Friday, December 7, 2012

On Environmental Intentions

Cross-posted in A Puff of Absurdity.

A week ago, The Globe and Mail published an "essay" on the Facts & Arguments page about a woman who has chosen to retire from being an ecowarrior.  (Remember about twenty years ago when that page actually had essays on it - rigorously argued claims of interest instead of personal anecdotes??  Anyway...)   I can't link to articles from The Globe anymore because I don't pay for the on-line service - but I did get the photo attached.  You'll just have to trust my quotations are accurate.

Lynn Lau decided she's tired of doing environmental stuff because the world's not actually changing anyway.  Her efforts aren't affecting anyone in a meaningful way.  She complains, "It's a thankless, deeply depressing affliction to care about the environment.  Despite our efforts, the planet remains far from saved."  She goes on to explain that, " be an environmentalist you need to be a misanthrope at heart - distrustful of authority and individualistic."

My counter in brief:  Get over yourself.

Doing good works is about doing good works.  It's not about saving the world or influencing seven billion people to change.  Focusing on the outcome and having unrealistic goals in general will doom anyone to failure - to depression and withdrawal.  But it's not environmentalism that's the problem; it's that misplaced focus.  We can never really be sure what our actions will produce, or what will happen in the future.  We could all embrace vegetarianism, then get hit with a meteorite.  Who knows?!  So it's with folly that we follow that path.

If, however, we live with a focus on our intentions in the present, and on the little things that do work, then environmentalism can be deeply satisfying.  When I take out a large bin full of waste every night at work, waste diverted from the landfill and into compost, it's satisfying even though I know another three bins will end up in the trash.  Which is a better way to live right now:  to throw up our hands and say I can't fix everything so I won't do anything, or to gain pleasure from doing our part however small and insignificant it may seem?  We don't have to do everything to get pleasure in having done something.

Part of the problem the writer seems to have is that the amount of effort she's spending isn't matched by any incoming rewards or pleasures.  The problem may be two-fold: she's working too hard, and she needs honour to continue.  I live a relatively eco-friendly life, but I find it brings me more pleasure than pains.  It's all a matter of enjoying whatever you're doing.  I compost in my yard, but I love working outdoors.  Same goes with hanging laundry on a line in the sunshine.  My recycle bins are organized enough that we don't have to think too much to sort waste.  And I feel great walking and biking everywhere - not in a self-righteous way, but in a wind in my hair kinda way!   And I don't do the things that bring me no pleasure.  Lau complains about raising chickens and maintaining her garden.  I hate vegetable gardening, but I live near a market.  It doesn't make sense for me to produce my own food when I can buy it from other people who did a great job growing it all.

The bigger problem than effort is the craving for recognition in some form of praise or a visible effect on the world or the people around us.  For a few years now, our school has been an official eco-school.  It's an effort for me to fill in all the required paperwork and do all the running around to prove we're environmentally motivated.  After a few years of getting gold-standing, last year, we didn't qualify.  We didn't stop doing anything environmental, we just didn't prove it as well as we normally do.  And this year, I'm having second thoughts about the whole thing.  Tracking what we do, and proving it with photos, is work.  There's no pleasure in the act itself, merely a minor reward at the end:  a sticker that suggests we are worthy.  It's just a tool to impress people with our school, and we already know we're on it.  It was a great way of getting people to start recycling and reusing, but now that we're doing that with just occasional reminders, I question the need to continue reporting to an official external body.  Reducing my consumption of over-packaged over-processed crap at the grocery store is a no-brainer, but weighing garbage and filling in forms for recognition is tedious and anxiety-provoking.

Lau's suggestion that environmentalists are necessarily misanthropes is just weird.  We can understand human nature - that our immediate rewards tend to win out over long-term punishers - without contempt for one another.  We do need to recognize that people need reminders over and over to reduce waste and energy, to walk past the car in the morning, to avoid buying a new whatever when the old one works just fine.  And governments need reminders that this stuff matters, and that enough of us care to make it worth their while to change a few rules to make it easier to do what's right.  We are all fallible, but that's what makes us interesting.

She closes with this: "If this is a sinking ship we're on, I'm going to quit bailing for now, and take a seat on the deck to enjoy the view."

Can't it be both?

A bit from the Talmud: A group of workers has been given a big, complicated job to do. They complain, “We do not have the right tools. The task is enormous. We will never be able to get it done.” The rabbi replies, “It is not for you to complete the task. But you must begin.”

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Putting the Brakes on Car Culture

Cross posted at A Puff of Absurdity because I'm getting a lot more traffic there these days!

I love biking and walking everywhere, but Waterloo Region - and many other places - sucks for cyclists and pedestrians.  I lived in Ottawa for a year, and it totally ruined me for any other city.  They have off-road bike lanes so cyclists don't have to dodge storm drains, garbage, parked cars, and the ever-feared, sudden and deadly driver-side-door-openings.  And when that wasn't feasible, at the very least they had barriers between bikes and cars (see photo - sweet, eh?).  A recent editorial in the G&M suggests that's most important:
"Designing bike lanes physically separated from other traffic – like those now popping up in Montreal, Vancouver and other cities across Canada – is the key to shifting commuters out of cars or buses and on to bicycles."
But if we can't do that, because we're running out of room on the streets as it is, all it would take to make our city less car-centric is to enforce some existing laws and guidelines that have been forgotten along the way and to stop building multi-lane roundabouts.

The Ontario Driver’s Handbook suggests, “You must wait for pedestrians to cross if they are in or approaching your path” (43, also HTA144-7).  Trying to cross a nearby three-way intersection as a pedestrian, I often have a lengthy wait as many drivers zip right in front of me, oblivious to the rules. Failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian has a set fine of three demerit points and $180 (or $365 in a community safety zone).  But it seems that nobody is ever stopped and charged for this in our city.  Imagine every car stopping in its tracks and waiting for you as you approach an intersection because they're afraid of a ticket.  It would make for a very different city:  people might walk more often and would certainly feel safer when they're walking with little ones.

Erecting signage to remind drivers that they can be charged for driving in front of people waiting at a crosswalk or intersection, and then actually charging a few of them to set an example, is a simple solution to prevent further tragedies.

The Handbook also clarifies how to share the road with cyclists:
"Bicycles and mopeds that cannot keep up with traffic are expected to keep to the right of the lane; however, they can use any part of the lane if necessary for safety, such as to avoid potholes and sewer grates.  Cyclists need a metre on either side of themselves as a safety zone.  When passing a cyclist, allow at least one metre between your car and the cyclist.  If the lane is too narrow to share, change lanes to pass the cyclist.  When turning right, signal and check your mirrors and the blind spot to your right to make sure you do not cut off a cyclist.  When parked on the side of the street, look behind you and check your mirrors and blind spots for a passing cyclist before opening a door" (38).
A metre on each side?  Luxury!  This practice alone would prevent almost every cycling fatality ever.  If I was assured that I'd be given a metre of space on either side, without being honked at and yelled at by people who don't like the rules, I wouldn't hesitate to ride in rush-hour traffic.  The police here are leaning towards coming down on cyclists and pedestrians for being in the way instead of car-drivers for not being cautious.  Hopefully it won't get as bad as New York (I can't help noticing nobody cares that he's without a helmet!) (h/t Rob):

K-W's proposes connected bike lanes (right beside the cars) which would be great, but a really quick fix is to just stop building multi-lane roundabouts.  They're made to reduce impediments to car travel, which encourages car travel (and speed), which is filling our city with smog.  Worse, they put the onus on pedestrians and cyclists to travel cautiously for their own survival.  Roundabouts reduce fatalities for car drivers because they take out the risk of T-bone accidents common at intersections, but multi-lane roundabouts increase fatalities (see 2.2) in cyclists and pedestrians.  It's hard to get around a heavily-travelled roundabout, and in some places in this city, they're impossible to avoid.

If we want truly to be an "Environment First" community, we need to encourage walking and cycling. And if we want to be a safe city, we need to encourage drivers to slow down and/or stop for cyclists and pedestrians. Nobody wants to cope with the trauma of an accident; it just takes an extra second of care to prevent one. And if we want people to get out of their cars and use the LRT coming our way, we have to stop making it so bloody easy to drive unhindered by stop signs, traffic lights, and laws!

While we're at it,  more places to lock bikes would also be nice, and it would save the trees from the wrath of chains.

Some people still think they can't possibly get around without a car.  I know people who drive the one kilometre to work because they have to carry a few things.  But check out this mother of six who bikes everywhere and moved to Portland because it's such a bike friendly city!  I don't want to move; I want to change our city.

We can look for solutions to problems by emulating people who have taken global concerns to the next level instead of settling on the easiest route of "that's just not possible for me."  If a mom can bike her six kids everywhere, then I really have no excuses.

In the U.S., during the 40 years from 1969 to 2009, walking and biking to school decreased from 48% to 13%, and one cycling parent suggested, "The most important part about getting to school this way is that our kids will grow up thinking that biking is a normal human activity, not something we do only during play time, or only on weekends."  I know at my school, there's a constant stream of cars dropping off kids every morning, and the school is right downtown, steps from a bus route.  But it's faster and easier, and convenience is winning over our health and well-being.  For now.

Check out Divorce Your Car! by Katie Alvord for more great suggestions.

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On Nuclear Power

Cross-posted in A Puff of Absurdity

The only safe nuclear reactor is 93-million miles away, the sun -  Daniel Hirsch

We've got record temperatures, and lots of truly frightening climate change data, just in time for a regional by-election.  The Ontario Clean Air Alliance (OCAA) is working to make nuclear power an issue this election.

We don't have any recent movies like Silkwood (a true story) or The China Syndrome (in theatres 12 days before the 3-Mile Island accident) to scare the bejesus out of people anymore.

We just have real life.  But some still believe that nuclear is the way to get us out of this greenhouse gas mess we're in.

George Monbiot, a rigorous environmentalist and author of Heat, is an advocate of nuclear energy, and he thinks there are good ways of using waste materials to create more energy.  He was also part of a debate opposing Dr. Douglas Parr of Greenpeace - and the pro-nuke side of the debate won 63 to 9 just three months after the Fukushima disaster.  He's that good.

Monbiot used to be more nuclear-neutral.  In Heat (2006), he noted significant concerns with nuclear power (page 89):
* it increases chances of nuclear weapons being developed (see The Dark Knight Rises)
* every plant leaks radiation into the air and sea
* we only have enough uranium to last about fifty years
* it takes 20 years to build a reactor, and each reactor lasts only 20 years
* there are numerous dumping and leaking scandals and cover-ups because it's much cheaper to handle radioactive materials badly than handle them well (Tepco falsified safety data on at least 200 separate occasions - Rubin, 115)
* it's uninsurable
* it's expensive to build and run
* it's highly subsidized receiving 44 times as much government money as wind because big expensive schemes are more favoured with governments than small cheap ones (the bigger the project, the more powerful the lobby)
* BUT, it's better than coal.  If those are our only two choices, go with nuclear.  But he seemed to be in favour of renewables with natural gas backing up the system back then.

Then Fukushima happened, and people didn't drop dead en masse, and maybe suddenly he felt safer.  And climate change sure got a whole lot worse.  And he said, "Anyone who believes that the safety, financing and delivery of nuclear power are bigger problems than the threats posed by climate change has lost all sense of proportion."  James Lovelock, of the Gaia hypothesis, agrees.

And Monbiot makes a compelling argument that can't be lightly dismissed.  It's a gamble for sure.  On the one hand, if there's a nuclear meltdown we'll have an area with massive cancer deaths and contaminated land and water forever. On the other, with a global meltdown, we'll have mass starvation, desertification of agricultural land, and flooding which all will increase without our help thanks to positive feedback loops - oh, and unliveable daytime highs in much of the world.  The problem is that climate change won't be a death sentence for the wealthy bits of the world for a good 50-100 years or so, but a nuclear reactor meltdown could happen tomorrow.  According to Plato, we are all sorrily lacking in the art of measurement, and we'll see what's close up as having a much larger impact than what's further away in time or space.  And I do.  

A rebuttal from Jim Green (Friends of the Earth) also contains arguments against nuclear based on potential weapons development, and Ralph Nader lists reasons why nuclear power is a nightmare, and Paul Mobbs has an extensive, informative post illustrating some problems with Monbiot's position.

But I'm banking on this:  We're really bad at predicting - we tend to lowball how much renewable energy we'll likely use in the future.  In the 70s, experts predicted the states would need hundreds of nuclear reactors by now, but all the projections were way off.  We just don't know.
Projections of total U.S. primary energy use from the 1970s.
And if we're not going to be averaging a three degree increase in global temperatures in this century (which is the current life-threatening prediction - it was nice knowing you), then a nuclear meltdown becomes a much larger problem by comparison.

Michael Rose discusses the myths of nuclear power one being that without nuclear reactors, the U.S. cannot hope to combat climate change.
"It would be like "using caviar to fight world hunger," said Peter Bradford, former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner and current staff member of the Environmental Law Center. The least expensive and most productive way to reduce our carbon footprint is to be energy efficient, not to build expensive nuclear power plants. "The money that was sunk into building the reactors in Japan should have gone into something that would really have helped us combat global warming like solar or wind power," and improving the national energy grid so that it's integrated, said Hirsch. We can't spend money on everything; we should spend it on solutions and not on technology that creates more problems."
The OCAA is suggesting an initiative focused entirely on cost to ensure that taxpayers don't cover any costs beyond the estimated in order to provoke a more accurate estimate - which will really show politicians and taxpayers the true cost - well, the financial cost anyway - of nuclear energy.  The reality is, government subsidies are keeping nuclear cheap.  If we had the same subsidies for renewables, we'd have solar panels on every rooftop.

David Suzuki's site suggests: "...the Liberals are still intent on investing in new nuclear capacity.  The Progressive Conservative go further by pledging to speed up nuclear power development.  The NDP want to reinvest money earmarked for nuclear power into energy efficiency and conservation, clearly a much better use for that money."

(Greens are also anti-nukes, but the NDP could actually win this one!)

Many thinker in the arena suggest it's better to work on energy efficiency and conservation than to spend money on nuclear power.  We need to get everyone to conserve.  And by that I mean get the government to stop us from being such entitled brats.

This is tricky for Canada because, as Jeff Rubin points out in The End Of Growth, we depend on money from cars and tar sands.  That's a huge psychological barrier to overcome: going for long term surviving over short term thriving.  I don't expect Harper to be the man for that.  Rubin also comes to the same conclusion as others:
"...the solution to higher energy costs is quite simple: learn to use less energy" (15), and "when it comes to reducing emissions, altering the energy mix by adding more renewable sources is a red herring.  What the world really nees to do is use less power.  And that's exactly what is about to happen in tomorrow's economy" (243).  
How do we do that?  According to Rubin, make energy crazy expensive.  Make the tax on cars more than the price of the car.  Increase electricity prices by three times.  It will hurt our industries, but that's a price we have to pay if we want to continue to exist.  And "the simple unspoken truth is that a recession is the bet possible way to tame runaway carbon emissions."  He suggests, "Curbing emission will always take a backseat to the more tangible imperatives of job creation" (239).  Luckily, renewables create more jobs than nuclear power. But, again, "The reduction in emissions that's about to occur because of high costs is exactly the kind of adjustment environmentalists say we will result from a profound slowdown in economic growth, which we currently lack the tools to fix" (249).  More products will be made locally since distance costs money, so manufacturing will come back home.  And he warns, people will have to learn to live with less and share jobs.  But in some ways that's a good thing.  Louis C.K. thinks so... (a treat for you if you've made it this far)

Speaking of space, here's a cogent excerpt from a book by Sally Ride, a physicist and the first woman in space who passed away yesterday (h/t Grist):
More than anything, though, I could see how fragile Earth is. When I looked toward the horizon, I could see a thin, fuzzy blue line outlining the planet. At first, I didn't know what I was seeing. Then I realized it was Earth's atmosphere. It looked so thin and so fragile, like a strong gust of interplanetary wind could blow it all away. And I realized that this air is our planet's spacesuit--it's all that separates every bird, fish, and person on Earth from the blackness of space.... 
To a person standing on the ground, our air seems to go on forever. The sky looks so big, and people haven't worried about what they put into the air. From space, though, it's obvious how little air there really is. Nothing vanishes "into thin air." The gases that we're sending into the air are piling up in our atmosphere. And that's changing Earth's life-support system in ways that could change our planet forever.
If only everyone would believe it and act on it! 

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Monday, July 16, 2012

On the Ethics of Wealth

"There is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting his living." - Thoreau

Tony Shin sent me this info-graphic and asked if I'd add it to my blog.   Of course I have a few things to say about the 1% first.

Paul Feldman did a study in the 80s with bagels being sold on each floor of an office building using an honesty jar and price list.  He tracked who paid the right price for the bagels.  The people in the lowest floor - the mail room - paid about 95%, but as they went up the floors, and up the corporate ladder, the sales were worse and worse.  The richest people paid the least.

Now, the social science question is, is it an attitude of ripping off others that enables people to get rich in the first place?  Do some people, right from the start, decide they are better than others and take what they want and, because of that attitude, are able to collect more stuff.   Is it mainly bullies that get rich?  OR is it the case that once wealthy, people decide they deserve a donut or two free of charge for all their hard work?  Did the wealthy start out just like you or me but slowly saw themselves as better than us as they got richer.  Did they attribute their wealth to hard work and smarts instead of luck, and therefore began to see the poor as lazy and stupid?  Or is it a bit of both?

But the philosophical question is, is it unethical to be rich when others are suffering?  Beyond all the stealing and cheating listed below, is it unethical just to have more when others have less?

Many philosophers have written something along the lines that the best way to become rich is to take away a person's desires.  If we want just what we have, then it's all good and we can be happy with the least amount of work.  I think that goes a long way in life.  It's an attitude that many of us would benefit from adopting, and when I contemplate it, I wonder why I continue to work full time.  It's a choice between things I love to do:  teaching and writing.  One pays substantially more, so I do it more even if I don't love it more.

But is there a stopper to this axiom at the lowest rungs of poverty?  I might think that people can't just decide to be happy and stop desiring basic necessities like food, clothes, and shelter, but then I'm reminded of Diogenes living in a barrel and telling the king that the only thing he needs from him is for him to move to the left to stop blocking the sunlight.  Like Montaigne said, it's crazy that once we get stuff, we fear losing it so much that we barely enjoy it. One of my greatest fears is losing everything and scrounging to get by, to get enough for my kids.  If it's the case that poverty isn't as terrible as we think - particularly in socialist countries with safety nets - then perhaps we should stop worrying about who has more and how they got it.

The "how they got it" is key, I think, to a connection between wealth and ethics.  But that's an easy one.  If you conned someone to get where you are, deceived someone in any way, then your riches are tainted.  And I wonder if some people start out small, lying in ways that feel justified, then, once they see they can get away with it and find they are even lauded in elite circles for their cleverness, then they go big and have the balls to destroy protected land for a pipeline.  This behaviour is most often the case, which maybe clarifies the problem with the 1%:  exploitation of resources and people.

But what if all your business dealing were fair and honest to everyone - then is it still unethical to amass a fortune when others are hungry?  What if you give much of it to charity, but still keep enough to have extra homes and cars?  Do I have to make sure everyone in the world is clothed and fed before I can relax into a life of leisure, or is it enough that I know I came by my riches in a virtuous manner?  And can I rise above whatever it is that drags many wealthy people down a road of greed and corruption?

Thoreau says, "The rich man is always sold to the institution which makes him rich...absolutely speaking, the more money, the less virtue."  I'm dubious.  Anyway, check out the graphic:

Rich People Are Unethical
Created by:

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

91 Seconds of Recycling

I wanted to film all the little things I do around the house that save water, energy, and waste.  I captured it all, and my son put it together for me.  Once you get past the intro, it's not too bad.

It was inspired when raccoons got into the garbages up and down the street on night, and we could all see what each other had thrown out.  There was a whole lot of styrofoam.  There was also a lot of food waste, which is why critters were in there in the first place.

Here's what I do that anyone could do with very little space and/or money:
1. Find a corner of the yard (even if you're in an apartment) and compost all non-meat/dairy/fats food waste and all yard waste.  That saves 30% of a typical person's garbage from going in the landfill.  I have a bucket on the counter that I take out every day - rain or shine.  It's just a short walk to the back of the yard.
2. Use the green bin JUST for meat, dairy, and fat wastes, then it's small enough to fit in the freezer and you won't get maggots all in your kitchen.
3. Turn off the water when you're not using it - we know about teeth brushing, but turn it off when you're sudsing up your hands too!
4. Hang your laundry on a line.  If you don't have a big freezer, and you're a typical person, then your drier is your number one energy user in your household.  Just say no to the drier and hang clothes outside all summer and inside all winter.  It's a minor inconvenience that saves a lot of energy.
5. Hook up your gutters to rain barrels, and use them to water the garden.
6. Save all your batteries, e-waste, old paint, and styrofoam to take to the dump once you've got lots - take all your neighbour's stuff too, so it can all be disposed of properly.
7. Share a spot on the curb so the garbage truck doesn't have to stop as often - which saves gas.
8. Organize all your waste somewhere so kids can easily put everything in the right place:  a cereal box for all the boxboard, a bag for all the plastic bags, and a small bin for stuff that REALLY has to go in the landfill - mainly anything with mixed materials like granola bar wrappers.

Make it a habit, and it will really make a difference!

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