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Can our way of living really save the planet?

Lucy Siegle, The Observer
On the surface, Kendal Murray’s life looks utterly average. Each morning, she showers, makes toast and drops her children off at nursery before going to work. Only on closer inspection do the details of her routine reveal some remarkable features: her shower is heated by solar panels on her roof; the electricity for her toaster comes from a local wood-burning generator; and when she takes her children to nursery, she walks – naturally.

Murray lives in BedZED, the Beddington Zero Energy Development in Sutton, south London, the first large-scale ‘carbon neutral’ community which, by using energy only from renewable sources generated on site, does not add significant amounts of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

‘People have a hair-shirt image about green living but it can be easy, affordable and attractive,’ said Murray. ‘I live with a clear conscience and haven’t had to give up a single thing to live this life.’

Welcome to the world of ethical living which, if recent trends are maintained, will see most of us adopting lifestyles like that of the the Murrays, not only taking care to save energy and to cut back on our carbon output – thus joining Tory leader David Cameron who yesterday announced he is to install a wind turbine on his west London home – but ensuring that we wear clothes which do not exploit workers in the developing world, go on holidays that do not damage precious habitats, and keep our children fastidiously eco-friendly.
(5 March 2006)

Sustainability – at the tipping point?

Gil Friend, WorldChanging
I’m an optimist by nature, I’ll confess. (A nature that sometimes seems hard to express in these times.) With that disclaimer, I think we’re likely to look back on 2005 as the tipping point for “sustainability.” Here’s why.

In his 2001 bestseller “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” Malcolm Gladwell used the metaphor of epidemics to demonstrate how a small number of ‘carriers’ in a ready context can unleash massive and market-altering — or world-altering — waves of change.

His questions are potent, and still relevant: ‘Why is it that some ideas or behaviors or products start epidemics and others don’t? And what can we do to deliberately start and control positive epidemics of our own?’

Momentous change is not always visible at the moment it happens — in fact it doesn’t always happen in a discrete moment. And a change can take on a nearly irreversible momentum long before it becomes the dominant phenomenon.

The ‘sustainability trajectory’ I’ve tracked over the past 35 years (since long before it was called that) has looked to me like a fairly consistent exponential curve of uptake. Whether the time span is the last three decades, or one decade, or five years, or two, the curve charting the uptake and penetration of these ideas has been exponential. We’ll see even more progress in coming years — and still have major challenges ahead (see below). But 2005 may be the year of critical mass (to use another popular metaphor).
(5 March 2006)

On the horizon: charge! (the humble battery)

Jamais Cascio, World Changing
In a world of Moore’s Law, fuel cell cars and iPods, the humble battery stands out as a poor performer. Modern lithium-ion batteries are certainly lighter, less toxic, and somewhat more capacious than the nickel-cadmium or lead-acid batteries of days gone by, but these are incremental improvements — and they still rely on the kinds of electro-chemical processes used by the clay jar batteries of 2000 years ago. If we’re ever going to have a world of widespread electric transportation, useful mobile devices that can run for days, and remote sensing gear able to monitor the planet for years, we need something better.

Fortunately, that something better may soon be here. The last few months have seen a startling number of announcements in high-efficiency, high-utility power storage.
(3 March 2006)
Summary of developments in the energy storage world… -Big Gav

‘Green’ chemists swap oil for renewable alternatives

Karoun DemirJian, Christian Science Monitor
Look around you. What do you see? A computer screen, the print on this page, a pen, your shirt. Chances are there’s petroleum in all of it. Petroleum-based substances are in everything from lipstick to laundry detergents, clothes to computers to chocolate bars – even fertilizers and pharmaceuticals. Petroleum for nonfuel use made up just over 5 percent of total oil consumption in the United States last year, according to the Department of Energy.

Five percent may not seem like a lot, but it’s still 1 million barrels a day, more or less. That’s enough to demand the attention of a new generation of industry and academic scientists who are working to find natural, nontoxic alternatives to petroleum for consumer products. They have dubbed their field “green chemistry.”

“The way we’ve always dealt with environmental issues in the past is that we take products and processes, and if there’s problems, then we try to clean it up afterwards,” says Paul Anastas, a former EPA executive and director of the Green Chemistry Institute in Washington, D.C. “Green chemistry tries to do it from the design stage.”

Those designs try to replace oil-derived ingredients with substitutes made from plant material such as corn, potatoes, biomass, or flower and vegetable oils.
(6 March 2006)
Tip from peakoil-dot-com. Related story at WorldChanging: Turning Plants into Plastics.

Chew Magna: Is this greenest village in Britain?

Rich Cookson, The Independent
In a quiet corner of Somerset, a revolution is under way. Locals have made a pact to slash their carbon emissions – and reduce their waste to zero.
In gently rolling countryside, not far from a tranquil lake, Chew Magna is the quintessential Somerset village. It has a well-kept cricket pitch, tidy gardens, three churches, two pubs and a row of quaint shops. A picturesque stream meanders by ancient houses – some of them mentioned in The Domesday Book – and a down-at-heel watermill. You could be forgiven for believing that Chew Magna was just another quiet corner of conservative rural England. But a flier stuck to a telegraph pole tells a different story. “Find out everything you’ve always wanted to know about domestic solar water-heating,” it says, advertising a village talk. “Invest in energy-saving home improvements, save more money and significantly reduce your carbon dioxide emissions”. The meeting is the latest in a string of discussions, proposals and projects that are rapidly turning Chew Magna into one of the greenest places in the UK.

…A growing number of the village’s 1,100 residents have committed themselves to minimising the impact they have on the environment. While most of us throw away about half a tonne of rubbish a year, many here have pledged to produce as little waste as possible.

…The changes started a year ago, when the village was updating its parish plan. Councillors circulated a questionnaire that asked for residents’ views on everything from schoolings to healthcare. “One of the things that came out was a clear concern about the environment, such as reducing fly-tipping and reducing the amount of traffic congestion,” says Go Zero’s events co-ordinator Denise Perrin. “The consensus was that people wanted to make decisions that would leave a legacy.”

…What’s happening at Chew Magna offers a blueprint for other communities wishing to become more sustainable. But, in many ways, the village is returning to how it was 50 or so years ago. “Some of the older people are amazed that people buy apples wrapped in plastic bags, or don’t re-use glass jars,” says Denise. “They’ve been living quite sustainably all their lives. Thankfully, we don’t have to go too many generations back to relearn how to do it.”
(6 March 2006)
Tip from peakoil-dot-com.

Is More Better?

“thelastsasquatch”, The Oil Drum
… In discussions about the impacts of Peak Oil, it is sometimes implicitly assumed that we NEED to replace the energy lost from the coming liquid fuels decline with other energy sources in order to maintain our way of life and our happiness. Indeed, it seems that much of the current effort is focused on comparing/discovering the best energy alternatives with respect to EROI, environmental impact and scalability/timing. In addition, demand experts also look at efficiency, carpooling, 4 day workweek, living locally type solutions, etc. In this post, I look at Peak Oil from a broader context: the necessity and purpose of continued increases in demand for energy. What is it all for, if not to make us happy?

…It can be seen, that at low levels of GNP, happiness is lacking, but once a certain level of GNP is reached, incremental income per capita adds very little to subjective well being.

Ronald Inglehart of World Values Survey verbalized the above graph by stating that after meeting basic needs, lifestyle choices make up the majority of the difference in the GNP spectrum, and lower energy lifestyles do just about as well as high energy lifestyles (indeed, there are at least 10 countries on that graph that score higher on life satisfaction than the USA, and they each produce less GNP).

…As evolved animals at the top of the food chain, humans have become adept at acquiring resources, including energy. At some point though, “more energy” apparently does not make us “more happy”. Anecdotally, as a former stockbroker, I witnessed first hand that clients worth hundreds of millions were no happier than the entry level clerks, even though being fabulously wealthy represented the `carrot’ that people strived for. Similarly, in travels abroad to Ecuador, Zambia, Thailand, etc, I consistently noticed extremely happy people with very low energy usages.

Author is a former stockbroker/hedge fund manager. Currently Phd candidate studying supply side (EROI) and demand side (genetic algorithms) of Peak Oil
(5 March 2006)
Related story: Happiness: the hippies were right all along.