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Solutions and Sustainability

Greenpeace report proves solar power available to 100 million people by 2025

Greenpeace, press release
Cairo, Egypt — The solar thermal power industry could be worth 16.4 billion Euros and create 54,000 jobs worldwide by 2025, according to a report launched today in Egypt by Greenpeace, the European Solar Thermal Power Industry Association (ESTIA) and IEA SolarPaces.

The report, “Concentrated Solar Thermal Power – Now”, is a practical blueprint, which proves that in two decades solar thermal power could supply clean electricity to more than 100 million people living in the sunniest parts of the world (1). Greenpeace and ESTIA are encouraging politicians and policymakers to support this new sustainable industry by taking the necessary steps laid out in the report, which provides a detailed action plan for Governments who want to invest in this new technology. It also illustrates how the Middle East and North Africa could become the main centre for solar power with the potential of also exporting electricity to Europe (2).
(8 October 2005)
The original article says that the report is available online.

Dave Wetzel on congestion charging and land value taxes
David Room, Global Public Media
Dave Wetzel, vice-chair of Transport For London and chair of The Labour Land Campaign, discusses congestion charging and land value taxes with GPM’s David Room.

To alleviate traffic woes in cenrtal London, Mayor Ken Livingstone instituted a congestion charge. Since it was put in place, traffic delays inside the charging zone are down, traffic circulating within the zone is down, and delays on main routes into the zone are down. Traffic outside the zone has not experienced any significant adverse impacts, as the majority of ex-car users have transferred to public transport. Safety has also improved under the plan.

Wetzel also proposes that land value taxes (replacing or greatly reducing income tax) would be good for business, good for those struggling to buy houses, and would force land to be used more efficiently.
(12 August 2005)

Ask Umbra: The wheel deal
Advice on bicycle commuting and used cars

Umbra, Grist Magazine via WorkingFor Change
Dear Umbra,

My question regards my daily half-hour (each way) bicycle commute through fairly heavy city traffic. I’ve been wondering if the benefits (exercise, sunshine, free and fast transport) are outweighed by the negatives (primarily breathing in diesel and other exhaust, but I’d also throw in the risk of almost getting run over, despite the cheap thrills).

I am fortunate enough that my alternative would be to take the subway, not drive. Perhaps you could comment on the personal and environmental health effects of different types of commutes.

Indie, Washington, D.C.

A. Dearest Indie,

Biking, biking, we love biking.

You have two questions here. The first is whether you are hurting your health by biking in traffic. The second is a health comparison between the bike and other modes.

Clearly, biking not only maintains but improves your general physical health, in terms of muscles and heart rate and mental peace, and has little impact on the environment. It beats motorized vehicles — or, as I like to call them, Mobile Emissions Sources — of all types on both these counts.
(4 October 2005)
More on bikes: Bicycle sales boom in US amid rising gas prices.

Pollan high on grass, down on corn

Times-Standard (N. California)
A popular agriculture writer blamed many of society’s ills on corn at a Humboldt State University talk last week, and said Humboldt County ranchers are leading the nation in getting animals back on grass and may be triggering a boon to Americans’ health.

Michael Pollan, author of “Botany of Desire,” said local ranchers’ focus on feeding livestock grass could someday change the way America’s livestock industry does business.

Pollan railed on corn, deriding it as a commodity that fuels the obesity crisis in the United States. It also crowds out other plants species, creating a monoculture in the Midwest, he said.

He said that animals need to be taken off the feedlot and fattened on grasses. An intensive, rotational grazing program can build soil while taking food off the land at no cost.

”The more I look at it,” Pollan said, “grass-fed meat is the closest thing to a free lunch in nature.”

About 600 people attended the lecture.

Pollan said producers should measure their yield by the acre instead of by the bushel, and that consumers should know where their food comes from.

”In our eating decisions we can help create the kind of world we want to live in,” Pollan said. “We have to get back to grasses, the poly-culture of grasses, that makes up the cow pasture. We must bring an ecologist’s lens to this.”
(9 October 2005)

Down and dirty: the fate of soil in industrial society

Tom Philpott, Gristmill
“Common as dirt,” goes the old insult. Despite its antique nature, the saying may sum up industrial (and post-industrial) society’s take on soil: low, squalid, filthy, annoyingly abundant, beneath dignity and respect.

Consider the zeal to clean, to wash, to sterilize and scrub. Claudia Hemphill, a doctoral student in environmental science at the University of Idaho, has been doing some interesting work on the recent social history of soil. As U.S. society mutated from primarily rural to overwhelmingly urban and suburban in the span of less than a century — today less than 3 percent of the population engages directly in agriculture — dirt came to be demonized, Hemphill argues.

By the dawn of the 20th century, when immigrants (many of them former farmers) and our own displaced rural populations flocked to U.S. cities, they found themslves confronted with a stark public-health slogan: “Dirt, Disease and Death.”

A society washing its hands of agriculture didn’t want dirt clinging to its trousers. Hence the cult of detergent.

…I think even consumers who try to shop locally for sustainably grown produce don’t think enough about the soil and what it means. Every apple you eat, every carrot and every clove of garlic, represents nutrients leached from the soil — nutrients that must be replaced one way or another for agriculture to sustain itself. Same with meat. Whether a cow feeds freely on meadow grass or has field corn shovelled into its tiny hovel, soil somewhere is being leeched of nutrients.

I wonder if many vegans ponder the ultimate source of their nutrition. Small-scale farmers who reject synthetic inputs have essentially two options for replenishing the nutrients they pull out of their soil: animal manure and what’s known as “green manure,” plants capable of leeching nitrogen out of the air and depositing it into the soil. (Compost could be considered a third option, but farm-scale composting typically relies on a heavy dose of manure — not the green kind.)
(5 October 2005)
Philpott normally posts on his blog Bitter Greens Journal, but is now posting on Gristmill. Another recent piece by Philpott is Green Lunch Time.

Ecolanguage and the Destiny of Humankind

Dave Pollard, How to Save the World via Salon
Lee Arnold has invented an intriguing symbolic ‘language’ that can be employed in animations to show how complicated systems work. The elements in the language are shown above, and were inspired by a concept for symbolic representation of energy flows developed by Howard T. Odum. Lee has added some rigour to the symbol set and extended it to show economic and information flows as well as physical ones, and further extended it to make animations based on the set more intuitive. Click on the first link above and watch the animation of the Bush tax cuts to get an idea of just how powerful this language is.

One interesting quality of this language is that symbols in a pentagon instead of a hexagon indicate the portion of the population that must deal with systemic problems in their environment: So ‘people’ in a pentagon is ‘prisoners or slaves’ (it could also represent physically or mentally ill people), while ‘cities & nations’ in a pentagon represents ‘police or authorities’, including armies.

As much as I admire the elegance and intuitiveness of this language, I was skeptical that its ‘alphabet’ was complete enough to demonstrate more sophisticated systems. Specifically, I wondered how to represent technology.
(3 October 2005)
Of special interests to those of us who are fans of H.T. Odum’s symbolic language. -BA

Hard cash and climate change

John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
A common estimate is that to stabilise the global climate, we would need to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 60 per cent, and proposals to achieve this by 2050 have been put forward. Assuming only a limited role for alternative energy sources, it seems reasonably to look at a 50 per cent reduction in primary energy use.

It’s a widely-held view that the kinds of changes required to stabilise the global climate must imply a fairly radical reduction in our material standard of living. This view is shared by radical environmentalists, who see such a reduction as a good thing, and by opponents of such changes most of whom, at least in developed countries are on the free-market right.

The fact that radical environmentalists view the modern economy as critically dependent on unsustainable patterns of energy use is not surprising. On the other hand, supporters of the free-market generally praise the flexibility of dynamism. Currently, energy use accounts for about 6 per cent of GDP. The suggestion that reducing this proportion to, say, 3 per cent, is beyond our capacity seems to represent a very pessimistic view of our economic potential.

… Given a consistent upward trend in prices and a coherent set of public policies, massive reductions in energy use would follow as surely as night follows day.
(6 October 2005)

Recommended by Dave Roberts at Gristmill:

an intriguing (though troublingly citation-free) case by John Quiggin that the energy-use reductions required to curb climate change are achievable through a combination of thoughtful public policy and rising prices — without any particular damage to our standard of living. Definitely worth a read.

China looks to California for solutions on saving energy

Robert Collier, SF Chronicle
As the United States and other major nations face an increasingly costly struggle for energy supplies and consensus grows that global climate change is a serious problem, government officials from Washington to Beijing are increasingly looking to California for solutions.

The Bush administration is now encouraging Americans not only to drive less but to use energy more efficiently in homes and businesses — a practice championed in California, where state and public-utility subsidies have brought improvements in energy efficiency that far outstrip the nation’s.

California’s influence is especially felt in China, the world’s fastest-growing economy and its fastest-growing polluter.
(7 October 2005)
Second article in a three-part series. A few weeks ago, an Oregon newspaper ran an article about how China was turning to that state for conservation technolgy.

White House picks up conservation mantra
Others say bigger changes needed for long-lasting reductions

Carolyn Said, Chronicle
For people who lived through the 1970s oil crisis, today’s shortage instills a sense of deja vu.

It was the mid-1970s when Americans were told to drive 55 mph, turn down the thermostat and don sweaters.

Now, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which caused large-scale damage to the nation’s energy infrastructure and sent fuel costs skyrocketing, the Bush administration has suddenly seen the virtues of energy conservation and begun a huge campaign — led by a cartoon pig, the greedy “Energy Hog” — to urge Americans to reduce their use of electricity, gasoline and natural gas.

The government’s energy-saving tips, in a 34-page booklet at, have a familiar ring. From turning down the thermostat to taking short showers to driving conservatively, they rely on classic routes to conservation.

Environmentalists say those approaches are great — as far as they go. But for significant, long-lasting reductions in energy consumption, they say the government must step in with policies to revamp our basic approaches to consumption.
(9 October 2005)
Last in a three-part series, QUEST FOR CONSERVATION.

Energy efficiency: The wave of the future

Angela Brooks, Laramie (WY) Boomerang
The Western United States’ insatiable appetite for energy is leading it on a collision course that could result in higher energy bills, shriveling water supplies and ongoing power shortages.

Case in point: electricity consumption in the West, which has some of the fastest growing states in the nation, has grown 60 percent over the past 20 years. Natural gas prices in the region have doubled in five years.

In Wyoming, retail electricity sales have jumped about 1 percent each year since 1990.

Fortunately, there’s still time to do something about it.

According to the Clean and Diversified Energy Advisory Committee, energy-efficient technologies and renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind and solar power could reduce electricity consumption and save consumers money.

“Across the nation, communities and landowners are really becoming savvy about the value of renewable energy and resources,” said Michele Barlow of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Seeing the challenge at hand, the Western Governors’ Association last year set a goal of developing 30,000 megawatts of clean energy by 2015 and reducing electricity use by 20 percent by 2020.
(9 October 2005)

Are McMansions Going Out of Style?

Fred A. Bernstein, NY Times
LAST year, McDonald’s phased out its “supersize” French fries and soft drinks. Portions, it seems, had gone about as far as they could go.

Could the same be true of the supersized houses known as McMansions?

After more than 30 years of steady increase, the size of the typical American house appears to be leveling off, according to statistics gathered by the Census Bureau.

…The size of the average American house rose from about 1,500 square feet in 1970 to more than 2,300 square feet in 2001, with a particularly big growth spurt in the late 1990’s.

But from 2001 to 2004, the growth practically halted. “That suggests that the size of the average house is stabilizing,” said Gopal Ahluwalia, a statistician with the home builders’ association. For the second quarter of 2005, the average new detached house measured 2,400 square feet, according to the Census Bureau.

…There are many reasons the appeal of bigger houses may be waning, including the high cost of maintaining them. “In a city where $1,000-a-month air-conditioning bills are not uncommon,” said Ms. Horsey of Dallas, “people are beginning to say, ‘Maybe I can have less space, and spend the money on a trip to Europe.’ ” Increasing fuel prices are likely to make large houses even less appealing, Mr. Ahluwalia and others said.
(2 October 2005)
Recommended by Dave Roberts at Gristmill.

Save energy (and money) around the house

Tom Watson, Seattle Times
Now more than ever, we’re bombarded with energy conservation tips. But many of these energy-saving methods have mixed results.

Let’s take a closer look at the costs and potential pitfalls of four common strategies to save energy:
* Use compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs …
* Seal or replace your windows …
* Install a programmable thermostat …
* Increase your insulation
(9 October 2005)