Forget green consumerism
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Forget green consumerism

Does buying “green” products rather than the more conventional alternatives really make a difference in terms of improving the environment? Environmental activist Joel Makower says not so much.

He argues that the drive for efficiency and cost savings in business makes a bigger difference:

But there’s a deeper problem with green consumerism: It’s often hard to know which companies are improving their environmental performance—and how. The key element of making consumer choices—knowledge—is missing. Companies’ environmental improvements (or lack thereof) aren’t usually obvious, even to the experts. In fact, some of the most environmentally improved products make no green claims at all.

Here’s why: To save money, reduce risks, improve quality, and remain competitive, companies in nearly every sector are continually engineering waste, inefficiency, energy intensity, and toxicity out of their manufacturing and distribution. A few have upended their business models in the name of efficiency and enhanced productivity. They sometimes do this because of the reduced environmental impact, but mostly they do it because it makes good business sense—not something companies usually bother to tell their customers.

The fundamental problem is not post-consumer waste, but rather the waste that’s generated in creating things and delivering them to consumers. The numbers are staggering:

What’s the point? It’s only a matter of time before the story of GNT gets told and the public recognizes that for every pound of trash that ends up in municipal landfills, at least 40 more pounds are created upstream by industrial processes—and that a lot of this waste is far more dangerous to environmental and human health than our newspapers and grass clippings. At that point, the locus of concern could shift away from beverage containers, grocery bags, and the other mundane leftovers of daily life to what happens behind the scenes—the production, crating, storing, and shipping of the goods we buy and use.

This is not altogether bad news. An inefficient power supply in a computer may raise your electricity bill by $5 or $10 a year, and isn’t something you’re likely to worry about. If Google used that power supply, it would cost them millions of dollars in power bills. So they build their own servers and fund research into improving power supply technology.

Higher commodity prices create incentives to limit waste, but also make increasingly invasive extraction methods economically feasible. There was a recent article in National Geographic about mining for gold in the face of rising gold prices that exemplifies this problem. Rising commodity prices lead directly to habitat loss, which is the primary cause of species extinction.

It’s tough being an environmentalist.

Loving what you have
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Loving what you have

Anil Dash and Mike Monteiro have launched a web site evangelizing the idea of appreciating what you have. The idea is simple and may be particularly compelling during a recession, but should probably be in the backs of our minds all the time.

I’ll share a little story along those lines. I drive an old car. It gets bad gas mileage and has uncomfortable seats. I would love to drive a new car. But the truth is I don’t drive an awful lot and the car runs really well. A couple of years ago I mentioned to my mechanic that I was considering getting rid of it, and he told me that if I did, to let him know, because he would be interested in buying it. At that point, I looked at the car with fresh eyes. If your mechanic wants to buy your car, it’s not time to sell it.

Just recently I’ve gotten a problem with the driver’s seat fixed, replaced the tires with nicer ones than I probably would have ordinarily, and resolved myself to sticking with it for another couple of years. I bought this car because I loved it, and as it turns out, I still love it.

This mentality is why car manufacturers around the world are in so much trouble, and why the government is pursuing fiscal stimulus, but for an individual, I think it’s the most rational approach.

Small things in large numbers
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Small things in large numbers

Small things count when they come in large numbers — lead wheel weights used to balance tires are an example. According to the Ecology Center, 70,000 tons of lead per year is used to manufacture these weights, and they are the largest source of unregulated new lead in the environment. These are the issues of activism that interest me. Replacing them with weights made of other materials would be fairly easy and cheap, but most people don’t even know what lead wheel weights are. What’s the path to producing change on this front? My guess is that you try to get them outlawed somewhere, and then try to get that law to spread. Eventually they’ll be banned in enough places that it’s just easier not to use them at all.

Iceland’s fate
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Iceland’s fate

It looks like Iceland faces a grim future. I honestly can’t imagine what it must be like for a country to essentially face permanent bankruptcy.

Earlier this year, National Geographic published an article about the industrialization of Iceland. One thing Iceland has to offer is cheap hydroelectric power. This has attracted aluminum smelters, because the process has enormous energy demands. There has been some tension in Iceland about whether it’s worth it to despoil its pristine environment in order to attract more industrial development. Something tells me that collapse of Iceland’s banking industry is going to lead to the construction of a lot more aluminum smelters.

Why people oppose peak oil on philosophical grounds
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Why people oppose peak oil on philosophical grounds

Andrew Leonard posts an explanation of why many conservatives hate the the concept of peak oil (and the idea that human activity is causing climate change):

Partisan conservatives pooh-pooh peak oil (and human-caused climate change) because they think that to concede that these challenges are real and must be confronted is to acknowledge that greed is not always good, and that free market capitalism must be restrained, or at least tinkered with substantially. Peak oil and climate change are fronts in the culture wars, and to some conservatives, watching the price of oil rise as the Arctic ice melts, it might feel like being in Germany at the close of World War II, with the Russians advancing on one front while U.S.-led forces come from the other. The propositions that cheap oil is running out and the world is getting hotter — as a result of our own activities — threaten a whole way of life. The very idea that dirty Gaia-worshipping hippies might be right is absolute anathema.

Given that many on the left also see peak oil and climate change as cultural battlefields, as weapons with which to assault enemies whose values they politically and aesthetically oppose (see James Kunstler), it’s no wonder that some conservatives are fighting back like caged rats, or that they want to blame speculators for oil prices, or biased scientists for climate change.

It really is a shame that these issues are subject to such strong partisanship. They’re problems that are going to require cooperation to address.

Links from March 14th
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Links from March 14th