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Category — Sierra Club radio

50 simple things to save the Earth

Two interviews of note on the Sierra Club Radio episode from May 3: Robert Reich, Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, discusses his recent book Supercapitalism, and John Javna, author of the original 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth, talks about the newly updated version of the book.


The interview with Javna is refreshingly candid. The original book came about as environmental issues were making news in the early 1990s, and Javna saw a need to outline steps that individuals could take to make a difference. The book was intended, Javna says, to be an entry point to environmental activism. Although many–including Sierra Club radio host Orli Cotel–took it this way, a far more sinister thing also happened: corporate polluters were able to latch on to the idea of individuals taking action and transformed that into the idea that individual lifestyle changes were the only steps that needed to be taken. If there are 50 simple things you can do to save the Earth, then saving the Earth means doing the 50 simple things, and not, say, addressing mountaintop removal or clearcutting or pesticide runoff or any number of other issues for which the solutions are beyond the 50 simple things. The message was that our major environmental problems were the fault of individuals, or at least the fault of those individuals who hadn’t done the 50 simple things to save the Earth, and not the fault of the large corporate polluters.

As one might imagine, Javna was quite dismayed to see the rise of the notion, which he acknowledges he had unwittingly abetted, that doing the simple things outlined in his book was somehow equivalent to solving our most pressing environmental problems. He knew full well that many of the steps–for example snipping the rings of a six-pack holder–were largely gestures that were more about raising consciousness than solving problems. And so his cynicism took over; he stepped away from environmental activism, moved away, and focused on raising his family.

The spark for the new edition came when his daughter asked why they didn’t compost anymore1 and after a bit of introspection came to realize that individual actions were, in fact, a crucial part of environmentalism. But the task wasn’t to disseminate random eco-tips, but rather to foster a shift towards a culture of sustainability. Instead of tips, the new edition of the book is organized around 50 issues (beginning, regretfully, with electric cars), with a variety of actions for each issue. The hope is that readers will become more deeply involved with an issue, taking on progressively more involved actions. 

A brief look at the online table of contents reveals a disappointing stance on transportation and virtually nothing about urban form. Train travel makes it, but I can’t find much about walking or bicycling or density. Perhaps I’ll review the book here at some point.


What I thought the most intriguing about the Robert Reich interview was his point was that the environmental movement (and, one presumes, other issue-focused progressive causes) needs to see itself not as narrowly focused on environmental issues, but as part of a broader progressive movement that’s working to improve the quality of life for all people in the country and planet. I find a similarity between this and the argument that Markos Moulitsas (kos) of DailyKos makes: that for each arm of the big progressive tent to keep considering only their own issues, with blinders on for other progressive causes, is short-sighted and self-defeating.

Perhaps the best illustration of this came after the 2006 election, when Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope sung the praises of the new Democratically controlled Congress, for example that changes in committee leadership would allow many more pro-environmental bills to make to the Senate floor for votes. The ironic bit is that this change in leadership happened only because Sierra Club2 endorsed  Republican Lincoln Chafee lost; had he won, the Republicans would still control the Senate and the chair of the Committee on Public Works and Environment would be Republican James Inhofe instead of Democrat Barbara Boxer. Whatever Chafee’s votes on environmental issues were, he still implicitly voted for leadership that included Inhofe and a host of other anti-environmentalists. In an era when the distribution of support for strong environmental protection is not equal between the political parties, the leadership mindset that a candidate supports is at least as important as any particular vote. If the environment wins because Sierra Club endorsed candidates lose, then something’s wrong with the Sierra Club endorsement process. 

Now, kos is talking about elections and Democrats, Reich is talking about issues, but both are asking us to consider our actions and support more broadly–kos for an issue-lousy Democrat, Reich for issues outside the environmental canon. And if we believe the popular trope that everything is connected to everything else, then this makes sense, because we can build on the synergy that happens with congressional majorities and a broader coalitions. The era of narrow focus and litmus tests should be ended.

  1. This was an especially timely note for me, as I just bought a compost bin. []
  2. and League of Conservation Voters []

May 14, 2008   2 Comments

Scale in the media

I lamented in an earlier post that questions of scale are all too often left out of discussions of environmental solutions. To recent pieces that bring the issue up:

Michael Pollan’s Why Bother?, from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, opens by recounting what for Pollan was the “most upsetting moment” of An Inconvenient Truth: the “immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it.” Pollan defends notions of virtue and the steps, particularly gardening, that individuals might take to reduce their individual carbon footprints, vis-à-vis other responses to the climate crisis such as hopingfor some future technology. He writes: “Cheap energy, which gives us climate change, fosters precisely the mentality that makes dealing with climate change in our own lives seem impossibly difficult…. Al Gore asks us to change the light bulbs because he probably can’t imagine us doing anything much more challenging, like, say, growing some portion of our own food.”

Second, the April 12th Sierra Club Radio podcast has a segment with Bob Schildgen—Mr. Green—promoting his new book, which compiles questions and answers from his column in Sierra magazine. On the question of paper vs plastic (his answer–neither; bring your own bag), he encourages listeners to put things into perspective by mentioning that you likely burn as much petroleum in one trip to the grocery store as it takes to make all the plastic bags you’d use in a whole year. I can’t find his numbers online, but using the figures I wrote about earlier: 330 bags per American per year, 200 bags per gallon, so just over one and a half gallons of oil per American devoted to plastic bags. At 20 miles per gallon, you could make a round trip to a supermarket 15 miles away. Right order of magnitude, but I think you could travel a bit farther on that amount of gas.

This exercise in scale is then thrown out the window later in the interview, when host Orli Cotel asks the heavily loaded question: “For our listners who do own cars or need cars for whatever reason, what tips can you give us, as Mr. Green, to help reduce the amount of gas that we’re using,  besides of course cutting back on car travel?” (As if there’s some secret, magic way to drive without using gas that only the hardcore enviros know about.) Mr. Green goes on to mention that Americans lose about 4 million gallons of gasoline per day because of underinflated tires. Of course, he doesn’t put this into perspective: that’s about 1% of our daily gasoline consumption; we burn through 4 million gallons of gasoline in about 15 minutes.

April 25, 2008   No Comments

The scale of green solutions

For someone who’s long identified himself as an environmentalist, the rise in recent years of the profile of environmental issues, particularly climate change, is heartening. Much of this attention is the result of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which concludes, as much of the more optimistic reporting on the subject does, with solutions and steps to avert the prospect of catastrophic global climate change.  An often overlooked but absolutely critical aspect of any of these “greener” ways of doing things is an investigation of the way they scale. Two questions that need to be asked of any proposed solution:

  1. Is the idea feasible on a large scale?
  2. If implemented on a large scale, how does the overall benefit compare with the magnitude of the problem that the solution purports to address?

We do need to constantly look for ways to lower energy use, to create less waste, to reduce the release of toxics to the environment. An abiding quest to green and re-green our lives should become a universal American value, in much the same fashion that thriftiness was admired during the depression, or that discount shopping was admired in the 1990s. But at the same time, we must be careful not to fool ourselves: there is a real prospect that, if we do not consider the scale of the problems and potential solutions, we’ll stop short, that metaphorically we’ll change a lightbulb and recycle a soda can and think we’re done.

Consumption of energy is the biggest part of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the biggest environmental problem facing us today. Almost universally, in the popular press, there is a widespread lack of awareness of scale involved, which is both understandable and frustrating. It is frustrating because figures on overall energy consumption are unambiguous and readily available from the Department of Energy, yet understandable because the numbers involved are so huge. Large scale energy consumption is measured in quads, or quadrillion BTUs. The United States consumes roughly 100 quads, or 100,000,000,000,000,000 BTUs, of energy per year. The outline of the flow of this energy is brilliantly presented in this graph from the DOE. On average, this amount of energy consumption is equivalent to a power consumption of 3.3 trillion watts.

As a very crude1 (but illuminating) approximation, suppose that every American, all 300 million of us, turns off a lightbulb and reduces our power consumption by 100 watts. In this approximation, we imagine a bulb which had been on 24/7/365 to now be off. All total, we’d save 30 billion watts. Sounds like a large number, doesn’t it? It’s the output of 30 Gigawatt-sized power plants. Certainly admirable. But it’s just 1% of our overall 3 Terawatt power consumption.

Petroleum constitutes roughly 40% of our energy consumption, to the tune of 865 million gallons per day.23 This turns out to be 10000 gallons per second;  it takes our country about a minute and 40 seconds to burn through a million gallons of oil. Keep this scale in mind the next time you hear about a great way for our country to save a million gallons of oil: wonderful, but hardly the whole solution.

Of this oil, each day we burn 388 million gallons of gasoline and 175 million gallons of diesel fuel.45 It is contemplating these figures that lead us into question 1 above: how feasible are any of the alternate fuels touted as replacements for gasoline?

For the moment, I will just address biodiesel. To make biodiesel, vegetable oil is combined with an alcohol and a strong base to produce a liquid that is similar to petroleum-based diesel fuel. There are serious questions as to the energy efficiency of this whole process, which I will not address in this post. As a reasonable approximation, suppose one gallon of vegetable oil can be turned into one gallon of biodiesel.

The entire annual US production of vegetable oil is about 2.9 billion gallons.6  If all the vegetable oil produced over the course of a whole year were converted into biodiesel, it would displace about 5 days of gasoline and petro-diesel use.

I’ve seen (but can’t find at the moment) a figure that roughly 10% of our vegetable oil production ends up as waste vegetable oil. So if we converted an entire year’s supply of  used french-fry oil, etc., to biodiesel, we’d keep our country motoring for about 12 hours and 22 minutes.

This is why I’m more than a little skeptical when conversion to bio-diesel is taken as evidence that someone or some organization has “gone green.”  To replace all our motoring fuel with bio-diesel, we’d have to scale up production by a factor of 70. Even if we set a more modest target of replacing a quarter of our motor fuel with biodiesel, we’d need to produce 18 times as much vegetable oil as we do today. In this context, discussion about whether one method of producing biodiesel is, say, 20% more efficient than another method, or whether one type of biodiesel-burning engine is, say, 30% more efficient than another is really irrelevant. What’s relevant is the scale.

I’ll close with one final calculation that puts the scale in perspective. Just looking at gasoline, 388 million gallons per day is equivalent to 1.3 gallons per person per day. We can see that it makes sense: it’s what you get if everyone drives 30 miles per day. We tend not to think of the volume of gasoline that we consume because we don’t see it: it goes from a tank underground through a hose to a tank under our car. But aside from water, there’s nothing for which each and every one of us consumes that’s on that scale. For a family of four, 1.3 gallons per day is 36 gallons per week: imagine this volume of vegetable oil, every week. Sound absurd? That’s what the bio-diesel solution would be.

  1. Crude because it mixes primary energy–like coal and gas–with electricity, which is good for order of magnitude, but keep in mind that only a third of the heat value of the primary energy makes it into electricity. []
  2. 1 barrel is 42 gallons []
  3. Equivalent to the volume of Lipsette Lake every two days. []
  4. distillate fuel oil=diesel []
  5. plus 68 million gallons of jet fuel []
  6. See Table 6 of any of the reports. Note that production of oilseed and production of vegetable oil are different things; only part of the weight of the oilseed is oil. Here I use a specific gravity of 0.9 to convert from metric tons to gallons, so about 7 pounds per gallon. []

April 3, 2008   1 Comment

Listen to Pollan

I’ve been paying attention to food more or less since I moved to DC. Throughout grad school, I didn’t really take the time to cook or think about food (except at Thanksgiving). I’ve had a latent interest in cooking since college, but never had done much about it. I started cooking more frequently living in DC, and I made enough money to eat, occasionally, at nice restaurants, and I discovered Cooks Illustrated magazine, and my wife and some of our friends were also interested in food, and the Washington Post has a better food section than the Ithaca Journal, and we had the opportunity to join a CSA and shop at farmers’ markets, so everything sort of fell into place.

Without a doubt, Cooks Illustrated has been the most influential component of the “how can I make good food” question. For the “what role do our food choices have in our relationship with the natural world” question, though, the most influential voice has been that of Michael Pollan.

He’s written two books about food: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. I’ve only read the first–it’s a lucid, alarming, deeply thoughtful, hopeful, yet non-judgemental examination of American food systems, structured by tracing the sources of the components of four meals that Pollan prepares. (See a review here.) Pollan has been one of the leading voices in the nascent revolution in food awareness, drumming up orders of magnitude more interest from non-farming states in the Farm Bill than ever before, and inspiring websites like The Ethicurean.

With that, I present and recommend two recent interviews in which he talks about In Defense of Food.

Interview on CBC’s The Current radio program.

Segment on Sierra Club radio.

February 6, 2008   No Comments

The Story of Stuff

I recently found, via DailyKos, a 20-minute video and accompanying website, The Story of Stuff, that provides an refreshingly pertinant voice in the discussion about consumerism, sustainability, and the environment. The presentation is of course rather simplified, and in some cases–such as when explaining what changes in new models of computer–it is oversimplified to the point of giving defensive nitpickers plenty of ways to discredit the piece. But the overall story that’s told is spot-on, and the simplifications are unavoidable if you’re trying to compress the story of the entire journey of everything we consume, from resource extraction to disposal, and its consequences, into a short video presentation. And any inaccuracies are very tiny when compared to the mis-representation one receives daily from advertising and mass media and the other side of the consumption debate.

It was slightly ironic, then, that the video couldn’t really run well on my 7-year old G4 Cube, so instead I watched it on my year-old Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro that I have home from work.

The Story of Stuff presents a viewpoint that I wish were more common in, say, Sierra Club Radio, which more often than not is more focused on finding “green” stuff to buy, instead of rethinking our relationship with stuff. (To say nothing of Consumer Reports, about which I hope to write more later.)

Watching The Story of Stuff, two parallel “readings” come to mind.

The first is a recent Washington Post story on the debate about the CSPC’s position on the use of Brominated Flame Retardant chemicals in furniture–the same BFRs that are highlighted in The Story of Stuff. With growing evidence that BFRs are, in fact, toxic, the debate on the surface looks like it could be about balancing the long-term risks of exposure to BFRs with the benefit of reduced risk of fatal fires. But that’s not what the debate was about. A leading cause of fires in homes is cigarettes igniting upholstered furniture. The cigarette industry wanted to avoid a mandate for self-extinguishing cigarettes, and looked to push the fire-safety problem onto the furniture makers. They bought off the fire marshals (who, it should be pointed out, are in no position whatsoever to evaluate the health risks of exposure to BFRs) and were assisted by the BFR manufacturers. The furniture industry put up a huge fight, and has mostly won, but the struggle continues. Completely on the sidelines are anyone looking out for the best interests of ordinary citizens.

The second piece is a segment on This American Life about textile workers in Cambodia. No, this is not a sweatshop horror story–Cambodia, apparently, has developed a textile industry the right way. Labor laws–which, by and large, are enforced–are modeled after French laws, and working conditions are generally good and wages considered fair. One gets the impression that Cambodian garment workers really do consider factory work to be a substantial step up from subsistence farming, the livelihood of roughly 70% of the country: industrialization is more complex than being forced to leave an degraded environment that once sustained people for generations. But more than that, the degree to which Americans buy new Cambodian-made clothes makes a huge difference in the quality of life of the garment workers, and the people who sell food or slippers or whatnot to the garment workers. It’s a reminder that “the economy” is not entirely about faceless corporations and the wealthy robber-barons who run them, but sometimes resembles the system that textbooks describe.

February 3, 2008   1 Comment


Perhaps the best reason to listen to Sierra Club Radio is to hear the fascinating guests that come on the show, who often manage to say something insightful despite host Orli Cotel’s bubbly demeanor and loaded questions. But one theme has come up in two recent programs–indeed, you hear it often from the Sierra Club–that really gets to me: the notion that the answer to the problem of our nation’s oil consumption is to “go farther on a gallon of gas” by raising fuel economy standards. Since raising fuel economy standards is just about the only progressive thing left in the energy bill that made it through Congress, much has been made of this phrase of late.

It seems simple enough: increase the fuel economy, and our fuel use goes down. But there’s a really big if here: that’s if the number of miles driven doesn’t go up. I will argue in this post that there’s no evidence to support the notion that the amount of driving will stay fixed. This is the problem with the phrase: “going farther” implies more driving, by using the same amount, “a gallon,” of gas.

From the standpoint of an individual, many environmentally-minded folks buy high fuel economy cars in order to achieve “guilt-free” driving. When faced with a transportation decision: whether to travel, and if so, which mode to choose, the fact that one has a car with higher than average fuel economy certainly makes it easier to choose to drive. This is actually a well-known phenomenon known as the Jevons paradox: improvements in efficiency of consumption of some good leads to a larger overall rate of consumption of that good, because use of that good becomes feasible for more uses as the efficiency grows. It’s the same reason you spend more time online when you have a faster Internet connection. Overall, America’s gasoline consumption is analogous to a (faltering) dieter who eats a whole box of fat-free cookies because they’re “healthy.”

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December 19, 2007   9 Comments

iPod again

I finally listened to my iPod again, during my commute, but not, of course, while walking to the Metro. Mostly, I listen to podcasts. Today I listened to:

Sierra Club Radio, the Dec. 1st episode. Excellent interview with Ken Weiss who wrote the LA Times series on the plight of the oceans. 

The Splendid Table, an NPR show about food, with ebullient host Lynne Rossetto Kasper. 

This American Life, which is consistently the most captivating radio show around. When I was in grad school, this came on Sunday mornings and I almost always listened, but here in DC it’s been on at a time when I’ve almost always been doing something else. Which is why I love the podcast. 

December 12, 2007   No Comments

Happy Buy Nothing Day

It’s 6am; I’ve overslept! I should have been in line at the mall three hours ago!

Buy Nothing Day Visa Poster

I’m not a strict BND observer, but considering how you can’t separate the environmental damage caused by manufacturing, by mining and refining raw materials for manufacture, by transportation of goods and materials, and by disposal of packaging and worn-out junk from the purchase of new goods, BND does seem to be one of the more useful spiritual holidays around. There’s a reason that “reduce” is the first keyword in the “reduce, reuse, repair, recycle” mantra.

Many argue that stuff not bought today will be bought some other day, so it’s understood that BND is not a cure for consumerism, but rather a time to reflect on the future of a consumer society in the age of global warming and Peak Oil. We should question the underlying assumption of that argument, though, that there’s some fixed amount of stuff that we’re going to buy. Rather, we need to keep the Jevons paradox in mind, and consider whether the ease with which we can purchase something plays a role in our decision to purchase it in the first place.

If you’re going to make any observation of BND today, I’d say the first priority is to avoid products that are explicitly marketed as “green.” One of the softer, and IMHO more unreasonably optimistic environmental notions out there is that we can save the world simply buy buying the right stuff. A much larger fraction of the Green Living blog and its companion piece on Sierra Club Radio are devoted to buying less damaging products, instead of reducing, reusing or repairing. So today, instead of buying a shirt made from organic cotton, ask yourself instead whether you really need another shirt in the first place.

I did look through all the sale flyers that came with Yesterday’s Washington Post. Among the things advertised, without which I think that that, on balance, the world would be a better place: electric martini makers, “Latte” makers (ironically, from a company called “Back to Basics”), and Margarita makers. And scented candles.

November 23, 2007   2 Comments

Plastic bags

Americans throw out 100,000,000,000 plastic shopping bags each year. This is the figure given in Katharine Mieszkowski’s article about plastic bags in, which I first heard about when Sierra Club Radio Interviewed her.

I won’t repeat what’s in the article: that’s what links are for. Suffice it to say that plastic bags wreak havoc on the environment. But let’s explore the numbers.

As I write this, the Census bureau estimates the US population at 303,384,903: that means that, on average, each American throws away about 330 plastic bags each year, or just one bag per day most days of the year. Five bags of groceries plus two other purchases a week would do it; this tells us there’s no reason to doubt the 100 billion figure. In fact, thinking about all the double-bagging that goes on at supermarkets, and not to mention all the other shopping that’s going on all the time, the figure seems a bit low. And unfortunately, there isn’t one evil industrial polluter to which we can assign the blame: what seems like a normal number of plastic bags times a whole lot of us means a whole lot of bags.

Producing the 100,000,000,000 plastic bags apparently takes 12 million barrels of oil. One barrel of oil is 42 gallons, so you can make about 200 bags from a gallon of oil, or about 2/3 fluid ounce of oil per bag.

According to the US Department of Energy, the US uses 20.7 million barrels of oil per day, or 7.6 billion barrels of oil per year. Of this, roughly 3/4 goes to transportation fuels. So if we took all the oil that presently goes into plastic-bag production, and used it instead for moving around, it would last about 19 hours.

Which means: plastic bags are awful for wildlife, and very ugly when they’re littered around, but they’re not really a significant part of our dependence on foreign oil. If someone comes up with a scheme to recycle plastic bags into an alternative fuel for cars, then perhaps it will be clever, but it won’t really be anything like a solution.

November 16, 2007   2 Comments