27 May 2005

Death by Environmentalism?

I've been considering the brouhaha generated over the past several months by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus and their essay "The Death of Environmentalism." I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.

It's not like there is anything really earth-shattering in the piece. The authors take a few potshots at some of the old-guard BINGOs, as they call themselves (they love acronyms: BINGOs stands for Big International Non-Governmental Organizations), some of whom could probably use to have their spreadsheets shorted now and then.

A handful of observations and recommendations for the environmental movement can be found there: 1.) Push hard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70%; 2.) Take a step back and reconnect to values and vision; 3.) Stick your neck out and stick to it; 4.) Rethink what is and what is not an environmental problem; and 5.) Push hard for investments in the energy industries of the future. The essay degenerates into a plug for Shellenberger's Apollo Alliance Project and Nordhaus' Strategic Values Science Project and fizzles out before its end.

I wish they'd gone further and really shook up the movement. In my opinion, it's too complacent and too incestuous. We spend more time considering our planning navel and trying to beat the other guy (or BINGO, as they case may be) than really embracing others into the movement (see my post from March 2005 on Enviro-Evangelists). The movement thus far has offered a defensive posture, criticizing the authors for calling for the "death" of anything. (See Carl Pope's whiny rebuttal in Grist.) How much more refreshing if we could admit our shortcomings, change what needs changing, and get down to the real work. It's only an essay for crying out loud.

We will fail if we can't connect our work to the real question of the day: How can the rest of the world achieve the American Dream without screwing up the rest of the world? They want it, they'll get it. We need to figure out a way to lessen their impact and keep our economy going in the face of such challengers.

26 May 2005

Climate of One

It all starts with one of us. My wife recently finished reading Elizabeth Kolbert's three-part "Climate of Man" in the New Yorker and said to me, "Driving an SUV is immoral." She then proceeded to figure out how we could sell one of our cars -- my 1995 Subaru Legacy sedan, to be precise -- and get by with one vehicle, our 2002 Toyota Sienna. We live in a city and park on the street; most of what we need is within walking distance and we mainly use the van to cart our 21-month old twins and nine year old boy around. I work from home and rarely use the sedan for more than short trips downtown when I know the public transportation won't be convenient or to park it at the airport when I'm flying to some work destination. So, on the face of it we should be able to do away with one of our cars. We'll adjust.

Some time ago I wrote about carbon counters in my GreenBiz.com column. At that time, I calculated my carbon footprint at 491 lbs. (223 kg.), which I was told is less than average. Then I started working from home and down went my gas purchases, my dry cleaning bill, everything but my coffee intake and mobile phone costs. What would giving up this car do for my carbon footprint? According to CarbonCounter.org, "every gallon of gasoline you save avoids 22 pounds of CO2 emissions." That's a pretty good savings. Okay, so now I'm thinking, what if my carbon output is negative? Then maybe somebody owes me. In a world of carbon trading could that become a reality?

I'm only one person. What would it take for each of us to act responsibly and make reductions? Well, one incentive might be the ability to trade personal carbon credits with others. My work requires a fair amount of flying. What if, during those times when my travel is low, I could "bank" my credits and use them when my air travel increases?

And what if those friends of ours who took advantage of Bush II's tax credit for large truck purchases for business by buying a Cadillac Escalade could trade credits with me, thereby mitigating their increased output and allowing them to drive what they clearly have decided is a necessity. Forget the fact that their office is downtown and they only have two kids, while we pack three into a late model minivan. They have made a lifestyle choice. That's okay with me, but who foots the bill? Perhaps instead of such tax credits, people who drive such vehicles should pay a carbon tax, and maybe increased insurance rates based on a combination of safety and environmental risks. Then to offset that tax, they could trade with me on the open market. It's just a thought.

And by the way, a young man and his dad bought the Subbie from us tonight.

08 May 2005

Opportunity Knocks, but it can't come in...

I was talking with a friend of mine the other day, about two things that are integrally linked to our future. The first was her interest in an idea whose time has nearly come: namely, using nanotechnology to produce a photovoltaic material that can be spread like paint. Imagine a nano-solar cell that could be incorporated into the paint on your house or the hood of your car. The second was the brain drain.

Despite having read the Economist's excellent expose on nanotechnology a few months ago, I don't really understand how it works. But apparently there are enough brilliant scientists who do, and they are working on this at such stalwart academic institutions as UC Berkeley, Penn, and RIT. What I do understand about nanotechnology in this context is that even at face value it could revolutionize solar power generation in the next decade. Clearly something like this could transform solar from Mom-and-Pop operation to the Microsoft of the energy sector. But will it come to fruition? There are only two things holding advances like this up. One is obvious: investment (time + money); the other is the brain drain to which I alluded above.

Are we making it increasingly difficult to develop such technology in this country by restricting foreign workers? Many, some say tens of thousands, left the high-tech sector in the wake of further visa restrictions and returned to their homes in India, Pakistan, and China. Yet there is still talk of a technology worker shortage and companies like Microsoft and Intel are outsourcing to other countries around the world. And according to reports coming from the big venture capital meeting in New York last week, China is the next Silicon Valley.

I understand outsourcing and I'm all for globalization, as long as it is achieved in a socially responsible manner; a decidedly liberal view. But the conservative in me begins to wonder at the conservatives running this country when we continue to ignore the signs that a potential hope for our economic future is at hand. Opportunity is knocking, but it can't come in.

While in Indonesia earlier this year, I heard the story of the granddaughter of an acquaintance; a very sharp young woman with an interest in economics and math. She wants desperately to study in the States, but the visa restrictions are so onerous that she may not be able to come here. Why? Because she comes from a predominantly Muslim country. Hello London School of Economics, are you ready for her?

And what about those we do let in, the scientists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and computer whizzes who do make it through the hoops? Do we give them an opportunity to stay? Are we making it easier rather than harder for new ideas from the new new economy to take root in this country and bolster our future economy? Or are we waiting for places like India, Pakistan, and China to eat our lunch? Because they will, and they'll take dinner, too; and maybe even breakfast the next day.

Rather than investing in trying to recover some unproven, undetermined billion barrels of oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) -- estimates range wildly from Senator Frank Murkowski's 16 billion to 10.4 (USGS)and 1 billion (Wilderness Society) -- shouldn't we be pushing for a real energy agenda built on alternative technologies? Are we risking our economic future by ignoring investments in America's technological capabilities and by forcing an emotional issue to take center stage? Will we wake up before it's too late?

(Forgive me, I am of the opinion that developing ANWR can be done in an ecologically responsible manner, we have the technological know-how; I'm just not convinced it's worth an investment that could be saved for more long-term solutions.)

I'm afraid it already is too late. Everyday we lose the best minds of our country, and those who come to our soils to attend our top schools or help fuel our economy by working for U.S. companies. It's a failure of imagination. It doesn't take a nano-polymer chemist to envision the potential financial return of an investment in alternative technologies and a sustainable economy. Or does it? Anyway my friend doesn't think so; and I hope she takes the creative leap while others hold on to business as usual. Of course, it probably means she'll be moving to Asia one of these days, but more power to her.