling. In those two overlapping roles, he manages to combine two of my life interests.

cover of Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling

Sterling’s unique take on design

Sterling was an early member of the WELL, which became a vehicle of sorts for his futurism. (That’s probably oversimplifying things.) In a 1998 talk, he launched the Viridian movement, where he defines a different hue of the green movement. Speaking in a tone that was a cross between self-deprecating humor and intentional hubris, he wrote:

People are going to demand from me to know what the future holds, and I am going to be fully briefed and in total command of my material. I will coolly and meticulously detail the future for them, in chapter and verse, with principles, subtexts, and policy recommendations. In the highest tradition of my futurist craft, I will be often wrong, but never in doubt. I feel a deep necessity to meet the need here, I consider this my moral duty.

And he anointed himself the “Pope-Emperor.”

Two days after the millennium began (yes, I know that was technically 2001, but who’s counting?), he published the Manifesto of the Viridian movement. He launched it on January 3rd because:

On January 1, everyone will be too hung over to read manifestos; on January 2, nobody’s computers will work. [Anyone remember Y2K?] So naturally the target date must be January 3.

Here’s a tidbit from the Manifesto that will make you either cry or cringe:

We have a worldwide environmental problem. This is a truism. But the unprecedentedly severe and peculiar weather of the late 1990s makes it clear that this problem is growing acute. Global warming has been a lively part of scientific discussion since at least the 1960s, but global warming is a quotidian reality now.

About a third of the way down, he gets to the core.

Society must become Green, and it must be a variety of Green that society will eagerly consume. What is required is not a natural Green, or a spiritual Green, or a primitivist Green, or a blood-and-soil romantic Green.

The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green. A Viridian Green, if you will.

So, what does this history lesson (perhaps a “Fractured Fairy Tale”) have to with EcoOptimism? In other words, what does it have to do with me, the EcoOptimist “Pope-Emperor?”

Having met Bruce (I’m going to assume we’re on a first name basis) at a panel I attended at the International Contemporary Fair Furniture back when the fair was more cutting-edge and allowed small fry like my lighting company Fire & Water to exhibit, I exchanged a few emails with him and started following the movement.

At some point, in a Viridian thread someone inquired about eco furnishings for their home. Or at least that’s how I recall it; The emails are long gone. I posted in the thread that what we really needed was a list of green furnishings. I should have anticipated what happened next because Bruce wrote back to me, saying why don’t you do it? It became the Viridian Recommended Furniture list. I titled it “Eco-furniture: A broad and very subjective list.”

 

It was daunting to write for a movement begun – no, make that owned – by a revered writer. I did my best to be clever. In the intro to that updated version, I wrote:

I titled [the newest entries] in an obvious moment of kowtow to our Viridian Pope: “What if Green Design Were Just Good Design.” But that’s a good thing (the additions, not the brown nosing). It means that eco designed furniture is becoming less like what too many people think all eco furniture looks like. It’s breaking out of its crunchy niche and getting its sustainable teeth into everything.

The quoted phrase was from the title of a column he wrote in 2001 for Dwell magazine. It’s not online but I saved a PDF of it that I used to assign to my students. He started it with “Green design should have won 30 years ago. By now, we should have forgotten all about being green, Greenness should be par for the course….” Taking a cue from that, I put forward the term “Transparent Green,” which I defined as “the green that was there but not shouting it. Perhaps not displaying it at all.” I got some good mileage out of Transparent Green by teaching, writing and speaking about the topic for many years. I stopped referring to it when, happily, green products that didn’t look green became practically the norm.

The Green Devil's Dictionary

In “What if Green Design Were Just Good Design,” Sterling wrote “Being green is cranky, fringy and deservedly unpopular.” His “Green Devil’s Dictionary” captures the self-seriousness that  greenies sometimes fall prey to.

15 years later, some of my attempted cleverness still seems either moderately clever or painful. I wrote company descriptions such as:

“More artful twigs”
“Celtic and Viking inspired furniture from reclaimed timber. Imagine a Viking interpretation of a tv cabinet — now there’s timeless design”
“Cork furniture. Now you can really be pinned to your seat”
“’Art furniture’ from discarded pallets. Nicer than it sounds.”

Now, in 2020, a vast majority of the companies I listed are no longer there. I guess that signifies the Darwinian evolution of the industry. I tried to have the list taken down a few years ago and Bruce wrote back that no one seemed to have the password. That, combined with the fact that he ended the movement in 2008, must symbolize something. Apologies to my friend Chris Poehlmann who I chastised on the list for still using incandescent bulbs. He’s since seen the light. (Go ahead and groan. I’m only sometimes clever.) But, apparently, I can’t update it. I like it, though, as a page in the history of ecodesign.

I was pretty proud of the list at the time. Now, the great thing is there are so many eco-furniture companies that I couldn’t possibly make such a list because it would take a pile of underpaid interns to help me. And Google can do the work for me. (Just to be clear, I don’t use Google for searches. I use DuckDuckGo cause they don’t spy on you and make sure you don’t get unrelenting ads for something totally embarrassing that you merely looked up once.)

I started this post talking about the WELL and, sort of in keeping with the diversity of the WELL, I’ve no idea how I got started on the topic and how it ended up being almost entirely about Bruce Sterling and the Viridian movement. Or, for that matter, about me.

Bruce: if you’re reading this, go easy on me.