Eaarth and Carbon Nation offer pragmatic, clear solutions.

On the cover of Eaarth, Barbera Kingsolver writes that the reader should read through to the end, that “whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important.”  One of my classmates advised me not to pick it up until after our Fall trimester is over next month. With what I know of Bill McKibben an his 350.org campaign, I figured this would be a depressing read.  McKibben confronts the fact that we very likely live on a planet different than the one that human civilization prospered on:

“The Earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived.  We’re every day less the oasis and more the desert.  The world hasn’t ended but the world as we know it has – even if we don’t quite know it yet.  We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind.  But they’re not.  It’s a different place.  A different planet.  It needs a new name.  Eaarth… This is one of those rare moments, the start of a change far larger and more thoroughgoing than anything we can read in the records of man, on par with the biggest dangers we can read in the records of rock and ice.”

McKibben offers plenty of quantitative and qualitative evidence describing our new home, but this is not a dense tract; in fact, it is refreshing in its readability.  I read it over a week before bed, and found his writing to be concise and clear.  While the subject, our future on this rock he now calls Eaarth, is a serious and grim, McKibben offers some great recommendations for how we can live on the new planet.  He singles out growth as enemy number one, along the lines of ecological economists like Herman Daly and Robert Constanza.  McKibben doesn’t think that an ecological New Deal, as recommended by Thomas Friedman and others, will be able to prevent the planet from continuing to change:

“The next decade will see huge increases in renewable power; we’ll adopt electric cars faster than most analysts imagine.  Windmills will sprout across the prairies.  It will be exciting.  But its not going to happen fast enough to ward off enormous change.  I don’t think the growth paradigm can rise to the occasion; I think the system has met its match.  We no longer possess the margin we’d require for another huge leap forward, certainly not fast enough to preserve the planet we used to live on.”

McKibben recommends some words that encompass the future we will need to live on our new planet: durable, sturdy, stable, hardy, and robust.  McKibben argues for smallness instead of bigness, smaller national purposes:

“So the first point is simple: the size of your institutions and your government should be determined by the size of your project.  The second point is more subtle: The project we’re now undertaking – maintenance, graceful decline, hunkering down, holding on against the storm – requires a different scale.  Instead of continents and vast nations, we need to think about states, about towns, about neighborhoods, about blocks.”

At times like this one, McKibben sounds closer to the Tea Party than the modern environmental movement with his talk of small government.  The one distinction, of course, is that the Tea Party supporters largely deny climate science; they believe growth can save us again and again, with the planet providing no inherent limits.

McKibben calls for communities to get closer together, to develop local solutions for energy and food.  “If the eaarth is going to support restaurants, they’ll need to look like the Farmers Diner” (in Quechee, Vermont, a favorite destination of m wife and I).  McKibben doesn’t just recommend local commerce, but sharing and connecting with neighbors, a lost tradition.  Eaarth is a useful book for this moment, because it appears that a price on carbon will not be set anytime soon.

Along the same lines, in a different vein, the upcoming documentary Carbon Nation, which I recently watched, offers useful solutions for tackling our problems with carbon, in a slightly more optimistic manner.  Peter Byck‘s new film has an intriguing tagline: A Climate Change Solutions Movie (That Doesn’t Even Care If You Believe in Climate Change).  The argument is simple: there are actions that we can all take, that are already being taken, that can begin to solve the problem’s we face.  The film’s argument makes financial sense; in fact the clip above is representative of the film in general, optimistic, aimed at an audience that includes conservatives.  One of my professors, a rock ribbed New Hampshire conservative, thinks the film will be generally successful in communicating to conservatives. Carbon Nation offers some solutions that we would be wise to listen to.  Even the Shell representative who appears in the film says that a price on carbon is crucial to our future.  However, the film discusses issues that range from traditional alternative energy, to biofuel, soil conservation and cover crops.

Carbon Nation premiere’s in New York in January, but screenings are occurring now across the country at conferences.  Eaarth is out now.  Both offer pragmatic, cohesive solutions about the reality we face, and the steps we must take to survive on this planet.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the car


My first car was a worn, weary, 1981 Mustang (not as pretty as this one)


Looking back upon my 34 years in the world, my most complex and frustrating relationship as a consumer has been in the realm of transportation.  I have owned six vehicles personally, and at various points relied on different transportation choices out of choice or necessity.  At times, I was frustrated with the financial investment in transportation.  Without doubt, I would prefer to live in a place where I could rely on public transportation, and forego ownership of an automobile altogether.  Where I live, a bus that heads into the city every 30 minutes is only a ten minute walk away; from there, access by train into Boston and New York is very convenient.  However, I also find intrinsic pleasure in driving vehicles.  Additionally, I value the freedom that my automobile offers in terms of scheduling.  As a result, while I sometimes scold myself for choosing to drive, I remain locked into that consumption pattern.

As a teenager, the automobile represented freedom, a freedom that was not accessible to me.  My father bought me my first car, a weary, worn, 1981 Ford Mustang.  The engine of the Mustang was in disrepair to the point that each week I replaced a quart of oil, and power steering fluid as well.  I finally gave up on the car after the battery died on top of a mountain.  At the age of 20, that automobile was definitely present, because I could barely afford to take care of it, and it required constant attention.  The Mustang was easy to give up, because I was not yet accustomed to freedom, and I lived on a college campus.

However, my desire for the freedom of the automobile did not die, and I purchased a brand new Saturn Coupe months before graduation.  I was able to get a loan because of my impending commission as a Naval Officer.  However, I did not quite budget out the costs of the automobile, so after graduation, I left the Coupe behind in California to sell, and headed to Newport, Rhode Island, without a car.  I depended on my bike, as well as the kindness of strangers, to get around Newport for one summer.  In fact, that dependency, led me to have a close connection to my community.  After I moved west to Everett, Washington, I again chose to live without an automobile, relying on public transportation and the kindness of friends to get around.  However, the lure of freedom inevitably led me to get another car.  I have had a car in the years since, and never really questioned the need, until I spent three years living in Japan.  I found the trains there to be very convenient, and even though I bought an old Honda within a month of arriving in Japan, I rarely drove it.  Once again, in Japan, I felt a closer connection to the community around me.

Today, the costs of the two cars my wife and I own are ever present on my mind.  In the future, I would like to work in either Providence or Boston, and can see myself relying on public transportation instead of my automobile in daily commuting.  However, while I could rely on public transportation today, it would change my daily life significantly.  It would force me to plan ahead more for meals, and would limit my ability to travel around the larger community.  However, my wife works within a mile of the house, so in theory we could both manage with one automobile.  However, our communities are designed around the automobile.  Many of the businesses nearby are designed for automobiles, not public or personal transportation.  To not have an automobile would require a lot more planning, and some sacrifice.  We are used to having what we want, when we want it.  This logic defines nearly all of the decisions we make today as consumers.  To not have an automobile which I can always access would require me to rely on others more, and would potentially affect my ability to accomplish business or personal needs.  However, it would also bring me closer to the community around me.  When I walk home from the bus stop, I often speak to neighbors that I wouldn’t see otherwise even notice from the seat of my automobile.  Even my sense of place is affected, as I notice little things about the world around me.  In the long term, I would like to avoid the purchase of any more automobiles.  I would like to rely on public transportation and my bike.  However, to make that happen, I will need to be willing to go against the grain, to slow down my life, to sacrifice mobility; if my past is any sign, I may gain much more in terms of a connection to my community than I give up in terms of freedom.


Annie Leonard, Ben Bradlee, and an iPad walk into a bar…

How do you sell a newspaper in the 21st Century?  Well, The Washington Post is on to something with this new iPad app and campaign.  This video blends the past successes at the Post, personified by Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee, with the contemporary moment.  Here you have Bob Woodward, typing away on a Watergate era typewriter, interrupted by some young reporter with an iPad.  He doesn’t know what to do with it, and in that moment Bob Woodward is like a lot of us, how exactly could you use this fancy new product?  Bob walks by some folks using the app, and I have to say, it does look intuitive and appealing.  Woodward asks Bradlee, the old lion of journalism, how does the iPad fit in to the Washington Post?  Bradlee, sagely says to Woodward: “These kids think tweets twit themselves.”  Brilliant.  This is very effective marketing for the iPad.  However, my enthusiasm is tempered this morning by the latest from Annie Leonard.

The Story of Electronics examines what happens to electronics before and after their useful life.  In the context of the iPad, I wonder, what is its useful life?  If I could count on daily use for at least 10 years, that would be a start.  However, given the shelf life of cell phones these days, I am not so certain that it will still be useful in 10 years.  The MacBook Pro I am typing on is 4 years old, and I hope to get at least two more years out of it.  What if the iPad was designed so that critical components could be upgraded in the future, easily?  That way, I could take the costs of the iPad production, in water, resources, and waste, and spread them well into the future.

What toxic chemicals are used in the production of the iPad?  What will happen to those chemicals when the device breaks? Apple does take back old products, which is good.  All electronics manufacturers should follow suit.  The recycling should be incentivized at purchase, so that consumers have it in their best interest to return the device to the manufacturer for safe, effective recycling, instead of throwing it out in the trash.

Ecological economics: the next logical step

The American economy, and much of the world economy, is organized around principles of neoclassical economics (NCE).  Neoclassical economists consider perfect markets without any outside interference the ideal means to build an economy with. Those economists believe that NCE principles create the most efficient allocation of resources throughout the economy.  The goal for neo-classical economists is growth; economic growth signifies the distribution of market goods and services, and in the minds of neo-classical economists, economic growth is a proxy for consumer satisfaction.

While NCE is the dominant paradigm, ecological economics (EE) offers better framework during a time of ecological constraint.   Many of the resources that through their abundance created the conditions for the Industrial Revolution and the rapid economic growth of the last two centuries are becoming scarce.  Ecological economists recognize that Earth and its ecosystems are not subsets of the human economy, but rather that the human economy is a subset of the Earth.  As such, ecological economists are concerned with the question of scale, what the appropriate and sustainable size of the economy is relative to the ecosystems that support it.

Both NCE and EE recognize the concepts of marginal cost (the additional cost of producing a market good) and marginal utility (the additional satisfaction one receives from a market good), and seek out the optimal scale whereby the greatest marginal utility is achieved at the most efficient marginal cost.  However, NCE only considers these concepts in terms of the microeconomic and not the macroeconomic level; EE examines the optimal scale of the larger macro economy.  By looking at the big picture, ecological economists examine the throughput of the human economy, and recognize a conceptual flaw in NCE.

Neoclassical economists look at the economy as the whole, and the natural capital that the Earth and its ecosystems provide as a mere subset of that economy.  The NCE view of the economy is a circular one, between production and consumption: businesses and consumers interact to create supply and demand.  The circular flow model that neoclassical economists use to illustrate those relationships is simple, but like their view of the economy as the whole, it does not properly recognize the natural capital that allows the economy to operate.

The NCE model creates the illusion of a perpetual motion machine, which is impossible.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics identifies that any closed system degrades through entropy.  In the case of the macro economy, this means that resources cannot be recycled completely.  The throughput of the macro economy is enormous, and growing.  However, this enormous throughput occurs on a finite planet, with finite resources.  Specifically the fossil fuels and minerals that drive the macro economy, nonrenewable on a human scale, are finite.  The capacity of the Earth’s ecosystems to provide water and waste services is finite.  Ecological economists recognize that growth is not sustainable, but differentiate growth from development.

That distinction between growth and development is helpful when considering how a business might operate through the principles of ecological economics.  Minimizing the throughput of resources is crucial on the finite Earth.  A business might consider offering a service instead of a product, and designing the materials to be provided to customers with their entire life cycle in mind (through a Life Cycle Assessment).  Interface, Inc. designed their modular carpet tiles with those very goals.  Interface will replace individual tiles when they become worn, and recycle those tiles as much as possible.  In fact, Interface works continuously to minimize the amount of petrochemicals in their product, and the ecological footprint of its supply chains.  By offering a service instead of a product, a business can maintain customers over the long term instead of trying to sell as many products as possible while cutting costs to maximize profit margin.  On a finite planet, that behavior is simply not sustainable.

While EE principles are appealing, they do present limitations, especially within the dominant NCE paradigm that defines the macro economy.  First of all, a business must consider optimal scale carefully; long supply chains are not sustainable over the long term in a finite world.  Second, finance is a quandary, especially if the business is for-profit.  Investors and stockholders will demand healthy and steady profit margins, which are difficult to maintain when competing against businesses that consider growth as the primary goal.  Finally, the concept of providing a service instead of a product is difficult in terms of modern accounting practices.  Interface, for example, whose customers tend to pay through capital expenses, are sometimes reluctant to shift those costs to current expenses.   However, EE provides a growing framework for sustainable business that is already evident in developments like the B Corporation.  In a finite world, ecological economics provides a necessary course correction to neoclassical economics.


Is the consumer really king? The path to sustainable consumption.

In the United States, and in much of the world that shares aspects of US Business culture, it is common to say the consumer is king.  Politicians of parties across the ideological spectrum speak about consumer sovereignty as if it is an ordained right.  Neo-classical economists blithely assume the conditions of perfect markets in their theories and models, and proclaim that the consumer is always sane, always correct – and that the actions of many consumers will serve the larger social good.  The development of capitalism created the conditions for the development and distribution many innovations that have improved the lives of people around the world.  Just think back to the world that your grandparents grew up in, where people who owned an icebox and a radio were considered middle class.

However, today global consumption is on an unsustainable path of growth.  Global populations inexorably increase, energy resources decline and become more expensive to obtain by the day, and the ability of the biosphere to sustain the throughput of resources that our consumption requires is diminishing.  How did we get here?  If the consumer is king, and can do no wrong, how did we move onto this unsustainable path?  First of all, regarding consumer sovereignty, it is inaccurate to lay the culpability for purchasing decisions entirely on the lap of consumers.  Marketers are adept at creating needs and wants where they did not exist before.  We consumers apply meaning to, and use our purchases as a sort of language, or shorthand, to denote status.  Governments subsidize and incentivize certain behaviors, like the pervasive subsidies in energy industries.  Governments even encourage consumption through monetary and tax policy.  So the idea that the consumer is king is problematic.  So, the question remains, how did we get to the point where consumption is unsustainable?

We have long treated the resources that come from the Earth not as finite commodities, but rather as our dominion.  For example, we charge homeowners for the extraction, delivery, and disposal of potable water, but we do not consider the water itself a finite resource.  We have only recently considered what it takes to maintain healthy watersheds, to ensure sustainable water supplies.  However, water is essential to the manufacture of most consumer goods.  How can the price of those goods not reflect the value of the finite resource, fresh water?  When water supplies dry up, water will have to be obtained in the energy intensive process of desalination.  Fossil fuel energy supplies, like water, are finite resources.  We humans are not good at planning for the long term of future generations.  The concept of the Seventh Generation, which originated in The Great Law of the Iroquois, asks whether the decisions made today will benefit descendents seven generations into the future.  A home products company that aims to inspire that kind of long-term thinking adopted the Iroquois principle in their name.  However, Seventh Generation is a rarity in the business world today.  The assumption by many in society today is that resources will never decline, that we will always find a new source or supply to maintain our exponential growth.  That thinking is leading us on a path toward decline.

Can we create a new prosperity, one that is sustainable?  To do so we will have to consider resource use from a perspective of our collective future, and beyond our individual perspective.  For some people, that may mean sacrifice.  Both father and son President Bush declared that “The American way of life is not negotiable” when considering how to confront climate change.  The problem is that the American way of life, as it stands today, is just not sustainable.  Both the government and communities of individuals must create policies, incentives, and actions to promote a new kind of consumption, and a new consumer mindset. We must strive for quality, minimize throughput of resources, and consider the entire life cycle of products, ensuring that materials can be reused or recycled.  We must design our communities so that we plan for the long term, and think generations ahead, planning for a future with expensive energy and finite resources.  Many of the consumption decisions we make on a daily basis are habits that people don’t consider – we need to design products so that consumers are aware of both what the product provides, and what the cost is.  However, it is not enough to buy ‘green’ products, we must reconsider what we really need.  To create a sustainable consumption, we will all need to tread carefully and purposely into the future.  Otherwise, we consumers will find ourselves unprepared for the future we create.