Monthly archive: March 2010

by Jacob Corvidae

I was radically changed by my experience of moving to the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in its earliest days and trying to build a new society starting nearly from scratch.  Having just spent most of my 20s trying to do some good things in the world and thinking a lot about what was important to me, I had nonetheless found it hard to enact my beliefs in every day life. And then I moved to the ecovillage, where the whole point was to enact many of those beliefs.

My mother sometimes jokingly (mostly) referred to it as Voluntary Hardship. But the irony was that the work was a pleasure and blurred the standard connotations of “work.”  It was, if you’ll forgive the jargon, empowering. Instead of “work” draining my soul, it fed it, and thus my work gave me energy. It gave me power. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that this may be our most significant kind of renewable energy.

One of my favorite Dancing Rabbit sayings came from those early days. We were trying to build a sustainable society, but many of didn’t have the skills we wanted.  And when it came time to do something new, we had to just launch in and do our best. Thus we had the saying:

If you’ve seen it done, you’re good at it.

If you’ve done it once, you’re an expert.

This was later amended with “And if you’ve read about it, you’re a consultant!” We’d say it with a laugh, roll up our sleeves and make whoever had done it once teach the rest of us. We did a lot of reading and research and sometimes we made some horrible mistakes. But mostly we got a lot done by not letting our own limitations get in the way. It completely changed how I approach living in the world.

I was reminded of this when reading Derrick Jensen’s recent article in Orion Magazine, Resistance Resisters. I’ve long been a fan of Orion and I know many people who are big fans of Jensen’s. I’ve personally had mixed reactions to different things of his that I’ve read and this article fit the pattern.

I appreciate Jensen’s clarion call for deep change and his dissatisfaction with piecemeal efforts. However, I also find his rhetoric to be anything from unhelpful to damaging as a strategy to achieve the very ends he’s pursuing. For now, I’d like to focus on one particular aspect: action.

Jensen’s criticism is a strong call to action. And as per my own experience, action becomes a very useful teacher. The overcoming of inertia is a mighty feat by itself  (one of the reason’s why I think Jensen’s condemnation of small steps is misled), and more importantly action leads to feedback. Action and learning are not separate acts, and in fact action often spurs greater learning than just reading or thinking, for action provides new information about the particulars of the exact scenario in front of you.  So  I agree with Jensen that we must take action.

But actions taken out of fear and anger tend to beget more fear and anger. And this is the problem with Jensen’s treatise. Even if one is deciding to take a direct action civil disobedience approach, even if fear or anger provided the initial impetus and spark to action, being driven by these twin demons rarely results in a greater good for the world.

I’ve certainly found this to be very true in my personal life.  It’s such a simple premise, but I saved myself tremendous trouble when I came to the conclusion that I shouldn’t make any major decisions or take any major actions when feeling miserable, but only once I saw something that I felt hopeful about to move to. I don’t think this maxim always holds true, especially when one is in danger or under threat. But once those kinds of threats are out of the way, I found that I did much better when I waited until I found, felt or saw something good that I wanted to move toward instead of just moving away from something that was hard. When I acted out of pain, then I was usually not happy with the results.

If we carry this analogy forward to Jensen’s article, it calls into question the danger-exception. He eloquently points out the danger and threat to many forms of life currently underway. So the call to action stands. Still, when we ask what actions we will choose I’d rather take my chances with hope and love than fear and anger. I think we’ll build a better future for all life that way.

This doesn’t mean choosing to not act at all, however. Even given my maxim. The top priority then becomes seeking the actions that provide positive directions. We still cannot ignore the dangers and damage.

Looking through the various posts of the recent blogathon, I came across this beautiful description from Liz McClellan, organizer of Hyperlocavore – A Free Yard Sharing Community about her visit to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage back in the early days. I think it makes an excellent mantra for this topic. It’s what she said she learned from that visit:

Stop talking. Do.
And while you do, Dance.

by Jacob Corvidae

Here’s an article on some policy initiatives to support renewable energy use at the community scale:

http://www.solartoday-digital.org/solartoday/201003#pg30

by Tony Sirna

This post is part of sustainablog‘s fundraising blogathon for Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage – please consider making a donation.

Never underestimate the ability of completely erroneous information to propagate itself on the internet, especially if it makes for good headline material.

As I was doing some research on the ecological impact of the internet I kept coming across references to how two Google searches creates more carbon than making a pot of tea and how the internet uses almost 10% of the electricity in the US and may some day account for 50%. From what I can tell all of these are gross exaggerations and I won’t even bother linking to them.

The first issue is that some reports attribute all the energy used by home computers to the impact of the internet. While its true that the internet has probably increased the number of home computers and the amount of time spent on them, its hard to tell how much to attribute to the internet. Plus, more computer use has often meant less time in front of a TV, which maybe balances things out. I personally think its best to separate home computer impact and the impact of servers and internet infrastructure. See my post on reducing your computer’s eco impact for more on the former.

How Much Electricity Does the Internet Use

The internet is very electricity intensive. There are millions of servers that run 24/7 to provide us with all those billions of web pages and emails. These servers are generally collected together in ‘server farms’ which then require air conditioning to keep them from overheating.

Its a little out of date, but this study from Jonathan Koomey in 2007 says that worldwide, internet servers used about 120 billion kWh in 2005 which was double the amount used in 2000 (For the US the figure is about 45 billion kWh for 2005 or 1.2% of our electric use). About half that energy can be attributed to the cooling equipment, and not to the servers themselves. That same study says, given various assumptions, “total electricity used by servers by 2010 would be 76% higher than it was in 2005.” That gives us about 80 billion kWh per year for the US alone.

(Note: More electricity is used by the networks that transmit the internet, phone and other data. I couldn’t get clear data on that right now so I’ll have to leave that to another post)

Whats Your Share of Internet Impact

In the US there are 228 million internet users (about 75% of the population). Dividing 80 billion by 228 million gives us about 350 kWh per US internet user per year. Worldwide there are around 1.7 billion internet users and 210 billion kWh used, or about 120 kWh per internet user per year.

How does that compare to the energy used by your home computer?

If you are running a desktop, you might be using more energy at home than your share of the internet’s electricity use (approx. 460 kWh/year for a desktop running 8 hours a day). But if you are using an energy efficient laptop for 8 hours a day you might be using under 50 kWh/year, which makes your share of the internet look huge – 7 times as much as your home computer. Thats a big deal if you are living on an Ecovillage and trying to reduce your footprint to something sustainable.

Embodied Energy of Computers

What about the embodied energy of servers? For home computers, about 50% of their carbon impact is in their production, whereas for servers, the figure is more like 10% because servers run all day long so take more energy during their use. That said, there is also the embodied energy of all of equipment at the server farm that keeps things running: computer racks, routers, switches, air conditioning units, the building itself, etc.

Reducing the Impact of the Internet

Since power consumption for servers is so high, a lot of thought is going into how to reduce the energy needed. Some things on the table include:

  • More efficient servers in general
  • Servers that can run at higher temperatures so they don’t need cooling – this could cut energy use by up to half.
  • Using onsite electricity generation that uses the waste heat to run the cooling system. This is similar to whats called Combind Heat and Power where heat from generating electricity is used to heat a building
  • Distributed generation of power can help reduce transmission losses (see Bloom Energy)
  • Putting Server Farms in Cold Places (OK I just made that up – but maybe its a good idea)

Eco Benefits of the Internet

A study from 2008 by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy claims that for every unit of energy the internet takes, there are 10 units in energy savings. They base their findings on the increasing efficiency of our economy, since 1996 when the internet took off. I’m not sure how accurate their figures are but thats at least some good news.

This post is part of sustainablog‘s fundraising blogathon for Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage – please consider making a donation.

by Tony Sirna
Biking for the Blogathon

Biking for the Blogathon

For today’s blogathon-fundraiser we are trying to power our computer via pedal power but pedaling is certainly not the answer to all of our energy needs. America’s electricity use per capita is over 35 kilowatt-hours per day. If you wanted to supply all that energy via pedal power, each person would need to bike at full speed for 118 hours per day. In other words it would take the entire population of the US and China pedaling 24/7 to generate enough electricity for the current US demands. Or…

Conservation is almost always a key element to meeting our needs in a sustainable way. Before we look at alternative power or fuels it is best to look at reducing our demands. Once we are consuming less, sustainable sources of power are a lot more realistic.

How you can reduce your computer’s power consumption

Your average desktop computer uses between 150 and 300 watts while it is running. Your first step in conserving energy is to turn off your computer when you are not using it or at least make sure that its power management settings are configured to have it sleep or hibernate when it is not in use. It used to be that people worried about wearing out disk drives from turning computers on and off, but that is not really an issue any longer, given modern drive technology and the typical lifespan of a computer these days. This is the most important thing you can do to save power – make sure your computer is sleeping or off when you are not using it.

The next thing you can do is consider switching to a laptop computer. Laptops can easily use only 10-33% of the power that a comparable desktop computer uses. To make them last longer on battery power they are designed with low power components.

Another option is to switch to an Energy Star computer, either desktop of laptop. To get an Energy Star rating, computers have to automatically shut down when not in use and are generally designed to have low power draws. The trick is you have to make sure that you don’t turn off any of the power saving features, like the power management system.

So lets look at an example. Let’s say you’re currently using some random desktop with an external LCD monitor (heaven forbid you still have a CRT monitor). Let’s assume it uses 150 watts and you leave it on 24 hours a day – you’ll use 3600 watt-hours per day. If you let it go into sleep mode (which use something like 5 watts) for 16 hours a day you cut your use down to 1280 watt-hours. Now let’s say you switch to an Energy Star Desktop like the iMac 21.5 inch which only uses 90.5 watts while running and 2 watts while sleeping, your power use could drop to 756 watt-hours per day.

Laptops! - Blog Central at the DR Blogathon

Blog Central at the DR Blogathon

If instead you get a new MacBook Pro with a 13 inch display which Apple says uses 14 watts while its running with the display on. Let’s say you use your computer for 8 hours a day on average and the rest of the time you leave it in sleep mode (which uses 1.1 watts), you’re using about 130 watts per day for your computing needs. At that point your computer is using about the same energy as a lightbulb (a CFL of course, heaven help us if you’re still using incandescents).

So to summarize:

  • Desktop (24 hours on)- 3600 watt-hours/day
  • Desktop (8 hours on) – 1280 watt-hours/day
  • Energy Star Desktop (8 hours on) – 756 watt-hours/day
  • Energy Star Laptop (8 hours on) – 130 watt-hours/day

The electricity you use running your computer is only half the story

Now one thing to consider is that the electricity you use running your computer is only half the story. Apple gives a detailed assessment of the greenhouse gas impact for each of its products and “customer use” generally accounts for about half of the emissions. So it also helps if you buy used, or keep your computer for longer.

How Does Computer Use Compare to Other Eco Impacts

So how do home/work computers fit into the big picture of your ecological footprint?

On average Amercians emit about 24,000 kg of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per person per year.

Using Apple’s figures for its products, computer use, including the embodied energy, produces about 100 kg to 300 kg per year per computer. Compare this to over 1100kg for a desktop thats on 24/7, or 465kg for the desktop on 8 hours a day. By changing your computer use, you could save up to 1000 kg of CO2e or about 4% of the average American’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

What else can you do that saves 1000kg of CO2e?

  • Drive about 20% fewer miles (around 2200 miles)
  • Increasing your MPG by 25%
  • Eat 200 fewer cheeseburgers
  • Take 1 less 2500 mile round trip airplane flight

These aren’t examples of total lifestyle changes but they aren’t insignificant either. And I would certainly rather use my share of CO2e to take a vacation rather than leaving my computer running 24/7.

Can computing be part of a sustainable world?

There are a lot of factors involved in that question, but my gut sense is that it can be, assuming we are making sustainable choices in the rest of our lives. If we were aiming for reducing our impact by 90%, then using a laptop for 8 hours a day might be about 5% of our reduced impact. Still significant, but for those of us who are so dependent on our computers as to practically be cyborgs, I think its worth it.

Of course this was all about your home computer, coming next, What is the impact of the internet!

Consider making a donation to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage as part of our blogathon. All donations will be matched dollar for dollar, doubling your impact. Thanks!

by Tony Sirna

Today there is  a blogathon happening at Dancing Rabbit. Its a fundraiser so please consider donating to Dancing Rabbit.

We’ve been promoting the blog as being Pedal Powered but the company that was supposed to ship us the pedal powered generator never shipped the product! Annoying…

So last night I went into McGyver mode to see if I could come up with some way to power the blog with a bicycle. I had less than 24 hours, so I had to use what was on site or could maybe go to an auto parts store (in the end I didn’t have to). Here’s what I came up with:

First I found an old training stand and mounted my bike on it.

Bike on Training Stand

Bike Mounted on Training Stand

Then I found an old cordless drill that I hadn’t used in years because it wouldn’t go in reverse. I hooked up some wires to where the battery would connect and then connected it to the training stand.

Cordless Drill For Bike Generator

Cordless Drill For Bike Generator

Then I found a pocket inverter that would convert 12 Volt Dc to 120 Volt AC and hooked that up to the wires coming from the drill.

Pocket Inverter

Pocket Inverter

Using a volt meter, I could adjust the speed of my pedaling to keep the voltage around 11 to 14 Volts. We then turned on the inverter and powered a lightbulb as a test.

Pedal Powered Generator Made from a Cordless Drill

Pedal Powered Generator Made from a Cordless Drill

Later today we’ll be hooking this up to a computer. I don’t know if we’ll be able to keep the computer powered the whole 24 hours like we had hoped but its at least something and not too shabby given 24 hours and all the parts were already on site.

Update: When we tried to plug in the computer the higher current draw made the voltage drop below the inverter’s cut off point, and we couldn’t bike fast enough to keep up. I went and found a small 12 Volt solar charge controller and a tiny 12 Volt battery and now the generator charges the battery as it is powering the computer.

I’ll be posting more during the Blogathon and don’t forget to Donate to Dancing Rabbit.

by Jeffrey Harris

I really wish The Economist would discover the religion of human-readable URLs, in addition to the religion of free-markets-are-always-better. But I’m thrilled that they’ve written such a thorough and readable explanation of the actual high level agreements and controversy on climate change, I haven’t seen better (realclimate.org came close for a while, but lately they’ve gotten more shrill and they’ve always been too technical for me, much less your average non-physics-major. Their wiki still kicks ass as the definitive source for helping rebut most climate skeptic canards, though).

And as an aside, happy progressives-actually-passed-big-progressive-legislation week! First time in my lifetime, maybe since LBJ! Did you see that David Frum of all people is saying the Republicans should strive to replace the income-tax provisions of the health care bill with other taxes perhaps a carbon tax? Who knew passing health care would get Republicans agreeing with Al Gore! I would actually support all the legislation he’s proposing, I think.

by Cecil Scheib

Back of the Envelope (BOTE) calculations are extremely handy to calibrate your gut sense of what’s possible and what’s not. Most people don’t bother and often there is humorous (OK, to some…) confusion that results.

At work I received a sales pitch for software that reduces wasted pages printed (like when people print web pages and the last page has only the footer on it and so forth). A noble cause but I was distracted about their savings calculations based upon the “fact” that printer ink costs $10,000 per gallon. True enough in a way, if you count the whole price of a single inkjet cartridge against the fraction of an ounce of ink it contains and then just scale up to gallons! But ridiculous when a simple Google search finds refill ink selling for $80 per gallon. They were off by two orders of magnitude!

So what’s the part about BOTE that you won’t forget? It was this memorable series of calculations performed by myself and Craig Deforest at Synergy, a Stanford student co-op. I’ve updated the numbers for 2010.

You should be able to do this with only minor Googling.

1. Number of people on Earth: 6.8 billion
2. Number of men: 3.4 billion
3. Number of men over 12 and less than 70: call it 75% of the above, so around 2.5 billion
4. Average frequency of ejaculation: got no idea but factor in all the younger guys who are doing it once a day and factor out the older guys doing less frequently and you’ve got to think the average is at least a couple times per week…call it 0.25 times/day
5. Worldwide ejaculations per day (multiply 3 and 4): 650 million
6. Volume of ejaculate: about 1 teaspoon
7. Teaspoons per gallon: 768 (D’oh! Standard American units!)
8. Gallons of ejaculate generated daily: 800,000
9. Volume of an Olympic size swimming pool: 660,000 gallons

Sum it all up in less then 10 easy steps: the world’s men are generating more than an Olympic size swimming pool full of ejaculate daily.

Go BOTE!

by Jacob Corvidae

Some folks in NYC (hey Cecil…) have got this great looking DIY approach for vertical hydroponic gardens inside your home. They call them window farms. Parts are cheap, the effect is cool, and it’s hard to argue with any which way. They’re also running a forum to encourage people to get involved in R&D-I-Y (research and develop it yourself) projects. Pretty awesome. I may try it for my west facing bedroom window in D-town.

Thanks to my awesome aunt Phyllis who alerted me to these through a post at onearth.org.

by Jacob Corvidae

It turns out that Frank Capra, known for his film It’s a Wonderful Life, apparently had his heart more in science than film making, according to his biographer. In any case, he made a series of science films in the 50s, including one warning about climate change. Called The Unchained Goddess, it’s making some rounds now on various blogs and news media (such as this NPR story). You can view a clip of it on Youtube.

It’s fascinating and sort of fun. Apparently Capra also was interested in solar technology back then and got Jimmy Stewart’s character in another film to promote it.

But ultimately, the aesthetics of a 50′s documentary do little to convince anyone of anything. In fact, I find that they more seem to imply two dimensional propaganda – regardless of their content. It’s just that the stilted film style automatically seems garish to our modern film sensibilities. And while some folks are claiming that this shows a historic awareness of climate change, I’m not sure that means a lot in this context.  The historic science predictions may be relevant (e.g.  the early predictions about US peak oil production which bore out to be true) or they may not (e.g. Einstein’s prediction that nuclear energy wouldn’t be obtainable).

But hey – if it had Jimmy Stewart in it, I might watch it anyway….

by Jacob Corvidae

Ahh steampunk. I love it. And yet an eco-freak0 like myself wonders a little about the romanticized glorification of the smog-belching industrial age. But that’s not such a worry. As soon as such a thing gets romanticized it’s usually an indication that it no longer has any real power over the world. For example, the craze over pirates is surely a sign that pirates aren’t a threat any more. I mean, back when pirates were really scary, who’d have thought they’d ever become so cute. An Arrr here and a Salty Dog! there.

But steampunk is something a step beyond a renaissance festival party with a more recent setting. While renaissance festivals and the like make at best a sort of embarrassed acknowledgment of the anachronisms that crop up, the steampunk movement actively embraces them.  And if steampunk survives as an aesthetic movement, this will be why. No one’s pretending that computers or electric guitars were around during the Victorian era, but look at these steampunk beauties! [see below]

These anachronisms point to a deeper drive in steampunk: it’s not just about a romanticization of an older day. Rather, it’s an attempt to reunite our modern technological lives with a crafts-based, hands-on engagement with the materials of our lives.  While it can glorify a smoke-burp or two, it seems to me that the focus is more on investing in a slow-materials movement. It neither denies materialism nor does it celebrate disposable materialism.  In this regard, it brings to mind the crafts movement of William Morris (naturally) but most crafts movements tend to suggest an allegiance with agrarian cultures. This one, instead, is focused on a non-plastics aesthetic that is steeped in a future-looking salute to technological benefits.

If it’s true, as Kim Stanley Robinson contends, that we are already living in a sci-fi world, that we are creating a real-time collaborative novel, then are we to just accept the plastic confines of our modern technological world? Nevermind the potential effects on the economy and food system of a near-term peak oil scenario; imagine the loss of inexpensive plastics and its effect on technology!

Of course the loss of inexpensive plastics is only good news to those of us who are environmentalists. Steampunk is defining a technology-positive aesthetic that at least moves us away from the petroleum synthetics. Can we proclaim a 21st century technology based on polished woods and brass, brocade and wool? Probably not, but the marriage of these desires in an aesthetic that both grabs the future and the past at the same time offers a beautiful opening of our aesthetic imaginations.

And if anyone has a doubt about the exciting potential of this world, I recommend everyone attend the not-quite-steampunk-but-kissing-cousin Maker Faire which is coming to Detroit this summer!