Archive of category "Measuring sustainability"

by Jacob Corvidae

As the world embraces more sustainability practices and concepts, we need simple ways to sum up what this means. One of the most common ways to represent sustainability is the idea of the Triple Bottom Line, or the Three Stool Legs of Sustainability. Variations abound, but the basic gist is a Venn diagram showing the overlap of economic, environmental and social health. A particularly common mnemonic for this idea  is “People, Planet, Profits” — and in my experience, this phrase is particularly frequent in the business world and used with the concept of the Triple Bottom Line.

But it bugs me. And I think this is why: “People” is broad to the point of meaninglessness. What does it mean? I think the phrase “social sustainability” is already hard for anyone to really grasp, but  “People”?!? If you have employees have you solved this part of the puzzle? What about people are you working on?

Correspondingly “Profits” is extremely precise. And while that saves this part from the vagueness I complain about above, it seems to narrow as to miss the more fundamental point. In my world view, we need to create a better link between profits and value. The two words  are used synonymously by most businesses, yet the reality of the world belies this equation. Economic health is not the same thing as profit.

So should we try for a phrase that’s more precise or one that’s more general? Personally, I’d rather we just had better ways of referring to this concept. Alliteration works for mnemonics, but I wish we had something better. Granted, “Economics, Environment, and Equity” is out there, but has an academic feel that makes it much less accessible than the three Ps.

So consider this a plea for more precise placeholders. And remember that the words we use for such a mnemonic would ideally be meaningful, measurable and mundane. Otherwise, we may inadvertenly create a conversation that is imprecise, imbalanced and therefore ulitmately immobilized.

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’s Sustainable Food Blog, where she also lists the handy site which tells you the source of any carton of milk you’re holding.

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 Jacob Corvidae

Yet another response to Tony’s post on How to Define Good Governance.

I loved your reference to the Genuine Progress Indicator as an alternative to the GDP.  Here are three other tidbits on the topic:

1) Researchers are now working on measuring happiness. The pursuit of happiness is a defining statement in the US’s Declaration of Independence and therefore makes a very patriotic and foundational measure for the success of our endeavors.

2) Hans Rosling, a brilliant statistician who’s seminars are really entertaining (how many entertaining statisticians have you ever seen?) does some great work looking at analyzing global data about quality of life. You can see his latest TED talk (done in India) to see his latest, but I highly recommend starting with this incredible TED talk from 2007:

3) Here’s an incredible quote about the insufficiency of the GDP. See if you can guess the speaker (I’ll post the answer in the comments):

[The] Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts … nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts … television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.

by Tony Sirna

People wanting to know how to reduce their footprint would like to have data so they know what changes to make to do it. Unfortunately the data available for a lot of choice is still incredibly hard to find or inaccurate and vague.

I personally don’t do a lot of footprinting because  I don’t feel the need for exact numbers to trust that doing a few key things will reduce my footprint:

  • Eating primarily vegan
  • Driving fewer miles in efficient vehicles
  • Having a smaller home (or sharing it)
  • Using less electricity, gas, and heating oil
  • Reducing long distance travel

Once you’ve done all that then you can start talking about the details: local and organic food, flying vs driving vs trains, etc.

For those interested in calculators here’s some links that might help you find the one thats best for you or that has that bit of information you were looking for. Let us know if you have a favorite or find ones that are really good.

Top Five Footprint Calculators – Just some bloggers opinion but there are some good links

The 15 best carbon Calculators – If 5 isn’t enough for you try 15.

Michael Bluejay’s Calculator – This guy didn’t like the other calculators so he wrote his own. Its very simple and well laid out. Its worth reading his opinions on the other calculators. Its also worth reading about him. I feel like I met him somewhere before.

Food carbon Calculator – For those wanting a detailed look at food. You can compare the CO2 of tropical vs local fruit, cooked vs raw veggies, etc. This may not work in every browser.

If you find one that can tell you the footprint of a strawbale home vs a cob home or the different impacts of sugar vs sorghum, then I’m definitely interested.

by Tony Sirna

A friend recently sent me a link to an article about the ecofootprint of pets. The article claimed that the footprint of owning a dog was greater than driving an SUV!

I was skeptical of this attention grabbing notion, and looked a little closer. Some of their assumptions are a bit sketchy – they use a very low miles per year figure for the SUV, they use human food figures when there should probably be some discount for animal food often being byproducts, they use a very large dog in their comparison, they do not include any of the other impact factors of driving (vehicle production, roads, etc.).

Regardless, of which is worse, they both have an impact. I get tired of the way people use these kind of comparisons.

If people were coming from the perspective of  “Each of us can use our fair share of the earth’s resources, how do I want to use mine?” then I don’t really care if they choose to have a pet or an SUV. As long as they are staying within a sustainable impact they can choose how to spend their eco-footprint budget.

Unfortunately, the average American uses over 4 times their fair share of the earth’s resources. So, it ends up feeling like the issue is presented as “Since destroying the planet with an SUV is not that much different than the destruction of a pet, they must both be minor so I might as well do both.”

So all of this got me looking at footprinting and I found some interesting stuff:

Human Welfare and Ecological Footprint

Human Welfare and Ecological Footprint

On wikipedia’s eco-footprint page this graph shows how the US impact is off the charts while its Human Development Index is no better than many countries that cause less than half the impact.

Cuba certainly occupies an interesting spot on that graph – as the top country in terms of development that is using less than its fair earth share.

Greenhous Gas Emissions From Food

Greenhous Gas Emissions From Food

Or this graph that shows the average American’s greenhouse gas emssions from food vs driving.

This does not mean its OK to drive!!!!!

It means you need to change your diet and your driving, if you want to have a reasonable footprint.

A vegan diet can reduce your food footprint by 72%. Thats 5.8 tons of CO2 equivalent.

Driving half as much can reduce your carbon footprint from vehicles by 45%.  What!?! Why not 50%? Because 10% of the lifecycle impact of a vehicle is in the manufacturing.

So get a car with twice the mileage and drive half as much and you will still be emitting 32% of the GHG from driving you were before.

Now if you sell your car and bike, walk, and take public transit – now we are talking. (And don’t give me that bullshit about how biking has a bigger impact because of the food you eat unless you have some real numbers that include all the externalities – roads, pollution, health, people living closer to work, etc.)

by Jeffrey Harris

Since leaving DR and moving to the San Francisco Bay Area I’ve mostly stayed within BART range of everything I’d like to do, so I’ve had little need for internal combustion engines.

Just because a trip doesn’t involve a car or bus doesn’t mean it has a neglible carbon footprint.  Unfortunately, It’s difficult to gauge the carbon footprint of 20 mile round-trip journeys into downtown San Francisco from Berkeley.

Now I’ve started working in Cupertino, which is 50 miles away.  My regular commute is much longer and I feel guilty about the extra ecological impact I’m having.  It would obviously be a huge ecological improvement to move closer to work, but that’s not viable for my partner, so for now I’m taking the bus.

Happily, Apple provides a daily shuttle bus from right near my house.  I asked the bus driver about the bus’s fuel economy.  It gets an astonishing (to me, at least) 10 mpg.  So, I thought I’d try to compare the footprint of my share of the bus’s daily energy use to someone driving to work.

Depending on the day, the bus carries 30-50 people.  Passenger miles average out at something like 4000/day.  Unfortunately, the driving doesn’t end when the bus driver drops us off.  The bus is returned to San Carlos for refueling and maintenance every day.  Total daily miles are 80% more than the distance of benefit to passengers.

All in all, the bus uses 18 gallons of fuel for 4000 passenger miles, or 222 passenger-miles/gallon.  I’m using 100 passenger miles per day, so my share of the daily fuel used is approximately .45 gallons.

If I drove a 50 mpg Prius and drove a daily commute, I’d use about this much gas if I lived 12 miles away.

Of course, if I lived 12 miles away I’d probably bike a lot more often!

by Jacob Corvidae

Can we uncover some key parameters for making better initiatives that inspire more people and get more done?


I’ve been delving into the Living Building Challenge over the past year.  I’m encouraged by the inspiration it has lit and the great reception the challenge has received around the continent. For those unfamiliar, the Challenge is the next emerging green standard after LEED, which is much closer to true sustainability in buildings (and soon neighborhoods and communities).  Instead of checklists, it has 16 standards, most of which are simple in definition (e.g. zero energy, and all development must be previously developed sites) and all of which have to be met in actuality (not just in modelling).
Part of the elegance of the challenge is its simplification (as compared to LEED or other green standards out there) of green criteria to far-reaching core issues. It does not bother worrying about smaller details, assuming that if someone’s going for the big picture then a) that’s what matter most anyway; and b) if they care enough to tackle the biggies, the smaller details will usually be included anyway.

Given my history, of course this approach immediately reminded me of the Ecological Covenants of Dancing Rabbit.   Looking at both of these together helps to draw out a pattern that might be applied to other projects.