Shades of Green

There are a lot of voices in the climate and sustainability discussion.  I’ve been thinking about where in the spectrum I fall, and why.  Who are the people I’m trying to convince?  What camp do opponents imagine I’m in?  Even amongst those of us who agree that the energy and climate problem is enormous, there’s disagreement about whether change in our daily lives is necessary, desirable, or acceptable.

Below is a list of people I’ve personally been influenced by.  Everyone here agrees that the current system has to change, that the magnitude of the required change is large, and that the direction of the change is unequivocally away from fossil energy sources.  Where we differ is on what part of the system needs to change, and why.  In particular, there seems to be a range of positions taken on the issue of social change.  The Pessimists think that no technical solution comes close to being adequate, that large social changes are thus obligatory, and that they will be interpreted negatively by most people.  The Optimists think that the best solutions include both technical and social components, and that the required social changes are relatively modest, and not necessarily negative at all.  Some Optimists advocate for social change overtly, while others imply that purely technical options look implausible without it.  The Cornucopians discount the need for social change, and are thus left with the technical task of supplying virtually unlimited carbon-free energy.

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A life cycle analysis of incandescent, CFL and LED light bulbs

Life cycle analysis of incandescent, CFL, and LED light bulbs – It’s important to make sure when you’re using a new technology that supposedly saves energy, that you haven’t just shifted the energy consumption from the operational to the manufacturing portion of the product’s life cycle.  This study compares three different lighting technologies: incandescent, compact fluorescent, and LED bulbs, and asks what the total energy input is to get ~400 lumens of light for 25,000 hours.  Both CFLs and LEDs save about 80% of the energy over incandescent bulbs.  For all bulb types, the embodied energy of manufacturing is only about 2% of the total energy consumed over the bulb’s life.  CFLs and LEDs were roughly equivalent energetically at the time of this study, but the LEDs produced less in the way of toxic byproducts.  The general expectation is that the efficiency of LED lighting will continue to improve, while CFLs are a pretty mature technology.  The two best LED bulbs on the market today, with warm yellow light, compatible with dimmer switches, and giving about 800 lumens of light output (equivalent to a 60W incandescent bulb), seem to be this 13W one from Lighting Science ($30) and the 12W Philips A19 EnduraLED ($40).  The prices seem high, but as with gas furnaces and boilers, electric motors and pumps, the cost of the electricity or fuel you run through the device ends up dwarfing the capital cost over its lifetime, so paying top dollar for efficiency is worthwhile.

Michael Pollan on Deep Agriculture

I can’t believe how much I enjoy the Long Now talks.  Thoughtful and intelligent people, usually talking about things I happen to think are important, and interesting.  I almost feel like it’s a re-invention of the oratory form.  I’m glad they’ve gone to the extra effort of doing a high quality production, with decent microphones, and well illuminated speakers in front of a dark background, multiple camera angles and only occasional (but necessary) cuts to the slides on screen.  Not all thoughtful and intelligent people are good orators, but I guess I’m willing to put up with some unnecessary “um” and “uh” syllables thrown in if the ideas on offer are good enough.

Michael Pollan gave a recent talk, unsurprisingly to a full house (it’s SF after all), entitled “Deep Agriculture“, which was largely, but I think not entirely, a synthesis of his previous books.  The first point he made was that America’s healthcare costs, our industrialized agricultural system, climate change and the ultimately limited supply of fossil fuels are really all part of the same system of issues.

We spend roughly twice as much per capita on healthcare as do the twenty nations which have longer life expectancies than we do.  A significant portion of that excess spending is on chronic “diseases of the rich” which are intimately linked to diet: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.  At the same time, we spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on food than any other nation in the world, and probably any other nation in history.  If our cheap diet is generating high healthcare costs, then it isn’t really all that cheap.

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Have you seen the light?

As animals, and especially visual animals at that, we have a particular experience of the light.  For us it is illumination, information about our surroundings.  For that purpose moonlight or even starlight will do.  And for tens of millions of years, that’s all we ever saw.  Somehow a few of us made it through the Permian extinction, and into the Triassic, but the ascendancy of the dinosaurs eventually forced us into the darkness of the night.  Our world became dim, and our eyes went colorblind.  Most mammals today see only two colors, but a few of us have re-evolved a third photoreceptor.  Three colors is still inferior to the four or five or six seen by many near-surface fish, birds, reptiles, insects, and other arthropods.  The stomatopods are almost biological spectroscopic imaging systems, with 12 color channels in each of their independently movable trinocular eyes.  We are lesser than the eyes that never left the light.  They stole the colors from us and made us hide within the night.  They kept the sun for themselves, not knowing that our small and furtive ways, our burning endothermy and our fur would see us through the aftermath of the KT impact.

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Rearranging vs. Reinventing the Global Economy

The US road to recovery runs through Beijing says Asia Times Online, and Thomas Barnett emphatically agrees.  Everyone is talking about how to reorganize the global economy, but mostly the discussion is about how to most efficiently export our recently collapsed model of growth to the developing world.  Better this time around for sure, we say, but not fundamentally different in any way.  The Chinese need (and want, it turns out) more domestic consumption and consumer debt.

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I want a city like this

Why is it that new housing developments in the US are filled with giant cookie-cutter houses crammed in next to each other, and burdened with ridiculous covenant requirements of lawns and four car garages, without a grocery store in walking distance?

Why can’t we have places like Freiburg’s Quartier Vauban?  (pictures on Flickr, and another, and another)  5000 people, and one main street with a speed limit of 30 km/hr, smaller side streets meant primarily for bikes and walking.  No parking on private property – all cars have to be stored in the structures at the margins of the development.  40% of the households have no car.  A light-rail connection to central Freiburg (which is all of 2 miles away).  600 on-site jobs of various kinds, including the grocery store that’s within walking distance of the entire community.  Lots of different kinds of (mostly smaller) living spaces.  Vegetable gardens and fruit trees.  Public playing fields and parks.

*sigh*

The Keeping of the Light

Several years ago, Yuk Yung noted, either in seminar or at one of his lunch talks, that overall, as a system, the Earth, including its biosphere, actually does not consume energy.  This isn’t so surprising if you think of it like a lifeless rock – of course a spinning asteroid being shone upon somewhere between Jupiter and Mars isn’t consuming energy, it’s just absorbing and re-radiating, by σT4.  It re-radiates at a lower temperature than the sun, and it re-radiates isotropically; the quality of the energy changes, its entropy increases, but the amount of energy coming out, of course, is the same as that which is coming in, barring any interesting chemistry that might take place as a result of the incident radiation.

For some reason, the same statement, applied to the Earth, seems stranger.  We think of life as consuming energy somehow, but really it doesn’t.  At most, the Earth system acts as a temporary energy buffer, as our indigenous biology catalyzes the formation of chemical bonds, using mostly sunlight as a power source.  But by now, overall, the Earth is in almost perfect energetic equilibrium.  The light comes in at nearly 6000 °K, and it comes in nearly parallel.  It leaves at a few hundred degrees Kelvin, and in all directions.  All that’s changed is the entropy, unless there’s a net creation (or destruction) of ions or chemical bonds, or a change in temperature, on the way through.  Somehow, life extracts order from this flow of energy.  “We eat negative entropy.”, Yuk said.  We consume information, transmuting the physical order of the star’s light into the chemical order of life.  We grasp at it as it passes through, and in that grasping, live.

The material with which we encode this order, with which we briefly hold the light, is itself also the product of stars.  I’ve known this since I watched Cosmos as a kid.  We are the “stuff” of stars, but somehow the fact that our order is also somehow tied up in the order of stars, quite literally, seems odder.  We’re some kind of entropically driven reaction.

It seems to me that this physical reality is ripe for mythologizing.

The stars are great unknowing givers.  They are radiant, and generous, and terrible.  They can receive nothing in return for their gifts, incinerating their lovers.  They say to us, without knowing, “Take this light and hold it.  Use it as it passes through you, to know, and to perhaps preserve, against the chaos, and cold dark emptiness of space.”  And so we are become the receivers of the light, composed of the cold cinders of the stars.  We keep the light that only they can make, but which they cannot hold.  I think it’s a difficult and sacred thing to do, to just keep holding on.