Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nudging communities towards sustainability

Yesterday afternoon I was working from a local coffeeshop and chatting with the owner as I got my tea and settled in. It was typical small talk, for the most part, but we did spend some time on how food can kill a family budget. It's been in the back of my mind since that I'll put in the effort to make and bring lunch everyday, but I'm happy to spend $2 bucks on tea that can't cost more than a few cents to make.

I'm happy to do this because it supports a local business and I want to live in a place where local businesses thrive. I like being able to walk or bike places. I like being a regular. I also think it makes the community stronger, both socially and economically, to have locally owned businesses. A few people who think about long term community development can't change the landscape much by simply buying overpriced coffee at the local bookstore. But I don't think we can (or should) convince others to ban or boycott Borders and their ilk. A subtler, more workable approach is needed.

One of the themes that comes up repeatedly in attempts to address climate change, and with many approaches to all kinds of environmental challenges, is how to work environmental issues into economic models. Externalities is a word that comes up often. The idea is that there are costs associated with pollution that the polluter doesn't pay directly. (Keep in mind that I am NOT an economist. I don't even read the magazine.) If we could make most or all of that cost go back to the polluters via taxes or penalties, then pollution might drop via market pressures without having the government take a too heavy-handed approach.

There must be similar logic in community development. It's in the interest of the town to have more local business, but you can't just ban big box stores. Well, you can, but it a hotly debated idea. I'm sure there are good policies being developed out there for building strong community centric economies. But, once they've been identified, how do you get them implemented on a wide scale?

Another recent hot topic in politics is the nudge. Popularized in the book Nudge, the idea is that changing the default option is almost as effective as sweeping mandates with a lot less effort. You don't have to outlaw frito chili pie at the school cafeteria, just make the healthier choices easier and more obvious.

Maybe instead of trying to generalize local successes to statewide laws, maybe the best approach is to make it easier for municipalities to implement regulations appropriate to their situations. I'm not sure what for this would take and I also suspect that there are folks out there doing this already. I just haven't heard about it.

One of the things I'm picturing is a database of regulations and plans that have been implemented across the country and the world. It would make it easier for planners and city and town officials to apply these ideas in their own community. Maybe even include generalized versions of successful plans and regulations.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Protein sources

The Green Lantern at Slate just addressed a question that's been bugging me for a while now. How does tofu stack up against meat for environmental impact? Soy protein is better than animal protein in most regards, but there is a whole lot of processing involved in making tofu. How does that tilt the balance?

Rastogi references a Dutch study that ranked Dutch made tofu slightly worse than Dutch raised chicken. She then takes a stab at adjusting the results for the US and decides that US tofu is probably better than chicken, but not dramatically. The change is mostly because the dutch get beans from South America.

The Dutch study is worth a look, even if the results cannot be translated directly to the US. It covers every protein source from veggie patties, to cheese, to fish and back. A quick look at the graphs (I haven't read the whole thing) revealed to surprises to me. First, cheese is horrible in this regard. Second, lamb is the worst thing ever. Which is too bad, because I wanted lamb to be a earth friendlier alternative to beef. Ah, well, I guess I'll have to live with the guilt.

Eggs, nuts, chicken, tofu, and most fish are all about the same. Milk is a slightly better and local seafood is even better than milk. Their numbers also indicate that cutting out dairy reduces greenhouse gasses as much as going meatless. That must be mostly the cheese.

Keep in mind that this is a Dutch study and the focus is greenhouse gasses. So if, like me, your concern extends to other pollutants and effects, don't treat these numbers as gospel. However, I haven't seen anything else half as useful.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Some chatter about commuter rail

This week, the MBTA negotiated a deal with freight carrier CSX that should make it easier for them to expand and improve commuter rail service. I don't know anything about this, but that's what all the articles seemed to imply. The deal does not impact the Franklin line that would be the one that could come to Hopedale or Milford, but it is a sign that the MBTA is willing to expand.

The Milford daily news debriefed our local state Representative, John Fernandes, who serves on a key transportation committee. Towards the end of the article, the subject of expansion to Milford/Hopedale comes up and it sounds like there have been some serious, if informal, discussions. It's probably not anything more than the rumor mills already had heard, but it's nice to see it getting some press.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Super bugs

No, I'm not going to write about drug resistant TB and its friends. I'm talking about the microbes Craig Venter is going to make. He is talking about engineering microorganisms that can make biofuels from sunlight, air, and water.

I don't know too much about his plans, but I've written in the past that algal biofuels seem to be the only biofuel tech that makes sense on a large scale. Most other approaches compete with food production. I've heard that he is starting with marine algae so as to avoid conflict with fresh water needs.

I also know that Venter is not someone to bet against in this arena. As with sequencing the human genome, the science isn't in doubt here. The question is whether it will work at a useful scale. I hope he can do it and suspect he will. One of his moves (and this is no secret formula) is to use money to lure really smart and creative folks to his cause. He just hired a friend of mine away from our lab.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

CarFreeWithKids and BusChick ask: what do you do about friends in the burbs if you don't have a car?

We're actually on the other end of this dilemma (sort of). I love being in a small, locally dense, town, but to our friends in the city, we may as well be in a sprawling suburban development.

We realize that, most of the time, we'll have to do the driving to see our friends. We understand that our friends didn't count on having to make frequent trips out here when they planned their lives. When we go into the city for any reason, we try to visit someone while we're there, to get the most out of each trip. Often, we try to meet half way (literally). Drumlin farm is a favorite, but it's not really accessible without a car, so it doesn't help if your friends are truly car free. But there are some nice spots on the commuter rail that would work. Hopkington State Park is close to the Worcester line and accessible to most anywhere "MetroWest." Many of the commuter rail stops are in nice town centers where it could be fun to meet for an extended lunch.

That said, it does hurt when folks won't make the trip out here for big events. We haven't black listed anyone, but when we are in the city, looking for someone to meet up with at the last moment, we're more likely to call folks who've made the effort to come out here. It's not out of spite as much as who would be more likely to want us to crash their plans.

My philosophy with most things related to self improvement is that I'm going to start with the easy stuff. I look for changes that will make the biggest difference with the least impact on folks I care about. Cut out short car trips. Try eating 25% of the meat you used to. Set a limit ($10 a week?) on non-local produce. I had a similar philosophy when Mandy was pregnant. The stress of avoiding every last source of danger to the baby was worse for the baby than anything. Yeah, don't smoke or drink, but if one snack of raw milk cheese is going to improve your mood, it is probably worth the risk.

Stressing yourself out about your carbon footprint isn't going to hurt the environment. (It may shorten your life, which would lower your lifetime footprint.) But it may alienate folks and let them continue to see climate change as a cause for nutjobs. If you can cut out 75% of your footprint without affecting the way you interact with others, maybe you can inspire more people to make changes in their lives.

I'm all for some folks going car-free or vegan, but most people are going to see that and turn away. There also needs to be a moderate movement with less drastic changes that includes more people. That way folks who are just starting to think green, can do something positive from the outset.

Everyone changing to CFLs isn't going to save the planet, but everyone cutting their meat consumption by 75%, their car use by 50%, and their electricity by 30% (to pick completely arbitrary, but achievable numbers) just might have a huge impact.

There is a good article in the Washington Post that covers much of the same ground.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


Yesterday, I picked up our first share of our new CSF. CSF is for community supported fishery, and like a CSA, you pay up front for a share of the season's haul. The Wall Street Journal just did a feature on it. I had no idea there were so many people signed up. Today, I learn to fillet.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Another good TedTalk

Shai Agassi's talk at TED this February, presented his vision for how we could make electric cars feasible now and why it's the best way to go now. He's not the most amazing speaker, but there are quite a few good ideas in here.

The key idea of the whole thing, and the idea behind BetterPlace, is swapping batteries instead of charging them. If automated, it could be quicker than fueling up a gas car. It starts to make the electric car pretty appealing.

The rest of the talk is a rambling mix of tales of his attempts to get governments to buy into his vision and more reasons why we need to make the switch to electric. One bit I liked was his a recounted conversation with someone from the Israeli government in which he proposed turning some large tract of land into a solar farm that would power all the cars in the country. His point was that they'd not hesitate if that same piece of land held enough oil to run those cars for some number of years. The solar power would never run out. I really like that point of view for setting aside large tracts of land for solar.

Monday, April 27, 2009


I was listening to a report on the first Maker Faire in England recently and was intrigued by a comment of one of the interviewees. He mentioned that industrial quality manufacturing equipment is become small enough for hard-core hobbyist to have in a garage. He mentioned a neighbor who makes electronic components to sell to device manufacturers.

The idea of garage based manufacturing brings up some concerns, and I think, some opportunities. Much manufacturing, particularly electronics, involves using many unsavory or downright dangerous materials. Garage enthusiasts are probably not regulated as much as corporations and can get away with improperly disposing of waste products. I'm sure many tinkerers do, because if you don't handle these things regularly, you're likely not going to have the proper systems to get rid of it.

On the other hand, I see a huge opportunity here for ideas like green chemistry. This is the idea that, if we take the time to figure them out, many chemical manufacturing processes that currently produce toxic waste, can be redesigned to be safer. However, the status quo is hard to change since most manufacturers already haves systems for handling the dangerous stuff.

Most people doing regular manufacturing on their own property are going to be extra careful about what they use. If there are safer ways to make something, they'll jump on it. At least that's what I'm hoping. Maybe the democratization of manufacturing will spur the development of green manufacturing practices.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A mark against frozen foods

In an effort to reduce impact, we've tried to avoid buying too much fresh produce that's not produced locally. It's certainly not the 100 mile diet, but that vast majority of the produce we ate this winter was either canned (mostly by us) or frozen. It seems to me that you'd get better tasting food for less energy if you preserve produce at it's peak and ship it preserved rather than try to ship fresh food around the planet.

There are some obvious costs to preserving food. Canning requires a fair bit of heat, and frozen foods require refrigeration. But it gets worse for frozen foods. Apparently, even the non-CFC refrigerants are nasty and being emitted in mass by supermarket freezers. They don't kill the ozone layer, but the are potent greenhouse gasses. Wonderful. At least there are alternatives, it's just that most places don't use them.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Trash man

Sustainable Dave, as he's calling himself in his newest venture, spent 2008 attempting to produce as little trash as possible without drastically altering his lifestyle. He chronicled his efforts on his previous blog, 365 days of trash. He didn't just log his trash for the year, he kept it in his basement and weighed it in January. Just about 30 pounds, not bad. According to sustainablog, he did all this while still eating his favorite junk food.

The only drastic measure he took was starting a worm bin to dispose of food and paper scraps. I'm not sure why I'm all hung up on trash here. I guess I feel it's not getting enough attention in the current green hysteria. I'm always happy to see folks thinking about how to simply reduce waste.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The last biofuel standing

Another good step towards biodiesel and ethanol from algae.

I'm still skeptical of biofuels in general, since they generally use lots of land and water and aren't that efficient. Algae are pretty darned efficient and (paradoxically, since they live in a pond) use very little water. If biofuels are going to work, they are going to be algal.

The only other reasonable biofue is celluosic ethanol, which is almost as much of a pipe dream as clean coal.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

BPA is everywhere!

My Podcast directory is a little backlogged. I read a biography of Mo Berg, MLB catcher turned OSS agent, a while back and remember the description of his apartment in which months or years worth of unread newspapers and magazines were stacked. He insisted on going through them in order and not skipping anything. I'm approaching that with my podcast list.

The point being, the November 21st Environment report just popped up on my playlist. In it we hear that although many dangerous chemicals enter our body through items we purchase and bring home, most of us don't know it. We also hear about a report that BPA leaches out of any kind of plastic in the microwave.

The continual denial of industry spokespersons is laughable at this point. Even if each case is small, people eat lots of stuff from microwaves and much of it is heated in plastic. That's going to add up really quick. If you add up all the BPA in all the Campbell's microwave soups and released the same amount into the water supply of a small city (maybe the same size as the number of soup eaters), you'd hear something about it.

Exit strategy

The last post on curtailment was pretty much an unorganized brain dump. I have a whole lot of related ideas to these and will probably continue to off load them here in an attempt to formulate some more coherent opinions.

We recently saw one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history come to light. One of my first thought on this (and I'm not the only one) is that the global economy and stock markets in general are large part pyramid scheme. Investments get positive returns only if the economy grows in either investors or consumers. What happens when there are no more people to invest? What happens when there are no more customers?

Resources are fundamentally limited on this planet. Whatever your view of a reasonable lifestyle and the longevity (or lack thereof) of the fossil fuel supply, there is a maximum number of people that can live on this Earth. At some point we will reach that number and the only way to get new customers is to take them from somewhere else. The global economy will (unless we colonize Mars) stop growing at some point. What happens then? Does the pyramid scheme unravel? Can we gracefully reach a stable state without a large correction?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


This book review over at Sustainablog got me thinking about ways the next century may play out. I got so lost in my thoughts, that I didn't finish the first paragraph of the review.

First of all, forget about global warming for now. Yes, it's real and we should address it, but it is just one of many reasons why there will be a lack of resources (by western standards) in the future. There are lots of ways this could play out, but if things don't change, there the bottom billion or two are in for some serious hurt. Meanwhile, those of us who helped cause the problem will have to cut back. The question in my mind is whether we can change our ways before anything really bad happens.

The Earth is a complex system of energy and resource cycles fueled mainly by the sun. If things get too out of balance, there will be a correction. Think famine and disease more than "The Day After Tomorrow." If it's not economically and politically feasible to preemptively change our ways, maybe we should try to more the global economy towards a system that will gracefully reach it's stable point rather than grossly over shoot it require a serious correction.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The original green revolution

For many of us raised in the last few decades, the words "green revolution" are more likely to thoughts of organic farming and vegan diets than John Deere and Monsanto, but roughly half a century ago, the industrialization of agriculture vastly improved yields and threatened to end large scale hunger.

In the 21st century, the label "Green revolution" is beginning to look poorly named. It did produce huge crop yields, but only with heavy dependence on petroleum to create fertilizer. Industrial agriculture takes a heavy toll on the environment in many ways. First, monoculture directly reduces biodiversity on farms. Heavy pesticide and antibiotic use selects for more virulent pests and destroys the diversity of beneficial bugs (both invertebrates and microbes). Heavy fertilization (along with antibiotics and pesticides and herbicides) wash out into the environment causing blooms of opportunist organisms (algae in lake eutrophication) who drive out other species and upset ecosystems. Corporate farming places a bureaucratic wedge between decision makers and the land causing the deterioration of the environment to go unheeded.

Michelle over at Garden Rants wondered recently if there isn't a better way. I'm inclined to agree with her. I also wanted to point out that one of the lessons I see in the green revolution is that creating more food won't make hunger go away. Hunger seems to be largely a political and economic problem.

By attempting to modernize the third world in the image of the developed world, we have laid bare our shortcomings. Our current model is unsustainable, and the currently developing areas of the world need to change tack and look for new models of sustainable development. We can, I believe, best help that by looking inward to try and address our own failing first, whether as an individual, a community, or a nation.

Of course we can't stop trying to help those around the world who are in desperate need, but we need to stop pretending that our way is the best and only way. We all know the old saying about giving a man a fish. But instead of merely teaching him how we fish, we should helping him find the best way to fish his pond. It will probably work much better than our methods, and we may learn something in the process.