Saturday, February 28, 2009

No-Flush Future?

I think this falls in the category of oddities rather than serious proposals, but if there's a push to rethink indoor plumbing and the treatment of human wastes, there may be more room for change than we usually assume. 

consider that since at least 135,000 urine-diversion toilets are in use in Sweden and that a Swiss aquatic institute did a six-year study of urine separation that found in its favor. In Sweden, some of the collected urine — which contains 80 percent of the nutrients in excrement — is given to farmers, with little objection. “If they can use urine and it’s cheap, they’ll use it,” said Petter Jenssen, a professor at the Agricultural University of Norway.

A friend’s grandmother remembers the man coming round for the buckets 60 years ago in Yorkshire, which were then sold to the tanning industry. The flush toilet ended that, and no one — my friend’s nan included — wants outside privies again. “Any innovation in the toilet that increases owner responsibility is probably seen as downwardly mobile,” said Carol Steinfeld, of New Bedford, Mass., who imports NoMix toilets into the United States.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Efficiency vs. Resiliency

I've written about Thomas Princen's critique of efficiency-thinking in the name of self-restraint or sufficiency.  Sufficiency involves not pushing systems to their economic or ecological limits, and limiting patterns of exploitation and consumption to within moderate, sustainable ranges.

Here's another perspective on alternatives to efficiency: resiliency, redundancy, and diversification.  Chip Ward argues that efficiency-measurements are the conceptual armature of monoculture--the logic of specialization that allows for controlled-variable parameters.  Ideas about resiliency (e.g. crop rotation that allows time for soil renewal) assume longer-term planning horizons, figure on the occurrence of catastrophic events, and consider ways to ensure sufficient slack in the system to allow it to bounce back. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

OSU Starts to Move Towards Green

Good news from the CIO's office at OSU: an initiative to cut power usage by 30% within the year.  They're also publicizing a variety of other activities and initiatives, including the Earth Hour on March 28.  Get the word out!

Friday, February 13, 2009

FLOW up for RiverNetwork Grant

My local watershed group--the Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed, led by the wonderful Heather Dean--is in the running for a grant from the RiverNetwork and MillerCoors (yes, they're finally concerned about preserving water quality--now if they can get people to pick up those cans!).

The proposal is for a collaboration with the First UU Church in Clintonville, to build a stormwater management demonstration project, including substantial rain gardens (Franklin County has an ongoing rain garden initiative called CORGI).  The UU has a large site, fronted by Panera, with a large parking lot, so this would be highly visible and could have a great effect.

In typical Web 2.0 fashion, they have to mobilize to get the grant: go to the RiverNetwork site and look for the MillerCoors grant window.  They're up against seven other projects.  Vote for FLOW--and pass the word along to friends.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Urban Life Bites Back

No one said (though we all hoped) it would be easy.  The BBC is reporting that Paris' popular bike-rental program Velib ("bikefree") is in trouble.  Although it has had over 42 million uses since its inception 18 months ago, the bikes themselves are taking a beating, with more than half of the 15,000 getting stolen.

Hung from lamp posts, dumped in the River Seine, torched and broken
into pieces, maintaining the network is proving expensive. Some have
turned up in eastern Europe and Africa, according to press reports.

Since the scheme's launch, nearly all the original bicycles have been replaced at a cost of 400 euros ($519, £351) each.

Various videos have appeared on YouTube showing riders taking the bikes
down the steps in Montmartre, into metro stations and being tested on
BMX courses.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Geo-engineering (yes, it's what you think)

The Gristmill has a breathtaking but informative piece on geoengineering by a futurist named Jamais Cascio. That's large-scale human intervention with the goal of reducing global warming. There are, apparently, two major types under consideration: albedo management (which deals with the earth's reflectivity) and carbon management. Cascio sees these as last-resort, inevitably controversial and rife with unintended consequences--but probably in the cards. Yikes.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Food Deserts and Sustainable Agriculture

Greg Plotkin has an informative discussion of food deserts and how local agriculture initiatives can help address the issue, at the Sustainable Food blog over at (Note: a different site than the official Obama website).

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Bush Legacies, Obama Choices

Today's NYT has a run-down of the policy landscape Obama has inherited--land, air, water and climate change. The summary of Bush's major conservation achievement is telling:

When Mr. Bush designated as national monuments almost 400,000 square miles of ocean, reefs, atolls, seamounts and surrounding waters, Elliott Nourse, president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, called his action “statesmanlike.”

The monuments, set aside in 2006 and 2008, are home to thousands of species of rare plants, birds and fish. But perhaps their most important characteristic is that they contain few exploitable resources and just about nobody lives there, so there were no major political or commercial objections.

In other words, do what's easiest, and kick the rest down the road (Kyoto, air pollution, clean energy, etc). That's "statesmanlike"?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Open Forums on Environmental Science

Environmental Sciences Task Force open forums

Faculty, researchers and graduate students are invited to attend one of three open forums to help define future directions for the environmental sciences at Ohio State. The forums are sponsored by the Task Force on the Environmental Sciences, an initiative that came out of the doctoral review assessment process. A summary of its efforts to date will be available before the forums, to be held: Wednesday (2/11), 3-4 p.m. 333 Kottman Hall; Monday (2/16), 3-4 p.m. 1080 Smith Lecture Room, Physics Research Bldg; and Thursday (2/19), 8-9 a.m. 104 Aronoff Lab. Registration is requested. Contact: Susan Reeser, 247-7413

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Green Jobs and the Consumer Economy

Dave Leonhardt, the NYT economics correspondent, had a long article in Sunday's magazine exploring the dimensions of the economic crisis and Obama's efforts to address it. Along the way, he had one of the best explanations of how the consumer economy drives investment decisions towards short-term profits and away from long-range investments such as infrastructure. Elsewhere, Leonhardt says, the government keeps its eye on the long term, putting money into bullet trains and broadband; in the US, antipathy to government spending has blinded us to the ways private consumption depends on the common wealth. Privileging individual consumption overburdens the commons, both natural and social.

Leonhardt also reports on the difficulty we're going to have in transitioning from the consumer economy to a green-investment model, which will take nothing less than recalibrating our time-horizons and, consequently, our individual and social expectations.

Sometimes a project can give an economy a lift and also lead to transformation, but sometimes the goals are at odds, at least in the short term. Nothing demonstrates this quandary quite so well as green jobs, which are often cited as the single best hope for driving the post-bubble economy. Obama himself makes this case. Consumer spending has been the economic engine of the past two decades, he has said. Alternative energy will supposedly be the engine of the future — a way to save the planet, reduce the amount of money flowing to hostile oil-producing countries and revive the American economy, all at once. Put in these terms, green jobs sounds like a free lunch.

Green jobs can certainly provide stimulus. Obama’s proposal includes subsidies for companies that make wind turbines, solar power and other alternative energy sources, and these subsidies will create some jobs. But the subsidies will not be nearly enough to eliminate the gap between the cost of dirty, carbon-based energy and clean energy. Dirty-energy sources — oil, gas and coal — are cheap. That’s why we have become so dependent on them.

The only way to create huge numbers of clean-energy jobs would be to raise the cost of dirty-energy sources, as Obama’s proposed cap-and-trade carbon-reduction program would do, to make them more expensive than clean energy. This is where the green-jobs dream gets complicated.

For starters, of the $700 billion we spend each year on energy, more than half stays inside this country. It goes to coal companies or utilities here, not to Iran or Russia. If we begin to use less electricity, those utilities will cut jobs. Just as important, the current, relatively low price of energy allows other companies — manufacturers, retailers, even white-collar enterprises — to sell all sorts of things at a profit. Raising that cost would raise the cost of almost everything that businesses do. Some projects that would have been profitable to Boeing, Kroger or Microsoft in the current economy no longer will be. Jobs that would otherwise have been created won’t be. As Rob Stavins, a leading environmental economist, says, “Green jobs will, to some degree, displace other jobs.” Just think about what happened when gas prices began soaring last spring: sales of some hybrids increased, but vehicle sales fell overall.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Re-regionalizing Food

Talking recently with Michael Jones of Local Matters, I realized once again how counter-intuitive our agricultural policies have been for the past forty years or so. (dating, for convenience sake, from Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz's advice to American farmers: "Get big, or get out--the starting point for Wendell Berry's polemical classic, The Unsettling of America).  Michael reminded me that, policy-wise, food is a "specialty crop;" what most farmers produce are commodities, links in an industrial supply-chain.  In fact, until quite recently, the Ohio DoA didn't have anyone on staff working on sustainable agriculture. 

Turning that around is a key part of the sustainability challenge, leveraging social needs and public goods out of the great conceptual glacier that is Economic Growth.  Over at the Gristmill, Tom Laskawy has an interesting discussion looking at the infrastructure for local food and why "food miles" isn't necessarily the critical tool we need, since locales still need to be linked:

But as we explore ways to reform industrial agriculture and its
reliance on fossil fuels in food production, more, smaller farms
inevitably come up as an alternative -- and for that sort of system to
work, they would need to be proximate to population centers. Speaking
of the food miles argument, it's likely that, using our existing
infrastructure, exclusively procuring produce from farms within, say,
75 miles of urban centers would cause the transportation component of
agricultural carbon emissions to go way up. 
On the bright side, Tom reports that a major organic farm in Florida, long accustomed to shipping to the Northeast, has re-opened a greenmarket in the Miaimi area to respond to local demand. 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Enough Work (Sufficiency Part 2)

Thomas Princen's book The Logic of Sufficiency tries to develop some of the concepts we'll need in order to slip the stranglehold of the growth machine.  There's a critical element--a hard look at the rhetoric of efficiency and the political work it does--and a constructive one--figuring out how self-regulation at a social level might rein in fantasies of infinite consumption.

Among the ideas Princen offers is the concept of a 'working rationality."  Inspired by"the backward bending supply curve for labor," in which, traditionally, workers labored only as much as they wanted (rather than according to the demands of a time clock: hence the great old tradition of Saint Monday), Princen wants to break out of the straitjacket of "consumer sovereignty."  The idea, Princen argues

rejects the neat consumption-is-good/work-is-bad dichotomy..[and] allows individual consumption to follow work, not drive it.  It would be an economy where individuals optimize between work and consumption, where choice is, in the first instance, made by individuals themselves in the context of their broader commitments--family, neighborhood, nation.  A working rationality would, in short, build in limits in work and hence, limits in consumption.  It becomes one more step to make those limits congruent with ecological rationality. ... a working rationality puts a brake on excess throughput of material and energy ...that brake is released when workers specialize, resource groups exceed a manageable scale, and sovereign consumers rule (130).
It looks like the aim is to undo Adam Smith's division of labor, and return the figure of the self-employed artisan--be your own boss--to the center of the economy.  This resonates with other proposals to return the economy to a more human scale, although Princen is working on conceptual innovation rather than utopian blueprinting.

But this description, at least, sounds all too individualized: insufficiently sociological or political.  Choices are relational, and while there ways to steer individual choice--see the work in behavioral economics summarized in Sunstein and Thaler's book Nudge--the connection between policy and individual decisions is deeply problematic.