Posts Tagged ‘Sustainability


Economic Behavior towards Oil

I have long contended that the artificially low cost of fuel in the US lends itself to its’ inappropriate and irresponsible usage. While it is ultimately the responsibility of the citizen/consumer to consider his/her actions and the long-term (environmental) effects thereof, other factors are at play.

Some recent research, summarized here, calls into question the extent to which higher prices, reflecting “real” costs, alter the behavior of consumers. An often-missed aspect is the fact that a considerable amount of driving is to-and-from work. This does not change the fact that commuting tens of miles to work suggests the need to reassess your living / work location(s). Nor does it justify the number of SUV’s or other inefficient vehicles, especially in the US. But it does bring up a real obstacle in the way of reducing dependence on driving, and ultimately on fuel. There remain few alternatives for most Americans to driving to work.

And as the non-reaction to higher fuel costs in the study are in European locations, it is hard to extract trends applicable to the comparatively-dismal state of sustainable transportation in the US. That is, for example, places like England boast twice the average MPG than the US. Alternatives such as hybrids are widely used and “conventional” vehicles are often subjected to taxes in metropolitan areas. Therefore, the capacity to “react” to higher prices is relatively lower than that of the US.

But the fact remains, vast rural areas, non bike/pedestrian-friendly cities, little public transportation infrastructure, and the lack of a real alternative vehicle fleet make it more difficult for Americans to curb old habits. Unfortunately, this is inherently speculative in nature, as gas prices are being artifically lowered and the current political campaign is flooding media outlets with misinformation on the state of oil geopolitics. The available avenues – vehicle purchases, use of public transit, and other measures – are showing measurable changes, but full reaction to high fuel prices are yet to be realized, pending (unlikely) equilibration of gas prices.


Polarity Rising

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of gentrification and upscale development; gated golfing communities, new “green” neighborhoods and condo complexes, etc.

If change didn’t occur, a flower would be but a seed in the ground waiting to bloom. Change is a new beginning…

I recently stayed in a condo at a monstrosity of a golfing community on the South end of NC’s coast. St. James plantation is its own town, incorporated in 1999. After passing the security gate I spotted the sign containing the message above. The irony struck me – as though changing 4,000 acres of woods and wetlands in this fashion enabled any seed to realize their flowering potential. Aside from that confusing message, the development doesn’t claim to shepherd the land in any noticeable way. Newly constructed homes of predictable style litter the landscape. Young pines shoot straight up like the long skinny needles they deposit on the ground – the pines are perhaps the sole floral beneficiaries of clear-cutting. The grass lawns are soaking wet, certainly not from rain; the drought remains treacherous. The water pumps up from underground irrigation systems, spewing out onto the driveways and roads. I was surprised by the absence of wildlife. The chemical-treated lawns undoubtedly detract the squirrels and birds, but the absence even of mosquitoes in the humid August air was a bit eerie. Golf courses are well-known to be some of the worst soil and water contaminants; I suppose if I golfed I’d have noticed its bug-zapping qualities previously. The geographical location of this development, directly along North Carolina’s intra-coastal waterway, is a bit worrisome.

Beyond the environmentally-devastating effects, the self-perpetuating social atmosphere is further troubling.  Some would applaud this bit – containing the super-conservative super-wealthy behind gates, limiting their interaction with the outside world. These golf-playing, Lexus-driving martini-sippers are free to discuss their $30,000 membership dues or $50,000 boat slips or…whatever… without bothering anyone. This view is held by many of my more-radical acquaintances, and I sometimes find myself agreeing. But upon further contemplation I have to disagree. It can’t be healthy for these people to think that their “quality” of life is normal. I imagine the children growing up there, attending schools exclusively populated by citizens of St. James. This flawless upbringing would undoubtedly give rise to proteges of the uber-rich, unaware of the realities of the other 99% of the world and thus unprepared to deal with it.

This troubles me greatly – what will these kids be like? What does this mean at the macro level? Will America become increasingly socioeconomically stratified to such an extent that each extreme is all but unaware of the other?

Just as the ridiculously affluent must be aware of the abjectly poor to understand the extent of their fortune – like the fact that their membership dues to the country club exceed the average annual income in this country. Similarly, the impoverished must be exposed to the rich to develop ambitions to overcome these injustices. Don’t mistake this for an argument that the “poor” are somehow at fault, or in need of aspiring to affluence. Rather,  the visibility and acknowledgement of economic disparity is a vital component to social change. The greatest and most incremental progressions in human history have resulted from the tendency of the oppressed to rise against (perceived) injustices. Neither extremes are acceptable at current levels, and nor should they be segregated in ghettos and gated communities, respectively.


A place designed to inhabit the land without inhibiting its true nature, revealing its wonder gradually, intentionally.

So reads the motto on the site of Briar Chapel, located west of Carrboro, just across the Chatham county line. Similar to its coastal counterpart, this town of a development spans thousands of acres – now clear cut to accommodate quick and predictable construction.  Unlike St. James, Briar Chapel (pro)claims to be “green”. Employing “green” builders and heralding fashionably environmental propaganda, Briar Chapel is clearly catering to the liberal affluence of the Chapel Hill area.

Recalling St. James’ welcoming message, I am struck by the contradiction. How, exactly, is the clear-cutting of countless acres — drastically and as quickly as possible it seems, paving and building — not inhibiting its “true nature”. Perhaps its true nature is a development, to be gradually and intentionally revealed via a massive-scale spec home project…  At any rate, they are constructing parks, schools (as per legal necessity), and leaving about 1000 acres of “natural” space. They claim to have an environmentally astounding stormwater management plan in place, high density housing, and sundry other environmental best practices. While I congratulate these efforts, I am a bit appalled at the inference that such construction, “…not only respects the land but creates a healthier environment for residents”. How have we come to allow, and indeed believe these messages portraying new home construction as the way to reduce our degradation of the natural environment?

I won’t dive too deep into my philosophy on the appropriate manner in which to develop, but suffice it to say the following: The point at which the reconstruction, renovation, or recycling of existing structures and their footprint, or the materials thereof is bypassed, the boundaries of green building have been irrevocably crossed. There is nothing green about clearing land. In fact, the environmental effects of building create an exponentially worsened atmosphere for the natural outplay of events (blatantly). At best, green building is better than constructing the mcmansions found in St. James-esque developments, but both must be categorized as some of the most destructve projects in the modern world of home construction.

It is dismally unfortunate that these well-intentioned volvo-driving, birkenstock wearings liberals are dupped into self-congratulation by these projects. Green has become one of the most lucrative endeavors; one of the deepest emerging markets across industries.


Members of such self-decribed progressive neighborhoods as Briar Chapel are quick to criticize developments like St. James for their lack of energy star compliance, green space, etc. To some extent they are correct, the comparative energy-savings are probably considerable. The amount of chemicals leaching into the groundwater in Briar Chapel is probably dwarfed by the golf courses of St. James, and the use of natural, local foods at their restaurants is a great step. But how have these two types of developments come to be considered two ends of a spectrum? In reality, they are quite similar.

The folks in Briar Chapel, while perhaps slightly less-wealthy than the St. Jamesers, are probably not too far from that top income bracket. And while they may not have affected as many as a more urban gentrification project, the displacement of the previosu occupants of the land (farmers, undoubtedly) is mitigated little by the construction of green buildings…

The fact remains that the relative footprint of these developments is very similar. In both cases we’ve created enclaves of affluence displacing farmland and woods while countless homes sit for sale, manufacturing a growing surplus in the midst of a housing crisis.  I try to adhere to the “to each their own” mantra, but at some point it becomes maddening – green has outsmarted itself. Further, the economic disparity has full fledgedly contaminated the physical realm.

As I drive through downtown Carrboro, NC – close to my place of residence – a giant crater of a grading operation envelops about a square block.  A massive skyscraping crane stretches across the horizon, casting a skeletal shadow along a town now well-accustomed to the concept and practice of gentrification. To emerge from this barren hole will be multi-use complex. A shiny sign along the fenced perimeter reads, “Greenbridge”…



Pretty comprehensive article on Pickens at Newsweek

Despite his rampant capitalist self-interest, the man is not too far removed. His refusal to put turbines on his 100,000+ acre ranch because they are ugly is bit disturbing. And his intention to create a huge Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) automobile market is very convenient considering he owns the most LNG filling stations in the country, via Clean Energy Fuels Corp. And better yet, his (failed) water pipeline plan, which successfully fought for eminent domain and included gerrymandering a district in the Texas panhandle to include only two of his employees, on his land, is about as bad as it gets.

But I can look past that – if it means that he will provide the necessary jumpstart for alternative energy to reach necessary scale. What is frightening about such ambitions as the water plan is not the strong-arming of government, but the  fact that the plan failed. The man has SO MUCH MONEY that he can afford to invest heavily without second thought. That wasn’t his only failure; he was driven out of the CEO position at Mesa Petroleum.

While I can’t outrightly oppose his plan, I do fear that if it does fail it could have catastrophic repercussions to the alternative energy industry.  I hope Mr. Pickens considers this, though his old age and $4 Billion makes  me wonder…


Sustainability v. Sustainability

I’ve done some work with a big tech company, most recently surrounding the topic of “sustainability” and “green”, two concepts so muddled by pop culture and marketing as to mean roughly…nothing. Anyhow, I’ve found it fascinating how the same term, in the same organization, can represent and reconcile seeming opposites. For example, from the grassroots level, a call for corporate social responsbility (CSR) represents a truly legitimate cause. Employees are holding serious discusssions on topics ranging from cafeteria materials and recycling to technological tools to replace (or at least reduce) worldwide travel.

Sustainability at this level focuses mainly on one of the fundamental tenets of Sustainable Development, generally defined as: “Meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”, and encompassing Environmental, Economic, and Social responsibility.   So, at the grassroots level, environmental issues appear to be the sole interest in the way of “sustainability”

Where it gets interesting though is at the level of decision-making, especially in CFO type positions. Sustainability becomes analagous to viability – economic viability. Generally ignoring environmental concerns, or at least treating them as a (welcome) bi-product of economic viability,  as a value in and of themslelves. To be sure, the global warming scare and subsequent marketability of “sustainable” products and services have shifted markets – but numbers, not trees, are the motive.

On one hand, you can’t really blame these senior-level decision makers. Their job is to sustain the business, not the environment. That argument can certainly be made, and the generation in power is simply lacking an intrinsic knack for sustainability that subsequent generations have. Environmental sustainabilty, at this level, means a couple of different things.

1. Internal: Some of these companies can make huuuuuge differences in the level of carbon emissions, etc. by curbing their consumption. Again, at the level of the average worker, the push for compact flourescents in the offices, for example, is environment related. The acceptance of that push at the upper-level is money related – We can save x amount of money by making the switch.

2. Products / Marketing: optimizing energy use for products is a real response to market demand I think. Companies are marketing the hell out of their “green” credentials, showing a serious trend in consumer demand. There is definitely no shift in the interest of businesses, they are simply responding to the market – business as usual. Anything internet related can be green. A phone is green – you don’t have to travel. Video-conferencing is green. Working from home is green, etc. But these trends pre-date the green phase, only the marketing has changed.

Interestingly, at neither the lower, or upper level does discussion of social justice exist (to my knowledge). Sure, large companies are doing a ton in the way of philanthropy – mostly indirectly – though they don’t involve those endeavors in discussions of sustainability. It seems that the ambiguously famous concept of “green” is able to exist in space so gray as to appease all parties. The disconnection between the grassroots, environmentally aware employee base and the economic interests of those above them provides enough space to house seemingly irreconcilable concepts – one cannot exist without the other. This is an interesting phenomenon, the outplay of Sustainable Development and the introduction of this “green” buzzword. Unfortunately, I think both parties are equally flawed. SD invovles all three tenets – none without the other.


T. Boone Pickens

On the plus side, we have an oil tycoon hyping up Peak Oil. This topic needs all the press it can get, especially from Texas Oil. Pickens has some good ideas, and is correct in his assertion that Wind Power could potentially transform the way we think about energy production / consumption. His motives, though, are questionable at best. To be certain, Pickens is not approaching Wind Power from some heightened ethic or commitment to the environment. Rather, ROI, fame, and the dwindling supply of oil (his blood) are more likely drivers. His focus on reducing dependence on foreign supplies may be his primary motive…

See the following link for some insight into his thought-process:

For instance:

I’m worth $4 billion, and I don’t need to make any more money. But I’m not going to invest money if I don’t expect to make money. Here, I feel like I’m putting my money where my mouth is.

Now the aforementioned motives may be agreeable;they are certainly not all bad things – though I’m not convinced that they have come together to create a real solution. The biggest problem follows. Pickens wants to use the energy from massive scale wind (and solar) farming to offset mostly domestic power usage…. In doing so, he suggests that we use the huge amounts of freed-up natural gas to fuel cars equipped to run on such fuel. WHAT??? Invest billions in a program to shift cars from one fossil fuel to another? Why not use the massive power generation to power cars, and invest in the rollout of a fleet of electric cars, not Natural Gas cars. In the interest of sustainability, while offsetting domestic power use is undoubtedly a good thing, it is simply foolish to invest in another fossil-fuel burning auto technology.

FYI, here is a report on why Natural Gas vehicles are not a good idea:

Also, the investment needed to put up the infrastructure to support Natural Gas vehicles would be astronomical. While his plan is not totally without merit, it reveals the true nature of his power generation (pun intended…) Not only is an economy and transportation system not reliant on fossil fuels unimaginable, but the thought of reducing energy usage…yes, changing behavior, is nowhere close to the radar.

Anyone have news on the development of the Pickens plan?