Thursday, May 22, 2008

Specific ideas for change

Lester R. Brown's Plan B 3.0 lives up to its name; it is a detailed plan (complete with budgets) on how to transform our world's economies and societies so that they will be both environmentally and socially sustainable. The genius of the plan developed by Brown and the scientists at the Earth Policy Institute is that it relies solely on what is already technologically possible today and what is economically feasible. Brown argues that the changes proposed in Plan B 3.0 are necessary to slow (and reverse) population growth, end poverty and hunger, and protect the resources and ecosystems on which modern, civilization depends. He acknowledges that Plan B is not necessary what is politically acceptable.

Trained as an economist, Brown realistically assess how much each of the proposals would cost, and how those costs can be covered. Most proposals pay for themselves over time (e.g., energy savings), can be paid for by reducing subsidies on destructive behaviors (like existing subsidies for virgin timber, coal production, and oil production), or are equivalent in cost to more destructive investments that they would replace (e.g., wind power for coal fired electricity generation, especially when direct and indirect costs of coal mining are taking into consideration).

Two chapters of particular interest to readers of Blue Island Almanack are Chapter 11 Raising Energy Efficiency and Chapter 12 Turning to Renewable Energy. The entire chapters are available on-line, and down loadable in pdf format. Excel files with links to all the major data sources for the chapters is also available for those who like to play with the numbers themselves.

In Chapter 11, Brown argues that it is technically possible and economically feasible to completely offset increases in energy demand between now and 2020 with improvements in energy efficiency. He lays out the major areas -- lighting, appliances, buildings (both new and renovated), transportation, manufacturing and re-manufacturing, materials use, and lifestyles -- in which energy efficiency can be improved given existing technology and knowledge. Everything he proposes is something that is already in use somewhere in the world, and has already demonstrated the capacity to reduce energy use. Brown provides dozens of specific examples from countries, cities, and corporations around the world who are already using these techniques and technologies for energy and cost savings.

Chapter 12 makes a compelling case that we are technologically capable of increasing the contribution of renewables (wind, rooftop solar, solar electric plants, solar thermal, geothermal, biomass, and hydro-power) by nearly 600 percent between now and 2020. Combined with efficiency gains (outlined in Chapter 11), continued use of nuclear power (at the same level as presently -- about 15 percent of the world's power), Brown argues that the use of hydrocarbons (coal, oil and gas) could be nearly eliminated. Brown acknowledges that

"The Plan B goals for developing renewable sources of energy by 2020 that are laid out in this chapter are based not on what is conventionally believed to be politically feasible, but on what we think is needed to prevent irreversible climate change."
Moreover, Brown demonstrates that these proposals are technically possible, by providing example after example of specific existing, successful projects around the world. For example, already in China 40 million rooftop solar water heaters have been installed, and there are 2,000 Chinese companies manufacturing solar rooftop units, at a purchase cost of the equivalent of $200 installed. Many remote villages in China that still do not have electricity, now have hot water readily available. The city of Beijing along, already has plans to increase its 124 million square meters of rooftop solar collectors to 300 million by 2020.

Brown makes an excellent case that transforming our energy economy away from hydrocarbons through energy efficiency and sustainable, renewable power sources is technologically possible. The only question is whether or not we have the political will to do so. There in lies the rub.

Do something.

This isn’t a harangue. You’ve already heard about the destruction, the loss of life, the displaced persons, the food shortages.
Whether you believe in a Creator who enjoins us to action or believe we’ve all risen by accident to walk as equals, this is one of those occasions to fulfill an obligation or simply to help others in need. If you haven’t already done something, now is the time.


Lutheran World Relief
International Committee of the Red Cross
Heifer International

Friday, May 16, 2008

On limitless growth

In my brief respite between semesters, I’ve been revisiting HBR’s Business and the Environment. I was particularly struck by an interview with former Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, who expresses concerns about a booming world population, depletion of mineral and agricultural resources, and the ability of a large company to turn a profit in this environment. He delves into natural limits on renewable resources and posits some innovative, though questionable solutions to a number of resource problems.
I pose some questions to the reader:

Can humans continue reproducing at the same rate they historically have? Can people, on average, consume at a rate the equal (or similar) to historical rates of consumption? How do we know how much each person can consume? Should people consider their children or other future generations in how they consume?

Image source: Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Have some coffee, clean-up the Bay

For readers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, there’s an opportunity to use your caffeine addiction to preserve habitat, improve water quality, and educate young people about ecology. Through June 3rd, area Starbucks will make a 10 cent donation to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation every time you buy a drink in a travel mug.
As it happens, Starbucks all over the country will give you a price break (generally a dime) every time you use one of those reusable cups. At $12-$15 (or more) for the travel mug, it’ll pay for itself in a mere 120-150 (or more) cups of coffee. OK, so that’s not a huge incentive, but it does mean keeping a great deal of waste out of landfills. While you’re at it, you might bring a cloth napkin with you while you enjoy your Bay-friendly(-ier) beverage and avoid throwing out more paper. (Being the only weirdo who does this is beginning to lose its novelty.)

Image source: REI

Friday, May 9, 2008

Good summer reading!

I'm starting my summer vacation off by reading Lester R. Brown's Plan B 3.0: Mobilization to Save Civilization. [This book is available free on-line in its entirety, with the bonus of Excel data tables at I've read the earlier edition (Plan B 2.0). I think this is a must read for anyone who wants to think seriously about how societies must change to deal with the scourges of over-population, hunger, poverty and environmental degradation world wide.

As we have often discussed here at Blue Island Almanack, the world's environmental problems range far beyond "global warming." Lester R. Brown blends his educational and occupational background in both natural science (agriculture) and social science (agricultural economics), into a balanced view about environmental problems and society. This particular book (out of the more than 100 he's written over the past 35 years) stands out because of it's focus on solutions.

The solutions in Plan B 3.0 are all based on existing technology and economic systems, they are all designed to work within the framework of capitalistic economies with democratic political institutions. Almost all are solutions that have been proven to work somewhere, they just haven't had as wide an application as necessary.

I'll be posting my thoughts on this book here and at Sociological Stew over the next month.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Atoms for peace

The Greenpeacers were canvassing the neighborhood around my office the other day. I don’t know what prompted me to do so (everyone sells their politics in this neighborhood, and it gets old fast), but I stopped to talk with one of them. As I knew I would, we got into a spirited discussion on the topic of nuclear energy. So, I offer some questions to the reader:
Is nuclear energy bad for the environment? Is it good for the environment? Is nuclear energy sustainable? Are there any other direct replacements for fossil fuels in generating electricity? What should we do with high-level waste? Why does nuclear energy seem to generate so much fear?
As always, responses to any number of these questions are welcome, as are other questions.

Image sources:
Wiki Commons
Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Division of Public Affairs

Friday, May 2, 2008

dogwood winter

Here in eastern Kentucky folks have a name for each of the cold snaps that occur during the general spring warm up. A couple of weeks ago, we had a cold snap that everyone referred to as "redbud winter," then it was back to 70 degree afternoons, until the current cold snap which folks call "dogwood winter." Of course we will see more warm spring weather, and our next cold snap will be "blackberry winter" when the blackberries are in bloom later in May. The presence of these well known and commonly used phrases demonstrates ordinary people's awareness that even though the passage from winter through spring to summer heat is inevitable, there will be short, transitory periods every year that recall winter's chill.

I bring up this common folk knowledge about recurrence of cold snaps on the way to summer, as a preface to a new scientific report published in Nature, that was summarized in the New York Times May 1 . New efforts to refine the process of climate modeling and to make decade long predictions for climate, predict a possible decade of cooling within the longer term upward trend of global warming.

The authors of the study "stressed that the pause in warming represented only a temporary blunting of the centuries of rising temperatures that scientists have projected if carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases continue accumulating in the atmosphere."

Should the model be correct and our next decade be cooler, how will this affect long term goals to deal with the larger warming trends? Social and political will to deal with and prepare for a warming world are weak now. What happens should the short term consequences of warming lessen?