Until recently, I never thought about being green. At work, I would tease my more environmentally-friendly coworkers by throwing my aluminum cans into the garbage when there was a recycling bin just next to it. This would irk them to no end, and it was fun to mercilessly needle them. But at some point, something changed. I woke up. Here's what made it happen.
Reason Number One: The Seattle Power Outage of 2006
Last winter, the Seattle area was decimated by a medium-sized windstorm that left over half a million people without power for an average of 36 hours. I live in a relatively urban area, and my power was restored in under two days. My parents, who live 20 minutes from the city, were without power for over a week.
The Seattle area power system is demonstrably idiotic. A quick scan of the area confirms that the landscape is dominated by 200 foot, top-heavy pine trees. Yet, our local power companies ensure all of the power lines are hung precariously above ground, perched right next to the tree lines. It’s become a matter of course that every little wind storm that sweeps through creates some sort of outage.
Regardless, it was a keen reminder how integrally the grid is woven into my daily life, and how much I take it for granted. At the time I was working for a tech giant in the Seattle area. Work stopped completely, millions of dollars in productive hours were lost. At home, showers weren’t taken. Cell phones ran out of battery and not all loved ones had a landline connecting them. In one silly instance, the only communication device my mother could hook up at her house was a pink fuzzy Barbie phone someone had given her as a joke.
Even if we weren’t facing catastrophic consequences for the ways we generate power, evolving a system to have more redundancy in it can only be a good thing. If nothing else, we should be able to better handle those failure cases. That means rethinking our basic assumptions about the system.
Reason Number Two: Global Warming
Haven’t seen An Inconvenient Truth? Stop everything you’re doing and go watch it. Heck, I’ll send you my copy if you want.
I think it’s impossible not to be moved by that film. It helped me come to a better understanding of what's causing the problem, and what the potential impacts might be. Not only will sea levels rise slowly, but the weather patterns could be changed in brutal ways. Like the warm Mediterreanean climate? Me too: it produces brilliant wines and vacationing possibilities. But that may be one of the first things to change. Watch the movie - Al does a great job at explaining it.
Is global warming going to bring an end to human civilization? Not a chance. We’ll adapt and we’ll survive. But it could change everything else. Where we live, what we eat. Billions could be displaced and no doubt millions will perish. But like Vice President Gore says, “This is hard, but fixable!”
Still skeptical? I understand. After all, the ecosystem of Earth is extremely complicated, and we haven’t even figured out how to predict the weather two days from now with any level of accuracy. There’s some guy with some super interesting research who believes that cosmic rays released from the sun are creating less cloud cover which is warming the Earth.
Even if you don’t think carbon dioxide emissions are solely responsible for the warming trend, you’ve got to admit they can’t be helping. The warming and C02 level trends are too closely tied, and the scientific community is united, even if the media isn’t painting it as such.
I like sea levels where they are, thank you very much. Let’s try to keep them there.
Reason Number Three: Peak Oil
I think out of all of my reasons, this one was the hardest to understand. Once I understood it though, it became the single biggest factor in my desire to change.
Let’s say you’re still a global warming skeptic. Fine, suits me. But I’m guessing you don’t deny the fact that war exists. And you’re probably aware of the fact that war usually breaks out in areas where resources are scarce. Every post-apocalyptic movie you’ve ever seen should reinforce that chaos will reign supreme in any scenario where there’s just not enough to go around.
Well, we’re there with oil. Or very nearly, according to most analysts. The phenomenon is called Peak Oil, and it means that at some point very soon (if it hasn’t happened already), oil production will begin to decrease. This happens because we already got all of the “easy” oil that’s there on the surface for us to extract. Now oil gets harder and harder to access, and production costs will begin to go up.
To add to the pain, demand is also going to continue to go up (while supply becomes less). Economics 101 should tell you that this will result in a dramatic leap in the price of oil.
When I first started understanding this problem, I was guilty of the same response I imagine lots of Americans have: “So? I’ll just drive less. Or buy a hybrid.”
As I’ve learned more, I’ve come to understand that this doesn’t quite cut it. Why not?
Oil feeds us
Oil prices are baked into nearly every single thing that we eat and buy. The apples you get from the store in December need to be transported from somewhere it is warm via boat, plane, or truck. On top of that, all of the equipment that is used to plant, fertilize, pest-proof, and harvest that apple are largely oil-based technologies. As oil prices rise, so will the prices of your apples, bread, sugar, and beef. At some point, it could become prohibitively expensive to produce food.
Oil clothes us
Natural fibers have the exact same problem as food. Cotton and other similar materials start out as plants they need tender loving care applied with today’s oil-based machinery.
Synthetic fibers, like nylon and polyester are created out of coal, which we will rely on more and more heavily as oil becomes increasingly expensive.
Other things oil gives us:
- Many of the USA’s water distribution systems are oil based
- Construction of all new buildings and homes is oil-based
- All plastics are manufactured from oil
- Oil is a major ingredient in microchips
- Oil is used to manufacture solar panels and windmills
- Asphalt on roads is oil based.
So my iPod, computer, tank top, earrings, and scrambled eggs have all used oil to get made and arrive at my doorstep. In fact, oil is woven into our economy to a necessary degree. Unfortunately, our financial markets are wired to treat oil like an infinitely available commodity, like sugar or oranges, rather than a finite resource. This is a problem.
We know that US economic downturns are always correlated with rising oil prices. “In particular, whenever the price of oil doubled over a twelve-month period, stock returns ranged from -27 to +4 percent over the following 18 months. On the other hand, if oil prices declined over a twelve-month period, stocks returned anywhere from -1 percent to 30 percent.”<citation: Stephen Lieb, PhD> Our modern growth economy is technology-predicated, and thus energy driven. It makes sense that as energy gets more expensive, the economy slows down on a macro level.
Some believe that the rising cost of oil could lead to food crises, oil wars, and other scary phenomena. On the flip side, others believe that as we move in a downwards trajectory on our supply curve that technology will fill the gap. Energy is theoretically everywhere, we just need to do a better job at harvesting it.
Whichever side you fall on, most agree that some massive societal change in the first world is going to be necessary. And those changes will need to address both how we consume energy and what energy we consume.
Some of our politicians have said that “the American way of life is non-negotiable”. I happen to disagree. Anytime we have a major crises, you see just how negotiable our lifestyle is. Power goes out: families entertain themselves with board games and charades. Snow and ice cover the streets: people start to telecommute and organize grocery runs on behalf of the neighborhood.
Human beings are extremely adaptable, but only out of necessity. When necessity does not interfere, we are inherently lazy beings, maximizing our personal pleasure out of the tools and environments at hand.
Well, necessity is coming. Unfortunately, its impact isn’t being felt quickly enough. Due to subsidies provided to the oil companies, the price of oil is kept artificially low, rather than a true reflection of supply and demand. This does us a disservice as it does not force humanity to adapt. As such, I am forcing myself to use my higher brain and recognize the need to inconvenience and evolve myself without a prescient cause.
The new technology to get us over the energy peak isn’t yet here. So in the meantime, we need to find a new supply of oil from somewhere. One possibility is to find it in conservation. I firmly believe that we can get a lot of mileage out of conservation. Remember California’s brown outs a few years back? Experts predicted that they would happen again, with greater severity and frequency the next year. I didn’t hear anything about that in the news, did you?
That’s because California voluntarily reduced their energy consumption YOY by 11%. (cite?) In one year, the state was able to mobilize to make a dramatic change. It seems that there are significant efficiency gains to reap.
I think most sensible people would choose making some personal sacrifices when traded off directly against food scarcity, global war or environmental catastrophe. Which is why I’m initiating the change on my own.
Reason Four: Societal Responsibility
When I was little, the two broken record slogans I remember hearing from my mother were as follows:
- “Clean up your mess” (often followed by “or else…”), and
- “Share your stuff”
These were both beat so far into my head, that as far as I’m concerned, they are the two primary responsibilities of living in a civil society.
It seems like when it comes to the civilization we live in today, these slogans only take me as far as the boundaries of my home. Once my waste exits my walls, I’m absolved of all responsibility for it. How the stuff gets to me, I don’t really care.
Bottom line, the US consumes 23% of world’s energy and only has 5% of the world’s population. It’s time to clean up my mess and share my stuff – the stuff that really matters.
These are not the reasons I’m going green, but people claim them to be true:
1. You’ll save money!
I’ve heard this claim, and I certainly hope that it’s true, but time will tell. It’s reasonable to state that conservation will save money, but I have a funny inkling that conservation is not enough to induce real change: it only buys us time.
I think it’s more likely in this day and age that there will be some financial downside to going green, else everybody would be doing it already. As I go through projects on this blog, I am going to pay close attention to costs and payback times.
2. Going green is good for your health
Many of my friends and online counterparts state readily that being eco-friendly is better for my health. I’m not really clear on how or why this is. I think maybe this is thinking green in a different way, less to do with sustainability and more to do with purity of substances and ingredients used for things. I’m skeptical health benefits will be a result of my projects, but time will tell.