Monthly archive: April 2010

by Jacob Corvidae

I never cease to love the experience of seemingly disparate interests suddenly coming together in one topic.  Shall we proceed…?

I recently had the honor of sitting at the Detroit Yacht Club (pretty!) on the lovely Belle Isle (belle, belle!) for the Free Press’s first annual Green Leaders Awards ceremony for breakfast and awards among many great people. The keynote speaker (and an honoree) was Bill Ford, Jr. of Ford Motor Company. I found him comfortably down-to-earth (as I’d heard from his employees) and genuinely comfortable with environmental issues, which was no real surprise. I liked him. However, his central message had a flaw. His essential point was: Technology is going to solve the environmental challenges ahead.

Now, there are many in the environmental world who lambaste the “technology will save us” message that Ford, Tom Friedman and many other techno-greenies advocate. Some advocate a Luddite initiative, others simply dismiss the technological fix as a morally and environmentally insufficient red herring or (at best) stop-gap. Certain nuances of that latter approach start to approximate my own opinion, but let me be clear: I also believe that technology will save us – insofar as I believe that technological development will be an essential and irreplaceable part of the solution that we must embrace and strive for in the years ahead. But I still think Ford’s basic message is off in a crucial way.

Enter the feminist writer. I’ve long been a big fan of UK author Jeanette Winterson. One of her most recent books The Stone Gods is what many would call science fiction, though that isn’t her usual genre. She herself notes:

People say to me, ‘so is the Stone Gods science fiction?’ Well, it is fiction, and it has science in it, and it is set (mostly) in the future, but the labels are meaningless.

I can’t see the point of labeling a book like a pre-packed supermarket meal. There are books worth reading and books not worth reading. That’s all.

And because of this book, she was featured last fall on a BBC art critique TV show to talk about the rise of geek culture, along with movie director Kevin Smith and comedian-geek Natalie Haynes. At one point they got into a divisive discussion about the problems (or not) with violence in much of comic-book culture (see the video below).

Winterson’s basic point (just about the comic Kick-Ass, now a major motion picture) was this:

…the thing is just full of the worst kind of dripping violence, which is a kind of adrenaline injection which means you’ll be utterly dead to life in its subtlety, its complexity, its possibilities of expansion of relationships. This is the kind of thing that’s the product of human emptiness.

To which Kevin Smith replied: “I thought it was just a comic book.” Smith and Haynes argued that this was just the culture of the medium and that the presence of a hard fighting young girl was progress. This is another debate that has raged in other places.  (Comics-god Scott McCloud points out that at least this particular conversation was a sign of progress for comics evolution).

But Winterson’s point, I believe, drives at something else. Specifically, that we must overcome the disconnects between actual life and all of the adrenaline pumping pretty things we’re presented with in today’s media. And this is what brings me back to Bill Ford.

Technology may do wonders for us in the future years. I think we’re going to see an exciting explosion of innovation and entrepreneurial successes in the realm of green technologies. As stated above, I think some of these innovations will be necessary for us to get to a tenable solution for the ecological crises that face us.

But technology does not appear from nowhere. Technology will not save us. People will. People will drive the vision and leadership to develop useful technologies (and the many social solutions we’ll need) to save ourselves.  Without people making choices, changing policies and doing the work to make those solutions emerge, then they won’t. If we keep our focus on the technology without remembering where it comes from (as well as who it’s to serve) then we run the risk of assuming that it will just emerge, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. If that were so, we would have had major solar technology breakthroughs back in the 80s regardless of the fact that Reagan slashed funding for it.

Technology can seem out of single-human grasp, but the maker movement is reclaiming the human hand in techno-crafting,  and we would all do well to remember the necessity of focusing on people (and our ability to understand nature, as well) as the developers of the solutions that can save us.

by Cecil Scheib

megapopeIt’s a truism: American megacapitalism sucks because it cannot plan for the long term. Without any ability to look behind the next quarterly report, the thinking goes, we lack the benefits of a long range planning horizons that accrue to, say, Japan, or perhaps Oxford University. (Sadly for all those who have retold this hoary old tale, BTW, someone has debunked it on Snopes. Oh well.

In any case, it’s such a firm bit of received wisdom that who can doubt it? Nevertheless, I was intrigued by a bit of radiojournalism that suggested that some of the Catholic Church’s appalling response to pedophilia can be explained by the notion that the Pope is taking the long view. He simply doesn’t care about this month’s polls. His institution has been around for centuries, and he expects it to be around for centuries more…so, who cares about the opinions du jour? You’ll be dead, and the institutional memory will outlive you.

Taking this to back to the topic of corporations, maybe we should be glad they care about how public outcry affects this quarter’s stock price. Imagine if they didn’t, and took the long view, and whatever they thought they could weather in the long term, they simply ignored! The corporation has every reason to expect to outlive you and me so in some sense we should count ourselves as damn lucky we can get them to listen to us at all.

That is, until we finally get the corporate death penalty…but don’t hold your breath.

by Tony Sirna

Jacob and WARM Training Earn a FreePress Green AwardOur own Jacob Corvidae  is being honored with two different awards for Earth Day this year the Detroit FreePress Awards and the Michigan Earthday Expo awards.

The Freep says:

Its leadership is important because of its close affinity with small, fragile communities across Detroit. Where government has been tedious and bureaucratic, where private companies have been inconsistent and distant, WARM has been accessible and relevant.

And don’t miss the slideshow in the FreePress article.

Rock on Jacob!

by Jacob Corvidae

Don’t miss it! This awesome event is going on all week (Earth Week) to encourage kids to turn off the electronics and go outside during the week. And it’s based on the great song by (my dear sweet friend) Amy Martin, sung by Ani Difranco and backed the Biomimicry Institute. How cool can you get?

There’s a free activities workbook you can download. You can listen to the song. You can join up with other kids around the country. It’s great – and you can find it all here.

My daughter got all excited at the beginning of 2010 because she realized that this was the year named in the song (which she was already a big fan of).

The whole CD is great, and not only has some of Amy’s best and funnest songwriting, but also features Bruce Cockburn, Dar Williams, Erin McKeown, Laura Love, and others.  Buy it for every cool teacher or kid you know and ask your local kid stores to carry it. The website also has free teacher resources, etc.

Rock it on, spread the news and sign up now!

by Jacob Corvidae

If you’re a drinker of milk or soymilk, then I recommend that you check out these great reports from the Cornucopia Institute which rank the goodness of the product and producers of these drinks.  They have a milk scorecard and a soymilk scorecard It’s useful to note how badly companies like Silk, Trader Joe, Kroger, Costco or Meijer did. Also good to note the better companies like Organic Valley and SE Michigan’s own Eden Foods.

I found this from Kristen Ridley at Change.org’s Sustainable Food Blog, where she also lists the handy whereismymilkfrom.com site which tells you the source of any carton of milk you’re holding.

by Jeffrey Harris

It took me days to get around to it, because it’s so damn long, but Paul Krugman’s piece in the New York Times magazine on climate change economics filled me with hope, unexpectedly.

There are many parts of the well-written article that I liked, in general it does a good job of listing the economic arguments about climate change, and ultimately wholeheartedly agreeing we need a carbon price, the real debate is how fast we should raise the price to rational levels. That in itself deserves a few cheers.

But what most lightened my mood was the passing note that the WTO recently published a missive that a carbon tariff (essential to get US industry and labor on board with a carbon pricing mechanism) would probably pass muster under WTO rules. Everything else I’ve read on the subject suggested we’d need to change WTO rules (or withdraw, which would have economic consequences vastly preferable to avoiding a carbon price, but still probably unacceptable to the average US voter).

So three cheers for the possibility, however slim, that Congress could, if it had the balls, actually pass both cap and trade and a carbon tariff some time this decade!

by Tony Sirna

Nissan LEAFI’ve been doing a bunch of research lately on electric vehicles to see what might make sense for us at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage for our vehicle co-op. For 12 years we have been focusing on biodiesel and vegetable oil based fuels but things have not always been smooth. The main issues have been related to winter fuel gelling and fuel filters clogging in general. We’ve also never gotten a steady system for  collection of used oil and production going, so we have been using biodiesel made from new veggie oil which is only marginally better for the environment than petroleum.

We are now embarking on a major re-evaluation of vehicle technologies for our co-op, with a team researching things like electric vehicles, hybrids, ethanol (including home made, potentially from cellulose), bio-gas, wood-gas, human and animal powered, and any new technologies in the veggie oil world.

My interest in electric vehicles (EVs) has come out of my research into a village-wide electric power co-op with a largish wind turbine to power our whole village. With an abundant source of renewable electricity, EVs could be our most ecological option. There are ecological issues related to batteries of course, but my research shows that EVs are a net benefit over petro based vehicles and on par with other bio-fueled options currently or soon to be available (more on that in a post soon).

Of course the main issue with EVs is about range – how far you can drive on a single charge. Most all-electric vehicles (sometimes called Battery Electric Vehicles or BEVs to distinguish them from hybrids) still have ranges in the 80-100 mile range. That range is great for most folks daily commuting needs, but our rural location means many or even most of our trips are 80-150 miles.

A further complication, is that a 100 mile advertised range does not always mean you can drive 100 miles. Accessories like A/C, heat, lights, etc. can reduce your range. Higher speeds and hills also reduce range (and while we don’t have mountains we do have hills). Winter temps can also reduce battery capacity and range.  It also matters how you drive – fast acceleration and breaking are inefficient.

So what are our options?

In the All Electric Category I found the following vehicles available now or in the next 18 months.

Vehicle Range Cost
Nissan LEAF 100 miles $33,000
CODA 90-120 mi $30-40,000
i-MIEV 80-100 mi $30,000
Mini-E (2 passenger) upto 150 Unknown
Ford Focus 80-100 mi Unknown
Ford Transit Connect 80 mi Unknown
Tesla Sedan (claims to seat up to 7) 160-300mi $57-75,000
Think City 100 miles $37,0000
Conversion Kit Vehicle 25-80 miles $20-30,000

The most appealing for us would be the Tesla Sedan because of the extended range it can provide. The price tag is pretty high though. The Nissan LEAF is definitely more affordable, but its unclear if it would really get us where we need to go (and back that is). The CODA is still limited in its availability.

For folks living in suburban or urban areas with shorter commutes I think a lot of these options would work great.

I also looked into Plug-in Hybrids such as the upcoming Chevy Volt and the 2011 Plug-in Prius as well as the various Prius Plug-in conversion kits.

The Volt is expected to have a 40 mile electric range and get 50 mpg once the gasoline (or E85) engine kicks in.  The 2011 Prius will have only a 15 mile electric range and also get around 50 mpg. With a Prius Plug in conversion you can get electric ranges of 25-50 miles before it goes back into hybrid modde and gets 46-50 mpg (depending on model year).

Its too bad the electric range on these hybrids is so short. If you could get something with an 80 mile range and a gasoline/diesel back up that would really work well for us and for a lot of people I would think. Obviously the cost and weight of having a big battery pack and a gas engine is probably the issue.

I’m expecting that once these EVs are available,  someone will come up with an aftermarket add on battery pack to increase the range, just like there are plug-in Prius kits. That could be just the ticket and demonstrate the demand for EVs with a bigger range.

by Jacob Corvidae

Detroit Keep Calm and Carry OnI was completely taken a few years ago when the fabulous local Bureau of Urban Living started offering T-shirts and posters which re-appropriated the old WWII British slogan Keep Calm and Carry On and introduced it as a slogan for the city of Detroit.

More recently, I was taken with how the old US phrase Home of the Brave, Land of the Free took on a completely different meaning, when applied to the city of Detroit.  So taken, in fact, that I’ve tried putting it front and center on the Sustainable Detroit website.

What gives?

I think this two-data-point trend helped me see a pattern that highlights one of the central things  I love about Detroit: life matters here. The recent recession has changed some of this, but America has been so comfortable for so long, that a certain malaise starts to kick in. Lack of purpose can become debilitating when a clear need is not present. Detroit has a clear need. Many needs. And some clearer than others — but the sense of need is clear. While this is seen as the source of much of it’s woes, many of us here know that it is also one of it’s sources of strength.

What we do here has an impact. What we do here matters. Of course, it matters in other places too, but it’s no big surprise to me how lost many progressive-minded folks in other parts of metro-Detroit or Michigan or Chicago or New York, etc.  end up feeling. They know they want things to be different, but it’s hard to imagine that they can have an impact. Not so, in Detroit. We’re still one of the largest cities in the country, yet individual effort can still yield a noticeable and significant impact.

And so these slogans from a less cynical and jaded time (even though things like British war propaganda which would inspire Orwell’s dystopic visions often were good cause for cynicism) can actually appeal to progressives. And it doesn’t have to be ironic to be admired. Is it layered and not just a surface propaganda yes? But it’s layered with multiple levels of direct meaning, not just multiple layers of irony. For the irony-weary amongst us, this is just another indication of Detroit’s ability to deliver on it’s long touted ability to Keep it Real.

by Jeffrey Harris

It’s probably about time for me to stop being delighted that the subset of the Economist’s staff who blog at Democracy in America sound like rational environmentalists, but still I am.

In this post, they make the eminently reasonable argument that while drilling offshore probably makes sense politically, it’s ridiculous from the perspective of global atmospheric carbon. The only societies with the wherewithal to conserve are those, like ours, with a strong enough state to enforce such restrictions. If we can’t do it, we’re pretty much screwed.

by Jacob Corvidae

One of my colleagues here at WARM is considering grad school in a sustainable engineering program at U of M.  She recently asked me for book recommendations on sustainability in general and sustainable tech in specific.  So much of my library is more focused on DIY stuff, and having read a number of sustainability books that I didn’t find that useful,  I was surprised at how few recommendations I had.  I gave her two recommendations:

Cradle to Cradle by Williams McDonough and Michael Braungart

Biomimicry by Janine Beynus

(and the biomimicry folks have an additional recommended reading list which looks great!)

So I thought I’d ask: what would you recommend? What are the best books for sustainability in general and sustainable tech in general? Load up in the comments field and I’ll compile for a future post. Share this far and wide to solicit more opinions…

While we’re at it — how about blogs or websites for sustainable tech?

Thanks!
Jacob