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The Archive:

April 2012

The Earth Speaks…

Steve McGrath · April 22nd, 2012

You’re honoring the Earth today. This just in: her reply.

Sheathing your debit card is the best way to celebrate Earth Day 2012

Mike McGrail · April 21st, 2012

My maternal grandfather was an old-line doctor who said the same thing every time a patient asked him about diets: they’re all gimmicks. The only way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more.

I’m adapting my grandfather’s diet advice to Earth Day. Want to make your morbidly obese environmental footprint into an Earth-friendly hardbody? Then screw planting trees and cleaning beaches on April 22 and do something really hard, especially for an American.

Consume less.

All the conservation areas we build and the light bulbs we replace on Earth Day are spitting in the ocean compared to the good we can do for the planet by buying, using and discarding less. In my grandfather’s parlance, it’s the gimmick of a diet versus the reality of shoving less into your pie hole at the dinner table, tearing yourself away from the flat screen and getting on the bike.

Consider what environmental journalist Marc Gunther discovered by analyzing the most recent sustainability report from Walmart.

Gunther recognized Walmart’s accomplishments in waste reduction, energy conservation, and creating markets for locally grown produce as the substantial progress that they are. Yet in spite of its sustainability accomplishments, Walmart’s CO2 emissions are growing. That’s because of the brand of consumption that Walmart promotes, according to Gunther.

“(Walmart) sells lots of efficient light bulbs and compact laundry detergent,” he writes. “What if it tried to sell more durable clothes and shoes? Or less meat? Or fewer crappy toys?”

Gunther isn’t picking on Walmart and neither am I. Walmart does more in sustainability than most companies. The point is that Walmart is us and we’re Walmart, and we both need to change.

If Walmart (and Target and JC Penney and Sears and Kmart et al) have the market clout to make manufacturers reduce wasteful packaging, then they can also get them to produce more durable products. When they do, it falls to retailers to sell those products at accessible prices instead of charging a premium for clothes that won’t go out of style in one year or appliances that won’t break in five and can’t be fixed. At that point, it’s all of our responsibility to ask ourselves that dreaded question before buying: “do I really need this?”

Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day in 1970 to focus public attention on his era’s most important pollution threats, which were industrial facilities, wastewater systems and internal combustion engines. The environmental legislation of the ‘70s helped turn the tide on those polluters. Now it’s time for us to tackle this generation’s environmental culprits: you, me, Walmart, and our debit cards. Legislation isn’t going to do it this time. It’s up to us.

If you need more convincing about why we need to curb our hyperactive consumption, and you haven’t done it already, go to the post above this one and listen to a birthday message from the Earth Mother herself. The old girl makes a good case for keeping that debit card at parade rest as often as possible. Happy Earth Day 2012!

Stunning interactive wind map

Steve McGrath · April 10th, 2012

Click on this screenshot and savor the beauty that is simply wind blowing around the United States.

 

Now can there be any doubt we have enough wind to make a serious contribution to our voracious energy demand?

The interactive map doesn’t tell us a thing we didn’t already know – the data that drives it comes from the National Weather Service – it just tells us in a sublime way. “These are near-term forecasts, revised once per hour,” say the creators. “So what you’re seeing is a living portrait.”

The U.S. government envisions generating 20 percent of our electricity through wind by 2030.

The Wind Map is a product of two people who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization group in Cambridge, Mass., Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, The gallery section of their site showcases some particularly striking animations, including this one from March 14:

(Click on the image above to see the animation.)

Wonder if it was a starry night.

 

Where’s that confounded bridge?

Ed Marshall · April 3rd, 2012

Hey, want to buy a bridge? How about a bridge fuel? It burns cleaner than coal for generating electricity, can heat homes and power a truck or a car. Best of all, we’ve got an embarrassing surplus of the stuff priced so low it’s sinful. It’s natural gas from shale, and it’s the answer to our energy problem for the next 100 years while we figure out this alternative energy stuff.

Or not.

The rosy assessments above are based on current consumption levels and an overly optimistic estimate of what we can get out of the ground at anything resembling a reasonable cost. In addition, the dollars don’t add up. The fracking that produces shale gas is expensive and when successful yields a short gusher of gas followed by a steep drop off, requiring a re-frack and repeat. It’s “an unprofitable treadmill.” The sheer number of wells drilled in the fracking frenzy has created a gas glut on the domestic market and, in turn, low prices that cannot support the expensive production model. Most companies producing shale gas are relying on steady inflows of investment cash to support their profit-challenged efforts.

Already used for cooking, heating homes and hot water as well as generate electricity and to provide feedstock for industry, expanding these uses of natural gas and creating new ones – such as in fleet trucking and even personal vehicles – is usually cited as a key way to put the shale gas glut to good use; lowering our national carbon footprint and increasing our energy independence. The big hope for producers, however, is in export. Clearing a few political and regulatory hurdles and building new facilities would allow for natural gas export in liquid form to foreign markets like Great Britain, Northern Europe and even Asia.

All of which would raise consumption levels well above current levels, reducing, in turn, the projected years of supply. Some estimates suggest shale may provide fewer than 30 years of additional natural gas supply when all is said and done. And as the glut diminishes, users will begin to be exposed to the true dollar costs of fracking extraction.

As this process plays out, a major concern is the effect on alternative energy. Another three decades of embracing the fossilized status quo aren’t going to help us achieve energy sustainability. People are fundamentally change-averse. Tales of “100 years of cheap energy under our feet” will resonate. And if the hype lures investment capital to shale companies, what does that do to the attractiveness of investment in green tech companies? Will cheaper natural-gas-fired electricity generation put further funding pressure on large-scale solar and wind projects?

If markets pick winners, then it’s hard to understand how an embrace of shale gas creates a bridge to a new energy regime, rather than to a familiar dead end. It’s time to stop digging for scraps in the past and find a new way forward.