kottke.org posts about environment

Whatever Gavin Newsom is selling, I'll take tenMay 08 2008

I'll admit I don't watch politicians speak that often, particularly in public. So maybe I'm being a little naive here, but San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom is nothing short of a magician up on the stage. He talked for 20 straight minutes (his would-be interviewer could only get in 2-3 questions during that time and Newsom pretty much ignored them and talked about whatever he pleased) and it felt both like 5 minutes and exhausting at the same time. By the time he'd finished what I would term a sermon, I wanted to sign up for whatever he was selling at a price no lower than my heart and soul. I haven't non-sexually crushed this hard on a speaker since Robert Wright.

Ok, two particularly interesting things that broke my gaze long enough for me to scribble them down in my notebook.

1. Newsom talked about building filling stations for electric cars that relied on exchanging batteries instead of plugging in and waiting for your car to charge. You don't need to own your particular battery.

2. In SF, he's hoping to exchange the payroll tax for a carbon tax. In his words, tax a bad thing (carbon use) instead of taxing a good thing (jobs). That way, the incentives are in the right place...people aren't penalized for working but are penalized for using excessive amounts of carbon.

Update: Oh, don't get me wrong, I have no idea if Newsom was telling the truth or what...it's just that it all sounded so good coming out of his mouth. Even when it sounded like bullshit I wanted to believe him. I felt so dirty and manipulated afterwards, but still wanted to believe. Like I said, love...what's truth got to do with it?

The Navy Federal Credit Union has embracedMar 28 2008

The Navy Federal Credit Union has embraced green architecture, but not for any of the usual reasons.

"You've been asking for data," Ebbesen says to me. "Well, we definitely have energy savings: we've had one study that said 25 percent and another that said 40 percent. We pay a lot of attention to the energy model because we want to be efficient, because that leads to less pollution. But that's not where the savings are. The savings are all related to productivity." Navy Federal's wealth (they don't exactly have trouble getting long-term financing) means that Ebbesen could swallow higher up-front costs if it means a longer life span-and indeed this building is designed for a 40-year cycle (generous for its type). But to be conservative he sticks to 30 years for the following calculation: over that time 92 percent of the organ-ization's costs goes to employees, 6 percent go to maintenance and operation, and a mere 2 percent are represented by the initial construction investment. "When I show that on a slide," Ebbesen says, "it's kind of like, 'Duh, now are you paying attention?'"

With their new environmentally friendly buildings, Navy Federal has reduced their annual employee turnover rate from 60% to 17%.

Chalk one up for environmental pollutants. Mar 04 2008

Chalk one up for environmental pollutants.

Male starlings with the highest levels of endocrine disruptors in their bodies also possessed unusually developed high vocal centers, an area of the brain associated with songbirds' songs.

Accordingly, the polluted male starlings sang songs of exceptional length and complexity -- a birdsign of reproductive fitness.

Money quote: "Female starlings preferred their songs to those of unexposed males, suggesting that the polluted birds could have a reproductive advantage, eventually spreading their genes through starling populations."

Henry Ford: Biofuels and Bioplastics PioneerNov 02 2007

Considering that a Ford Model-T got as good or better mileage than most of today's U.S. automobiles, I guess it's not suprising that Henry Ford was, according to this 1934 profile, well ahead of the game in biofuels and bioplastics:

Science is discovering means of transforming products of the farm into materials for manufacture. Through his experimental farms, Henry Ford now successfully converts the common soy bean into automobile parts and an oil which makes up 30 per cent of the Ford car finish.

Mr. Ford declares that this plastic industry, this evolution of industrial agriculture, still is in its infancy and that its possibilities and opportunities are limitless. As an example, he points out that his laboratories have produced from the soy bean a tough, hard, yet inexpensive material which stands a pressure of 9,000 pounds without breaking... Ford and his chemists envision the time when automobile bodies, houses, skyscrapers and even great monuments may be fabricated from the soy bean.

Then again: maybe biofuels aren't such a good idea, anyway.

(via TreeHugger)

Tyler Cowen mentioned "green accounting" and WilliamOct 10 2007

Tyler Cowen mentioned "green accounting" and William Nordhaus in a post the other day so I went looking for more information on the subject. Here's one of the more succinct descriptions I found of the problem that green accounting aims to address:

When a majestic, 300-year-old red-wood is cut down and turned into picnic tables, the logging and picnic table-building activities add to the gross domestic product (GDP), while no deduction is made for the loss of that tree and all the nonmarket services it provides. When a paper mill dumps dioxin-laden wastes into a river, the paper-making boosts the GDP, but no deduction is made for the costs associated with the water pollution. Conversely, no addition is made to the GDP for the air and water cleaned by wetlands or old-growth forests.

If you're keen on learning more about green accounting and William Nordhaus' contributions, check out Nature's Numbers and the perhaps not-so-riveting Recommendations to The Bureau of Economic Analysis On Improving the National Economic Accounts. (I will also humbly note that this relates to something I wrote for WorldChanging last December. "The global economy is driven by nature, and yet it's not usually found on the accountant's balance sheet.")

Photos of the absurdly polluted Citarum RiverJun 06 2007

Photos of the absurdly polluted Citarum River in Indonesia. "Their occupants no longer try to fish. It is more profitable to forage for rubbish they can salvage and trade -- plastic bottles, broken chair legs, rubber gloves -- risking disease for one or two pounds a week if they are lucky."

WorldChanging: make this Earth Day the lastApr 20 2007

WorldChanging: make this Earth Day the last one. "Earth Day accomplished its mission; the environment is now near the top of the global agenda. By making this Earth Day our last, we can signal that the time for mere awareness is over, and the time for real transformation has arrived."

Dale Dougherty: maybe we should get ridMar 16 2007

Dale Dougherty: maybe we should get rid of the wasteful conference schwag bag that everyone ends up dumping in the garbage anyway. Amen, brother.

HypermilingMar 06 2007

The most enjoyable and interesting thing I've read in a week has to be this article about Wayne Gerdes (via bb). Gerdes is a hypermiler -- a person who drives in an obsessive fashion in order to increase his vehicle's fuel efficiency -- and strikes me as someone that Errol Morris would be quite interested in doing a short documentary about. He's refined his driving technique over the years to wring 59 MPG out of a plain Honda Accord and clocked over 180 MPG with a hybrid Honda Insight. Here's a taste of how he drives:

"Buckle up tight, because this is the death turn," says Wayne. Death turn? We're moving at 50 mph. Wayne turns off the engine. He's bearing down on the exit, and as he turns the wheel sharply to the right, the tires squeal-which is what happens when you take a 25 mph turn going 50. Cathy, Terry's wife, who is sitting next to me in the backseat, grabs my leg. I grab the door handle. As we come out of the 270-degree turn, Cathy says, "I hope you have upholstery cleaner."

We glide for over a mile with the engine off, past a gas station, right at a green light, through another green light -- Wayne is always timing his speed to land green lights -- and around a mall, using momentum in a way that would have made Isaac Newton proud. "Are we going to attempt that at home?" Cathy asks Terry, a talkative man who has been stone silent since Wayne executed the death turn in his car. "Not in this lifetime," he shoots back.

At PopTech last year, Alex Steffen of WorldChanging told the crowd that cars with realtime mileage displays get better gas mileage. Turns out that's how Gerdes got really interested in hypermiling:

But it was driving his wife's Acura MDX that moved Wayne up to the next rung of hypermiler driving. That's because the SUV came with a fuel consumption display (FCD), which shows mpg in real time. As he drove, he began to see how little things -- slight movements of his foot, accelerations up hills, even a cold day -- influenced his fuel efficiency. He learned to wring as many as 638 miles from a single 19-gallon tank in the MDX; he rarely gets less than 30 mpg when he drives it. "Most people get 18 in them," he says. The FCD changed the driving game for Wayne. "It's a running joke," he says, "but instead of a fuel consumption display, a lot of us call them 'game gauges'" -- a reference to the running score posted on video games -- "because we're trying to beat our last score -- our miles per gallon."

If people could see how much fuel they guzzled while driving, Wayne believes they'd quickly learn to drive more efficiently. "If the EPA would mandate FCDs in every car, this country would save 20 percent on fuel overnight," he says. "They're not expensive for the manufacturers to put in -- 10 to 20 bucks -- and it would save more fuel than all the laws passed in the last 25 years. All from a simple display."

Competition, even with yourself, can be a powerful motivator. I'm not convinced, however, that FCDs would improve gas mileage across the board. There are other games you can play with the display -- the how-much-gas-can-I-waste game or the how-close-can-I-get-to-18-MPG game -- that don't have much to do with conserving fuel consumption. Still, next time I'm in a car with a mileage display, I'll be trying out some of Gerdes less intensive driving techniques, including the ones he shares on this Sierra Club podcast (Gerdes' interview is about 2/3 of the way through).

"Stewart Brand has become a heretic toFeb 27 2007

"Stewart Brand has become a heretic to environmentalism, a movement he helped found, but he doesn't plan to be isolated for long. He expects that environmentalists will soon share his affection for nuclear power. They'll lose their fear of population growth and start appreciating sprawling megacities. They'll stop worrying about "frankenfoods" and embrace genetic engineering."

Manhattan, the greenest of cities? Not soFeb 07 2007

Manhattan, the greenest of cities? Not so fast says Tyler Cowen: "Praising Manhattan is a bit like looking only at the roof of a car and concluding it doesn't burn much gas. [...] Think of Manhattan as a place which outsources its pollution, simply because land there is so valuable."

PopTech, day 1 wrap-upOct 20 2006

Since my internet access has been somewhat spotty at the conference (I'm trying to pay attention and power is hard to come by here so the laptop is closed most of the time), I'm going to do rolling wrap-ups as I go, skipping around and filling in the blanks when I can. Here we go, soundbite-style:

Alex Steffen: Cars equipped with displays that show gas mileage, when compared to cars without the mileage display, get better gas mileage. That little bit of knowledge helps the driver drive more economically. More visible energy meter displays in the home have a similar effect...people use less energy when they're often reminded of how much energy they use. (Perhaps Personal Kyoto could help here as well.) At dinner, we discussed parallels between that and eating. Weighing yourself daily or keep track of everything you eat, and you'll find yourself eating less. In the same way, using a program like Quicken to track your finances might compel you to spend less, at least in areas of your life where you may be spending too much.

Bruce Sterling is the Jesse Jackson of technology. He has this cadence that he gets into, neologism after neologism, stopping just short of suggesting a new word for neologism. Wonderful to experience in person. Perhaps not as upbeat as the Reverend, though.

Bruce also related a story told to him by an engineering professor friend of his. The prof split his class into two groups. The first group, the John Henrys, had to study and learn exclusively from materials available at the library...no internet allowed. The second group, the Baby Hueys, could use only the internet for research and learning...no primary source lookups at the library. After a few weeks, he had to stop this experiment because the John Henrys were lagging so far behind the Baby Hueys that it is was unfair to continue.

Kevin Kelly noted that the web currently has 1 trillion links, 1 quintillion transistors, and 20 exabytes of memory. A single human brain has 1 trillion synapses (links), 1 quintillion neurons (transistors of sorts), and 20 exabytes of memory.

Kelly also said that technology has its own agenda and went on to list what it is that technology might want. One of the things was clean water. You need clean water for industrial manufacturing...so water cleanliness is going to be a big deal in China. In a later talk, Thomas Friedman said, "China needs to go green."

Hasan Elahi, during his ordeal being mistaken for -- what's the term these days? -- an enemy combatant, learned that language translates easier than culture. That is, you can learn how to speak a language fluently way easier than to have the cultural fluency necessary to convince someone you're a native. In his interrogations, Hasan liberally sprinkled pop culture references in his answers to questions posed by the FBI to help convince them that he was a native. Workers at call centers in India for American companies are not only taught to speak English with an American accent, they also receive training in American geography, history, and pop culture so as to better fool/serve American callers.

"The best laid plans of mice and men turn into a nonlinear system." -- Will Wright, with apologies to Robert Burns.

Speaking of Wright, a couple of Spore trivia bits. The data for a creature in Spore takes up just 3K of memory. And entire world: just 80K. And these worlds are amazingly complex.

Brian Eno: With large groups of people, the sense of shame and the sense of honor that keeps the members of small groups from misbehaving breaks down. The challenge for larger groups is to find ways of making honor and shame matter in a similar respect.

Stewart Brand: "We are terraforming the earth anyway, we might as well do it right." Stewart also noted that cities are very effective population sinks. When people move to cities, the birthrate drops to the replacement rate (2.1 children per family) and keeps on dropping. Combine that with the fact that by early next year, more people in the world will live in cities than in rural areas, and at some point in the next hundred years, the earth's population will start to fall.

Speaking of ecological footprints, Personal Kyoto letsSep 29 2006

Speaking of ecological footprints, Personal Kyoto lets your track your energy usage and reduce it according to the Kyoto Protocol. It only works for NYC residents...just grab your ConEd bill, punch in your account number, and PK will display your energy usage for the last year, along with averages and your Kyoto goal.

Update: PK's creator tells me that he's looking to bring the project to cities other than NYC. Good stuff.

Ecological footprints: if we all lived TomSep 29 2006

Ecological footprints: if we all lived Tom Cruise's lifestyle, how many earths would we need to maintain that level of consumption? A: 2700 earths. (Well, sort of. Go read the post for the actual answer.) Find out your ecological footprint.

The Eastern Garbage Patch is a miles-wideAug 23 2006

The Eastern Garbage Patch is a miles-wide collection of garbage in the North Pacific; the trash is collected by a slowly rotating system of current that keeps it trapped in one spot. (via pf)

Design: e2 is an upcoming 6-part PBSMay 12 2006

Design: e2 is an upcoming 6-part PBS special on the environment and the economy.

Photos of the Bangladesh shipbreaking yards byJan 25 2006

Photos of the Bangladesh shipbreaking yards by Brendan Corr. Strict environmental laws in the Europe and the US make "recycling" these ships there difficult, so US and European companies outsource the salvage to Bangladesh, where laws are looser. Compare with Edward Burtynsky's photos of the same. (thx, malatron)

Update: Article from The Atlantic about shipbreaking (thx, john) and a soon-to-be released book called Breaking Ships (thx, john #2).

Las Vegas is in for some water troublesJul 29 2005

Las Vegas is in for some water troubles. Surprisingly, it's residential use that's the problem, not the showy water displays by the casinos.

NYC taxi agency approves the use ofJul 27 2005

NYC taxi agency approves the use of hybrid cars as taxis. Downside: the hybrids have less leg room than the vast Crown Vic.

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