Archive for the 'environment' Category

Why America is never going to meet Kyoto

March 5, 2007

Over the weekend, Bush finally laid out his plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I say finally because the report was due over a year ago. His plan is, unsurprisingly, pretty wimpy–but there are a few more plans on the table, one by McCain and Lieberman, and one by Bernard Sanders (the socialist, who, by the way, sounds like a fascinating guy) and Barbara Boxer.

This whole debacle is interesting, says a professor of mine, because we already have the technology we need to cut our greenhouse emissions to Kyoto targets or lower. This professor (let’s call him S), who’s teaching a seminar on global climate change, compares our situation now to the space race and moon landing in the 1950’s and ’60’s. Back then, we decided we wanted to go to the moon, but we had no idea how to get there. We had to develop the technology to get someone into space, and then we had to put it into practice.

Gore’s movie (which had its flaws, I’ll grant) made it perfectly clear that if we simply stepped up use of technology we already have, we could curb our emissions. Investing in clean power plants (though hydro, wind, and nuclear all have their drawbacks), more hybrid cars, more fuel-efficient cars, and so on, would be more than enough to clean up this country, CO2-wise. The one other significant factor–though I can’t find the graph anywhere online–was, I believe, advances in efficiency in homes and offices, along the lines of replacing incandescents with CFLs, installing energy-efficient appliances, weatherproofing walls and windows with insulation and double-paned glass, etc.–things you can do today! (Seriously. Go buy a CFL right now, will you?)

But I digress. The point is, unlike the space race, we already have the technology, says Prof. S. He also points out that his wife, who is from China, was shocked to see so few scientists appearing on American television. In China, she says, scientists are on the tube for something or other almost every day. Prof. S. said he told her “it’s not the America I grew up with.”

We can learn from the space race era. Why do you think there were scientists on American television in the ’50’s and ’60’s? Why do you think we were able to get a guy on the moon just eleven years after getting the first ever American satellite into orbit?

Easy.

We were terrified that the “dirty Russkies” were going to get there first and do something terrible to us.

boom
Nuclear test. Things that go boom are cool scary. Public domain image, from Wikipedia

There’s no way to “compete” against the planet itself. Not only that, but I don’t believe our culture thinks it’s appropriate to compete against other countries the way we competed against the USSR. We don’t compete–not outwardly. We “cooperate.” (No, actually, we say we’re going to cooperate and then sit around with our thumbs up our asses for decades. Hello, Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Sure, there are studies published all the time about how our science students are lagging behind pretty much everyone else, but where’s the widespread panic we need to kick us into action?

Speaking hypothetically and completely off-the-wall fantastically here: If Iran developed a device that, I don’t know, fanned all the CO2 over the Atlantic to New York City, and turned each CO2 molecule into a microscopic spy camera, and, oh, throw in something to do with nukes for good measure, you can bet we’d be all over the Kyoto protocol in an instant.

Until then, we’re probably screwed.

Oh, and by the way? Recently this blog has been mostly about a) street art and b) environmental concerns (or as we cynical activists like to say, “tree-hugging hippie shit”). I promise the next post is going to shake things up a little.

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Garbage Land

February 26, 2007

Anyone who lives on this earth should pick up a copy of Garbage Land, by Elizabeth Royte. I won’t say this book will change your life, but it may. After you finish reading, “out of sight, out of mind” will be a foreign phrase.

Royte, a resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a fairly well-off, educated, environmentally-conscious neighborhood, decided to trace where her trash went after it was picked up by the New York City Department of Sanitation. She rode in garbage trucks with “san men,” visited landfills and recycling plants all over the country, paddled illegally around Fresh Kills in a kayak, visited a water treatment plant and witnessed excrement being turned into fertilizer. She learned which materials recycle well (paper, metal) and which don’t (glass, plastic). And she wrote it all down in an engrossing, 300-page (though it feels like half that, so quick is the read) book.

This book delves into disgusting, depressing material. Read about leaky landfills dripping toxic chemicals into our groundwater, soda companies building plastics recycling plants in poor third-world countries (and then denying it!), and the paper and free gifts sent out as fundraisers by supposedly “green” organizations, and it’s likely you’ll want to hole up in a cave in the wilds of Canada and never come out. We really are running out of places to put all the stuff we consume.

I’m a fairly environmentally-conscious girl. I’m the weirdo who reuses plastic bags at the grocery store, and the person who will walk five minutes out of her way to find a recycling bin. Royte, even at the beginning of the book, with about 4 pounds of trash weekly for a three-person family, had me beat. (And the rest of the country; the EPA says that number is almost 20 times lower than the national average.) This number does not include material she sent to be recycled or the “putrescibles” she composted in front of her brownstone. (Despite the mice and the maggot-like worms, the neighbors reportedly loved it.)

Royte doesn’t provide utopian solutions to the trash problem. She readily admits that her compost was a failure, and that her geographical location was a big help in keeping her trash down:

If I didn’t live in a neighborhood where I could leave stuff on the sidewalk for others, didn’t have access to curbside recycling and a compost bin, and had to throw out a major piece of furniture, I’d be right up there with the rest of the nation.

Rather, she points out that it is both the consumer’s responsibility (consume less, recycle more) and the corporate world’s responsibility to solve this problem. She argues that litter clean-up days, which are often sponsored by some of the worst polluters and dumpers, aim to move the burden of trash off factories and corporations and onto the individual. A Coke bottle floating in a pristine river had to have gotten there by a consumer. But who made the bottle? Who made it out of plastic poisonous to recycle and impossible to reuse? (Not entirely true; in some parts of Europe, plastic bottles are returned to companies that sterilize and refill them. Try getting that to fly here.) In addition, even were all the Coke bottles drunk in America returned, reused, recycled, or otherwise diverted from a landfill, we’d still be in trouble, Royte says, because municipal waste makes up only 2% of the junk in this country. The other 98% is industrial waste–7.6 billion tons of it yearly.

So what can we do? Not, really, much. Buy less–much less–recycle more, and hope for the best.

And read this book.

Gore’s Inconvenient Message

February 7, 2007

With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releasing their latest report last week and the news that Al Gore has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his documentary, I felt it appropriate to post my review of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

I’ll admit it: Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had its heart in the right place. It meant well. It did. But that isn’t stopping me from feeling it was heinously executed. I’m pretty sure Gore isn’t planning a surprise campaign for President in 2008, but the movie felt like nothing more than a Gorefest. I half expected to hear, somewhere into the last third of the film, “…and that’s when I invented the Kyoto protocols.” He’s got an important message, but he really is not the right vehicle for taking his message to the silver screen. When the melodramatic music began to wail and the film shifted into “flashback/re-enactment” mode for yet another teary-eyed recollection of Gore’s past, I felt like puking.

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How Green Driving Changed My Life

January 12, 2007

Among other things, I resolved this year to drive slower. The California Energy Commission as well as almost every other government organization and eco-conscious group will tell you that higher than 55 mph, your car’s efficiency drops dramatically. ING, admittedly not the best source for transportation information (but pretty dang right-on-the-money when it comes to financial info) says the efficiency gain could be as much as 33%. This translates to up to 82 cents per gallon in your pocket, and over 6 pounds less CO2 released into the air per gallon of gas used.

I’ll admit, I don’t drive much; only about 8 to 9 percent of the year am I ever behind the wheel. If I drove more, either in terms of the frequency of my trips or the distances covered, I might find it harder to keep this resolution. But as it stands, this is an easy way to do something good for my wallet and the planet, and I hope lots of other people join me in this.

The thing I didn’t expect from this experiment is the way it’s changed my outlook on transportation. At 55 miles per hour, I am almost always the slowest driver on the road. I try to be considerate and stay in the rightmost lane, but the cars that pass me do so belligerently, as though they resent me for driving the speed limit. I’ve noticed–and this is less than two weeks after making this pledge–I rush less. As I meander down the highway (it hasn’t been long enough for me to fully adapt; 55 does feel almost like a crawl after what I’m accustomed to), my mind wanders to days long past, days I wasn’t alive for the first time around, so there’s no reason for me to feel nostalgic about them now. Yet I do. I feel like my little borrowed car is a time travel machine in miniature, taking only me back to the time when driving fifty-five miles per hour seemed ludicrous. In my mind, I’m in the 1950’s, in a blue-green Chevy convertible with the biggest tail fins you’ve ever seen. As more cars pass me, still seething anger under their chrome surfaces–never honking or glaring, as that would be unseemly–I feel like I’m slipping farther back in time. Soon I wonder if I should have an orange Slow Vehicle sign slapped on my back bumper, as the rest of the road’s occupants are treating me like I’m driving a horse and buggy.

Back in the present, women in SUVs pass me on my left and my right and I want to throw something at them. A young businessman in a sports car zips past and I want to ask, “Why the rush?” No, that’s a lie. I don’t ask, I scream. I have reverse road rage. I haven’t gotten calmer, and why should I? The decades my time machine transports me to weren’t any calmer. I’ve got a zen state about my own car and the time it’ll take me to get where I’m going, but other drivers’ actions give me aneurysms.

I’m old enough to remember when the federal 55-mile-per-hour limit was repealed in 1995; I remember being happy at the time. And for those with long commutes on desolate stretches of road, maybe it is a good thing. A white-collar worker can get home to his family sooner; a truck driver can get his delivery to where it needs to go faster than before. But for the average driver, the average commuter, is it worth spending the extra money to save a few extra minutes? Is it worth cutting off your fellow man to shave a few seconds off your time? Keep in mind the woman in the silver Toyota who’s driving exactly the speed limit. She’s not doing it because she hates you. She’s driving the speed limit because she cares about her car, her gas mileage, her town, city, state, nation, and planet. She’s driving the speed limit because she likes you, fellow commuter. She likes you a lot.
For those who are interested in learning more, check out the Slate Green Challenge.