I have a professor who once said, "We didn't leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stone."
His point, was basically, that we, as human beings, have a long history of adapting and coming up with new forms of technology.
Of course, I think it's arguable that we've never had to adapt in such a pressurized condition before. While we might have innovated our way out of the Stone Age, no one was holding a gun to our heads and saying, "Adapt, damnit!!"
So here's the million dollar question. How adaptable are we, exactly? How innovative? Can we build a world based on renewable carbon-free technology? Or is our modern way of life doomed when the oil runs out?
I don't know the answer. But we live in a world with 6.7 billion people on it. And more than I believe in anything else, I believe in human beings, and our capacity to innovate and adapt.
More from The Guardian's pages on biochar! Also, if you want to read Hansen's full report, go to. I am not going to read it because I have thousands and thousands of other reports that I have to procrastinate reading first. But if one of you pretty readers would like to read it, and then summarize said report, I and everyone else will ... tell you that you are pretty? And kewl?
Yesterday I logged into Twitter (to manage my account, not to tweet; sorry followers!!) and was promptly assaulted with Earth Hour related tweets on the main page.
And I had been doing such a good job of forgetting all about Earth Hour.
Yes, that's right, Virginia, I am not in any way, shape or form celebrating Earth Hour.
Well, because, I think, personally, that Earth Hour might be, the stupidest hour ever invented.
Witching Rush Darkest Midnight After 25th
No, I still think Earth Hour still beats them all.
Earth Hour, for those of you that don't know, is an hour, which for whatever inexplicable reason generally falls on a Saturday night, wherein everyone is supposed to turn off their lights ... in support of the Earth or something.
We're all supposed to just sit there, in the dark, right? So, you know, most people then use a couple candles to light their homes, so they can, like, see, and stuff.
Basically, by asking people to turn off their lights, we're promoting an inefficient means of lighting over a highly efficient one. It's like having a National No Smoking Day and getting people to take up chewing tobacco instead.
Now some will claim that it's not about the actual emissions that are lost or gained during Earth Hour. It's the symbolism!
Okay ... but what kind of message does it send that environmentalists, who are basing climate change predictions on rigorous science, don't even care about the science behind our freaking symbolism?
And we wonder why people claim that global warming isn't happening because it's snowing. We're out here getting people to symbolically burn damn candles when the science tells us that light-bulbs are the emissions-friendly option!!
Oh, but CFL, you are not sufficiently Walden-esque, I'm sorry.
This is the thing. Earth Day is bad symbolism. It's bad symbolism because it's unscientific and unthinking. It's bad symbolism because it ignores the real issues. It's bad symbolism because it doesn't represent any form of meaningful, long term change. I mean, my God, it's an HOUR. ONE HOUR. Like Earth Hour is some sort of hot movie star, and you are lucky to get an hour with him dammit, don't expect him to sleep over and cuddle you the next morning.
Look. I know some of you are going to tell me, "Anything is better than nothing! Maybe if we spend an hour sitting in the half-dark and bumping into furniture some people will get how important this is!"
You are TOO GOOD for Earth Hour. Do you hear me?
You deserve more from the world than a stupid, meaningless, didn't pass 10th grade science Earth Hour.
So, I will be spending my 8pm Saturday at a pub with friends. When Earth Hour wants to talk seriously about ACTUAL emissions reductions (as opposed to symbolic reductions), I'll come talk, but until then, go away, Earth Hour.
The Guardian has had a nice series of articles on that possible mitigation wonder: biochar.
The basic idea is explained here. Basically, it involves cooking wood into charcoal in order to sequester the carbon. By planting fast-growing trees, and then cooking the wood, we could potentially suck carbon out of the atmosphere.
The Guardian subsequently published several opinion pieces on the matter:
I'm just an uninformed layperson, but that's never stopped me from having an opinion, has it? So here's mine, and feel free to change my mind here, but as an uninformed layperson, I'm pro-biochar. Do I think we should be using biochar to the exclusion of everything else? No, of course not. And I think Monbiot brings up some good points as to where these biochar farms are going to be grown. Clearly, a lot more research and investigation needs to be done on biochar. But the reality is, I think we will need every single tool in our tool-belt to combat climate change. While geo-engineering wouldn't have been my first choice, at this point I think it may be necessary.
For a while, I was actually tweeting a bit, but in the past nine months or so, my use has almost solely consisted of the automatic ones that alert people that I updated my blog.
I know that as a blogger, I'm supposed to be a new media maven, and totally into twittering. And what's weird is that I'm one of those people who updates my Facebook status several times a week. So why not Twitter?
Part of it is form, I think. Which is why it might have been a mistake for Facebook to leave out the whole "Name is..." format. It's easier for me to update a status when I have a format. But part of it is that while I know you all dearly love me, I kind of feel like most of you don't have a burning desire to hear about my life in 140 character increments throughout the day. I mean ... do you?
Here are some of the tweets I might have written had I twittered yesterday:
Arduous: Ugh, I had a horrible night last night. I was all feverish, yet cold at the same time. But I'm not getting sick!
Arduous: Ok, I'm getting sick. Time to check out the NHS?
Arduous: Emergency walk-in is at 3pm. Guess I'll finally check out socialized medicine.
Arduous: Opted against going to the NHS. Too tired to get out of bed. Watching Gilmore Girls instead.
I am sure you are all riveted by the drama that was "Will Arduous go to the NHS today, or won't she?" I should definitely pitch this idea to my former colleagues.
My Facebook updates aren't much more interesting, but A#1, I update them once a day as opposed to multiple times a day and A#2, most of the people reading my Facebook updates are friends and family who, ya know, are contractually obligated to be interested in my life (for my friends and family reading this, it's in Section C, Subsection 3), as opposed to blog readers who really owe me no such loyalty whatsoever.
On a more philosophical level, I wonder if Twitter is doing us a disservice by taking us out of the present. As a writer, I already spend too much of my life observing instead of doing. I compose blog posts about the beauty of spring in my head, instead of actually ya know ... being present and taking in the beauty of spring. On the one hand, I like that through writing, I'm able to capture potentially forgettable moments forever, but there's a danger that by constantly acting as an observer, instead of a participant, I'll end up ruining said moments. It's like a wedding I once went to, where the photographer was so wrapped up in getting good shots of the ceremony that it ruined the ceremony for those of us actually present.
The thing is, it is highly probable that if I started using Twitter regularly, I could get addicted to it. I am a severe internet addict as it is, I'm a blogger, I like talking about myself, and I have a competitive personality. If I started using Twitter a lot, every day, I could fall victim to Twitter Mania! I can just imagine all the effort I might put into trying to rack up myriads of followers.
So I think it's best for me to just throw up my hands. My name's Ruchi, and I'm a blogger who doesn't tweet. And if that makes me a social pariah, so be it.
Although I have done innumerable crazy things in the name of the environment, I don't think I've sacrificed all that much. Sure, I went a year without buying new stuff. But I was never a big shopper to begin with. It's not like if Carrie Bradshaw went without buying new stuff.
Which leads me to wonder. How many of us are willing to change our lives drastically in ways that really don't appeal to us?
For example, while there are many child-free environmentalists, how many of those child-free environmentalists really want children, but are not having any for the sake of their ideals? Versus, how many don't really want children regardless of potential environmental consequences?
How many local food proponents miss McDonalds?
How many of those who don't travel desperately want to travel?
How many of those who don't drive love driving?
Because, I don't have a car. I don't drive. I barely ever shop. But I can't claim to enjoy driving. And while shopping can be fun, it's also something I can live without.
So in terms of a sacrifice, well I'm probably not making much of one.
Part of me thinks that in some ways this is okay. If everyone was willing to part with some aspects of their lifestyle, we'd be in a lot better shape. But part of me wonders then, should we be framing things in terms of sacrifice?
Crunchy had an interesting post on her blog about air travel and whether travel for tourism is selfish. My feeling? Yes, of course it's selfish. But so are a lot of things like eating meat for most people or even having children. But, then again, most of us aren't claiming to be selfless beings. I'm certainly not. Air travel is simply something I'm not willing to give up right now. So, as I see it, I could either throw my hands in the air and say "Screw it. I'm a hypocrite, so I might as well do nothing," or I could do my darndest to lower my emissions in every other possible way. I've chosen the latter.
But, this got me thinking even more. One of the reasons I'm not willing to give up air travel is simply because I have friends and family scattered on three continents. My mom lives in the Bay Area. My uncle lives in LA. One of my closest friends lives in Chicago. Another lives in New Jersey. My sister lives in New York City. My aunt lives in the UK. My grandmother lives in India. and so forth.
So for my whole life, we have constantly traveled. My mom took me to India when I was less than a year old, and we went back and forth every other year until I was 16. This had two ramifications. One, it tied me, inextricably, to a country on the other side of the world. Two, it ignited the travel bug in me.
When I went to college, I had a few options. One, was a school about 45 minutes away by car. Another was a school out in the Midwest. Because I thought getting out of my safety zone was an important component of growing up, I moved to the Midwest. As a result, I am now tied to the Midwest where many of my friends still live.
Then, after college, I moved to LA to pursue a career in entertainment. After spending seven years there, LA is the place I still call Home. Tiny pieces of my heart are hidden in pockets all over that city.
And after that I moved to London. Which has been an amazing, eye-opening experience. I have grown in ways I never thought possible. But, once again, now I have a whole slew of friends from all over the world. Once again, I have built ties to a city miles away from where I grew up.
All this means that for the rest of my life I will have to make tough choices. Do I go to the wedding in South America and emit all that carbon? Or do I hurt my friend deeply by not going? Do I go see my grandmother while I still can? Or do I stay where I am?
This makes me think that the only way to really combat all the travel we're doing, is if we all agree to just ... stay where we were born. Because once we start living in other places, we become linked to those places through friends, family, and a web of memories.
Maybe this means that if one lives in India, one shouldn't migrate to the US. Maybe this means that if you live in Los Angeles, and you get into Harvard, that you shouldn't go. Maybe this means that I should never have moved to London.
This seems, perhaps, the sensible course of action, and yet it makes me deeply sad. Because travel is selfish, undoubtedly so. And yet, I can't help feel that if we all stay where we are, something very important and significant will be lost.
In about two days, Lent term will come to a close, and the teaching part of my degree will basically be over. From now on, it's five weeks!! of break, followed by six weeks of revising for exams (this is weird to me: Americans say revising to mean editing, Brits say revising to mean reviewing) followed by exams followed by finishing up my dissertation. The whole things come to an end September 1st, by which time, hopefully, I will have a damn job! Somewhere in the world.
It's funny because it's all gone by so fast, and yet I've changed so much in that time. My brain seems to have absorbed more than I thought possible for it to absorb. As a result, opinions I held in October changed in December, and changed still in February.
Is that weird? We're told by society that we're not supposed to change our mind about things. It's weakness of character, or flip-flopping, or something equally damning. We are supposed to figure out our principles and then stick with them.
And yet, I can't help feel, that if I hadn't stayed flexible in these past months, I would have gotten a whole hell of a lot less out of school. My opinions have changed somewhat, yes, but my opinions HAD to change. I've been exposed to so many ideas, so many new thoughts, so many different people.
I've listened to Colombians talk about Mayor Penalosa. I've listened to Brazilians talk about how they felt about the Amazon. I've listened to Mexicans talk about the United States, and I've listened to Europeans talk about India. I sat in a student government meeting where a motion to support "Free Tibet" almost failed to pass because the Chinese Society strenuously opposed it.
And all this listening has seeped deeped into me. I've gradually started to realize that pretty much everything in life is complicated. That even climate change can't be seen in black and white.
It's still too early for me to say what all I'll take away from this experience. But I hope what I do take away from this is the ability to listen to both sides of a debate. The ability to connect with people from all around the world. The ability to communicate.
I was doing some research on Amsterdam for a presentation on sustainable cities, and somehow I came across this article in the Economist. Without being able to examine the Brooking's Institution's methodology, I'm a little suspicious, but frankly it doesn't surprise me as much as it probably surprises others that Los Angeles came out fairly green.
The authors make a good point that the weather works to LA's advantage. If you remember, I went without both heat and a/c for a whole year in LA with no problems whatsoever. Obviously most people are turning on their heat and a/c a little, but you need surprisingly little of either in LA. The coastal breezes keep things cool in the summer, and the desert climate means that the temperature drops substantially at night.
As for the length of commute, anecdotally I think it's probably true that a good number of Angelenos don't actually commute that far. I commuted about 10 miles a day to my job, and that is, I think, fairly average.
Like I said, without looking at the Brooking's report myself, I can't really critique their methodology ... excluding industry is also a problem, and given LA's aviation industry, that would probably make LA's numbers worse. But I imagine the report also ignored average food miles, which would probably work to LA's benefit.
Hmmmm ... I may have to move back to Los Angeles after all. :)
That's how Honda defined my vegetarianism, and it amused me so much that I've decided to go with it. Basically this is how it works: when I'm alone, I don't eat meat. But I will eat meat on some social occasions. This allows me to go to a dinner, and eat the meatloaf the host lovingly prepared for all of us. Since I'm not eating meat for sustainability reasons, I think this works well, because I think eating meat once a week or once every two weeks is sustainable, but eating meat twice a day is not. Allowing myself meat on social occasions allows me to treat myself to sushi and/or dimsum and/or Korean barbecue, and also allows me to not be a social pariah who my friends hate for my food pickiness.
As for the sober part, that's because sometimes when I get drunk, I forget that I'm a vegetarian. ;)
I don't make much secret about the fact that I have terrible, awful, very bad food habits.
It's kinda like ... remember when you were a kid, and you wanted candy for dinner and your mom said that when you were adult you could have candy for dinner, but for now you had to have actual dinner? And how you thought that you would have candy for dinner all the time as an adult, but then you grew up and because you were oh so mature you ended up not eating candy for dinner?
Yeah, I eat candy for dinner.
I mean ... not exclusively. I've also had my share of healthy dinners too, but when I read that Michael Pollan wanted my food rules, I started thinking that it would be more amusing to write my anti-rules.
As I'm writing this, I had a dinner that consisted of: stir fry vegetables, one orange, one jam tart, and Starbursts.
Other things that I've had for dinner: hummus and chips, chips and salsa, spinach and apples (that meal drove my roommate crazy as I ate it every time I was trying to both diet and be healthy, and I'd eat the spinach and apples with nothing else, not even a bit of dressing.) Then there was the time when I ate s'mores for dinner for a week (we had gone to the beach the week before and had leftovers and I was trying not to waste my food. You can blame Crunchy for that.)
Several times in grad school, my dinners have consisted of a few pints of beer and a few shared packets of crisps at the local pub.
And there have been a myriad of times that I've gone without dinner at all, because I came home at 10pm at night and was too tired to even pour myself a bowl of cereal.
I'm sure Michael Pollan would not be pleased. But I also bet that he's eaten crisps for dinner at some point in time.
Today, I was reading an article in Yahoo! News about tightwads, and one of their examples was a woman who is so frugal that when her blow dryer broke, she was using a fan to dry her hair until her friends bought her a new hair dryer. She also uses every drop of lotion, and uses uneaten portions of her kids bagels to make pizza toppings. Other fellow cheapskates did crrrazy things like make their own fabric softener and detergent.
Hmmm. Does that sound like anyone I know? Or like a lot of people I know? Or in some ways, like me?
I guess I never thought of it as severe tightwaddery, but I just don't think it's so weird that someone would use a fan as a blow dryer. It sounds like the kind of insane thing I would do. For example, I don't have a full length mirror in my room, and I am too lazy to go out and buy one. So instead, I use the bathroom mirror, and occasionally, I check out my reflection in the window. Is that insane? Am I insane?
I do shop now. This past weekend I bought a pair of sneakers because I didn't own a pair, and life was getting a little annoying without sneakers. And I also bought a gorgeous skirt from an arts and crafts market. But I did without sneakers for an obscenely long time before I finally caved.
And I don't make my own fabric softener, but I also don't use fabric softener. Nor do I use dryer sheets. Nor paper towels. Nor sponges.
Sure it saves money, and I'm happy to save money, but I never really thought of it as "cheap." Instead I've more thought of it as saving money for the things that I actually enjoy buying. Like the occasional gorgeous skirt designed by a small, local artist. Or used books. Or theatre tickets. Or chocolate. Mmmmm ... chocolate.
I don't know what these so-called cheap people are saving for, but maybe they would just prefer to put their money in their kids' college funds instead of buying a hair dryer. Or maybe they would prefer to save for a vacation instead of buying fabric softener. Is that being cheap? Or is that simply having different values and preferences?
The truth is, I don't think I can in any way be classified as cheap. Even when I was a non-consumer, except for the month when Megan and I were doing our Pseudo-Freegan challenge, and I was eating bagels leftover in the work kitchen for a week on end, I don't know that I could be classified as cheap. Because I've always been willing to spend money on what matters to me: education, travel, books, music, theatre, food. Yeah, I don't spend money on fabric softener. But ... my clothes are plenty soft.
Here's the thing. In the end, you can't take it with you. So you are probably going to spend that money at one point or another. The question is just what do you prefer to spend your money on. So why make it a value judgement. Why call someone cheap just because they prefer not to spend money on detergent?
Yesterday, I ragged on cap & trade, and how I was so tired of seeing climate change framed in economic terms, and that it needs to be framed in terms of human institutions and human welfare.
Anyway, I got a comment that I thought was particularly interesting where the author of the comment basically argued that the reason climate change has been framed in economic terms is that people understand "costs" and "taxes" and "incentives."
Because, I have to be honest, I think what most people understand is: how much is this going to currently cost me? How much more money will come out of my paycheck NOW? And for businesses I think it's: what are the short term costs and the short term paybacks?
Basically I think the way we've been arguing climate change is bass-ackwards. Because what we're arguing for is economic incentives/disincentives and then we assume that from THAT, societal change will flow.
But it don't work like that.
Take the sadly demised congestion charge for New York City. There were a lot of problems with the congestion charge, and a lot of specialized interests that caused its death. But one of the problems was simply that policy makers were putting the cart before the horse: the economics before the social change.
1) People like cars & driving. 2) Many people may not technically need to be in their office to do their job, but their place of work might not allow them to work from home. 3) Trains into New York City are already filled to capacity
Now in my mind, the third is the most damning for policy makers. If you're going to charge a congestion tax, I think you have to build the public transit first and make sure it can handle the uptick in volume. But one and two are important to deal with as well.
Now, I don't entirely agree with Bunting's entire assessment. I think had the congestion tax gone through, you would have seen a down tick in people driving into New York City. But the salient point here, for me, is that the congestion tax DID NOT go through. And I would argue that it did not go through because policy makers were trying to deal with something from an economics point of view, and not dealing with the social ramifications.
I could name any number of examples, because environmental policy is rife with them. From carbon taxes to cap and trade to gas taxes at the pump to fees on plastic bags, policies have failed to be widely implemented. Why? Because people don't like 'em. Why don't people like 'em? Because people see it as money out of their pocket for an abstract concept: climate change.
Raise your hand if you know how 2 degrees or 4 degrees of global temperature rising will affect the weather in your hometown. Raise your hand if you have any real conception of what 2-4 degrees of global temperature rising even means.
The truth is, we don't know what a 2-4 degree temperature rise in global temperatures will do. We have some models, and good ideas, but basically, we don't entirely know what for sure will happen. So we're telling people we're going to charge them more to drive their ass to their work when they're already struggling to get by because some scientist at NASA says we need to have only 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. And we expect them to go along with this because ... why now? Because Al Gore said so?
This is NOT working. It's not. And it has not been working for seventeen freaking years now.
So let's stop putting the cart before the horse. Let's stop framing climate change in terms of economics. Let's start framing the environment in terms of improving livelihoods. Let's create a social fabric where people bike to work because it makes them happier, healthier, and also because it's the thing to do. Or where people eat local, organic food because it tastes better. Or where people bring their own bags to the grocery store because everyone looks at you squinchy eyed when you don't. Because fear of society's disapproval is probably more potent than a few cent tax anyway.
Let's stop framing climate change ... actually let's stop calling it freaking climate change. No one understands what that means anyway. How bout instead we call it increased flooding in Amsterdam and Bangladesh, and more fires in Malibu and Australia, and more drought in Sub-Saharan Africa. And then, let's figure out how we are going to address these problems in their localized contexts.
Will it work? I don't know. But what I do know is that the other way isn't working, so, frankly, what have we got to lose?
The six week experiment is over, but for now I'm still sticking to the vegetarian thing. Although, the other night I dreamed I was at a restaurant with some friends and they wanted to order mussels, and I couldn't because I was vegetarian, and I was really mad because I really wanted mussels but because I couldn't have them I ordered french fries instead. And I thought that mussels would have been so much more healthy than french fries.
Then I woke up and realized that in that context I would have had mussels AND french fries, so really the non-veg option wouldn't have been so much healthier than the veg option.
But two of my best friends are visiting me this weekend, and I don't know if I will stay vegetarian over the weekend if it is inconvenient in a social context. So we shall see.... I'll keep you posted.
As I'm struggling through the end of the Lent Term, I've become increasingly focused on the idea of how we can create a synergy between environmentalism and human welfare. How do we build cities that are both sustainable, and that also make life better for people?
One of the things that I noticed in Copenhagen, besides its plethora of bikes, was that the city center shopping area was entirely devoid of cars. Instead, the area was simply filled with bikers and walkers.
This is an example of what is known as the "pedestrian-mall" concept, wherein a central downtown area is closed to vehicular traffic. These pedestrian malls were a fairly popular urban-planning technique for years, but their track record isn't particularly good, and city after city has given up on them and re-opened up their downtowns to auto traffic.
This doesn't mean that they are doomed to fail; but that pedestrian-malls need to be built carefully. In Copenhagen, it seems that the concept works very well because such a large portion of the population commutes via bicycle. Additionally, the area around the pedestrian-mall is very well linked to the rest of the city by bus and metro.
In areas which are well serviced by public transport, and have heavy pedestrian traffic, pedestrian malls can greatly enhance the quality of city life. They can allow for more sidewalk cafes, street performers, food carts, etc.
The key, then, is to ensure that pedestrian-malls are easily accessible by non-vehicular transport. Which is why I believe that New York City's plan to close Broadway between 42nd and 47th street and 35th and 33rd streets, and create a pedestrian mall in Times Square and Heralds Square is a great idea.
Proponents of Mayor Bloomberg's plan believe that the plan will encourage pedestrians, improve the quality of life in New York City, and have minimal impact on vehicle traffic given that Broadway is not an incredibly efficient road for drivers in New York City.
Detractors of the plan cite failed pedestrian malls in places like Kalamazoo, and ask how people will get to Times Square without cars. Uh ... the same way people ALREADY get to Times Square? You know ... by that thing they call the subway?
I guess we'll all see what happens when the road closes down this spring, but my bet is that Bloomberg's experiment will prove successful. And if it is successful, it will demonstrate that human welfare and environmental sustainability need not be in conflict with each other, but that we can actually increase quality of life and sustainability at the same time.