How Green Was My Lawn

The NY Times has an OpEd on how we need to enlist the suburbs in the fight against climate change: How Green Was My Lawn (not very).  The author notes that the environmentalist movement of the 1970s arose largely from within the ranks of the suburbanites, and that the modern climate movement does itself no favors, politically, by consistently pointing its many fingers at the sprawling, car and oil dependent developments in which many to most Americans live today.  No doubt.  Unfortunately, the persistence and proliferation of suburbia precludes so many cheap and effective means of reducing emissions that it’s insane to take it as a given.  It’s not just oil for the cars.  It’s the need to go far, and go fast, in a large private vehicle, regardless of what it runs on.  It’s the expense of making suburban homes a factor of 10 more energy efficient compared to doing the same with row-houses that share walls.  It’s the inability to share almost anything in a suburban context — the per-capita need for stuff is enormous when you have to own it all instead of accessing it as a service. It’s the unnecessarily vast amounts of concrete, steel, asphalt and copper in all the infrastructure required to support those dispersed dwellings.

And all for what?  To support a transient cultural expectation.  A particular ephemeral vision of affluence, which is itself largely born of government subsidies of and mandates for the creation of sprawl over the last 60 years.  A century from now, if we successfully meet the climate challenge, we’ll look back at how we made a fetish of the single family home with the three car garage, and lump it in with the widespread use of DDT that inspired Rachel Carson, or the cancer-causing X-ray machines we used to have in shoe stores, or the way Victorian women would wear corsets so tight they couldn’t breathe, even sometimes having a couple of ribs removed to enhance their narrow waists.  Suburbia is a fad, a phase, a peculiar addiction with very serious side effects that we can no longer ignore.  It may be politically inconvenient, but the imperatives of the suburbs are almost entirely at odds with the imperatives of addressing climate change, and you cannot argue with the sky.

Nils Gilman and Deviant Globalization: The Graying of the Markets

We watched a Long Now talk last night by Nils Gilman, entitled Deviant Globalization.  I first ran across Gilman in a shorter talk from a couple of years ago about the global illicit economy — black markets.  He describes deviant globalization somewhat differently.  Trade can be perfectly legal, and still deviant.  He used the example of US men arranging trysts with 14 year old girls in Canada… which amazingly could still be considered legal until 2008, since 14 was the nationwide age of consent.  Sure, it was legal, but who really thought it was okay?  So deviant globalization represents a kind of moral arbitrage.  Demand exists for goods and services which are proscribed in different ways, to different degrees, in different places.  Sometimes they’re socially taboo, and sometimes they’re outlawed, but in all cases there exists a kind of moral disequilibrium gradient that can be exploited.

What united all these extralegal commodity flows […] was the unsanctioned circulation of goods and services that either because of the way they are produced or because of the way they are consumed violate someone’s ethical sensibilities.

One of his main points is that the steepness of that moral or regulatory gradient translates pretty directly into profit margins.  Cocaine increases in value by 1400% when you bring it across the US border.  This creates incredible incentives to get around the rules, even at great risk.  This is why Prohibition rarely works as a policy.  Any attempt at eradication financially empowers those who are willing to continue taking the risks you’re able to impose.

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An Introduction to Retirement Investing for Scientists

After spending a number of afternoons and evenings with friends and family over the last few months reviewing their retirement planning and investments, I’ve gone and done something a little bit crazy: I suggested to the GSC at Caltech that maybe I could give a talk on retirement investing to the grad student/postdoc population.  Incredibly, they thought this sounded like a good idea, and so now I’m scheduled to give a talk in a couple of weeks.  I’m going to try and write it up here in prose form first, to get it organized.  It’s gotten to be a bit long… so I’m going to break it up.

Main Points:

  1. Taking responsibility for funding your own retirement is arguably more important now than it has been for a couple of generations.  100 years ago we had much more in the way of traditional (family, community) support in old age, and the systems that we put in place after the Depression (corporate pensions demanded by organized labor, social security) show few signs of being fixed any time soon.  Generally today you do not even have the option of signing up for a “defined benefit” plan.  It’s a 401(k) or the highway.
  2. Investment returns are for all practical purposes random, unpredictable events, and because of this there’s really no such thing as an “expert investor” in the sense that most people selling their investment management services try and imply.  Nobody can reliably beat the broad markets, but you can do a perfectly good job of managing your own retirement funds if you’re willing to spend about 4 hours per year on it, say the other half of the day you spend doing your taxes.
  3. To maximize your chances of success, you must habituate yourself to spending less than you earn, making investing as automatic as possible, starting early and aggressively, and continuing throughout your entire career, regardless of what life and the markets throw at you.  Because returns are exponential and not linear, the difference between starting to save at age 23 and age 32, assuming roughly an 8% rate of return, can be on the order of a factor of two in the final value of your retirement funds.  Being comfortable living well below your apparent means makes it possible not only to save money now, but also reduces the amount of money you need in order to have “enough” in retirement, where “enough” means about 25 times your expected annual withdrawals, as you can take about 4% of your money out each year indefinitely.
  4. Maximizing the returns on your investments largely comes down to managing investment costs: how much you pay the people doing the actual investing (i.e. the mutual fund companies), and how much you pay in taxes.  The difference between paying 0.2% and 2% in fees and taxes each year might not seem huge, but over the course of 35 years of investing, it makes roughly a factor of two difference in the amount of money you end up with.
  5. The two most important tools you have in managing investment risk are diversification and asset allocation.  Diversification reduces the overall impact of many kinds of unpredictable events (high oil prices, the demise of the newspaper industry, war between India and Pakistan, collapse of the Icelandic currency… etc.) reducing the overall volatility of your portfolio.  Asset allocation (mainly the split between stocks and bonds) allows you to choose what kind of financial risk you are exposed to, and to shift it over time as you get closer to actually needing to live off your investments.  With stocks, you get the potential for future growth, at the expense of having to put up with wild fluctuations in their value.  With bonds, you get less price fluctuation and less potential for growth, but the ability to draw a reliable income stream.  With cash you get little to no price fluctuation, but essentially zero potential for real (inflation adjusted) growth.

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The limits of personal action

I’ve realized recently that it is becoming difficult for us to continue marginally increasing the sustainability of our household.

Pasadena has a relatively enlightened “pay as you throw” garbage collection service.  You can choose one of three different sized garbage cans depending on how much trash you generate, and the smaller ones cost less.  Both the front house and the back house have the smallest size (32 gallons).  Last week when I wheeled the garbage out to the street for pickup one of the two containers was empty, and the other was only half full.  The previous week there had been no garbage whatsoever in the bins.  In two weeks, between two houses, we’d managed to half fill one container, and it was already the smallest size the City could imagine one house filling on a weekly basis, meaning we generated something like 1/8th as much garbage as we were “supposed to”.  Instead most of our refuse ends up either getting composted or recycled.  If only we could cancel the garbage service for one of the houses, or have them come only once a month.  Thankfully Pasadena does actually have a stated goal of zero waste-to-landfill and incinerators (by the year 2040), as does San Francisco (by 2020) and Vancouver (no firm date for zero yet… but a 40% reduction from their current, already low, levels by 2020).  Last year we “diverted” 66% of our solid waste as a city, and both the total amount of waste landfilled, and the per capita amount have decreased over the last several years (as reported in the 2009 Green City Indicators report), though as I’ve noted before “diversion” means some strange things in this context.  The city currently considers it likely that we will achieve this 2040 goal.  I wonder if the economic downturn has meant less purchasing and discarding of disposable crap.  It’s almost certainly responsible for much of the recent reduction in vehicle miles traveled.  I’m not sure what additional waste-reduction incentives have been put in place (but then, I’m clearly not the target audience… so maybe I just haven’t noticed).

Another similar strange experience recently was realizing that our natural gas usage, which goes exclusively to heat domestic hot water (we refuse to turn on the furnace in this fine Mediterranean climate…) hardly varies at all with our water usage.  The difference in our gas bill between both of us being here and neither of us being here is less than 10%.  About $1 out of $15 goes to heat in the water we actually use.  $14 out of $15 goes to heat that escapes from the water heater into the air in the crawlspace under the house.  Sadly, it was replaced two years ago (after the bottom of the old tank rusted out… that replacement dropped our monthly bill by 2/3, as leaking hot air is a lot better than leaking hot water!) and it could have been replaced with a European style tankless water heater like we had over winter break in the Earthships in Taos, where it’s just a backup for the solar hot water heater on the roof which would also work wonderfully here in SoCal.

I think there are about 6 big things you can do on your own, if you’re at all serious about sustainability:

  1. Have fewer than 2 offspring.
  2. Eat a vegan diet, or close to it.
  3. Don’t own a car, and dramatically reduce the number of miles you drive.
  4. Avoid flying.
  5. Live in a small, durable, energy efficient dwelling.
  6. Stop buying things that will eventually be sent to a landfill or incinerated.

If you’re not doing any of them, I don’t really see how you can say you care about sustainability with a straight face.  But what if you’re doing all of them?  And also volunteering for organizations that try to promote these behaviors in general?  And donating money to others, in a similar vein?  And writing your elected officials about the things you care about?

I’m not trying to go off on some holier-than-thou trip here: I haven’t really committed to stop flying (it’s just an idea at this point, one that Amtrak might well talk me out of), and I certainly enjoy eating an omnivorous diet (with the animal products coming as much as possible from discarded food).  I’m just saying that I’m starting to feel a little limited.  To go much further than the above list, infrastructure and society itself have to start changing, in North America anyway, and that’s an entirely different kind of problem.  An interpersonal problem, with which I’m much less comfortable.

Shared Links for Jun 15th

  • Being “Used To” Our Lifestyle Makes Change Seem Difficult – The range of lifestyles which people have been able to become accustomed to and enjoy throughout history and spread out over the globe, is immense. Some of them are sustainable; ours is not. The willingness to experiment and accept change, to be flexible at a societal level, is of paramount importance today, and has in the past meant the difference between survival and obliteration for countless other civilizations, as detailed in Jarod Diamond's book "Collapse". But change is hard, whether you drive an SUV and have managed to shave your lifestyle requirements down to 8 earths from 10, or whether you're the child of a prostitute in Calcutta. We are creatures of habit, quite literally. (tagged: sustainability film energy green stuff money )
  • The Need for Geoengineering – A WSJ op-ed advocating near term geoengineering, of the stratospheric sulfate aerosol variety. It would be fast acting, relatively easy to reverse, and of the options on the table today, is the least mysterious, since it's not so different from the effects of a large (historically speaking) volcanic eruption like Mt. Pinatubo. The author cautions that even at best, all this would do is give us time: we still need to get the atmosphere back to ~350ppm. What a fascinating modern age it is we live in! (tagged: climate technology geoengineering )
  • Early Reviews of NYC’s New High Line Park – A round up of several reviews of the High Line Park, which has just opened in NYC. (tagged: architecture urban design landscape garden parks nyc )
  • The High Line – An abandoned elevated freight rail line in Manhattan is reborn as a long linear park three stories above the streetscape. I love how the design incorporates the rails and the overgrown feeling that the old line had developed on its own. This and the closure of Broadway at Times Square makes me want to visit New York. Inspiring to see that this kind of change is possible. (tagged: urban design architecture green garden parks nyc )
  • Pedalpalooza 2009 – Wow, a two week long bicycle festival in Portland, spanning the summer solstice? Sounds like a wonderful way to start a bike tour! Hopefully it will still be going on next summer. (tagged: bicycle transportation oregon portland festival activism )