Categories
Thursday
Nov082012

100% of new U.S. power is from wind and solar

Nearly 500 megawatts of new electrical generating capacity was added in the U.S. in September, and ALL of it was from renewable sources. This is the first time in U.S. history that wind and solar have accounted for all of the capacity brought online in a month.

Overall, it’s been a very good year for renewables. This year, 44% of all new generating capacity came from wind and solar, while new natural gas capacity accounted for 37% and coal just 18%.

According to Clean Edge News, the new renewable projects brought online in September consisted of five wind projects totaling 300 MW and 18 solar projects totaling 133 MW. Renewable energy sources now account for almost 15% of all installed U.S. electrical generating capacity. Could it be that coal really is a “dead man walking”?

Sunday
Oct282012

Goodbye glass Coke bottles

It's the end of an era. Coca-Cola has announced it is discontinuing the use of glass bottles. The familiar shape is a redesign created by Raymond Loewy in 1954. He humbly called it "the most perfectly designed package in the word," and many would agree.

But more important than its design pedigree is the fact that Coke will now offer its beverages in only plastic bottles and plastic-lined cans. Those can’t be reused the way the glass bottled could.

Coke does plan to increase use of PlantBottles, made from 30% plant material, and says it plans to offer 100% plant-based bioplastic bottles in the future.

Saturday
Oct272012

Taking charge of climate change

“We have met the enemy, and they is Shell,” writes Bill McKibben in his Rolling Stone magazine article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math. In it, he cites a recent study by the Carbon Tracker Initiative showing that the reserves held by the world’s fossil fuel companies contain enough CO2 to, in his words, “wreck the planet” unless we stop them. We need to act quickly, he says, and we need to point the finger: “A rapid, transformative change would require building a movement, and movements require enemies . . .  and enemies are what climate change has lacked.” To fight this new enemy, he calls on college students to demand that their universities’ endowment funds dump their investments in fossil fuel companies. Other institutions, investors and pension funds, he says, should do the same.

But this strategy will never work as long as the fossil fuel companies are profitable, and divesture won’t make them unprofitable. Even if institutions were to divest en masse, less scrupulous investors would simply swoop in to take their place. Institutions and individuals should [ital] divest from fossil fuel investments just as they should divest from companies selling tobacco or firearms. But to suggest that divestment will succeed as the primary strategy to stop climate change is a mistake.

Fortunately, McKibben has made it clear elsewhere that he believes in a wide range of actions to fight climate change, from civil disobedience to political pressure. But he fails to frame his divestment plan in that broader context in his New Math article. Disengaged from that broader context of action, McKibben’s portrayal of fossil fuel companies as the enemy and divestment as the way to defeat them could lead us down a dangerous path; dangerous because divestment as a primary strategy won’t work. He says he wants the fossil fuel companies to feel severe financial pressure that will force them to behave more responsibly, and I agree with that aim. But divestment won’t pressure them. Exxon Mobil, for example, is the world’s richest company; there are just too many unethical investors waiting in the wings to jump on that bandwagon, even if it carries us straight to climate change hell.

But if divestment won’t force the fossil fuel companies to behave more responsibly, what will? I think we can rule out political strategies like carbon cap and trade—the fossil fuel companies have been more successful at pressuring the government than vice versa. An ethical epiphany on the part of the fossil fuel companies seems equally unlikely anytime soon.

The answer is, gulp, for each of us as consumers to reduce demand. But how can we? Our entire economy runs on oil, gas and coal. We need it to get from point A to point B, to heat and cool our homes and offices, and to make and move the products we love to buy. Almost no one lives without these conveniences, and almost no one wants to. Our dependence on fossil fuels rules out one of the most effective strategies we could use to pressure the fossil fuel companies—the boycott. When we wanted equal rights for all, we boycotted the buses in Birmingham; to fight for migrant farmworkers’ rights, we boycotted grapes; to end apartheid, we boycotted companies invested in South Africa. But boycotting fossil fuels would feel to most of us like a trip back to the stone age—no long distance trips, short ones only by foot or bike, homes without heat, and almost no consumer goods. In other words, impossible.

So how about reducing our fossil fuel consumption rather than going cold turkey? Surprisingly, McKibben argues that “lifestyle changes” aren’t working. “People perceive, correctly,” he says, “that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2.” That statement concerns me deeply because it seems to say, “don’t bother, you’re wasting your time.”

Our individual actions, however, can make a difference, and they already have. In 2011, for instance, we used 240,000 barrels of gasoline per day less than in 2010, mainly because of rising prices. A mild winter resulted in a similar falloff in heating oil use. We could cut back even more by better insulating our homes with minimal out-of-pocket expense. We can cut back on our fossil fuel consumption enough to pressure the fossil fuel companies to behave more responsibly, and we must if we want to survive. Fossil fuels are responsible for over 95% of our CO2 emissions, so I certainly agree with McKibben’s call for “rapid, transformative change” in our fossil fuel consumption. But the most effective way to accomplish that change is not through institutional divestment in fossil fuel companies; it’s through individual action to reduce demand. 

By calling on college students to pressure their universities to divest, McKibben also runs the risk of absolving individuals of responsibility for their own actions. Rather than taking matters directly into our own hands and scaling back on our own fossil fuel use, he wants us to focus on getting others to divest.

This is surprising coming from someone who can often be found on the front of lines of the climate change fight. In effect, he isn’t asking us to boycott fossil fuels; he’s asking us to get someone else to boycott fossil fuels. I would rather rally around a movement whose battle cry is “Boycott fossil fuels!” than “Get someone else to boycott fossil fuels!” Gandhi didn’t say, “Get your campus administration to be the change you want to see in the world,” he said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” And if we want to see change in this world, each of us is going to have to be that change. Each of us must take personal responsibility for our fossil fuel footprint rather than simply calling on others to do it.

I’m not at all opposed to boycotting fossil fuel companies, and calling attention to their inexcusable destruction of the environment for the sake of profit, but I don’t think that asking others to do the boycotting is the answer. Each of us needs to take personal responsibility for our carbon emissions; we need to measure them, and we need to reduce them. This is the kind of “bottom-up” action that brought about change in migrant farmworkers’ rights, civil rights, and apartheid.

Mckibben is right when he calls for a stop to what permaculture cofounder Bill Mollison calls “investing in our own destruction.” But as we lean on our institutions to do the right thing we should also look at our own investment portfolios and our own oil, coal and gas consumption and divest ourselves from fossil fuel profiteering as much as possible. As we do, we should “invest in our own resurrection” by redirecting our own funds toward environmentally responsible investments. Now is the time for each of us to look at our own fossil fuel consumption and pare it down as much as possible if we want to survive what McKibben calls “our almost-but-not-quite-finally hopeless” climate crisis. Calling on others to do it for us won’t work.

Wednesday
Oct242012

Environmental nonviolence is the new green

Green and sustainable have become almost meaningless. A powerful, practical alternative could move us forward.

Our current global environmental crisis is the result of countless acts of violence. These acts may be catastrophic, like the 2010 Gulf oil spill, or they may be mundane, like littering. But each of them harms living things, directly and indirectly, now and in the future. Recognizing environmental transgressions as acts of violence enables us to see our environmental crisis in a new way, one that currently popular terms like green and sustainable can obscure. Even more importantly, it provides us with a powerful method that can help us heal our hurting planet.

What does it mean to be green?

Green and sustainable are ineffective guides for our environmental behavior because they have lost their original meaning. Green? Too vague. What does it mean when we have everything from green cars to green pesticides? Sustainable? Too idealistic. Only nature is truly sustainable; we have yet to invent a single product, system or technology that is truly self-sustaining. I prefer the term environmental nonviolence because it is more precise and more meaningful.

But before we trade in green and sustainable for a new term, perhaps they deserve a fair trial. After all, even if we can’t seem to agree on their meaning, don’t they at least offer some direction to our environmental behavior? The problem with green and sustainable is that we have divorced them from their original meanings while failing to attribute clear new meanings to them. As a result, they have lost their power to guide us. The same fate has, for example, befallen the word dope. It means cool, except when it means someone who isn’t, or what they smoke or glue their model airplanes together with.

The vagueness of green has been so taken advantage of by advertisers that it is now almost meaningless. Greenwashing, the spreading of false claims of environmental integrity by the makers of “green” cars, “green” chemicals and even “green” oil refineries has rendered it useless as a reliable measure of environmental quality. Green also has the disadvantage of being, no pun intended, either black or white. Products, systems and technologies get branded as either green or not green, when in truth there is a considerable gray area between the two. Are electric cars green? What if their electricity comes from coal-powered plants?

Like green, sustainable has become almost completely detached from its true meaning. Sustainable systems are those that, like nature, sustain themselves over time without the degradation or harm that would lead to eventual self-destruction. No human-made product, system or technology can make this claim. Even the best of them require energy, use resources, and return less to the earth than they take from it. Calling a human-made system, technology or product sustainable is a contradiction. We are not yet capable of making things that can sustain themselves over time, or that can help sustain the earth.

Ironically, while sustainability in the true sense lies beyond our capabilities, the term as we currently use it (sustainable development, sustainable agriculture, etc.) has become, like green, almost useless. As one British planner laments, "The definition of ‘sustainable’ is notoriously woolly, and different local authorities will inevitably interpret it in different ways. Once conflicting precedents are set, the waters will quickly be muddied."

Environmental nonviolence – ahimsa in action

The muddy waters created by terms like sustainable and green have undermined our efforts to improve our environment, spreading confusion as they fail to define either shareable principles or agreed-to practices. Environmental nonviolence offers a more accurate and meaningful term grounded in the social justice tradition of nonviolence.

The modern nonviolence movement is founded on the work of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and millions of other less well-known figures. Nonviolence is, according to the Metta Center for Nonviolence, “a powerful method to harmonize relationships among people (and all living things) for the establishment of justice and the ultimate well-being of all parties.” Like Gandhi’s, their practice is founded in ahimsa [ital], a Sanskrit word meaning “love in action”. But, as its practitioners are quick to point out, ahimsa is not simply the absence of violence; it is a potent and positive force for good.

Environmental nonviolence applies the concept of nonviolence to our environmental behavior, giving us a powerful method to harmonize relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all. It is achievable, and it defines a clear benchmark against which we can measure our productions—houses, cars, everything we do or make. But before delving into its specific applications, let’s take a closer look at environmental nonviolence as an idea, one that can help us act with shared purpose and compassion to restore our planet.

Environmental nonviolence is not just a philosophy, but a powerful method. And it is a method that contains a self-guiding principle: to harmonize relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all. The aim of environmental nonviolence is to harmonize relationships, just as all of nature continuously strives to harmonize relationships. Predator populations grow too large and some die of hunger, allowing prey populations to increase, which supports more predators—a continuous balancing act. Nature’s striving to harmonize relationships is the very meaning of ecology, the science of relationships between living organisms and their environment.

Environmental nonviolence aims to harmonize relationships among all [ital] living things. We are human, and it is perfectly natural for us to focus on our own survival and wellbeing, both individually and as a species. But focusing exclusively on ourselves at the expense of others has not served us well, and neither has focusing exclusively on our species at the expense of nature. Now we realize that in order to survive we must harmonize our actions with nature. But we can be “green” or “sustainable” and still see ourselves as separate from nature, treating it as a broken machine that we need to fix. Environmental nonviolence balances the equation, maintaining its focus on people even when we apply it to the environment. It reminds us that we are “not man apart”, but an integral part of the web of life.

Environmental nonviolence recognizes the unity of all living things, seeking to achieve not only justice among people, but the ultimate well-being of all living things. This is where the anthropocentric attitude of the past several centuries broke down. We failed to consider the wellbeing of all parties on the planet. We believed we could hunt species to extinction, polluting and destroying habitats without jeopardizing our own wellbeing. Now we see that we must treat all parties to life on earth fairly in order to ensure our own survival.

Practicing environmental nonviolence

This is the principle, the idea, of environmental nonviolence. In practice, it may encompass a wide variety of actions. It could mean taking the less environmentally harmful path—carpooling instead of driving alone, or eating more local foods. It could mean abstaining from environmentally harmful activities, or standing up to them and saying “no!”

When eco-activist Tim DeChristopher disrupted a federal oil and gas lease auction (an act that cost him two years in prison,) he was clearly applying the social justice model of nonviolence to the environment. But environmental nonviolence encompasses much more than civil disobedience. Researchers like Ana Cummins and Markus Ericson live it as co-founders of 5 Gyres, a research organization dedicated to stopping ocean plastic pollution; businesspeople like Ulrika Mensch, founder of the Ethletic footwear company making Fairtrade and Forest Stewardship Council certified organic sneakers are making business less environmentally violent, as are a growing number of citizens and consumers doing everything from reusing cloth grocery bags to walking instead of driving.

What weaves these diverse actions together is their common aim to harmonize relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all. Products, decisions and actions based on the standard of environmental nonviolence must meet this benchmark. We can still argue about what constitutes the ultimate wellbeing of all, but it is a far clearer standard than green or sustainable. Of course, as human activities and artifacts become more complex, total environmental nonviolence becomes harder to achieve. A house—even Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond—uses materials and energy and causes some disruption to its site. But even as our productions become more complex, we can hold total environmental nonviolence as a goal against which we can measure our performance.

And environmental nonviolence is not just the absence of violence; it is a positive force. By refusing to harm our planet, we preserve it for future generations, and we preserve life. That is, quite simply, the noblest aim of all. Specific acts of environmental nonviolence may have the immediate effect of conserving resources, reducing pollution, or any other of the positive impacts already well documented in environmental literature. But environmental nonviolence is ultimately about preserving life, life not just as survival, but as the right to thrive.

Environmental nonviolence has changed how I live. When faced with a decision I know will affect the environment (and what decisions don’t affect the environment?) I now ask myself, “Which alternative will result in more harmonious relationships among all living things for the ultimate wellbeing of all?” For big decisions I use my Seven Stars strategy, meditating on the matter and looking at it from far, far away. My decisions are grounded in direct experience of nature, which I practice through walks in the park, hiking or mountain biking through deeper woods and, as often as possible, longer expeditions into the wilderness. I then carry that feeling, the wonder of nature’s ceaseless balancing of wellbeing for all into my daily activities, letting it guide me so that my every action becomes, as much as possible, an act of environmental nonviolence.

Thursday
Oct182012

Plant zone map brings climate change to your backyard

Earlier this year, the USDA released an update of its 1990 Plant Hardiness Map. This map breaks the U.S. into horizontal bands or zones so we can all figure out which plants might do well in our area.

What the 2012 update shows is that those bands have shifted north by hundreds of miles since 1990. Indiana, for example, now has the climate that most of Tennessee had in 1990, and Tennessee now has the climate that most of Alabama had then. As Mother Jones tells it:

Compared to the 1990 version, zone boundaries in this edition of the map have shifted in many areas. The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period.

Despite the climate change they reveal, the maps look similar. Some sources have suggested that this was intentional in order to hide the evidence of climate change. But in 2006, the Arbor Day Foundation put together a nice map (above right) using the same scale as the 1990 USDA map (above left). It shows the shifting climate zones quite clearly.