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

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?

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.

Refuse the bottle on World Water Day

Pour some tap water into a plastic bottle, slap a label on it, and what do you have?

Snake oil.

Nonetheless, Americans buy around 9 billion gallons of bottled water every year, sold by a brand promise of purity, health, beauty and personal style.

Although critics haven’t put much of a dent in the demand, there are signs that’s about to change. More than 90 colleges and universities, including Brown and Harvard, have banned or are restricting the use of plastic water bottles, Bloomberg has reported.

“The product just doesn’t make common sense,” Sarah Alexander, 20, an environmental-studies major at Dartmouth, told Bloomberg. “Companies are taking something that is freely accessible to everyone on the Dartmouth campus, packaging it in a non-reusable container and then selling it under the pretense that it is somehow better than tap water.”

Unlike the tap water you pour into a glass, the water in bottles is trucked around the country, consuming energy, producing carbon and leaving an unwanted plastic container. After the consumer’s refreshing drink, the container is:

  • trucked around some more and buried;
  • recycled (more energy and carbon);
  • tossed in the water (maybe even becoming part of the world-famous Pacific garbage patch); or
  • buffeted about the side of the road.

To serve parched students, Harvard and Dartmouth will be installing hydration stations in new buildings. These will enable students to refill their own bottles with filtered water. They’ll also be saving money: according to Ban the Bottle, it costs 50 cents a year to drink tap water and $1,400 to buy that equivalent in bottles.

Let’s raise a glass of tap water to the money back in our pockets. And let’s celebrate World Water Day by being grateful for even having choices about drinking water while so many people go dry.




Fallout, fatalities and news cycles

The media business moves in ever-faster, shallower coverage cycles, pursuing stories with a simple tension that creates a sense of urgency in readers and viewers such that they will stay for the commercial, buy another issue or click into the full story.

The speed of the news cycle and the need for this clear, simple tension obscures even the most important stories once they evolve past urgency into more subtle or complex territory. Take the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It’s been a year since the tsunami hit and the multiple reactor meltdown incidents, so the story is getting a brief, anniversary return trip to the news cycle; a trip down disaster memory lane, some “lessons learned” and some heartening bits on people rebuilding.

There is a story to be told about the ongoing disaster in Fukushima, an important one that might prompt a very useful discussion about the role and shape of nuclear power in the United States even as the first new plant in over 30 years is licensed in Georgia. But the story out of Japan has become more complex and open-ended, lacking simple tension, a clear ending point and gripping images of containment buildings exploding and helicopters dumping seawater on seething rubble.

After Fukushima Daiichi exploded and melted down, a consensus emerged that, while terrible and problematic, the damage was ultimately manageable and nuclear power a safer choice than many traditional power sources. Coal, for instance, was calculated to have killed many times more people per watt of electricity generated than nuclear. Coal mining has killed lots of miners over its long history as a leading energy source and its use has certainly resulted in types of air pollution that have a well understood casual relation with life-shortening conditions such as asthma. Clear and simple.

Less clear and simple, however, are the mortality effects of long term exposure to various types of radioactive fallout and debris. Radioactivity at lower levels is invisible to human senses. Tracking radioactive fallout and its effects is bereft of the clear and simple tension that the media relies on to drive news cycles and its bottom line. Oh, you can still find those efforts happening, they just won’t be part of the news cycle informing our public opinion and debate.

For the link averse, the early indications from Fukushima are not comforting.  Take this podcast interview, for example. In it, it is noted that a medical examination of almost 4,000 school-aged children showed thyroid “lumps” in about a third. Apparently that’s rather unusual. Those kids aren’t dead; they may well live on just fine for decades. If they are, perhaps, tracked by curious medical investigators or scientists and found to have shortened lifespans due to increased incidents of cancers often associated with exposure to radioactive isotopes that may generate a story or two. But those stories will not inform our current understanding of the dangers posed by nuclear power and the handling of its associated waste. Some other story with a more clear and simple tension will be driving the news cycle. Count on it.

When the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, tides go with the flow

When the sun doesn’t shine on the beach it wrecks your tanning index. When the sun doesn’t shine on your solar panels you’re taking cold showers and eating soup out of the can – assuming you have a manual can opener.

The same goes for wind power. A wind turbine is a fine thing when the wind is blowing, but when the wind isn’t blowing the turbine is an overgrown, albino lawn flamingo.

Tidal power is not as flashy as solar and wind, but it’s insanely reliable. Tides come in and go back out without fail, no matter whether it’s cloudy or sunny, windy or calm. As they flow in and out, tides generate huge amounts of energy that can be converted into a predictable renewable energy stream.

By mid-March, up on the northeastern tip of the U.S., in Lubec, Maine, tidal turbinea company called Ocean Renewable Power Co. will begin operating the first grid-connected tidal power plant in the U.S. The 300-kilowatt (kW) tidal energy project consists of turbine generator units (TGUs) mounted on the sea floor. The 20-foot tide drives the turbines as it ebbs and flows. Check out what the Portland Press Herald wrote about the project. The coverage has a lot of good details.

Ocean Renewable’s Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Project or is a fairly small pilot program that will produce enough electricity to supply 100-125 homes. The project’s larger purpose is to help determine the feasibility of larger-scale tidal power. The outlook is good, but what jumps out at students of renewable energy is what Ocean Renewable CEO Chris Sauer said about tidal power’s likely future.

“It’s never going to be the dominant power-generating resource in the state of Maine, but it’s going to be a significant contributor,” Sauer said.

That’s the kind of no-b.s. candor that the renewable energy industry is often missing. Too many rosy predictions about renewable energy’s prospects set unrealistic expectations. (Remember when “clean, safe” nuclear power was going to make electricity “too cheap to meter”? I do.)

Dissect Sauer’s observation and you find the likely shape of our energy future. Most of our energy won’t come from massive, centralized power plants like we have today because none of todays’ renewables have the energy density of fossil fuels. Instead, we’ll get electricity from a larger number of smaller renewable sources, each doing what they do best. Solar and wind will produce when the conditions are right. Tidal, biomass and players-to-be-named will fill in the gaps. And we’ll be consuming less because our homes, appliances and vehicles will be more efficient.

The sensible center

Often, PR is about driving consensus. Other times, it’s definitely not. Sometimes controversial issues are controversial by design. You want a “rational discussion” on climate change? So does ExxonMobil.  How else to ensure that everyone reading, watching, etc., this rational discourse understands first and foremost that there is much to debate and, therefore, the best course of action is to do nothing.

IClimate Changef you have not, you really must take the time to read Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s excellent book, Merchants of Doubt. It does a first rate job of detailing the parallels in strategy, tactics, language, funding, organizations and even individuals between the efforts of tobacco companies to obfuscate the link between smoking tobacco and cancer and the efforts of certain industries to promote doubt about human-caused climate change.

Big Tobacco was never interested in proving that smoking cigarettes wasn’t addictive or didn’t cause cancer. Yes, they made statements to that effect, issued studies and paid for “science” on these topics, but the goal never was to “prove” anything.  The goal was to provide another “side” to the story. Providing a veneer of credibility for that other side by funding studies, scientists and other “experts” fed an ongoing debate which, in turn, justified holding off on doing, well, anything. As the debate churned on, the cigarettes churned out and the toll in health and lives added up. Funding the ongoing rational debate was just a cost of doing business.

Today, the same tactics that kept Big Tobacco in escalating quarterly profits for decades after serious medical concerns were first expressed have been adopted by industries with a lot to lose if an enlightened public were to rationally engage with the well documented science behind anthropogenic global warming. And those tactics are likely to be just as successful.

Why? Because people typically respond to uncertainty with inaction. Why upend the entire economy and Our Way of Life if the science isn’t sound or settled? Better to do nothing, than make the wrong decision. Want to paralyze a population? Gin up a rational public debate.

The experts involved in studying climate change believe in the clarifying power of rational debate and the media love to cover a debate (seriously, how many Republican primary debates are we up to now?).  Both likely see this process as the best – and necessary – way to get at the truth of the matter. The parties driving this process, however, aren’t concerned with getting at the truth of the matter.

But by all means, insist on a rational debate to hear “both” sides of the climate change issue. ExxonMobil would appreciate it.

I know it when I see it

Unlike advertising, well-executed PR doesn’t hit you over the head. Rather, it becomes an organic part of the public conversation, shaping and directing it, often by defining key terms and setting acceptable boundaries of thought and belief. So, as a professional in the field, it is with no small amount of interest that I have watched a recent rash of stories popping up in some fairly weighty mainstream outlets – Bloomberg BusinessWeek, for example and – declaring that new developments in unconventional oil sources, primarily shale, have finally – or, perhaps, once again – disproved the Peak Oil “theory” that purportedly states we’re running out of oil.

This rash of Peak Oil denial articles has the earmarks of a classic PR push. How so? Well, sifting through the stories, I see a characteristic attempt to shape the conversation by redefining key terms and setting boundaries of discussion. A couple examples:

  • Peak Oil = running out: This shows up in a number of the articles and, for those who follow the issue, it’s an obvious misstatement. Peak Oil is primarily about rates of production, secondarily about the cost of those production rates and then about the net energy yield from that production. But that’s complicated. More casual readers won’t stay with a complicated discussion. An effective PR approach is to simplify the complication in a way that bolsters your position. In this case, inaccurately portraying Peak Oil as a claim that the world is “running out” of oil makes it credible to point to expensive, low flow rate sources like tar sands and shale oil as proof that we’re not.
  • It’s a Theory: A favorite from the playbook, you may recognize it from efforts to discredit the teaching of evolution. The American public, generally speaking, has a poor understanding of how science defines and uses terms. What most people call a theory, science might call a hypothesis – more akin to speculation or, at best, an educated guess. In the natural sciences, the term “theory” is applied to concepts whose explanatory powers comport accurately and consistently with empirical observations. But, again, that’s complicated. Going with the common misconception and consistently associating Peak Oil with the term theory subtly, but powerfully, discredits it in the mind of the casual reader.

So, why the rash of articles now? From a PR standpoint, it may have had something to do with a recent article in the prestigious journal, Nature, in which two respected scientists declared that Peak Oil was not only real, but already here. In PR we call this an appeal to authority. Casual readers likely don’t have access to Nature’s pay wall to read the article or follow the work of either scientist who authored the piece. But, the casual reader will place more credibility in the Peak Oil “theory” if it’s reported that an august publication has published an article by two respected scientists in support of it. If you’re in the fossil fuel extraction business, that’s a five-alarm PR emergency.

When clean isn’t green

Doing your best to tread lightly on the planet? Well, if you’re still laundering your clothes, you have room for improvement.

Turns out a single garment can release 1,900 microplastic fibers in a single wash, and fibers like these can end up in the food chain, says a study reported by the BBC. After being eaten, the plastics appear to get into animals’ cells.

“As the human population grows and people use more synthetic textiles, contamination of habitats and animals by microplastic is likely to increase,” says the study in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. “Already, microplastic contaminates the shorelines at 18 sites worldwide representing six continents from the poles to the equator, with more material in densely populated areas.”

And you don’t get a pass for wearing natural fibers. As TreeHugger observes, “cotton causes other problems because of how much water and pesticides is used to make it grow.”

Information like this makes you wonder how much damage humans are doing beyond CO2 and the obvious chemical pollutants, and exactly how we collectively determine which damaging actions we most need to discourage.

However insidious, microplastic is defined as being less than 1 mm in size, so we’re dealing with a bit of an abstraction. For a more tangible experience of plastic in the ecosystem, see TreeHugger’s Great Pacific Garbage Patch slideshow. Or these photos, which find beauty in the blight.