March 23, 2006

Giant Power Sucking Sound

Here's one problem that should be relatively easy to fix:  appliances that use power even when they're not in use.  The Economist has a nice summary of the problem:

Strange though it seems, a typical microwave oven consumes more electricity powering its digital clock than it does heating food. For while heating food requires more than 100 times as much power as running the clock, most microwave ovens stand idle—in “standby” mode—more than 99% of the time.

Apparently, somewhere between 5 and 13 percent of residential power is consumed by appliances that nobody is actually using.  Hmph.

Now, the most interesting thing here is that different brands and models of the same kinds of appliance use wildly different amounts of power in standby mode.  One compact disc player may draw 1 watt while idling; another might draw 30.  Manufacturers have little incentive to improve the situation on their own, since they don't pay the power bills; and while energy wonks are well aware of the problem, few consumers pay much attention.

The solution here -- dare I even say it -- seems to be government intervention.  In 2004, California passed a law that imposed limits on standby power consumption. It took effect in January, so that (according to the Economist) "it is now illegal in California to sell a television or DVD player that consumes more than three watts in standby mode." Seems like a pretty reasonable solution to me -- I'll be very interested to see if it works.

(Hat tip to Maarten.)

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February 24, 2006

The Accounting Scandal of GDP

Just in time for the release of new GDP numbers at the end of this month, Alan Durning has penned a piece on why these figures are as bogus as Enron's balance sheets--and a new program to dethrone GDP once and for all.

Read the full piece on Tidepool.org, NEW's online news service.

Here's an excerpt:

Estimated twelve times a year by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), GDP is not a profit-and-loss statement for the nation, as many assume. It is a tally of finished goods and services. GDP math counts all spending as good, whether it's on weddings or divorces, college tuition or Botox injections, prenatal care or cyberporn.

Consequently, everyone from President Richard Nixon to Nobel Prize-winning economist Simon Kuznets (who helped devise it in the 1930s), has denounced the GDP (and its sibling, GNP) as a measure of progress. Still, the public, led on by the media, continues to treat BEA's GDP figures as society's report card -- and we've organized our national economy to get "A's." GDP announcements send waves through the nation, nudging investment decisions, changing interest rates, and making or breaking political careers.

To improve GDP accounting, the National Research Council panel, chaired by Katharine Abraham of the University of Maryland, proposed that BEA build a set of "satellite accounts" that assign a dollar value to such unpaid activities as housework, studying, and parenting. They also propose that satellite accounts subtract from GDP some of the environmental costs of production.

These outrigger accounts would put the main financial accounts into perspective as never before. For one thing, the satellite accounts would be huge. One study estimated that Australians produce goods and services in their own homes for their own consumption -- by cooking, cleaning, doing repairs and yard work -- worth nearly half as much as GDP. And housework is just one of five new accounts the Abraham panel proposes!

Read more.

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February 08, 2006

Canada's Great Bear Park? Not Exactly.

The world is celebrating an announcement in Vancouver on Tuesday that the government of British Columbia finally signed on to a new vision for a region of the province nicknamed the Great Bear Rainforest--a vast, nearly roadless forest of cedar and hemlock stretching along the coast from the northern tip of Vancouver Island to Alaska.

A Google News search that night turned up 137 stories published around the world about the announcement, including a front-page piece in the Washington Post (Huge Canadian Park Is Born of Compromise), and an AP story (Canada Unveils Park to Protect Grizzlies), which was reprinted nearly everywhere from Seattle to Fort Worth.

This new phase of land-use planning is about a lot more than a big park for bears. The media who reported it as such should be corrected.

The agreement announced by B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell -- and built by First Nations who live in this area­­, environmentalists and logging company representatives,--is being called "A New Vision for Coastal B.C." That's not just P.R.--it really is a vision, a new way of thinking about and creating conservation that was a decade in the making.

In fact, contrary to some of the more romantic news reports, environmentalists and native leaders working on the Great Bear haven’t seen a U-Lock, or even a bullhorn, in at least half a decade. Instead, they’ve logged thousands of hours under fluorescent lights in stale meetings rooms at airport hotels and YMCAs, far from the tall trees and leaping salmon. They got to know people they didn't necessary like at first--mid-level bureaucrats, loggers, big-box retail executives. In doing so, everyone involved changed their thinking about the forest, their communities and the coastal economy.

Listen to CBC News for some good interviews with key negotiators (see the bottom of this page), or reporter Clifford Krauss' audio commentary on the New York Times' web site for a clearer picture of what happened.

At the core of the new accord is a vision of sustainability that fosters stong communities and healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in this unique place. This is not a traditional park.

The entire region will be "zoned" into three tiers of special management areas. More than a third of the region—the "Protected Areas" and "Biodiversity Areas"--will see no commercial logging. However, mining is allowed in the Biodiversity Areas. Tourism is OK too.

The final two-thirds of the region will be open to logging under another plan, called ecosystem-based management, which is still being hammered out by the stakeholders for implementation in 2009. (It's not over.)

What's more, some 25 First Nations living in this region, in communities like Hartley Bay, Klemtu and Bella Bella, will share management authority with the province. They'll have access to the Protected Areas for traditional and cultural use--that's not the case with parkland. They can fish, harvest cedar for carving totems or other cultural activities, and worship at their sacred sites, for instance. It's a way of thinking about people and place with a long-term vision for sustaining both.

Not everyone is pleased with the new Great Bear Agreement. Many B.C. environmentalists have criticized the environmental groups who negotiated the deal for remaining involved in the negotiations after the planning tables rejected the recommendations of a blue-ribbon team of conservation biologists. These scientists, who conducted their studies as part of the planning process, concluded that upwards of 70% of the region should remain free from industrial development to maintain healthy populations of large carnivores like grizzlies and coastal wolf packs. The end result was much less, and some say sufficient wildlife corridors are lacking.

Of course, what logging will look like under the esoteric term "ecosystem-based management" remains to be seen.

The key to the deal still rests on a gamble. The environmentalists' winning strategy was a huge $120 million "conservation financing" campaign. In less than five years, they managed to raise $30 million, with the assistance of private foundations, to fund budding entrepreneurs in native communities that agree to embrace sustainability- micro-businesses like eco-tourism, certified forest products and shellfish aquaculture. They double-dared both the province and the feds to match that number. The B.C. Liberals agreed to do so yesterday.

The newest complication is the recent federal election. Canada now has a Conservative prime minister from the oil fields of Alberta--not exactly a man envisioning sustainability. The immediate step forward is brokering a commitment from Ottawa.

Well, most British Columbians would never believe that a premier of this province would ever thank Greenpeace--known widely as the "Enemies of B.C." in the 1990s. He did this week. Perhaps Stephen Harper is next.

(Full disclosure:  Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck worked on the Great Bear Rainforest campaign from 2001-2003. She's now Tidepool's editor.)

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January 30, 2006

Food vs. Shelter: The Planning Debate

In the debate over growth management, it's easy for the parties to forget that it’s never us against them, it's us against us. For just one example, planners must strike a balance between our needs for food (in the form of nearby farmland) and shelter (in the form of decent housing for a growing population). And promoting density, while important in many respects, is not the whole answer to problems of growth.

Oregon's land-use task force is beginning to study what the state’s citizens want, and The Oregonian is running a good series on planning that addresses the balance between desirable housing and fertile farmland. The articles offer some goods insights and they got me thinking.

Density done wrong does no one any good. Urban village development (and their traditional counterparts) must attract buyers, not be foisted on them. A subdivision crammed with more houses is not a real solution. It’s still auto-dependent and segregates homes from shops and services. It adheres to the letter of planning for density, but ignores the spirit—density ought to empower residents with choices, not just wedge people together. Intelligent planning is required to build attractive homes that also offer privacy and a sense of space, as well as easy access to amenities. The point of smart planning should not to force people into the city, but to create more good places there for those who want it.

Even with good density alternatives, some people may still want a house with a big yard. I think that it’s important to offer a mix of housing types, but these larger more distant lots come with all sorts of hidden costs to society: higher costs to supply public services like water, sewer, and emergency response farther out—not to mention negative externalities like air pollution, road-building, and possible watershed deterioration from the added impervious surface. And it’s also important, as The Oregonian article notes, that we preserve farmland and other green places.

And space is not the only reason people may want to move into rural areas: they also may want to be closer to nature. I think it's important to ask how best to connect people to the natural world without sacrificing the very nature they crave. I worry about getting caught in a vicious cycle as people move farther and farther out until there's scant rural land left and our cities are so sprawling that most people must rely exclusively on cars for transportation.

I favor setting aside space within cities for neighborhood parks, community gardens, and large semi-wild areas like Forest Park in Portland, Discovery Park in Seattle, and Stanley Park in Vancouver. Unlike fenced-off backyards, these areas let people connect both to nature and to their community.

But really, I see growth planning and development disputes as a symptom of a larger issue: population growth. Our grandparents could reasonably expect to build a house on a half acre lot outside the city because land was plentiful, but people weren’t. Sprawl and population growth have reversed that equation to the point where we need to change our housing expectations if we want our grandchildren to have access to nearby farms and local produce.

Just a few thoughts sparked by the Oregonian series. Take a read and see what you think.

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January 20, 2006

Bottle Battle

About yesterday's post on glass recycling -- some astute readers noticed that by focusing on recycling, I'd ignored more important priorities:  reducing the use of packaging, and reusing glass bottles where practical.  That's a fair enough critique.  But it did make me wonder:  what happened, exactly, to the practice of reusing glass bottles?  I can still remember drinking Coke from reusable bottles as a kid, but I rarely see that anymore. How come? And, more to the point, how would a system of reusable glass bottles stack up against recyclable glass and plastic containers?

On the first question -- what happened to reusable bottles? -- there's this recent article that sums up the situation nicely.  In a nutshell:

  • Beverage marketers prefer customized bottles, with a unique shape and feel for each brand; but a reusable bottle system is most cost-effective if all bottles are interchangeable.
  • Food stores don't like to take back bottles.  It's an administrative hassle and takes up time and space that they'd prefer to use for other purposes.
  • Consumers don't like to return bottles.  Given the option, they'd prefer to recycle a bottle than return it for reuse.

Obviously, those barriers aren't insurmountable by any means.  But they also don't seem to be uniquely characteristic of North American consumer culture.  Though Japan's economy is far more energy-efficient than ours, its reusable bottle system, which used to be extremely effective, now seems to be falling by the wayside.  (Sigh.)

Some of the same forces are at play in Japan as in the US -- beverage makers are introducing customized shapes and sizes of many drinks.  But perhaps just as importantly, Japan's beverage delivery services -- which would pick up empty bottles at the same time they delivered new ones -- have declined, with more people getting their drinks from supermarkets.  The decline of reusable bottles is just a side-effect of other economic and social forces.

Of course, there are public policies that could stimulate a resurgence of reusable bottles -- mandatory bottle deposits, requirements that stores accept reusable bottles, perhaps seed money for local bottlers to restart the reusable bottle system.  An uphill battle, to be sure -- but it could have its benefits.

Then again, before we consider that sort of thing we should take a careful look at the possible hidden costs of reinstating a returnable bottle system.  Consumers might avoid reusables; unreturned and broken bottles can eat into the energy savings of a reusable bottle system; it's even conceivable that a reusable bottle system could generate extra car trips, reducing the net-energy benefits. 

Of course, reusable bottles could still save energy, reduce waste, and create local jobs, compared with glass recycling, or even with lightweight recyclable plastics.  But I think we'd owe ourselves a careful accounting of just what these benefits might be before spending all the political capital needed to reboot the reusable bottle industry.

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January 10, 2006

Is Local the New Organic?

Editor's note: This is the first post from Jennifer Lamson, founding partner in Good Food Strategies LLC. Read her bio here.

Tomatoes_basket_1 Last week, the New York Times ran a feature by Marian Burros on New Seasons Markets, a grocery store chain in Portland that is banking on consumer interest in local, sustainable food--as opposed to simply organic.

The chain recently completed an inventory of the origins of its stock and have labeled everything grown in Oregon, Washington and Northern California “Homegrown.” They’ve already got 6 stores and 3 more on the way but remain adamantly opposed to expanding beyond the Portland suburbs--a testament to their commitment to being grounded in the local food economy.

People concerned about health, taste, and the environment have long sought out organic products. Once a cutting-edge concept for gourmets and health food junkies, organic is now mainstream, with many familiar major food brands launching organic product lines. I bought organic milk at a Seattle Safeway the other day that was packaged under Safeway's own new “O” label. Organics are the fastest growing segment of the food industry, with sales increasing by some 20 percent per year.

But, as the New York Times piece noted, organic alone is not the answer to the question of the fundamental role that food plays in our local economy, environment, food security, community vitality, or even health and enjoyment. I don’t know where that organic milk I bought from Safeway came from. I like the idea of sticking with my delivery from Smith Brothers dairy each week. Even though it’s not organic, there’s no growth hormone used and I am supporting the last of the independent dairy farms in my state, Washington.

We won’t be seeing New Seasons outside of the Portland area soon--but other Northwest areas are making progress on the local food front.

In the Seattle area, for example, cutting-edge projects are exploring food as a driver in the local economy and as a focal point for public policies ranging from health and nutrition to urban planning and even transportation.

Sustainable Seattle is launching a first-of-its-kind research project looking at how dollars spent on locally produced food affect the local economy as a counterpoint to the dollar spent on the average grocery item that has traveled 1500 miles to reach the consumer.

Washington State University’s King County Extension office is leading an effort to establish a food policy council for Seattle and King County that would bring together a broad spectrum of food system participants-- from farmers to hunger activists to grocery executives to land use experts -- to work jointly on solutions to current challenges like childhood obesity, disappearing farmland, and alarmingly high levels of hunger in our community. Leaders of that effort talked about how a food policy council could be a source of innovative, community-based solutions in an OpEd in the Seattle PI in December.

The local-food movement may even help us close the divide between rural and urban, red and blue. From the NY Times piece:

“Doc and Connie Hatfield, who founded the Country Natural Beef cooperative in 1986, said the co-op now has 70 ranchers, who raise beef on a vegetarian diet free of hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified feed. ‘Most of the ranchers are rural, religious, conservative Republicans,' Mr. Hatfield said. 'And most of the customers are urban, secular, liberal Democrats. When it comes to healthy land, healthy food, healthy people and healthy diets, those tags mean nothing. Urbanites are just as concerned about open spaces and healthy rural communities as people who live there. When ranchers get to the city, they realize rural areas don't have a corner on values. I think that's what we are most excited about.’"

I have always believed in the power of coming to the table together to hash out issues, find common ground, and be reminded of one another’s humanity, but I have most often thought about it in the very personal context of family and friends. In these times of bitter division, can coming to the table in celebration of delicious local grown bounty help remind us of our many shared values and experiences?

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January 06, 2006

The Stockholm Syndrome

This will be fun to watch:  the city of Stockholm, Sweden is starting a trial run of a congestion pricing scheme that would make drivers pay about $7.50 per day to drive into downtown.  London has a similar, though considerably pricier, system:  drivers now have to pay about $14 to get into downtown London.  But Londoners have been surprisingly supportive, since the fees have made a considerable dent in congestion, while transit service has been increased to help people get into downtown if they choose not to drive.

Although the London congestion pricing system has been largely successful, the prospects for Stockholm may be murkier. Stockholm apparently faces nowhere near as much congestion as London -- and polling shows that despite Stockholm's green reputation, the tolls are pretty unpopular.  Plus, it's a short-term trial, so city residents may not have as much time to adjust their driving habits -- which may mean that they won't have as much time to see whether travel times really improve as much as they did in London.  Both of those factors could make the Stockholm experiment fall flat -- and make voters less likely to approve an extension of the system in a fall election. 

Of course, even if Stockholm voters reject congestion pricing, it wouldn't mean that the idea has no merit -- London's experience shows that it can be a popular policy.  But if the system does get nixed by Stockholm's voters, it could make other cities think twice about how (and whether) to use road pricing to ease congestion.

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December 12, 2005

Sustainability's Slow-motion Revolution

Susanb_sm_free_1 What makes the impossible become inevitable? History shows that an unarguable principle and a small corps of dedicated people can slowly but surely change the course of the future.

Today, NEW is publishing a year-end essay by executive director Alan Durning that applies history's lessons of social change to the Northwest's movement toward sustainability—a healthy, lasting prosperity grounded in place. In the piece, he sets the campaign for a sustainable economy and way of life beside similarly ambitious causes of the past, such as emancipation and suffrage, finding reason for optimism.

We’d like to hear from Cascadians about your work in sustainability and what keeps your optimism afloat. Click here to read Alan Durning’s essay and then join the discussion below.

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November 17, 2005

November 19 and the Hell's Kitchen of Sustainability

Editor's note: Guest contributor Hans Peter Meyer writes on community development issues from Courtenay, British Columbia.

Saturday, November 19, is local government election day in British Columbia.

It's too late to nominate anyone, and it's too late to really organize. By the time British Columbians read this, there won't be much left to do but vote for whoever you think has the vision and the energy to put the pieces in place for a more 'livable,' more 'sustainable' future.

Why does local government matter? Joy Leach once said of her experience as Mayor of Naniamo, one of Vancouver Island's biggest municipalities, "Local government is the Hell's Kitchen of sustainability." It's at local council tables and regional board meetings that so many of the big issues become real. Garbage. Sewage. Town design for cars, bikes, pedestrians, and buses. Development applications to spread expensive infrastructure, or 'intensify' populations and reduce the ecological footprint. These are the nuts and bolts of community sustainability.

Some changes seem to take place overnight: All of a sudden there's a $1M highway connector between two small towns. Or a huge box store in the middle of prime agricultural land. But in fact, these land use decisions were made years, even decades before anything happens on the ground. Someone put the pieces in place so that when the time was ripe, the plan and the action unfolded.

We need people in local government willing to put the pieces in place for healthier communities and neighbourhoods in 10, 25, and 50 years.

I live in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. At about 20,000 people, it’s still a small city, blessed with its own set of beauties and eyesores. But it’s growing rapidly. The tsunami of growth in BC won’t reach its full peak until after the 2010 Olympics. By then, the world will know that this place--from Vancouver to Whistler and all of Vancouver Island--is a wonderful place to call ‘home.’ Before that big wave bears down on us, we need an elected team willing to tackle this list:

- implement a workable a growth management strategy.

- do some bona fide community economic development planning.

- strategize on a regional basis on emerging youth issues, drug and crime issues, housing & poverty issues.

The list of issues are piling up faster than the condos and single-family dwellings are being built. And it’s growing. Another reason to consider carefully who you'll pick to represent you in your local 'Hell's Kitchen of sustainability.'

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