Tag Archives: Superstorm Sandy

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

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.

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.

Holy (grass-fed) Cow, It’s Been a Year

tag cloud2

First anniversary gifts are traditionally supposed to be made of paper. That seems thoroughly inappropriate, though, for celebrating an eco-blog’s one year mark.  Which is, in EcoOptimism’s case, today.

I suppose it might be interesting to look at how much paper would have been used to create, edit and distribute the year’s worth of posts were this a pre-digital age. (68 posts, not counting this one! And, for what it’s worth, the only paper consumed was a handful of in-office recycled pages and a few Post-Its. Electrons sacrificed, though? That’s another thing entirely.)

I think a different kind of tally is more interesting — and more useful as a type of gauge indicating where the focus and direction has been. To do this, I had to go back and set up something that, had I known, I should have been doing from the outset: creating “categories” and “tags” for each post. SEO is not one of my strengths.

Turned out that having to reread each post in order to create the list of categories and tags, and then analyzing the stats on tag usage was a great way to do a bit of a mission check or, in the famous words of the late Mayor Ed Koch, ask “How’m I doin’?”

In the blog-as-book metaphor, categories are sort of like the table of contents. Creating tags, I learned, is somewhat akin to creating an index – something I was spared in my book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide, where the publisher thought a glossary would be more useful for readers. (FYI, a glossary is much harder to do, but also much more fun. Creating definitions is a bit like playing God.) Once I’d created the “index” and logged which posts referenced the topic or person, the blog software kindly gave me the stats indicating how many occurrences there were for each entry. The software also provided me with a “tag cloud” – apologies if you already know this stuff – that graphically renders the stats by type size.

So here’s what I learned. I have a tie for the number of posts referencing “win-win-win” and “consumption.” That first one is a decent indicator that I’ve been pretty good about staying on topic since win-win-win is a reasonable synonym for EcoOptimism. (I didn’t index the term EcoOptimism, by the way. That seemed a little redundant, since pretty much every post includes it, not to mention it being a bit self-referential.) The tying term, consumption, is more useful to ponder. In the post “Answering the Wrong Question,” I discussed the formula I=PxCxT, which says environmental impact is a result of population, consumption and technology. (The formula is more often rendered I=PxAxT, where A stands for affluence, but the term affluence strikes me as both judgmental and not as accurate as looking at consumption.) This post started out addressing the flawed (as I see it) argument for nuclear power, but then went on to discuss the demand for energy and its relationship to consumption. That, in turn, brought up a point I often drill into my students: “It’s not just about climate change.” Quoting myself further (hey, it’s my anniversary so let me indulge):

[S]imply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources … won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from industrial farming …. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Thinking about this some more, that last point seems to indicate that something is missing from the I=PxCxT equation. It doesn’t take into account the sources of energy consumed and their relative effects. Environmental impact may not be only about climate change, but climate change as a result of using carbon-based energy is certainly a major – if not the major – factor. Perhaps then a better formula would be I=PxCxTxEC, where EC is short for energy from carbon. (Anyone got a suggestion for a single letter instead of EC? Maybe F for fossil fuels?)

Hmm, I thought this post was just going to be self-reflective. Now it seems to have expanded to propose revising a basic tenet of environmentalism. As my mother-in-law would say: “Go know.” My slightly more current version is “who’d a thunk.”

Returning to the stats on tags, the next tie is a neatly correlated one between “happiness” and “GDP.” Actually, the correlation between happiness and GDP is not a “neat” one, but is more like diminishing returns. As a poor country’s GDP increases, happiness in the form of wellbeing tends to increase with it. Basic needs like food and shelter become more available as do education and medicine. But that doesn’t continue to hold true. After a point, one which we in the US have surpassed, rising GDP fails to accompany increased wellbeing and, in fact, has the opposite effect. Gauges of Western wellbeing and happiness show decreases since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. Often this is explained in terms of the “hedonic treadmill.”

I’ll spare you a line by line further analysis of the tags; you can get a visual idea from the tag cloud above. Of note, I think, is that so many of the highest ranked tags relate not to design, but to economics. In addition to the ones already noted, there’s carbon pricing, ecological services, externalities, free market, economic growth, and true cost. As an architect and ecodesigner with a background in economics, I’d like to see more emphasis here on looking at the relationship of the quality of our built environment on environmental impact as well as the quality of the environment on human wellbeing.

It’s worth noting that Superstorm Sandy rates a large font in the graphic above, ranking only slightly below the top two ties. Perhaps relatedly, if you were to tally the categories (as opposed to tags) that each post falls under, the clear leader would be “Messaging.” Several of the 68 posts thus far have pondered why environmental issues and causes are having such a difficult time garnering public support: is it a matter of taking the wrong tactics to communicating the problems? How we approach this question goes to a core of EcoOptimism’s purpose. One way that climate disruption or other eco topics will rise to greater attention is when the reality, the fear, sets in. Sandy was seen by many as a harbinger.

But clarion calls may come too late. The disruptions set in motion by then may, like the proverbial train, take too long to stop, let alone reverse. EcoOptimism says, rather than build the demand on fear, build it on desire by establishing that the actions we need to take are actually steps that we want to take because, aside from the environmental benefits, they will improve our lives.

Community and Sustainability

Far too many environmental conferences and discussions are repetitive and uninspiring. Frequently, we find ourselves preaching to the choir, perhaps just trying to impress each other. Then, every once in a while, an event manages to bring together the right “vibes,” and that’s when ideas can coalesce and energize.

I found myself in one of those happy circumstances this past weekend at “Understanding Urban Sustainability: One Block at a Time,” hosted by the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design (CUISD) and the Fourth Arts Block (FABnyc).

The Fourth Street Arts Block is within shouting distance (trucks, buses and horns notwithstanding) of Cooper Union. The block is home to several Off-Broadway theaters (among other productions, “Rent” began there) as well as typical NYC tenements, many with residents whose families have lived there for generations. It’s also adjacent to the Bowery, which is undergoing a Renaissance – probably its first ever – with hotels and museums replacing flophouses and used restaurant supply stores.

The block is the only official “cultural district” in NYC, but what interested me is that FABnyc has also embarked on a mission to green the block. To that end, they have a project with Cooper Union “to generate new and innovative solutions to the complexities of urban sustainability.” In addition, their “Model Block” program has undertaken energy efficiency steps such as enabling buildings on the block to install white roofs and obtain energy audits.

At the event, the questions revolved around what else FABnyc could be doing and how it might be looked at as a model for other blocks. As the discussions evolved, several topics I’d been pondering began to come together. In my recent columns (here, here and here) on the Lower East Side redevelopment project called SPURA, I spent a fair amount of time discussing neighborhood and street vitality, focusing on how monolithic buildings and big box stores sap energy compared to the way older “Main Street” type designs work.

This is not news, of course. The realization has been around since Jane Jacobs wrote about it and, in more recent years, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk have concentrated on it as has Kaid Benfield (though his recent posts have lamented that Main Street’s future may not be all it’s cracked up to be).

Fourth Street’s architecture is pretty intact in that the buildings are walk-ups and most have storefronts on their ground level. So there is a constant level of activity and interaction involving residents, shop owners, dog walkers, theater attendees and others. The stores range from a small scale food co-op that’s been there for decades to a newcomer artisanal chocolate shop (highly recommended!). When the street is closed for a festival, it’s not the typical characterless affair that abounds in NYC summers with sock vendors and greasy food, but instead has performances, local artists selling jewelry and classes to teach kids to ride bicycles.



FAB! Festival photos by Lori Greenberg

What’s the connection to sustainability? One of the biggest issues in sustainability is disengagement. Many, if not most, people feel that any efforts they might be able to undertake are too difficult or, more commonly, too insignificant to matter. Living (or working) on a block or in a neighborhood where anonymity is the rule discourages any sense of ownership, of belonging to something larger than just you. Simultaneously, this means you have less incentive to participate and less sense of responsibility to a community. This can contribute to any number of “quality of life” problems like noise and littering. If you don’t know your neighbors, you’re less likely to care.

The digital world has exacerbated this problem. Several conference attendees commented that their blocks and communities became closer during the post-Sandy blackout because people were forced to leave their computers, X-boxes and televisions. People who lived across the street from each other or even next door met for the first time. This phenomenon resulted in some mostly tongue-in-cheek suggestions that we have regular planned blackouts. (It’s worth noting, though, that the Internet and email can also support block associations and bulletin boards and the like.)

It’s fairly apparent that a key to sustainability is popular support and participation – buy-in, some call it. Active street life can foster this in ways that high-rise apartment buildings, even when built to the street line, and towers-in-the-park cannot. For instance, one of my suggestions for future projects was a block collection system for compost. NYC currently does not have compost collection (though they’re looking into it). In the meanwhile, residents have to store their compost at home (keep in mind that most of us do not have outdoor space) and then take it themselves to a collection center on appointed days. That’s too much work and too much icky-ness for most. But if communities were to set up local, perhaps self-run systems, my bet is many more would participate – even without the “stick” of government requirements – and we might even see friendly competition to see whose building composts and recycles the most.

(There’s a question of critical mass here, too. How much density is needed to achieve the activity and street vitality that supports community involvement? And while it’s pretty obvious there’s a minimum density, is there a maximum? It’s a topic worthy of a post of its own, which is what I will do soon.)

At the end of the event, I brought up that this was an almost perfect application of the old environmental slogan “Think Global, Act Local.” Strengthening communities can get people out of their individual shells and lead to more involvement in and buy-in of local eco practices, which in turn can get people thinking on the larger global level since the world is, after all, just a much larger community.


It’s Not the Economy vs the Environment

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

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

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

Is this how to gauge environmental policy? Image source

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Answering the Wrong Question

On the Colbert Report Monday night – if you’re keeping count as I am, that’s two weeks in a row that Colbert’s “forced” me write a post – environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate metaphors because it seems you can always find one to make any position sound right. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power and we simply haven’t been good parents. Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.


I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in “Less is More, More or Less,” it’s been pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource or Technological intensity of those things we consume. So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicting doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But as has been mentioned here in EcoOptimism and elsewhere, more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my classes shouts out “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

Resilience – 2012 Word of the Year?

Even before Sandy, the word ‘resilience’ was on its way to becoming a meme. Then, when a “natural disaster” struck the political and financial powers of New York City – along with countless others – the idea started to take on some urgency.

Ironically, urgency is not a typical approach to resilience. The idea of resilience, in short, is to have the ability to survive and bounce back from “bad things,” whether they be natural or man-made. The reason urgency often doesn’t apply is that, as many have observed, we humans are not well equipped to plan for future possibilities. Especially ones that seem less than imminent or less likely to affect you personally.

Sandy both proved the immediacy of a formerly more or less theoretical threat and showed that it can bring a major American city to its knees. (Katrina’s hit on New Orleans should have accomplished that, but it didn’t, perhaps because NOLA has long lived with the possibility of flooding or because Wall Street is not in New Orleans.) Enough so that resilience is now even a US Senate topic in the form of the STRONG (Strengthening the Resiliency of Our Nation on the Ground) Act introduced post-Sandy by senators from NY, NJ and Massachusetts.

Increasing resilience has long been a reaction to natural disasters such as earthquakes. Building codes are updated; procedures for the aftermath are put in place (though never adequate for a worse-than-the-previous event). They tend, though, to lose out to complacency. In some of the areas devastated by the tsunami that hit Japan, there were century-old stone markers placed after a previous tsunami warning people not to build closer to the shore. But when no tsunamis occurred for a while, the stones were ignored and forgotten. Resilience itself may not be resilient, at least not to the effects of time.

"High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants," the stone slab reads. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point." Source: Huffington Post

“High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the stone slab reads. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.” Source: Huffington Post






Sandy-type disasters are not likely to fade with time. Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanos and the like generally don’t have patterns to their frequency or scale. And it used to be that climate disasters like drought or flooding didn’t either. But where the former are truly natural – “acts of God” – we can no longer say the same is true of the latter.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that Sandy or the Midwest drought wouldn’t have occurred were it not for our environmental “sins.” (Hmm, there must be a religion somewhere that believes these events were indeed acts of God in response to those sins.) But without several anthropocenic multipliers, their effects would certainly have been less. And as there is no foreseeable diminishment of those influences (CO2 levels are not falling, marshes and mangroves are not being re-established, shore development is not abating), it’s apparent that, unlike truly natural disasters, the frequency and scale of climate-related disasters will only escalate.

Which brings us back to resilience and the question of how we deal with the prospect of future disasters. The EcoOptimist in me has somewhat mixed feelings about emphasizing resilience. My  reservations derive from two related issues. The first is that the pursuit of resilience can be seen as the equivalent of throwing in the towel and conceding defeat to the inevitability of climate disruption. The second is that, in our binary either-or thought process, an emphasis on resilience is all too likely to occur at the expense of actions and investments that might diminish the causes of climate disruption (thus in fact leading to that same defeat). The costs of adapting cities will surely divert funds from programs to curtail CO2 emissions.

In a recent talk, I divided climate actions into three categories: prevention, mitigation and adaptation. Prevention is the primary path we’ve been pursuing. Though there’ve been some successes (for example, acid rain), there have been far more failures, mostly in the form of opportunities not taken. This is highly unfortunate because, aside from the obvious reasons, virtually every study has shown that prevention is the least costly approach. It’s going to cost a fortune to build seawalls to protect NYC. If we (or had we) spent that kind of money on cutting greenhouse gases, we’d be far ahead of the game – especially since that investment would provide future returns that seawalls don’t.

Storm surge barrier locations proposed for NYC starting in 2004 after a study predicting the flooding from a “superstorm.” Image is from New York Sea Grant.

Storm surge barrier locations proposed for NYC starting in 2004 after a study predicting the flooding from a “superstorm.” Image is from New York Sea Grant.














Unfortunately, there’s a fundamental question now of whether it’s too late for prevention. If we somehow found the political resolve, could we actually obviate the need for remedial steps? In other words, could the train of global warming be stopped in time? There is a built in lag factor, a delay between the time greenhouse gases are released and its impacts are felt. So the warming of the next bunch of years or decades is preordained.

Hence the need to turn to the next steps: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is finding ways to diminish the impact (versus preventing it). In the case of flooding events like Sandy and Katrina, mitigation would involve efforts such as preservation or recreation of wetlands that can absorb the water. Even oysters, it turns out, can have a role. In addition to their ability to cleanse polluted waters, oyster beds can also slow tidal surges.

“Oyster-tecture” reefs proposed by Scape/Landscape Architecture for storm surge protection in NY harbor. Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Rising Currents” in 2010.

“Oyster-tecture” reefs proposed by Scape/Landscape Architecture for storm surge protection in NY harbor. Part of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Rising Currents” in 2010.


Mitigation can also involve less natural methods ranging from porous pavement to the further extreme of storm-surge barriers or seawalls. Here in NY, the stage is being set for a classic environmental battle, with a group led by Governor Cuomo promoting construction of a many-billion dollar barrier and opposition led by Mayor Bloomberg questioning the feasibility of a seawall. (The third camp, deniers, holds little sway here.) The Bloomberg camp points out that, even if the barrier worked when needed, it would have very large environmental impacts of its own and would also merely deflect the water elsewhere, perhaps increasing the damage in neighboring areas. Stalemate.

Hierarchically, mitigation is the path necessitated by the failure of prevention. Adaptation, then, is required when both prevention and mitigation fail. Focusing again on Sandy and NYC, adaptation responses range from elevating buildings (or at least their necessary services) to abandonment of low-lying areas. It would include making our electricity supply better able to endure partial interruptions and our transit systems able to stop flooding or at least recover faster (and cheaper) from it. In larger terms, we’d make our food supply less dependent on transport over long distances.  It’s making our human support system more resilient, in short.

It also is pretty much writing off the idea of returning our planet – and us – to some semblance of sustainability. Andrew Zolli, often called a futurist, wrote recently “Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world.” The problem with resorting to resilience is that, if the world is still imbalanced, you have to keep moving the goal posts. If we don’t stop global warming, how high will sea levels rise and will the barriers we construct in this part of the century be adequate for the future? Similar questions arise concerning food supplies (or food security, as it’s coming to be known) or, say, infectious diseases spread by climate-driven insect migrations. And those are only some of the impacts that we can try to foresee; how many other side effects might we not have the smarts to anticipate?

EcoOptimism, with its implicit assumption that solutions are available, would have us focus on prevention. It’s much smarter to spend money on ‘front of tailpipe’ solutions — actions that nip the problem before it occurs — than on much more expensive and likely less predictable end of tailpipe reactions. But at this stage in our non-committal response to climate disruption, we’ve almost certainly committed ourselves, by default, to a mix of both positive actions, ideally taken by choice, and necessary involuntary reactions: an all of the above combination of prevention, mitigation and adaptation.

That’s a key point; resilience is undertaken when we realize we have no options left. The seas are going to rise. Crops are going to be disrupted. Storms are going to get stronger. We will have to take responsive measures. (We may call them precautionary, but there’s no “pre” involved. We’re past that.)

Not that resilience is bad. It’s just unfortunate that we’ve come to the point in terms of climate disruption where there’s a strong case to be made for it: for adaptation rather than prevention. We’re talking about building the bomb shelters instead of defusing the bombs. And those bunkers were never going to help much in a post-nuclear war world.

EcoOptimistic solutions are ones that deliver benefits both ecologically and economically, and leave us in a better place than we started. Carbon fees are a perfect example. Assuming the fees are revenue-neutral, we end up with a productive reallocation in which we tax and disincentivize the “bads” while promoting the goods.

Multi-billion dollar seawalls that play catch up with ever-rising oceans are not optimistic endeavors in any sense. Nor is diverting Missouri River waters to the west. These are last ditch efforts that only provide temporary fixes. Zolli writes “Combating those kinds of disruptions isn’t just about building higher walls — it’s about accommodating the waves.” Resilience, by this description, incorporates both mitigation and adaptation. But it assumes the waves and ignores prevention. I despise metaphors (it always seems there’s a metaphor to prove any point), but it’s the equivalent of adding life preservers rather than making the boat more seaworthy. Or, better yet, altering course to avoid the storm. More life preservers might make sense if you’re already in the storm. We’re probably encountering the outer rings of the storm, and it may or may not be too late to change course. The smart thing to do is choose a new heading, while there are still some choices available, and while holding drills and battening down the hatches just in case.

Are we scared yet?

Scary things I’ve experienced or heard in the past couple of weeks:








On the bright side, I guess, we’ve a re-elected president who actually mentioned climate change (though barely) and, here in NY, a governor and a mayor who are willing to go further than just mentioning it. Whether that will amount to more than lip service is yet to be seen.

Among the many issues this quadfecta of scariness raises is one that starts with the question: is it time to be scared? Once you get past the basic question of whether this truly is scary stuff — the dead canaries before an imminent disaster — it’s actually, I think, a matter of several more complex questions.

The primary one I’d pose asks whether getting societally scared is useful. This is an old question in the environmental movement. Will we be more successful and persuasive if people fear for their lives? Historically this has been true, but there are risks in that approach: backlashes, accusations of crying wolf and/or hysteria and, conversely, the possibility – which seems to have proven the case so far – that there’s no way to create an imminent enough and sustained environmental fear. Climate disasters and oil crises come and go. Most of the country has long moved past Katrina and the BP oil spill, and Sandy is already all but gone from the headlines.

Can one be scared and optimistic, too?

For a blog incorporating the word optimism in its title, a further question is whether fear is antithetical to optimism. I don’t want to get embroiled in language or psychology definitions; certainly one can be afraid while hoping for the best. But EcoOptimism is based on the idea that we neither want nor need to make the eco argument on an “end is nigh” approach. We know that hasn’t worked with previous warning signs. Perhaps it might this time. We don’t, however, know whether there is a tipping point of warnings, in terms of either frequency or scale. In other words, even if we wanted to, we can’t count on it.

Many of us have also been reluctant to make our case hinge on such a tipping point because it’s entirely possible that by the time the public perceives that we’ve reached that point, it will be too late. That fatalism would seem to be even less in keeping with this idea of EcoOptimism, but here’s where I think some clarification is needed. E-O (I’m tired of typing it out) isn’t about a belief that the worst won’t happen. We’ll leave that head-in-the-sand delusiveness to the James Imhofes, Koch brothers and other Friends of Fox.

Rather, the optimism in E-O is the belief that, yes, there are solutions to our environmental issues, but additionally those solutions are also compatible with (or the same as!) solutions to our economic travails AND, furthermore, implementing those solutions will result in improved well-being and improved life styles. This is counter to both the usual notion that environmental solutions are a drag on the economy, and that environmental solutions require sacrifices in the quality of our lives. (Apologies if you’ve been a regular reader of E-O; you’ve heard me say this innumerable times.)

So what this means is you or I can be an EcoOptimist and yet be concerned or even pessimistic about our future. Phew, so in my moments of eco despair  I’m not contradicting myself after all. Nor do we have to be delusional or unrealistic; we can comprehend that we’ve got a nasty situation here, and we may or may not be too late. (More on that in an upcoming post.) The point is that you don’t have to agree that doom is imminent (plus or minus a century or two) in order to pursue the same steps and policies advocated by the Chicken Little greenies when those policies are also beneficial in non-enviro senses…and, oh by the way, might also save humanity. As any number of Jewish moms would say:

What’s not to like?  

What we have here is the environmental analog of Pascal’s Wager. (What’s the term – other than “plate of shrimp” –used to describe when something comes up multiple times in a short period? Pascal’s Wager has done that to me this week.) Blaise Pascal argued that one might as well believe in God because, in doing so, you’d have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s just, he says, the rational thing to do. And so it is with environmental policy.

Wrongest Product Nominee Discovered During Sandy

Wrongest Product Award nominees can crop up when you least expect them. Or perhaps that’s the only time they appear. In this case, I stumbled upon the BrightLight pillow (batteries not included) while on line in a CVS during Superstorm Sandy. “Useless,” I thought, but then realized it was perhaps exactly what I needed for my semi-refugee status. It could serve as both pillow and emergency light. Assuming, of course, that the store hadn’t run out of batteries.









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) EcoOptimism.com.

Sandy May Be the Tipping Point, But We Really Didn’t Need One

Which are we more likely to believe: fact or fiction? There’s been much written about the “fact” that many Americans don’t believe in “facts.” Or to put it another way, what defines a fact? When does a theory become a scientific consensus, and is that different from a fact?

The point of relevance, of course, is Superstorm Sandy.  The “Frankenstorm” scenario that just transformed from run-of-the-mill screenplay to reality – that is, from fiction to fact — is not that much different from any number of eco-disaster movies: global warming-fueled hurricane converges with winter storm to devastate the NY region. It even has a subplot, what with the election next week and pundits wondering how that will be affected. (Did Christie stick it to Romney by complimenting Obama?)

We’ve been warned by a tsunami of dramatic scenarios, ranging from the mildly plausible The Day After Tomorrow – yes, there actually is some theoretical basis in its explanation if not in its timeline — to the sneakily messaged Wall-E, and from there to made- for-TV dreck that doesn’t even qualify for B-movie status. (Can I please have back the late nights I’ve lost hoping that some SyFy channel rerun will actually give me something to write about. Oh wait, they just did.)











I’m fascinated by post-apocalyptic visions and have lately been treated to a (genetically modified?) harvest of TV series. More on that in another post. What we’re pondering here is what it will take to convince us, as a country, that climate disruption is real, and that it poses “a real and present danger” (stealing from yet another movie). It’s easy to understand why fictional tales haven’t swayed the skeptics. They are, after all, fiction. But real life is another story. When the real thing occurs, we rationalize that any individual weather event does not serve as proof of a pattern, let alone a pattern that is induced by us. But when does the pattern add up to a new reality? At the Institute for Policy Studies, Daphne Wysham writes

[W]e are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to act like adults and get beyond [just] responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions.

Will we see the pattern through the politics? If not, how many more puzzle pieces will be needed?

Or, if you prefer the more “rational” economic argument, when does the cost of climate-induced damage exceed the cost of action to curtail further climate disruption? (And – we have to ask ourselves – how does the cost of adaptation and resilience figure in?) A barely three week old report from the insurance giant Munich Re says the US losses from weather catastrophes from 1980 to 2011 amounted to more than $1 trillion. And 30,000 deaths. I don’t have more numbers handy (I really need an intern), but I strongly suspect that if we added up the costs of disasters that were caused or exacerbated by fossil fuel related activities, they would be greater than the costs of switching to alternative energy sources. And if they aren’t, well then, it doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate that they will be in the near future.

The number of climate-related disasters has increased greatly while the number of other natural disasters has remained fairly constant. (source: UNEP, http://www.grida.no/graphicslib/detail/number-of-disasters-per-year_1408)











So, as I write this from my temporary Manhattan-refugee location in Brooklyn (with much thanks to my wife’s brother and sister-in-law), I come back to the point of EcoOptimism. If you need to rationalize the environmental steps advocated by the “alarmists,” if in the term scientific consensus you hear only the word con, then forget about the stick for a moment and focus on the carrot. The steps to a carbon neutral existence will also improve our lives. I’m not talking about the idea of sustainability, which is merely ensuring that humanity can continue to exist (as if that isn’t a basic enough goal), but the idea that we also will be better off after buying the insurance. We’re talking about tangibles like better health as well as intangibles such as spending less time and money keeping apace with the treadmill and more time to spend on things and activities that really make us better people.

Most times when we buy insurance, it’s just to protect ourselves from exposure to future costs. Buy fire insurance and, if your house burns down, the insurance buys you another one. But environmental “insurance,” whether it be in the form of a carbon tax or something else, is not merely money thrown at a potential problem to cover your potential losses. (Never mind that no amount of insurance can buy us another planet.)  It’s money that is directed against an all but certain eventuality and at the same time has the ability to improve the value of the asset you’re protecting: your life. That has to be the deal of a “lifetime.”