Avoiding The Cliff Ahead

Uluwatu Temple, Bali (HDR)
A cliff in Bali (image by seanmcgrath, CC 2.0 licensed)

My green building and blogging colleague Barry Katz just had a post about James Howard Kunstler on his The Future Is Green Blog. Kunstler is one of the “dystopians” featured in a  New Yorker article last week. Kunstler is not sanguine about what the future is going to look like for us and our descendants. He thinks that not only is global warming likely to cause a disaster, but so is the current, or an upcoming, financial meltdown. Barry writes:

In his view, anything short of ending our dependence on cars for personal transportation is a doomed enterprise.

In his blog ClusterF**k nation, Kunstler writes:

I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable — since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote.

Could the terrible things he predicts happen? In the New Yorker interview he provides as an example and a warning the famous fall of the Roman Empire – the city of Rome itself went from a population of over one million in 100 AD to less than 50,000 in a little over 400 years. And there certainly have been many other similar collapses in history – even in pre-Columbian North America there were multiple population collapses due to resource overuse (and genocide, but that’s another topic).

The difference today – at least we hope – is that we have some Cassandras – Al Gore, Kunstler, the IPCC, me and Barry Katz, among many others – warning us, and we have the means and opportunity to take the warning. The question is, do we have the will to put the pedal to the metal to address the problems? For me, I see that as doing the following, and doing it much faster than anyone is actually predicting is possible today:

  • Immediately stop wasting energy – this means getting our houses and commercial buildings more efficient, both new and existing ones; getting more efficient cars on the road
  • Build out utility scale renewable energy as fast as humanly possible
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy generation (e.g., photovoltaic roof panels and paint, mini-wind turbines, ground source heat pumps) and get them cheap enough to deploy everywhere
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy storage – effective energy storage is one of the key sticking points for my vision of zero net energy homes and for accelerating the decline of traditional power plants
  • Figure out a way, or several ways, to get some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere – reforestation is a start (and can make a significant difference, according to this study)
  • Finally, make structural changes to the rules and incentives of life so people will work closer to where they live, will be able to take public transit in a reasonable way, choose to build highly efficient homes not because its the right thing to do, but because it’s the law, or there are other concrete benefits, and so that businesses will find it’s profitable to save the world – whether it’s through being more efficient themselves, or by helping the rest of us “do the right thing”

I call this blog “Keeping The Lights On” because I am optimistic that we’ll figure out how to have a decent life without CO2, that we’ll figure out how to keep the oceans from rising too much and losing too many species, and that civilization won’t collapse due to a financial crisis in the meantime. There are a lot of hurdles to be leapt to accomplish this, and many of them will be costly – but that means that someone’s going to make some money on them, so there will be incentives. And that’s the other half of the title – “Profitable Applications” – business can drive this transition, for profit. The big challenge is getting business ramped up fast enough to save our butts – I think it can happen, and even with the economy in its current sad state, we’re still seeing hopeful signs.

Well, that’s a couple of pages full of assertion and conjecture – I’d love to hear your thinking on this.

Michael Pollan Advises Obama on Food and Agriculture

Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not
Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not!

Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) gave some advice to the next president (Obama, as it turns out) in the NY Times October 12 Sunday Magazine. If he didn’t know already, Pollan warned him that food policy is going to be a big issue, and provides some advice on what to do about it.

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food.

Modern U.S. agriculture (especially as embodied in “The Farm Bill”) is not only a giant user of fossil fuels, but also arguably the major contributor to health crises like obesity and diabetes.

Agriculture in the U.S. uses a surprisingly large amount of fossil fuels (about 14% of the total), and actually generates proportionally more potent greenhouse gases than other uses of the same feedstock. The green revolution was all about fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and monoculture. Furthermore, the incentives are perverse, especially in the U.S., anti-health and anti-family farm.

Summarizing Pollan’s article, the key recommendation is the “resolarization” of American agriculture:

Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. … Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

Pollan was also on Fresh Air on October 20, a fantastic interview following up on this article, which you can hear at http://freshair.npr.org. I have the mp3 of the show if you want to listen to it on your pod-player (let me know – I’ll make it available for download).

Enhanced by Zemanta

Getting (A Lot) More Done Per CO2 Molecule

CIA World Factbook 2007 figures of total nomin...Image via Wikipedia

According to a McKinsey Global Institute report released at the end of July, the world economy will have to improve its “carbon productivity” – the amount of gross domestic product (GDP) created per unit of CO2 – by a factor of ten by 2050 to stop global climate change in its tracks while continuing to enable a healthy level of growth. The report predicts that the cost of this transformation will amount to 0.6% – 1.3% of global GDP by 2030. They note that this compares favorably to the cost of insurance born by economies, which amounts to more than 3% of GDP.

Helpfully, the report also suggests the most appealing opportunities for achieving this ten-fold improvement in productivity (referring to MGI’s February paper on the global cost curve):

It will be essential to identify and capture the lowest-cost abatement opportunities in the economy. Analysis of McKinsey’s global cost curve, a map of the world’s abatement opportunities ranked from lowest-cost to highest-cost options, identifies five areas for action to drive the necessary microeconomic changes: capturing available opportunities to increase energy efficiency in a cost-effective way; decarbonizing energy sources; accelerating the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies; changing the behaviors of businesses and consumers; and preserving and expanding the world’s carbon sinks, most notably its forests.

Productivity (“regular productivity”) increased by a factor of ten over the course of the Industrial Revolution – a period of 120 years. McKinsey’s call to action calls for a similar increase, but over a period one-third as long. But they warn that, if this goal is not achieved, we will all be facing lives of significant privation.

Enhanced by Zemanta

High Fuel Prices Turn Out To Be A Good Incentive For Carpooling

Propaganda poster from the United States gover...Image via Wikipedia

It’s fun to see the articles and news reports on the upside of high gas prices – last night on the KTVU news was a report on how the air is getting a bit cleaner in the Bay Area because people are driving less.

Along these lines, Technology Review had an article the other day about technology-enabled car-pooling. On both general advertising sites like Craigslist and carpool-specific sites, drivers and riders are getting together to get together.

Although some people turned to these sites long ago to help reduce pollution or take advantage of faster, high-occupancy vehicle lanes that require at least two occupants, the pocketbook has been the largest influencer of all.

Enhanced by Zemanta