Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Nature of Nature

Yep, it’s Earth Day. Again. Or Earth Week, judging from the plethora of announcements and invitations that have come in. There are all kinds of reasons a curmudgeon can question the validity of this occasion, ranging from criticizing the idea of “honoring” the Earth for just this short period of time each year, to questioning what can sometimes appear to be the commercialization, perhaps the corporatization, of that occasion. In between, one can wonder about the effectiveness and impact it has had on this, its 43rd, occurrence.


I – the supposed EcoOptimist – am skipping virtually all the festivities: the tree plantings, the film screenings, the organic foodfests and the rest. And while that probably does make me at least a part-time member of the aforementioned curmudgeons, there is in fact an EcoOptimistic silver lining in that I’m spending this time thinking long and hard about nature.

The pondering is due to a presentation I’m giving at a conference in a few days in Mexico City. I’m not sure if this conference, called the “2nd Sustainable Design and Building Encounter” (which, I suspect, sounds better in its original Spanish) is intentionally scheduled during Earth Week or not.  Its theme this year is “Rebuilding Paradise: towards the ideal city of the 21st century” and it appears to take as its starting point the view that cities are “characterized by nature’s degradation and species annihilation.”

Few would question that our dense habitations are artificial encroachments on the natural landscape, and that we have pushed aside, bulldozed, what once were virgin ecosystems, existing happily or at least sustainably without our intrusions. But are the things we build – the “modifications” to “physical geography” as one of the first ecologists put it in 1864 – unnatural? Does the fact that they are built by people automatically mean they are not a part of nature?

In one of the courses I created and teach at Parsons, “Economics and Ethics of Sustainable Design,” we spend some of the first few weeks discussing the relationship between humanity and nature and analyzing the fundamental question of whether there is a separation between the two – an “us and them” – or whether we are a part of nature, a subset of the whole. The question touches on religion (paganism and animism vs Christianity) as well as science (atomism vs systems thinking) and law (do animals – or all of nature, for that matter — have rights?).

There are many environmental implications within the answer to this question: seemingly basic ones like whether it is ethical to eat meat and more complicated ones such as whether it is our “right” to take from nature’s resources without limit. The more relevant point for my upcoming talk concerns, I guess, the nature of nature. More specifically, if the conclusion, as most environmentalists would probably agree, is that we are part of nature, not a separate group, then it stands to reason that our creations – buildings, cars, salad spinners, and all – are not “unnatural.” To say our cities are unnatural and therefore lacking in nature, is akin to saying a beehive or an ant hill is unnatural.

That isn’t an argument that our urban scapes have a sufficient amount of non-human living organisms. It is, though, a way to look at the biodiversity of urban ecosystems. With this definition of nature, we can say that cities are too populated  and dominated by humans, and that other species of life are underrepresented, resulting in ecosystems that are both unsustainable in an ecological sense and probably unhealthy for humans in a biophilic sense.

Biophilia, in case you are unfamiliar with the term, is our innate need to bond with other living systems. As a long time urban denizen who rarely feels the need to venture beyond the wildlife of the subway (a treehugger who doesn’t actually want to hug trees) and whose home includes no living organisms aside from two humans and a dog, I’ve long questioned the strength of that need.

I do derive loads of pleasure (and probably much lowering of blood pressure) from the hours of petting my dog. However, I don’t feel imprisoned by the city; I don’t feel deprived when not exposed to enough flowers or farms (or mosquitoes or poison ivy).

Yes, there are studies showing that hospital patients recuperate faster when they views from their rooms. And a recent report, The Economics of Biophilia, found that there are substantial benefits in health and productivity from biophilic design. There’s no doubt, even in my urban-centric mind, that more sunlight and exposure to non-human nature would be beneficial to those of us who live or work in dense city centers. It would also provide us with a greater connection to aspects of nature that we are so dependent on but which are unseen and often therefore unappreciated. How many New Yorker’s have ever visited the upstate lakes and reservoirs that serve us water that’s healthier than most bottled waters? Do they even know where their tap water comes from?

I’m probably more aware than most, due to exploring topics like this, of the dependency of cities on their surrounding environs. (Let’s not forget, by the way, that this is really an interdependency, working both ways – as, in fact, all ecosystems do.) But is it critical for me to visit and interact with our watershed, to experience harvesting my food, or hear nothing but birds and my footsteps while hiking? Personally, I don’t feel that need, and I can still both feel fulfilled and have an appreciation for the ecological diversity that makes my Manhattan existence possible. But I also know that I am probably not normal in that respect. (I can virtually hear the exclamations of my more outdoorsy friends.)  I’m the one singing the refrain “New York is where I’d rather stay. I get allergic smelling hay.” So I don’t disagree with the common view that we need more views, or that cities could and should be more self-sustaining ecosystems.

But I don’t think cities or urban living are unnatural. No more unnatural than we are. Over half the human population now lives in cities, and that trend will only continue. The question I hope to address at the conference – as well as hear from others about – is how we best combine the human and non-human forms of nature to create cities that are both sustainable ecosystems and fulfilling places to live and flourish.

From Our Factory to Your Kitchen. Then the Landfill.

What are the odds of two Wrongest Product Award nominations dealing with bananas? It’s not like bananas are iconic fruit as, say, apples are. Apples have played a part in the Bible, in William Tell, in American patriotism, in New York City branding and in computers and cellphones worldwide. Bananas? Aside from slapstick comedies and the occasional bad R-rated joke, their lore is lean. But I guess bananas are, um, compensating with their prolific progeny.

The second Wrongest Product Award nomination (following the inaugural nominee, plug-in air fresheners) went to a grocery chain that pre-peeled and then plastic-wrapped bananas. Presumably, it’s too much trouble to peel your own banana, and then you have to protect it because it no longer has a peel.

This nomination addresses the next step: the burdensome ritual of cutting the banana into slices for your morning cereal or for your Elvis peanut butter and banana sandwich. For my own part, I’ve perfected the method of partially peeling the banana, leaving one side unpeeled so I can hold it in one hand while safely slicing through the peeled part with the other. But I guess others are not so adept and hence the Hutzler banana slicer had to be invented.

Banana Slicer

Banana Slicer

Lloyd Alter of first brought this emblem of modern convenience to our attention over a year ago when he reviewed it as another one of the “marginally useless things that fill our drawers and bloat our kitchens.” But then he was forced to withdraw the criticism (at least he says he’s withdrawing it; his mea culpa, I suspect, is more than a little tongue in cheek) when the many pages of Amazon reviews were drawn to his attention. The ingenious comments must there comprise some sort of gauge of both the human intellect and our capacity to waste time (while writing reviews of time-saving items).

Kitchen accessories seem especially ripe for both unnecessary and humorous (intentionally or otherwise) designs. You know, the stuff of late-night infommercials. Or Saturday Night Live spoofs. From Gizmodo, we recently received a digital gift basket of Wrongest Product Award nominees in a post titled “15 More Insanely Specific Kitchen Gadgets.” Among them, the hot dog gets its version of the banana slicer in the “dog dicer” – provided, I assume, so that, in case you don’t have a can of SpaghettiOs handy but you do have spaghetti and a hot dog, you can make your own.  Calamity averted.

Eggs must be a very inconvenient form of food. How else to explain the numerous egg devices in the Gizmodo post: hard-boiled egg molds, egg boilers and egg crackers? (Store them with your Egg Topper Cutter, also available in a more phallic and less threatening version, and your egg slicer.) Then there are several items to ease our constant battles with produce: cucumber and apple slicers to add alongside the banana guy — all stored, of course, in your drawer devoted to specialty slicers — an orange peeler thingie, a mushroom cleaner and, yes, a pomegranate “deseeder.”  My favorite, though, has to be their headliner, the s’more maker, bringing you the rewards of camping (or at least of getting the fire in the fireplace started) without the hassle, via your microwave.

Form follows function: “Arms prevent marshmallows from over expanding and overcooking.” Image: Amazon

Form follows function: “Arms prevent marshmallows from over expanding and overcooking.” Image: Amazon


We have a rule in our house that anything we want to own has to have been needed at least three times and anything we keep has to have been used at least once in the previous three years. (Don’t hold me to it, though; we do break the house rules sometimes, as some of my wife’s many collections will attest.) Yes, we actually have used our fondue maker (itself purchased used) more than three times, and perhaps we’ll make s’mores at home more times than our self-imposed pre-purchase minimum. But I prefer my s’mores made with both less convenience and less plastic.

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

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

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

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at)

All of the Above. None of the Below.

I don’t like slogans, despite my lamenting the lack of good ones in the environmental world. Like analogies, they tend to oversimplify and convince with their catchiness. (Grammarians may note that I made a simile there between analogies and slogans. My high school English teachers would be proud.) Think of the slogan “guns don’t kill; people do.” Um, yeah, guns do kill. Or “America: Love it or Leave It.” That’s certainly not the only choice.

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said "This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy…” Image source: NPR

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said “This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy…” Image source: NPR

But I can come up with slogans, too. And in the sense of tit-for-tat, I propose a response to President Obama’s energy policy of “all of the above.” I suggest “none of the below.”  It’s both catchy and overly broad, so it fits the bill.

[On the day I posted this, Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz said at his confirmation hearing “The president is an all-of-the above person and I am an all-of-the above person.”]

“All of the above” sounds, on the face of it, entirely reasonable.  In its inclusivity, it tries to appeal to everyone and it communicates a type of urgency by implying we can’t leave out any options. However it masks the fact (I’m tempted to err on the side of inclusion and call it a belief rather than a fact, but I’m no longer willing to concede that point) that several of the energy sources that get included in “the above” don’t deserve to be.

And, conveniently for sloganeers, the sources that ought not be included come not from above, but below. Specifically, I’m talking about energy sources that we procure from below ground. More specifically still, those would be fossil fuels: petroleum, gas and coal. Let’s contrast this with above ground sources: solar, wind and, with a bit of a stretch, hydro and tidal.

There are two primary differences between above and below sources. The belows are non-renewable  and carbon-producing. As we run out of them they will become increasingly difficult and expensive, and more environmentally destructive, to obtain while emitting more and more climate-disrupting carbon into the atmosphere.

“Above” sources, on the other hand, are constantly replenished and free. The sun doesn’t care how much of its energy we harvest. (Nor does the moon, the source of tidal energy.) And since they don’t involve combustion of carbon-based materials, they don’t increase atmospheric CO2.

“None of the below” is not a perfect slogan. Geothermal energy comes from below ground, yet doesn’t have the drawbacks of other subsurface sources. Nuclear power, a divisive topic even among environmentalists, would technically be a below ground source though it isn’t carbon intense. Its energy origin, however, lies in uranium, whose mining is an ecologically nasty industry.

As a slogan, the main problem, I think, with “none of the below” is that it sounds negative whereas “all of the above” has a positive, optimistic ring to it. (An ironic problem for EcoOptimism.) Perhaps then the trick lies in coopting the original, redefining what “above” means, as in something like “all of the truly above.” Or not. As I’ve asked before, where is the environmental world’s Frank Luntz?

I’ve also written that I am wary of metaphors because it seems there’s always a metaphor to “prove” any point.  Slogans, which tend to make heavy use of metaphors, have a similar liability, but they are indeed useful for quick – and, hopefully, not dirty – communication. So, like ‘em or not, we need a good one.


Stealing from the Future

I thought – or hoped — Paul Krugman’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Cheating Our Children,” was going to be about an important issue involving our individual and societal responsibilities to our descendants.  It was – just not the one I anticipated from the headline.

Perhaps I was practicing wishful thinking, but when I read “Yes, we are cheating our children, but the deficit has nothing to do with it,” I assumed he was going to talk about the fact that the decisions we make today are determining the environment (and hence the future) for upcoming generations, and that those generations have absolutely no voice in those decisions.

The points he makes deal with important, fundamental issues of what kind of future we lay the groundwork for. But he’s writing specifically about financial futures, not about what I consider the even larger ethical question, the answer to which will define our children’s lives in ways beyond just economic bottom lines.

I thought he was going to build upon one of the essences, one of the foundations, of the American Revolution. (No, not the misapplied right to bear arms.) I’m referring to a concept sometimes called remote tyranny. Back then it was about a distant government that was ruling the colonies, taxing them and making laws without allowing representation. (Yep, the origin of the real Tea Party.)

Thomas Jefferson wrote of the remote tyranny of the British and later wrote of intergenerational responsibilities: “the earth belongs to the living…… man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime. If he could, then the world would belong to the dead, and not to the living”

Thomas Jefferson wrote of the remote tyranny of the British and later wrote of intergenerational responsibilities: “the earth belongs to the living…… man may by natural right oblige the land he owns or occupies to debts greater than those that may be paid during his own lifetime. If he could, then the world would belong to the dead, and not to the living”

In more recent years the concept has been adapted to a different type of distant rule without representation: intergenerational remote tyranny. (The term appears to have been coined by William McDonough, co-author of the seminal ecodesign book Cradle to Cradle.) The potential – some say the probability – exists that a generation or two or three from now, “we” will be faced with a dramatically different world, one with flooded cities, harsher weather, scarce water and fossil fuels, resulting in massive relocations and food shortages, among other possibilities. I put “we” in quotes because it is humanity, but not exactly us since many of us will not be around, and that is the intergenerational aspect.

I once asked a new client, whose home I was renovating, about her degree of interest in incorporating environmental criteria in the design. She replied jokingly “well, we don’t have kids, so we don’t really care.” It was, though, an astute comment on our inherent selfishness, combined with the fact that humans are not wired to think about abstract futures. We respond to imminent tangible dangers, like fire or attack, but we’re not as good at dealing with more distant scenarios, particularly when we haven’t experienced them before or when the timeframe is longer.

Krugman’s column was dealing with the impacts of financial debt, questioning the relative importance of imposing a financial burden on our children versus the effects of disinvesting in programs that will benefit them. There is a direct parallel in the form of environmental debt. When we use up a resource, it means it will not be available for later generations. That, too, imposes a cost. The cost will vary depending on the resource. Some will be replaceable by other resources, meaning only that the cost will rise. Others, such as water, may not be replaceable at all, thus causing a wholly different kind of burden.

A financial analogy is useful. We can think of the planet’s stock of resources as bank accounts. There are accounts for each resource: potable water, oil, oxygen, topsoil, rare earth minerals, and so on. Left to themselves, the planet’s ecosystems keep these supplies in balance: purifying water, creating oil from decaying carbon, cycling oxygen and carbon dioxide, absorbing and reflecting critical amounts of solar radiation, etc. It’s an incredible system.

The problems come in when we exceed the regenerative capabilities of these systems, when we draw down these resources faster than the ecosystems can replenish them. It’s the same as withdrawing from a bank account faster than you make deposits. You can do it for a while because the account had a starting balance, but eventually you run out. In the case of fossil fuels, the earth has been slowly depositing into that account for millennia and created a huge stock. But then we started extracting and burning those fuels at a rate far, far faster than the earth’s ability to replenish them, leading us to “peak oil” and, eventually, a point where we’ve used up all that is available.

The rate at which individual resource stocks are being used up varies with the “opening balance” in the account, the speed of replenishment and the amount of withdrawals. Some resources can be thought of as having huge trust funds that are resupplied by high interest investments, and those are not likely to be a problem. Others, though, have less positive financial projections: their funds may run out in a matter of a few generations (or less). But our “nature” hinders our ability to plan for these possibilities.



Another part of this issue is that we tend to not think about, or include in our economics, the “free” things we get from nature.  In environmental economics, these are referred to as ecological services. What is the dollar value of nature’s purification of water or of a forest’s ability to absorb carbon from the air and release oxygen? Where do these appear in corporate bottom lines or in GDP? They don’t, of course. And that’s part of the rationale behind a carbon tax – it’s needed in order to correct for this omission and to make the market work more accurately.

(I discussed the idea of paying the Earth for ecological services in the post Planets, are People, My Friends.)

In terms of our topic here, Cheating Our Children, this glaring omission in our economic accounting serves to further worsen the degree of debt we are passing down. It’s the equivalent of double bookkeeping: one set that looks (relatively) rosy for us and another for our children.

Krugman’s column ends with “[O]ur sin involves investing too little, not borrowing too much — and the deficit scolds, for all their claims to have our children’s interests at heart, are actually the bad guys in this story.” In our ecological version, we ARE borrowing too much, as well as investing too little. And the bad guys? Well, to a degree it’s all of us in the consumer world, but in the analogy to the supposed debt crisis, it would particularly be the parties who profit from the double bookkeeping and the climate change deniers, many of whom have direct ties to the former.

The combination of double bookkeeping and short-term thinking are the real cheats. Krugman is right in asking why we are “shortchanging the future so dramatically and inexcusably.” His economic answers, though, only address our children’s finances without assuring there will be a livable world to spend it in. EcoOptimism says we can – and have to – do both.