Perspective

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Science has taught me to take the long view. When you learn timescales like these:

It puts a bit of perspective on things. Our way of life has existed for an eye blink in time. If our lifestyle is truly a better way to live, isn’t it our moral imperative to pass it along to our descendants?

I’m guessing the truth of the matter is most don’t actually think this way. Others see the resources that was have as free for the taking, that there is no need to ensure that others in the future have same opportunities we have.

Daniel Quinn speaks of Takers and Leavers. The Takers consume resources without regard for others, while Leavers try to leave things as they were. (I’m condensing this an awful lot, I recommended reading Ishmael if you’re interested in learning more.)

I think the reason that intelligent life is so hard to find in the universe is that the Takers are too prevalent, and that the resources are consumed so quickly that civilizations don’t last long enough to be noticed.

Gasoline is the best chemical source of energy we have ever found (there are others with a more energetic punch per pound, but they are unstable). We’ve used so much of it so fast, that after 100 years half of what can be produced is already gone. Demand is so high, that’s not going to last even 100 years. That’s nothing in astronomical terms. Civilization collapse when their workforce disappears, and fossil fuels have been powering our machinery instead of slaves. I’m sure hoping we don’t go back to slavery. Which means there’s practically no chance another civilization will notice us. Even if they did, they likely wouldn’t bother even trying to talk to us unless they had some reason to believe that there would be a civilization here to talk with.

I like to think of humanity as a life form that we should encourage to grow, to spread out amongst the stars. We’ll never do that if we don’t learn how to live with renewing resources.

Live long, and prosper!

The Population Elephant

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It’s well established that our population exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth. To become sustainable, we must reduce the population to a manageable size; a good target population is somewhere between 500 million and 2 billion. We’re currently at 7.3 billion and still growing.

It’s not enough to simply cut our numbers, as the human population has been increasing since the dawn of civilization. Failing to address population growth will allow us to continue exceeding our carrying capacity.

The predator-prey cycle and food supply limits kept the human population in check. Civilization effectively removes predators and also increases the food supply. Instead of our population rising and falling in a cycle, it grows instead, apparently without bound.

If we are to live by this model, we need to either reduce our food supply or re-introduce predators.  We are one of the few species that preys upon itself. As we are also thinking beings, perhaps we should seek alternatives!

China is controlling their population growth by limiting the number of children people can have, recently upping the limit from one child per couple to two. The rate of 2.1 (one for each parent, and +0.1 due to infant and child mortality) is the rate for zero population growth.

Although the human population is growing as a whole, there are localized pockets of the birth rate in decline. Developed countries have a flat or negative birth rate. However, immigration more than offsets that.

Could the world population go into decline by developing most, if not all countries? That would work only if developed countries were sustainable, but they currently are far from that. (The U.S. uses 20% of the world’s energy, but contains about 4.5% of the world’s population.)

Each region needs to evaluate how many people they can sustain, and adjust their policies regarding birth control and immigration accordingly.

All the efforts around climate control and other issues of sustainability will be overwhelmed by population growth, since the population is a magnifier of these issues. The issue of population growth must be addressed alongside the rest if our efforts are to succeed. We cannot afford to ignore this elephant in the room.

Feeding the Starving

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I’m sure you’ve seen the commericals of starving, bloated children in far off lands, imploring you to help feed the children. Here’s a question for you to consider – should you send aid to feed them?

Any population that is fed will grow if there are no other influences to curtail that growth, and when a region exceeds the food production capacity, the population starves. The consequence of feeding a starving population is that leads to a cycle of more starvation.

What is good at an individual level may be bad on collective level. This is known as the Tragedy of the Commons. For the starving in many places, the strategy for long-term survival on a personal level is to have as many children as possible. It’s their retirement plan – the children support their parents in their old age. Charities believe they are helping by alleviating immediate hunger, but then the people they feed have more children, which leads to more starvation. It’s a cycle of horror fed by misguided compassion.

Another Tragedy of the Commons is that some efforts to grow more food (such as clear-cutting or overuse of fertilizers) help in the short term but destroy the land in the long term.

So how can the starving be helped? Albert Einstein has an insightful quote:

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” – Albert Einstein

We (both the helpers and the helped) can’t keep doing the same thing and expect the problem to go away. Successful change is rarely imposed from the outside, but when people inside the situation and from outside coordinate their efforts, change can be quite successful.

Ultimately the people have to be able to feed themselves in a sustainable fashion, and manage their population accordingly. Cultural changes are required to provide for the elderly (or allow them to do so themselves), make family planning services acceptable, and change farming practices to be sustainable. Sadly, in many cases the population level needs to drop before farming can be brought back to sustainable levels.

There’s no one solution to help the starving, just as a symptom can have many causes. Sorry I don’t have an easy answer, each situation has to be looked at on it’s own.

Think carefully when you’re admonished by an ad campaign of wide-eyed children bloated with hunger. Do you want to feed the problem or the solution?

 

 

The 3R’s – with Math!

Today’s topic isn’t about reading, writing, and arithmetic. It’s the environmental 3 R’s instead. I’m sure you’ve heard this mantra before:

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Each of these efforts help sustainability. However, this is not just a random jumble of words. Applying these steps in this order yields the greatest environmental savings.

Reduce

“Reduce” refers to reducing the amount of your consumption of goods. This is paramount, because reducing consumption has the greatest effect on sustainability. If you don’t buy it, there’s no impact on the environment. The other options do mitigate the costs of consumption somewhat, but they do not prevent it entirely.

Sustainability cost: -product

Reuse

“Reuse” refers to two things:

  • Using a product again when it was intended for disposal.
    Examples:

    • Reusing a product that was made to be disposable
    • Selling or donating the product so someone else can use it
  • Using a product in a different way than intended after its intial purpose has been served.
    Examples:

    • Using bags as trash can liners
    • Using boxes or jars to hold something else
    • Using newspaper as packing material
    • “Found” art

Both approaches lessen the impact on sustainability by extending the usefulness of the item. Often items can be reused more than once.

Sustainability cost: product / times_reused

Recycle

After you’re done reusing, recycle! This is why recycling is last: recycling is done at the end of the life cycle of a product.

Recycling isn’t a perfect process. For most items, quality is lost each time an item is recycled. This is especially true of plastic. Many items cannot be recycled into the same product but rather recycled into something of an inferior grade, in which case it has been “down-cycled”.

Sustainability cost:
product[0]
– product[1] + recycle_cost[1]

– product[n] + recycle_cost[n]

Recycling is effective until the recycling cost of sustainability impact exceeds that of the product it produces. Often recycled material is recycled with a combination of “virgin” (i.e not recycled) material along with various chemicals to catalyze the recycling process and energy to feed the reaction.

Aluminium1 and glass 2 can be recycled many times, almost completely. Paper, meanwhile, can be recycled a finite number of times, but it has many downcycles and is compostable, too – so it’s definitely worth the effort.

Conclusion

Reduce if you can, reuse, and then recycle otherwise.


1 http://www.aluminum.org/sustainability/aluminum-recycling
2 http://www.gpi.org/recycling/glass-recycling-facts

Site update

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This cycle I’ve been busy learning about WordPress and making various improvements on the site. Some of them are already done, but many more are coming.

If you’d like to let me know about an issue or have a request, please fill out the following form or leave a comment.

Whither Lawns?

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit?1 wasn’t just about a world of toons and humans. Beneath that was a plot to change the lifestyle of America for worse. Automakers killed the cable car industry to create a market for their cars.

There’s another story about an American lifestyle change that has been insidiously introduced, making a sizable dent in both our time and our sustainability. Like money, it is also green.

It’s the lawn.

Lawns are everywhere; if you have a house, it’s a given that you’ll have a lawn to go with it. Have you ever wondered why we have lawns?

Lawns began as grassy field cleared of trees around a castle, for visibility. In the 17th century it became a symbol of wealth – not only did it idle the land, rendering it entirely unproductive, but also required a labor force with scythes and shears to maintain it. Only the very rich could afford it. They would pay landscape artists to create grandiose gardens in the style of the Palace of Versailles with manicured and symmetrical arrangements. After the military losses and freezing weather at the turn of the century, the French treasury ran out of money, and the gardens overgrew.

Ironically, this led to the style of “landscape gardens,” where the French and English aristocracy would spend exorbitant amounts of money to create lavish vistas in their backyards styled after Claude Lorrain’s paintings. Namely, they would pay these landscape artists obscene amounts of money to remodel their lawns in such a way that the landscape looked completely untouched.

Lawns have more purposes beyond residential decoration.  Many sports are played on grass fields. I don’t usually have an issue with a lawn grown specifically for a sport. Except golf. Most sports grew from some sort of training for hunting or military purposes. I can’t fathom how golf works into such types of training. Perhaps if we played golf with miniature air cannons, at least the players would learn ballistics.

The lawn mower was invented about 1830, at which point the luxury of a manicured garden or a lawn did not belong to the vastly wealthy. Early versions of the mower weren’t very good, and it took until the early 1950’s before gasoline powered rotary mowers rose to displace cylindrical push mowers for personal lawn care.

The big debut of suburbia2 occurred in Levittown, NY in 1947. A critical feature of the suburban home was the lawn, now made possible with the advent of the lawn mower and pesticides. According to the founder Levitt:

No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.

“Charm and beauty” are not words that come to mind when I think about lawns. 3

A modern lawn is a monoculture, usually consisting of non-native grasses that require extra watering, fertilization, and the application of pesticides.

The real estate, agricultural, and fossil fuel industries all benefited by promoting the adoption of lawns. A sizable lawn is a symbol of wealth, and people have been buying larger plots of land as a result. The agriculture industry benefits by the increased profits from the sale of fertilizer and pesticides and by stealthily reducing the ability of homeowners to grow their own food. The fuel industry gained a new market in providing fuel for lawn mowers. Here’s a trifecta of industries all benefitting substantially from changing the American lifestyle.

Why are we so divorced from Nature? Why is it we rarely (in some areas, if ever) see local native wildlife? We’ve waged war on local wildlife by depriving them of useful habitat, replacing it with lawns. Know one place where wildlife is thriving? Chernobyl – because we aren’t there. Radiation is still a problem, but humans kill off wildlife faster than radiation does.

The environmental costs of lawns are immense. One third of residential water use is for landscaping purposes, sometimes exceeding 60% in dry states. The number one “crop” in the United States is the lawn. The fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide use is staggering.

Golf courses take up almost two Rhode Islands and a Delaware in land area. Just think on that for a moment.

Aside from the waste of the above resources, there’s also the carbon cost to consider. There’s the carbon cost in the manufacture and transport of fertilizer and pesticides, and the fuel for the mowers. That’s not the only carbon cost – displacement of native plants increases the carbon load because native plants are more efficient at carbon sequestration.

The bees are dying off, and we need them to pollenate our crops. Pesticide use is thought to be killing them. Lawns also displace flowering plants, so we’ve probably helped reduce their numbers that way in addition to poisoning them.

Replacing lawns with native plants, gardens, crops, or xeriscaping makes more sense in terms of conserving our resources. Growing your own food is an excellent use of the land, and provides you with better food than you can get from most grocery stores.

It’s time we let our love affair with lawns wither and die.


1 Check the end of the Wikipedia entry, titled “Real World Parallels”.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was originally a book, titled “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?”.
2 Check the section called “American lawn culture”.
3 When I hear “charm and beauty”, I think of quarks. Yes, I’m a science geek. 🙂

The Easy Way to Reduce

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It’s hard to choose consciously to reduce consumption. What choices do you make? What do you give up? What if I told you there was an easier way, one that didn’t require constant re-evaluation of actions?

That’s not to say there aren’t any choices; it’s just that they are all up-front, one-time decisions. The choice is this: to free yourself from the constant barrage of advertising or allow yourself to be influenced by it.

Advertising

Advertising is the engine of consumerism. It’s the magnet that draws in consumers to feed corporate profits.

The key to easy reduction is to remove the influences that cause you to buy more. The entire purpose of advertising is to convince you that you need to buy a particular product. In truth, there is a spillover effect – it increases sales of competitor products as well. This is why brands are considered so important: they focus the sales on particular brands rather than the whole category of goods.

If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’ve noticed advertising creates desires in your kid for something they didn’t even know they wanted before they saw the ad. Guess what? It works on adults too!

Grocery stores are laid out specifically to draw your attention to sales items on the end-caps of aisles. The things you most need to buy are on the outer ring of the store, with the high profit items nearby. The placement of these items is itself a form of advertising. Resist those impulse purchases!

Once upon a time, I thought the purpose of newspapers was to sell news. I’ve heard directly from the trenches of that industry, and their real purpose is to sell you advertising, not news. Open up a newspaper, and look at how much space is devoted to real news versus ad space. I think you’ll find it a telling comparison.

Putting Consumption on a Diet

Filter out Advertising

Record Media

15 minutes of every hour of TV shown in the U.S. are commercials. Personally, I prefer to watch shows all the way through, uninterrupted. Interestingly, in many countries, commercials are shown between shows rather than interspersed throughout a show. But not here.

Most cable companies offer the ability to view shows on-demand, and usually you have to fast-forward past the commercials.

Before HDTV, I built my own DVR (using MythTV), and it was smart enough to remove ads entirely! I had done it to time-shift my TV watching; the lack of ads didn’t matter too much at the beginning, but in the end it was a bonus I ended up valuing just as much.

Use Streaming Media

Purchase your TV shows and movies from streaming media services without advertising. I use AppleTV and Netflix, but there are many other options.

Subscribe On-line

Some newspapers and other web sites will omit advertising if you subscribe on-line. The same goes for music services, like Pandora or Spotify.

When I moved to California, I discovered I could not rely on a radio station while driving around because the mountains would often block the signal. The cell phone was not so affected, so I turned to streaming radio instead. I’m glad I did – no more commercials!

Conclusion

Free yourself from advertising, and reduce your consumption the easy way.

Benefits

  • Increased willpower
    By changing your lifestyle up-front, you avoid having to make frequent conscious decisions to reduce consumption. Studies have shown that people have a limited amount of willpower they can exert in one day, so you’ll have that much more willpower to change things for the better each day!
  • You get some of your life back: 1/4 hour for each TV show, no more hunting for bargains, and less time being exposed to news.
  • You’ll save money not buying things you didn’t actually need.

Extra Credit

  • Avoid Product Placement
    There’s a lot of product placement in mainstream TV and movies. Try watching shows not set in current times, or indie movies instead, and avoid product placement altogether.
  • Help end the Blight of the Billboards
    Billboards are an eyesore, and distracting to boot. I’m a native of Minnesota, where billboards are prevalent. LED powered dynamic billboards are all the rage. I don’t need the distraction of changing displays and glaring light, especially in Minnesota where driving conditions can frequently be challenging. That’s aside from the fact that I don’t care for advertising in the first place! I noticed the highways near where I live now in California are free from billboards, allowing me to see the natural beauty of the area. What a relief! So, for extra credit, campaign to remove billboards from your area.
  • Build your own DVR
    Not a task for the faint of heart, so kudos to you if you pull this off!