Saturday, January 31, 2009

Geographies of Power

N&S's Breakthrough Institute has a piece noting the challenge posed by the "Technology Fifteen"--mostly Midwestern Senators (our own Sherrod Brown gets the lead photo), from coal-dependent states--to climate legislation. They're commenting on the same NYT article I linked below, pointing out how the "green economy" agenda really has to kick in.

Less is the new more

Last Saturday, I mentioned that energy companies have traditionally priced their products like other commodities--trying to sell more, offering discounts to large consumers, etc. How to turn that business model around, so that there's an economic incentive to conserve?

Well, today's NYT reports on efforts in Sacramento to use status competition to encourage conservation among domestic consumers, by letting them know how they stack up against their neighbors.

Last April, it began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

Customers who scored high earned two smiley faces on their statements. “Good” conservation got a single smiley face. Customers like Mr. Dyer, whose energy use put him in the “below average” category, got frowns, but the utility stopped using them after a few customers got upset.


Competition among homeowners is still rare, but is becoming more widespread. In Massachusetts, the BrainShift Foundation, a nonprofit that uses games to raise environmental awareness, recruited towns to compete in a reality series, called “Energy Smackdown,” which is shown on a local cable station.

At the start of this year’s season, 10 families from Cambridge, Medford and Arlington formed teams and competed against one another in conservation categories that included waste, heating fuel, electricity and food. Patty Nolan, 51, who lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children, agreed to participate because, she said, although family members thought of themselves as “environmentally conscious,” they knew they could be doing more.

But her motives shifted after eight months of trash weigh-ins and comparative meter readings.

“At the beginning, the competition wasn’t what interested me,” Ms. Nolan said, “but then when we lost a challenge to Arlington by one pound of carbon, I realized I really wanted to win.”

This still isn't quite the shift we need: it's still about individualized savings, rather than pricing mechanisms. But it does move towards making consumption levels a social project.

Friday, January 30, 2009

JFF: GreenWalls and Vertical Gardens

Check out French landscape-art designer Patrick Blanc's Vertical Garden--the next step beyond green roofs. These are to ivy-covered walls what Jeni's ice cream is to Dairy Queen. Blanc has planted the facade of the Quai Branly anthropology museum in Paris, and it's spectacular: a (green) thumb in the eye of high-modernist sterility. I'd love to see something similar on Columbus's City Center, taking green urbanism to new heights. I got this image from the Landscape+Urbanism blog --thanks.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sustainability and the Commons

Alongside principles of sufficiency, the toolkit for environmental citizenship should include a concept of the commons. Economists and environmental studies majors probably learn about this idea through Garrett Hardin's paper on "The Tragedy of the Commons." Many probably come away thinking it's also the last word on the issue, even though a lot of work has been done since then, including the Creative Commons response to the "intellectual property" enclosures. But there's obviously a lot more to be done to make the concept vital and relevant to a society built around ideals of individualized consumption.

Proposals for expanded notions of service, whether on the local/state level (Gov. Strickland yesterday called for including a service project as part of graduation requirements for Ohio high schools) or at the national level (e.g. in Obama's inaugural, or in Robert Reich's column in the American Prospect) are steps towards a renewed appreciation of the commons. Another useful tool are the games and models developed by the Sustainability Institute, including the Fish Banks game discussed by Peter Senge in The Necessary Revolution. By getting players to confront the consequences of competitive and collaborative strategies, such games may help us loosen up the bias towards self-seeking maximization, the default strategy of the last three decades.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Sustainability: A Big Idea

"Sustainability is a "big idea," a global concept that has arisen to meet a contemporary challenge, one unlike anything humanity has faced in the past: global ecological crisis. ... For those of us deeply concerned about environmental trends, especially those entailing irreversibilities, the task is not to get the right definition. It is to continually refine the idea to meet the threats, especially the novel threats, those like overpopulation and overconsumption that human society has not faced in the past...and does not fully face now. The central task is to take what is self-evident at two extremes of scale--the limits of ever-expanding activity for the individual and for the planet--and to locate limits in human organization"(31)

Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency.

Princen develops the principle of sufficiency--enough--against the idea of efficiency, driver of endless growth and limitless consumption. It is a principle of self-regulation and satiety, linchpin of a conception of ecological rationality.

The book as a whole sets out to develop and defend this conception, and performs a valuable service in theorizing what "self-regulation" might mean when scaled up from individual to society. Among the key points I've identified so far:

"human decisions must be framed in a time scale that spans many generations of humans" (32)

"Decisions aimed at sustainable practice must, on a daily basis, from the individual to the collective, from the citizen to the polity, be risk averse with respect to the biophysical underpinnings of life. The long term as indefinite future is a necessary ingredient, and thus a first-order criterion of ecological rationality" (33)

The third defining feature of sustainability is decision making that aims at the intersection of the biophysical and social systems. Conservation, preservation and pollution control [three plausible ways of conceptualizing environmental goals] have typically treated the environment as "out there." ... But when the environment "out there" is brought "in here," when decision making is as much about managing human behavior as it is about managing biophysical dynamics, questions of excess become legitimate. (33)

"Change is inherent in complex adaptive systems. But to have integrity, to be self-sustaining, systems must find that middle ground, that in-between position of enough--but not too much. ... A system has integrity, resilience and adaptiveness when each factor varies within a comfortable range, only rarely exceeding that range." (35)

"systems must have built-in mechanisms of restraint to keep in the safe range, to operate in the middle ground. Such mechanisms depend on a system's ability to store and channel information" (36).

Bringing the environment "in here"--and making human behavior part of the definition--is key to gaining a sense of sustainability as a social project.

Today, tomorrow, and the long haul

Lots of environmental news today.

Top of the list is Obama's decision directing the EPA to allow California and other states to mandate tougher-than-national emissions standards. The NYT's "Room for Debate" section has a number of experts commenting on the decision, including this interesting point from William K. Reilly:
Only California has the right to seek such waivers to set stricter standards than what federal laws require. It has to demonstrate, however, that it has seriously studied an issue before it seeks such waivers, and indeed California has been the most pioneering and imaginative state in seeking ways to reduce air pollution. In fact, it has more people than E.P.A. does working on clean air issues — not only in Sacramento but in Los Angeles and elsewhere around the state.

This news comes on the same day that a paper dispells hopes that global warming would be reversible, even if we cut CO2 emissions immediately.

Because of the way carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere and in the oceans, and the way the atmosphere and the oceans interact, patterns that are established at peak levels will produce problems like “inexorable sea level rise” and Dust-Bowl-like droughts for at least a thousand years, the researchers are reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

... The researchers describe what will happen if the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide — the principal heat-trapping gas emission — reaches 450 to 600 parts per million, up from about 385 p.p.m. today. Most climate researchers consider 450 p.p.m. virtually inevitable and 600 p.p.m. difficult to avoid by midcentury if the use of fossil fuels continues at anything like its present rate.
So drought is on its way, as are rising ocean levels. Questions about resilience, and proposals for adaptation, are going to be arriving on policy-makers desks in fairly short order, requiring whole new orders of expertise, democratic tact and political skills. Arguments about relevant scale--local, regional, national, hemispheric--are in the offing, and will need to be in every planners toolbox.

But it's the time-frame that raises the most interesting challenge: scientists may be able to extrapolate "for at least a thousand years," but it's hard to see how that can be a humanly relevant time-scale. Theorists of sustainability have made a good case that the welfare of "future generations" should be a factor in decision-making, against the utilitarian assumption that only living individuals can have preferences. But how many generations? Is it plausible to stretch policy decisions out on the rack of centuries? Tribal societies could embody social memory in a council of elders, who could act as intermediaries between the ancestors and the unborn: longevity as a measure of the horizon of relevance. Science breaks with this human measure, however, and opens unimaginable perspectives: a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred-thousand years out (or back) are easily programmable.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck is, to my knowledge, one of the few people to have thought about this challenge, under the label "risk society." The basis of policy, Beck argues, is no longer knowledge but probability: all significant decisions rely on models and extrapolations, based on contestable assumptions and variable parameters. There are trade-offs--not between goods, but between unknown and perhaps incommensurable sorts of risks. This has to change our practice of deliberation.

From time to space: meanwhile, back in today's news, the NYT reports a rift within Congressional Democrats about how fast to move on climate-change legislation.

There’s a bias in our Congress and government against manufacturing, or at least indifference to us, especially on the coasts,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio. “It’s up to those of us in the Midwest to show how important manufacturing is. If we pass a climate bill the wrong way, it will hurt American jobs and the American economy, as more and more production jobs go to places like China, where it’s cheaper.”

This brown state-green state clash is likely to encumber any effort to set a mandatory ceiling on the carbon dioxide emissions blamed as the biggest contributor to global warming, something Mr. Obama has declared to be one of his highest priorities. Mr. Obama has said he intends to press ahead on such an initiative, despite opposition within his own party in Congress and divisions among some of his advisers over the timing, scope and cost of legislation to curb carbon emissions.

Once again, it's the coasts against the heartland: California (Barbara Boxer, Henry Waxman) and the East Coast pushing for stronger regulations, coal- and manufacture-dependent Midwest states proposing a go-slow approach. Already, Detroit is complaining that they'll have to cut back on their largest, most profitable models in order to meet the new standards--the same line they've offered for the past quarter-century.

Monday, January 26, 2009

OSU Green Build Policy

Ohio State strives to become benchmark for green building

Ohio State is leading the way in sustainability in higher education by creating a Green Build Policy that will set the bar for green design and construction. The principles and practices governing campus building now includes conserving resources and incorporating green design principles, while balancing initial and long-term operating costs. In the future, all applicable projects over $4 million will have U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design silver certification, at a minimum. The Nationwide and Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center was the first campus building to receive LEED certification. Read more >

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sustaining Cleveland

A serious case of site-envy: Cleveland's GreenCityBlueLake site looks to me a like a model for generating an inclusive green vision for a city/region as a whole. There's a clean look to the site, with a list of categories ranging from arts and culture through economy, energy and education, all the way down to water. Each of the dimensions seems to have--or be generating--its own community, with participants committed to developing a common vision of how to move the area towards sustainability. The site serves a coordinating function--hosting discussions, reporting on initiatives and developing plans.

No doubt it helps to have a partnership with an established institution like the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, which helps stabilize what was initially the work of a non-profit organization called EcoCity Cleveland. There's also, clearly, a dedicated group of activists who know how to work together. But it leaves me wondering whether we can develop something comparable for Central Ohio: a site/group that would promote analysis of regional policy issues from a green perspective.

does sponsor a Central Ohio discussion group, to which a number of folks from MORPC contribute, but it's incredibly austere and uninviting and hasn't, in my experience, generated significant discussion. Surely, though, there's enough informed talent around here to come up with a comparable effort.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Debating Strategies for Reducing Carbon Emissions

How best to move quickly to reduce carbon-emissions?  Today's NYT has an op-ed arguing in favor of a cap-and-trade system (whereby industries would have quotas for emissions, which they could sell to each other as they cleared the bar) and against the "renewable portfolio standards" (which Ohio and other states have adopted), mandating that a certain percentage of energy production come from renewables by a certain date.

Portfolio standards emerged because the Bush Administration blocked action on a national level, and states could direct their investments to support renewables.  A cap-and-trade system requires a national--if not a worldwide--market, and the Times also reports that the European Commission will ask the US to move in that direction.

Here's what J. Wayne Leonard says:

A renewable portfolio standard is said to be needed for creating and
improving renewable energy technologies. In practice, however, it does
little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and makes energy production
excessively expensive.

Coal-fired power plants produce more
than 83 percent of the electricity sector’s carbon dioxide emissions.
But because coal is cheaper than natural gas or oil, it is the least
likely to be displaced by solar or wind power.

Natural gas has
a relatively low carbon content. But it is likely to be the first to be
displaced by renewable sources of energy because it is more expensive
than coal. That means that even a renewable portfolio standard as high
as 20 percent would reduce emissions by only a small fraction of what
is needed to lower the risk of catastrophic climate change. 

I don't know enough to evaluate the arguments offered, although "excessively expensive" sets off my
skeptic-o-meter. Strategically, the push for cap-and-trade moves the
struggle to Washington, terrain that favors industry, and I wonder
whether the targets wouldn't be set too low.  On the other hand,
uniform national standards would sweep in states that haven't moved towards greener energy.

But what should energy cost? For years, critics have pointed out that utility companies--energy and water--price their products like other commodities, so that the more you consume, the less you pay (volume discounts).  Turning that model around--so that customers would have an incentive to conserve, rather than waste, energy--would be a key step in getting price-incentives right.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Leadership Changes in the Movement

Gristmill's Kate Sheppard reports: "The Sierra Club announced today that long-time executive director
Carl Pope is stepping down. He'll be taking on a new role as chairman
of the Sierra Club, focusing primarily on climate change. 

This makes the Sierra Club the third major green group currently in
search of new leadership. John Passacantando, who lead Greenpeace USA
for eight years, stepped down
on Jan. 1 to start a green investment consultancy. Longtime
environmental activist Mike Clark is currently serving as Greenpeace's
interim executive director as the group seeks a replacement. Friends of
the Earth U.S. is also searching for a new president, as current president Brent Blackwelder is planning to retire.

Food and Ag

Nice overview of the politics of food policy and agricultural subsidies over at the Gristmill. I wonder whether the OSU Students for Food Sovereignty are tuned into this issue.

From Greed to Green

From Green America, via the New American Dream blog (see the link to the right),
six green-economy solutions to today’s economic mess:

1. Green Energy—Green Jobs
A crucial starting place to rejuvenate our economy is to focus on energy. It’s time to call in the superheroes of the green energy revolution—energy efficiency, solar and wind power, and plug-in hybrids—and put their synergies to work with rapid, large-scale deployment. This is a powerful way to jumpstart the economy, spur job creation (with jobs that can’t be outsourced), declare energy independence, and claim victory over the climate crisis.

2. Clean Energy Victory Bonds
How are we going to pay for this green energy revolution? We at Green America propose Clean Energy Victory Bonds. Modeled after victory bonds in World War II, Americans would buy these bonds from the federal government to invest in large-scale deployment of green energy projects, with particular emphasis in low-income communities hardest hit by the broken economy. These would be long-term bonds, paying an annual interest rate, based in part on the energy and energy savings that the bonds generate. During WWII, 85 million Americans bought over $185 billion in bonds—that would be almost $2 trillion in today’s dollars.

3. Reduce, Reuse, Rethink
Living lightly on the Earth, saving resources and money, and sharing (jobs, property, ideas, and opportunities) are crucial principles for restructuring our economy. This economic breakdown is, in part, due to living beyond our means—as a nation and as individuals. With the enormous national and consumer debt weighing us down, we won’t be able to spend our way out of this economic problem. Ultimately, we need an economy that’s not dependent on unsustainable growth and consumerism. So it’s time to rethink our over-consumptive lifestyles, and turn to the principles of elegant simplicity, such as planting gardens, conserving energy, and working cooperatively with our neighbors to share resources and build resilient communities.

4. Go Green and Local
When we do buy, it is essential that those purchases benefit the green and local economy—so that every dollar helps solve social and environmental problems, not create them. Our spending choices matter. We can support our local communities by moving dollars away from conventional agribusiness and big-box stores and toward supporting local workers, businesses, and organic farmers.

5. Community Investing
All over the country, community investing banks, credit unions, and loan funds that serve hard-hit communities are strong, while the biggest banks required bailouts. The basic principles of community investing keep such institutions strong: Lenders and borrowers know each other. Lenders invest in the success of their borrowers—with training and technical assistance along with loans. And the people who provide the capital to the lenders expect reasonable, not speculative, returns. If all banks followed these principles, the economy wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in today.

6. Shareowner Activism
When you own stock, you have the right and responsibility to advise management to clean up its act. Had GM listened to shareholders warning that relying on SUVs would be its downfall, it would have invested in greener technologies, and would not have needed a bailout. Had CitiGroup listened to its shareowners, it would have avoided the faulty mortgage practices that brought it to its knees. Engaged shareholders are key to reforming conventional companies for the transition to this new economy – the green economy that we are building together.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Forcing the Spring

Warming shifts stand out among data, 2 studies find
Thursday, January 22, 2009 3:19 AM
Chicago Tribune
CHICAGO -- The news might seem welcome in the middle of a long, cold winter: Scientists have shown that the start of spring has moved almost two days earlier in the past 50 years.

But scientists say the finding, one of two papers released yesterday on climate change, actually is a warning sign. Together, the studies bolster the argument that the planet's temperatures have shifted significantly during the past half-century, with many of the potential consequences likely to be negative.

More Greentexts

Reading Breakthrough led me to another recent (2007) book, Ignition: What You Can Do to Fight Global Warming, in which N&S have a chapter ("Irrationality Wants to Be your Friend"). It's the record of a conference at Middlebury a few years back, and has some pretty interesting contributions from a range of figures. Among the most helpful is a chapter on "Shaping the Movement" by Mary Lou Finley, which includes a typology of the different roles that you can play in social movements--Citizen, Rebel, Social Change Agent, Reformer--depending on temperament and location within the power structure.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Breakthrough, Part 3

In what was surely a calculated provocation to right-thinking liberals, N&S contrast the environmental movement--unfavorably--to Rick-Warren-style Christian evangelicals (another link to Obama--coincidence? I think not).

Throughout this book we have criticized the ways in which environmentalists treat nature and science as a religion, which we believe lies behind environmentalism's ideological orthodoxies--its pollution paradigm, its politics of limits, and its policy literalism--and which prevents environmentalists from achieving their goals. But here [in a chapter called "Belonging and Fulfillment"] we consider the ways in which environmentalism doesn't work enough as a church. ... Outside of giving money and buying green products, few among even the most serious environmentalists ever actually do anything to manifest their environmentalist identities or to recruit others to join them. In short, while the evangelical identity is thick, the environmentalist identity is thin.
To the extent that environmentalists have meetings at all, they are more depressing than inspiring, focused more on stopping development than creating a beloved community (203)
Again, you've got to admire the shrewdness of this rhetorical gambit: too much religion, not enough church. Or better--since the chapter is a version of what Bill Clinton once called a "politics of meaning," and turns on a discussion of Robert Putnam's ideas about social capital and Richard Florida's notions of the creative class--it's an invitation to imagine environmentalism as community-building, as constructive and meaningful. It is, in some ways, what the folks at Orion have been trying to do for years--only, perhaps, too solemnly. Or maybe it's just another way of proclaiming the power of networking.


Over at the Gristmill, Peter Meyer gives us a taste of the new environmental pragmatism:

"Yes, we can have economic revitalization that serves long-term sustainability in the process. But we need to transition carefully and to avoid generating unnecessary economic, political, social, and environmental costs as we change. Like it or not, that means:

  • Not closing all coal mines and coal and nuclear generating plants tomorrow, or next week, or next year (Yes, we can stop building them, but we need to be building their alternatives.)
  • Not calling for federally mandated congestion pricing or anti-sprawl measures or other actions as conditions for federal aid to states and cities (at least not yet ... the time will come)

  • Not telling people to drastically change their lifestyles now (though eventually they will)

  • Not spiking CAFE standards for auto fuel efficiency as far as we'd like and know to be technologically feasible, because U.S. manufacturers will find it harder to jump that high than will their competitors, and we can't afford more U.S. job losses right now

  • Not taxing carbon or oil or gas anywhere near where it should rationally be taxed to include their externalities (economic as well as environmental), unless we can protect households and businesses from those additional costs when they don't have the capital to invest in avoiding them

  • Recognizing that equity breeds efficiency by, at a minimum, lowering resistance from possible allies.

Change is coming, folks, and I'm all for that ... but it won't be easy, and ideological -- or environmental -- purity won't get us where we need to go, not without autocratic control. (Do you want that? We had a taste of tendencies in that direction for the past eight years.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More on Breakthrough, Part 2

It is time for us to draw a new fault line through American political life, one that divides those dedicated to a politics of resentment, limits and victimization from those dedicated to a politics of gratitude, possibility and overcoming. The challenge for American liberals and environmentalists isn't to convince the American people that they are poor, insecure and low status but rather the opposite: to speak to their wealth, security and high status. It is this that motivates our higher aspirations for fulfillment. The way to get insecure Americans to embrace an expansive, generous and progressive politics is not to tell them that they are weak but rather to point out all the ways in which they are strong (187)
Listening to Barack Obama's inaugural address today, I can't help thinking that Breakthrough must have been on his reading list. Passages like this sound as though they were written with Obama in mind--with at least one eye on forging on a new liberal-environmental coalition. I like the politics of gratitude and possibility as good coalitional cement. If Obama and N&S can give environmentalism an upbeat green makeover--can make the green economy work--that would really be something.

It's not naysaying to note that this has to be a utopian vision--a rhetorical goal--rather than an agenda for action. (It's interesting to note that N&S take issue both with eco-spiritualism (Thomas Berry) and scientific biophilia (E.O. Wilson) as essentially undemocratic, invoking an authority (The Earth, Science) outside ourselves to ratify a position.) The financial crisis has already put a damper on transitional plans, and there will--inevitably--be tradeoffs, bargaining and compromise. With climate change in their sights, N&S seem willing to countenance nuclear energy as part of the package--with all the implications for centralized energy generation that that implies.

What's interesting, though, is that Breakthrough is essentially a political, not an environmental, tract. It does not put "saving the earth" first and measure progress against that messianic task. It does not address "the public" at large--the isolated reader--but is basically an in-house argument with environmental leaders. So it assumes a basic agreement on goals, and focuses its energy on tactics and strategy. Shrewd.

More on Breakthrough

Americans today aspire as much to uncommon greatness as they do to the common good. They aspire to be unique, not common. None of this undermines empathy, compassion or generosity. On the contrary, it is only when people are feeling in control, secure and free to create their lives that they behave expansively and generously toward the collective.
The new social contract must thus provide a basis for people to seek individuation and self-creation.
The second half of N&S's book is called "The Politics of Possibility," and I must admit to genuine ambivalence on seeing how they develop their argument. I am, on the one hand, startled and pleased to see that they invoke some of the theorists that I find most interesting: Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Bill Chaloupka--all of whom argue persuasively against the sanctification of Nature and for a much more mixed "post-natural" conception of the relations between the human and the non-human world. The ability to shake off the resentful moralism--what Bennett and Chaloupka called the "moraline drift"--behind some environmental positions does seem to allow for some fresh thought.

On the other hand, I'm made uneasy by their embrace of self-actualizing liberalism as the basis for environmental policy-making. "Farewell to the common good" seems like shaky ground for politics. N&S are, it seems, primarily political strategists, conversant with the latest in values research and public opinion polling, and there's something vaguely opportunistic about the way they smack around the old environmentalist religion and its acolytes. On the most generous reading, they're motivated by the need to address global warming/climate change, which--in their analysis--makes the "pollution paradigm" obsolete. It's not a local problem, but a global one, going to the heart of the industrial system: it's a life-politics issue. But, like George Lakoff, they seem pretty quick to declare that paradigms are "merely" about rhetoric, rather than having cognitive and ethical value in themselves.

Most persuasive--to me, anyway--is their analysis of "insecure affluence" as the problem confronting American politics: it's not material deprivation we suffer from most, but rather a pervasive insecurity (consequent on what Jacob Hacker called The Great Risk-Shift). As a result, N&S diagnose a "post-materialist materialism," where the desire for goods is driven more by status anxiety and lack of meaning than by material need (this is their response to Thomas Franks' idea about people voting against their material interests).


Austin, TX has set itself a goal of going Zero-Waste by 2040, reports Earth 911.
“Zero Waste is a design principle that goes beyond recycling to focus first on reducing wastes and reusing products and then recycling and composting the rest. Zero Waste works to redesign the system to mimic natural systems, recognizing that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and everything is a resource for something or someone else. Currently, Austin is estimated to lose over $40 million annually by sending materials that could be recycled or reused to area landfills.”"

Took about four years to develop and approve the policy--a nice example of long-range thinking.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Consumption vs. the Green Economy?

Shout-out to Michael Maniates, for being the first to leave a comment and remind me that there might actually be some readers out there. Michael teaches at Allegheny College in Meadville, home to my old grad-school friend Ben Slote.

Soon after cracking Confronting Consumption, almost by coincidence, I picked up Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger's book Breakthrough, which offers a startlingly different vision and conception of green politics. N&S are best known for their controversial essay "The Death of Environmentalism" (2004), and for backing the new Apollo Project, which calls for massive investment in a new energy infrastructure. Full of attacks on icons of the environmental establishment (including Robert Kennedy, Al Gore, place-based politics and the environmental justice movement), Breakthrough advances a starkly contrarian argument:

We may achieve some greenhouse gas emission reductions by lowering our overall consumption, but the largest reductions will come from energy efficiency and shifting to cleaner energy sources--strategies that don't require drastic changes in the way we live our lives. What's needed, in short, is not so much less as different consumption. (126)
Strong stuff--exaggerated, perhaps, for arguments sake--but ... wow. N&S represent an updated version of what's been called Prometheanism: the idea that technological creativity and ingenuity are the best way to solve environmental problems. Or, as they put it, that prosperity is not the problem, but the solution. That environmentalism can only progress by offering itself as an instrument of progress, creativity and a better future:
"The anti-ecological logic of contemporary environmentalism reduces the cause of global warming to a single thing: humans emitting too much greenhouse gas. Their goal is thus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But what if we define the causes of global warming more expansively--as the consequence of our failure to create new economies, new patterns of development, new housing, and a new consumer culture, which together are far better able to meet our material and postmaterial needs?(127)

We can see here the influence of George Lakoff's discourse on re-framing ("what if we define..."), popular, amid much liberal soul-searching, right after the 2004 election. The starting-point is the same: greens (or liberals) have failed to win the political battles because they've presented their message in the wrong terms. We need to change the terrain. Let's stop talking about "the politics of limits"--sacrifice, Collapse, doom-and-gloom--and tap into a better vision.

There's political wisdom here--N&S are strategists, after all--and it's obvious that Obama & Co. have been paying attention. (Interestingly, though, Obama is able to combine the "green infrastructure" talk with a call for sacrifice and service). The gambit is to shift the discourse from crisis to opportunity, to which even the likes of Boone Pickens can rally.

The sticking-point, though, is the suggestion that moving towards a greener economy won't require drastic changes in the way we live. That, somehow, combatting global warming is compatible with--not in conflict with--suburban development and the transit and energy-use patterns it fosters. It may not be smart to trumpet the need for sudden, drastic change--as, for example, the Transition Network or the "post-carbon" relocalization folks do--but I'm not sure it's wise to say that the road to Green Acres is an extension of Easy Street.


NYT Monday Jan 19

"The plain truth is that the United States is an inefficient user of
energy. For each dollar of economic product, the United States spews
more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than 75 of 107 countries
tracked in the indicators of the International Energy Agency. Those
doing better include not only cutting-edge nations like Japan but
low-tech countries like Thailand and Mexico.

True, energy
efficiency has improved, especially in states like California. But
American drivers, households and businesses still use more energy than
those in most other rich countries to do the same thing. The United
States spends more energy to produce a ton of cement clinker than
Canada, Mexico and even China. It is one of the most energy-intensive
makers of pulp and paper, emitting more than three times as much carbon
dioxide per ton as Brazil and twice as much as South Korea.

carbon dioxide emissions by households in the United States and Canada
are the highest in the world — in part because of bigger homes. And the
energy efficiency of electricity production from fossil fuels is lower
in the United States than in most rich countries and some poor ones,
mainly because of the higher share of coal in the mix.

tells the same story. The United States uses the most energy per
passenger mile among the 18 rich economies surveyed by the energy
agency. In 2006, the American auto fleet used, on average, a little
less than five gallons of gas to travel 100 miles. The Irish went the
same distance with under four gallons, the Italians with less than
three, basically because they use smaller cars that get better mileage.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

21stC Transportation and Sustainability

Down at the MetroClub today, listening to a presentation by the Task Force on Ohio's 21stC Transportation Priorities, a Strickland-appointed commission charged with developing a vision for an integrated "multi-modal" transportation system for the state. Big task, and I don't envy Ty Marsh the challenge of trying to herd 61 members into a consensus. Still, it was disappointing to see that their vision statement--by design a bumper-sticker slogan--was the tepid "Moving Ohio to a Prosperous New World."

The Task Force worked for more than 7 months, so it's unfair to point out the irony of releasing a report touting "prosperity" at a moment when the reigning economic model is being held together with glue, staples and wads of cash. Given the make-up of the TF--I count maybe 3 people with a environmental commitments--I doubt whether there was much discussion of what "prosperity" might truly mean these days; the discourse is all about competitiveness, jobs and growth. That's understandable, given the parlous state of Ohio's economy, but it also doesn't qualify as visionary: it's the old-time religion, buffed-up and given a fresh urgency. What sort of jobs? where and when?

As an example of how cloudy the vision of the "new world" is, take the remark at today's forum that the "agricultural industry" is one of the key stakeholders in the transportation plan. Fair enough. But we're told that "agriculture is fundamentally about getting products to market," and that we have to make sure Ohio producers have access to ports so that we can ship more products overseas. Now, it's obvious that Ohio has a huge stake in commodity crops, and it's unlikely that world trade in soybeans and corn is going to evaporate overnight. But it boggles the mind that agriculture is defined in such a way as to exclude the land itself, not to mention the question of food: it is merely one economic sector among others.

Here we have one way in which the call for "prosperity" stands actively in the way of any approach to a "new world." Prosperity is defined in terms of "global competitiveness," and not in terms of local community, cultural vitality, or ecological sustainability. As a result, the vision is simply of more of the same, only improved. As usual, "growth" is taken to be the single, neutral measure of the good, with no questions asked about what sort of growth, or the trade-offs entailed by particular choices.

At the start of the presentation, there was much fanfare about "game-changing strategies," but a certain reticence about what the game is, and how we might want to change it. But suppose, for instance, that we gave a little substance to our conceptions of prosperity, and suggested that developing resilient, sustainable local food systems is one key to prosperity and should figure in the way we approach agriculture. That means support for small-scale, specialized and family farms, more diversified and local markets, and transportation systems geared towards timeliness of delivery rather than distance. The argument here is that post-industrial farms are more environmentally sensitive, local foods more ecologically sustainable, and vibrant rural communities a vital part of the state's social and cultural identity. These are green jobs, and they're local.

What stands in the way of such a commitment? Well, the power of the agricultural lobby, for one. The preference for large-scale investment over diversification. The segmentation of thinking, so that the needs of industry--the logistics of long-distance shipping--colonize the way we talk about agriculture. Long-standing urban bias against farm work--now, hopefully, starting to fade. And, at bottom, a moral cowardice: a reluctance to follow through on our declared vision of the good.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Confronting Consumption

Just started what looks to be a challenging and important book, Confronting Consumption (2002), edited by Princen, Maniates and Conca.  Its key insight is the need to challenge the productivist model of the economy--the idea that, because goods are good, more are better.  Questioning the assumption that we can "produce" our way out of environmental degradation--by finding newer, cleaner technologies--the authors develop what they call the "consumption angle:

"When production creates problems such as pollution, the productive answer is to produce correctives such as scrubbers, filters and detoxifiers.  So goes the logic of production, productiveness, productivity, and products--construing all things economic as producing, as adding value, as, indeed, progress.  The consumption angle turns this around to self-consciously construe economic activity as consuming, as depleting value, as risking ecological overshoot, as stressing social capacity. (17)"
The aim here is to open up the "black box" of consumption and what economics brackets off as the "demand function," to pose the question--more pressing now than ever--whether the global North (more pointedly: the US) consumes too much.  Can we start to dismantle the consumer economy?

There are risks, of course: notably the potentially heavy hand of moral prescriptivism, the politics of asceticism and renunciation (think Scrooge).  These spring to mind, defensively, when the question of consumption is personalized too quickly, narrowed into the problem of individual responsibility: in fact, one of the key essays in the book, Michael Maniates' "Individualization: Plant a tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?" takes on precisely this impetus (the Lorax syndrome, he calls, after Dr. Seuss), the drive to simplify or "pastoralize" the question of consumption.  What's at issue is not personal decisions, but analytical biases with political consequences: the fetish of "growth."

Princen's other book, which I haven't started yet, is called The Logic of Sufficiency (2005), and it echoes Bill McKibben's Enough.  It's an effort to re-conceptualize economics around questions of satisfaction, rather than demand and desire. Can't wait. 

Sunday, January 11, 2009

RAFT's Map of North America

I've been reading a lot about sustainable agriculture and food recently, and one of the most interesting projects I've come across is Gary Paul Nabhan's RAFT: Restoring America's Food Traditions, which works along with the SeedSavers Alliance and Slow Food's Ark of Taste, to identify and bring back indigenous foods. (Nabhan recorded his own experiences in this area in his book Coming Home to Eat).

RAFT's work is informed by a bioregional vision of what constitute's local food--what they call "place-based food traditions." It gives a quite interesting picture of what North America would look like from an indigenous-diet perspective. (The recently published book adds a "Crabcake nation" on the East Coast down from the Chesapeake.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

TVZombies invade

Undead TV zombies invaded the consumer electronics trade show in Las Vegas:

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sustainable OSU?

Good session last night with students from the Environment and Natural Resources Scholars program. Brett Mayo (Student Life), Scott Potter (IEE), Kristen Arnold (OSU 1st year) and I on a panel, talking about sustainability--or was it environmental stewardship?--at the university.

What struck me most was Scott's remark that he had counseled Gordon Gee not to sign the President's Climate Commitment because, unlike other signatories, OSU had already cut its emissions by some 70% with the last third being the most difficult. Once he heard the objections, Scott said, Gee promptly signed on anyway, saying it was the right thing to do. So, starting from last April, OSU has two years to produce a plan for climate neutrality.

Of course, as Scott also said, a lot depends on how you draw the boundaries around the university. Do those of us who drive to work count on the university's carbon account? How do offsets work? And so on.

What this suggests, of course, is that definitions of sustainability are politically contested, and all the more as we strip away the low-hanging fruit of efficiency. "Sustainability" simply marks the current state of the conversation about how we relate to the environment, with the need to reduce carbon footprints a consensus position at the moment. Other dimensions--agriculture, for instance, or watersheds--do not figure immediately in the discussion, except insofar as they contribute to carbon savings. The question of scale--localization, bioregionalism--has not yet emerged as a topic in mainstream discussions: space has not yet become political.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sustainable Development

Wikipedia has a nice Sustainable Development portal, linking to ideas, issues and organizations.

Recommended Reading

"Politics is more like wrestling than solo clarinet. ... One wrestler moves, the other responds. Repeat as necessary. In the political ecosystem, responses are continual. No important move evades response. "
Bill Chaloupka has a great pocket history of green politics in the US in a new collection called Ignition: What You Can Do To Stop Global Warming. (It's the product of a Middlebury conference, and has a preface from Bill McKibben).

He has a great discussion of the difference between insider and outsider politics--the former partial, opportunistic and compromised, the latter (protest) satisfying as "ritualized moralism." Both are necessary--inevitable, in fact--but, he argues, American greens have preferred moralistic protest. His counsel: politics needs to be about storytelling, greens should give up the idea of "nature" as a final solution, a once-and-for-all ground to arguments. Politics will always be inconclusive.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Students and sustainability

Thinking more about Connie's question on the way in to work this morning.

How do you see students fitting into this disccusion of sustainability at OSU and playing a role in campus initiatives? How can students get involved now?
I'd have to stress the importance of understanding the situation: at OSU, in the state of Ohio, in the United States right now. Given that sustainability is not something we can achieve alone, we need to work hard to know how we relate to other actors, and what's possible now.

At OSU, I want to say that students should know what's in the President's Climate Commitment and should publicize that commitment. In particular, they should learn what the timetables are and how the university has established its goals. Who's responsible for meeting those goals, and whom are they responsible to? What does accountability mean in this context?

But we need to grapple with the fact that Ohio gets most of its electricity from coal-burning power plants, and that the demise of the auto industry threatens to cripple the state's economy. Ohio has been a cornerstone of the way of life that we now call unsustainable, because its environmental costs are too great. The university, too, has been one of the drivers of that social model. So how can we break out of that loop? What impact is the university having on Central Ohio (ecologically, economically), and what impact could it have? How do we shift institutional directions?

The expansion of the US consumer economy has been one of the drivers of the global economy for several decades at least; the current economic crisis has exposed the limits of that model. As the US teeters on the brink of a depression, it risks dragging the rest of the world along with it. But in trying to address the crisis in the short term, political and economic leaders are tempted--in fact, they're being pushed--to restore the status quo ante as quickly as possible:

"Rather than tackle the source of the problem, the people running the bailout desperately want to reinflate the credit bubble, prop up the stock market and head off a recession. Their efforts are clearly failing: 2008 was a historically bad year for the stock market, and we’ll be in recession for some time to come. Our leaders have framed the problem as a “crisis of confidence” but what they actually seem to mean is “please pay no attention to the problems we are failing to address.” (NYT 1/3/08)
The fact is, we don't have an economic model that takes sustainability seriously--and, for the past several decades, we've done our best to ensure that nobody else does, either. So the crisis, while it presents an enormous opportunity, also presents a huge risk that we'll simply put off the difficult choices, go for a quick fix rather than a fundamental restructuring.

A couple of articles this morning on watershed protection in Central Ohio.

Volunteers hope to name streams
Monday, January 5, 2009 3:02 AM
Conservationists plan to study and name as many as 20 small streams that feed a scenic stretch of the Olentangy River in Delaware County in hopes that the state will better protect the waterways from development.

and in the Big Darby:

Monday, January 5, 2009 3:03 AM
A plan to pay for environmental protection for land near Big Darby Creek was on the fast track until the Columbus City Council slammed on the brakes. The reason: At least one council member wanted to see a traffic study for the 84-square-mile watershed. ...

In 2006, when the council approved the Big Darby Accord, detailing how the area will develop, the legislation said that a traffic analysis "should be an early priority" to determine responsibility for road and infrastructure financing.

Meanwhile, in the NYTimes, Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry--sustainable agriculture's dynamic duo--have a proposal for a "50 Year Farm Bill," the kind of long-term thinking that really deserves to be called "sustainable."

...Agriculture has too often involved an insupportable abuse and waste of soil, ever since the first farmers took away the soil-saving cover and roots of perennial plants. Civilizations have destroyed themselves by destroying their farmland. This irremediable loss, never enough noticed, has been made worse by the huge monocultures and continuous soil-exposure of the agriculture we now practice.

Any restorations will require, above all else, a substantial increase in the acreages of perennial plants. The most immediately practicable way of doing this is to go back to crop rotations that include hay, pasture and grazing animals.

But a more radical response is necessary if we are to keep eating and preserve our land at the same time. In fact, research in Canada, Australia, China and the United States over the last 30 years suggests that perennialization of the major grain crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and sunflowers can be developed in the foreseeable future. By increasing the use of mixtures of grain-bearing perennials, we can better protect the soil and substantially reduce greenhouse gases, fossil-fuel use and toxic pollution.

Carbon sequestration would increase, and the husbandry of water and soil nutrients would become much more efficient. And with an increase in the use of perennial plants and grazing animals would come more employment opportunities in agriculture — provided, of course, that farmers would be paid justly for their work and their goods.

And finally--this verges on copyright infringement, but I'm linking, too--here's a lovely piece from Verlyn Klinkenborg:


Sometimes on the train north to the country, I catch a glimpse of a heron rookery in a swamp by the tracks. To call it a rookery, now a general term for a breeding colony, is to catch a linguistic glimpse of the great colonies of rooks’ nests — raucous, brawling places — that dot the English countryside. What I see from the train should really be called a heronry, a village of well-built heron nests high in the trees. In winter, they stand out against the sky like dense clouds or puffs of dark smoke caught in the uppermost branches.

The recent ice storm left a lot of shattered trees behind, including many in the swamp. But as far as I could tell, none of the nest trees had broken. Nor had the high winds pitched any of the heron nests to the ground. I began to wonder about all the intersecting decisions that go into a heronry.

It begins with the presence of water, which is where great blue herons feed. It requires a certain height in the trees, which means trees of a certain age and branch structure. But do those qualities also give resistance to wind and severe ice storms? Or do the birds prefer certain species of tall, well-branched trees over others? After all, no respectable heron would nest in a birch.

I am used to thinking of evolution doing the selecting — blind, impassive adaptation over millions of years. That is a dispassionate way of understanding behavior. But a heronry embodies a system of knowledge present in these herons, a complete, successful and highly inventive understanding of this world around them. Grasping how it came to be does not make it any less marvelous.

The train rumbles past that swamp a couple dozen times a day. Who knows how many humans have looked up at that heronry? The hard part is learning to see nature as a dense web of interconnected knowledges. We see the dimensions of the landscape, but we miss seeing the fullness of the understandings that inhabit it. I look up at the heronry and the question that stays in my mind is this: What do herons learn from living together?

Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year, New Blog

It's 2009, and time to get serious with the commitment to --what should I call it? Environmental awareness? Ecological citizenship? Green culture? Whatever it's called, Greenworld is going to be a place to organize my thinking and invite discussion about the large-scale changes that are going to be necessary if we're to make any progress towards sustainability.

Connie Rice of the Environment and Natural Resources Scholars at OSU has asked me to be part of a panel on Tuesday evening, talking about sustainability at OSU. Here are the questions she offered:

Describe your involvement in environmental initiatives at OSU.

What does "sustainability" mean to you? In your mind, what would a sustainable campus look like?

President Gee has said that OSU will be the "Greenest Campus on Earth" and just a couple months ago Gee signed the Presidents' Climate Commitment. From your perspective, is this leading to changes in how OSU is run, and if so, in what way?

Do you know of any universities that are successfully "greening" their campuses? What can we learn from our peer institutions?

What are some of OSU's strengths that we can use to create a greener campus and what are some of OSU's weaknesses in accomplishing this? What can we do, if anything, to use these strengths for positive change and make these weaknesses less of a hindrance?

How do you see students fitting into this disccusion of sustainability at OSU and playing a role in campus initiatives? How can students get involved now?
These are great questions, and will take some thought.

The first think [sic] I want to say is is to consider the strangeness of making "sustainability" an explicit social goal. We don't usually think about whether or not our society, with its values and habits, will be able to exist indefinitely: the continuation of life--by which we mean, life as we know it--is something we tend to take for granted. To say, then, that we need now to "become" sustainable implies that we can't just keep going, that something has to change. But what? how? and who's going to decide?

The second point, then, that sustainability is--by definition--not an individual project. It has to be a social project, set in a global-ecological context. It makes no sense to think of one place, one institution, one country, becoming "sustainable," as if its destiny could be uncoupled from the rest of the earth. Sustainability is not survivalism.

A third point, then, is that sustainability is necessarily a long-range project, a multi-generational project. There's no finish-line, no end-zone: we won't know whether we're genuinely sustainable for decades to come. Science can provide us with certain parameters: so, for instance, NASA's Jim Hansen can tell us we need to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, or risk having a drastically different climate by the end of the century. But how we should do that--who's going to do it, at what cost--that's going to have to be a political decision. Or better, a series of tough political decisions that will reflect struggles over our values, our culture and our society--the way we put our life together together. The struggle over sustainability is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

What would a sustainable campus look like under these circumstances? Given that it's neither an individual nor a single-generational goal, the question needs to be: how can the university--and Ohio State in particular--most effectively advance the general understanding of sustainability? That is, how are we going to reconstruct higher education in the face of the sustainability challenge?