Friday, November 30, 2007

Hot stocks

Investments in green technology are increasing. Seems like good news - a sign that our markets are responding to $3/gallon gasoline and the warnings of the Nobel-prizewinning IPCC. But what are we to make of the fact that investments in security and weapons industries are also increasing, and at a much faster rate? Naomi Klein has an idea in an essay in today's Guardian:
"There are two distinct business models that can respond to our climate and energy crisis. We can develop policies and technologies to get us off this disastrous course. Or we can develop policies and technologies to protect us from those we have enraged through resource wars and displaced through climate change, while simultaneously shielding ourselves from the worst of both war and weather."
And so, professional money-movers like Douglas Lloyd of Venture Business Research "see this [defense and weapons industries] as a more attractive sector, as many do, than clean energy."

For all of our reverence for the free market and its "invisible hand", people often forget that these markets are man-made, and they function according to rules we make. Just as the market needed new rules and frameworks to respond to huge monopolies at the turn of the last century, the market needs new frameworks (like a global commodity price on carbon emissions) to respond to the global climate crisis now.

If we can't accomplish that, we might as well follow the venture capitalists' example and trade our rooftop solar panels for rooftop artillery batteries.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Ruined views

George H.W. Bush's compound at Walker's Point recently sprouted a 33-foot wind turbine to take advantage of coastal winds. And, possibly, to try to postpone the coastal flooding that will ruin the property sometime within the next century.

Here's a photo from the Portland Press Herald (click the link for their news story):

It's a bit hard to see - look closely on the left side of the photo. In spite of its coastal location and super-rich neighbors, the only view that's really been ruined is the one that pegs the family Bush as petro-pyromaniacs who don't believe in global warming. So we can expect the kid to follow Dad's example in his professional capacity any day now, right?
Meanwhile, down in Nantucket, another patrician political dynasty continues its long slide into jackass environmentalist irrelevance. This Daily Show clip is a few months old, but even if you've already seen it, enjoy another scenic viewing:

Related: The Tragedy of the Commons

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Welcome to Squaresville, Pops

"Hey Dad, I want you to drop me off a block from the theater."

Here's some commentary to this funny ad from Brad Aaron, a writer on New York City's Streetsblog:
"At first you think that, considering dad's expanding waistline, she's looking to get some exercise. But it turns out she's embarrassed to be seen in an SUV, since 'people in that [presumably urban] part of town are riding bikes and have hybrids and stuff.'"
Which makes sense. If her friends saw this guy driving up in an SUV, they'd draw the perfectly obvious conclusion that this is just another chubby, mid-life-critical condition who needs a big car to help him feel better about his emasculating suburban existence. Seeing a dude reduced to this is terribly embarrassing for everyone involved. I mean, check out this guy I saw in a Burger King drive-thru a few years ago:

He thinks he's the Burger King himself. I know this photo isn't easy to look at, but these people are out there, and it's tragic.

But wait! Objects Pop. This overpriced vehicle for fantasies of superiority IS a hybrid. "Like a hybrid hybrid?" asks daughter. "I don't know what a 'hybrid hybrid' is, but yes," answers Pops smugly.

They drive off. Pop's fantasy of responsible masculinity deflates slightly as he spies his receding hairline in the rear-view mirror, and a voiceover proclaims their car to be the most fuel-efficient SUV in the world. Brad Aaron speculates on the inaudible continuation of the father-daughter conversation:
"The daughter, now inaudible, explains that an anemic 34 miles-per-gallon hardly qualifies the Escape as a "hybrid hybrid" -- any more than the Chevy Tahoe is the 'Green Car of the Year' -- and asks dad why the family can't move closer to the theater so he and mom might stave off heart disease and she wouldn't have to be ferried around in 'the greenwashing machine.'"
OK, that's about enough jackass environmentalism from the auto industry, and lunch break is over. I could go on for ages, but it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Apologies for the editorial laziness.

Salvation, American-Made

Some outfit called the "Green Car Journal" named the hybrid Chevy Tahoe the "Green Car of the Year" at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week. Here's what the "Green Car of the Year" looks like:

Maybe this is some cynical sarcasm from the "Green Car Journal," a biting commentary on the failure of American car companies to address the climate crisis. Whether it's sincere or not, anyone who believes that this obesity wagon is actually a "green car" is suffering from advanced symptoms of Jackass Environmentalism.

Monday, November 19, 2007

To Save the World, or Burn It

Climate change loomed large in the international news over the weekend. On Saturday, in Valencia, Spain, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its fourth and final synthesis report, with "language that is both more specific and forceful than its previous assessments" (NY Times). "IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri... described the consequences of not reversing the fossil fuel juggernaut as 'disastrous'" (BBC). Delegates from 130 nations signed off on the report, although our own United States delegation proudly stood with our long-time allies in truth and democracy - China and Saudi Arabia - in efforts to water down the report's alarming language. Hell, as long as our government's looking to censor and obfuscate inconvenient facts, we might as well work with the experts.

While delegates in Valencia worked, a typhoon flooded Bangladesh and killed hundreds, a vivid example of the "alarming predictions set out in the recent IPCC report" (BBC).

It all amounted to yet another headache for the tyrants at the OPEC conference in Riyadh, where skyrocketing prices and a weakening dollar are shaking the foundations of oil-wealth kleptocracies. These are hard times for these guys, so they asked the world kindly to solve the climate problem without adding to theirs: "It behooves us to find a technological process that will make the continued use of fossil fuels possible," said Ali al-Naimi, the Saudi oil minister (NYT).

All this leads to Bali, Indonesia, where the globe's climate diplomats will gather to hammer out a two-year agenda to the international treaty that will follow the Kyoto Protocol beginning on December 3rd. Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change, scolds that "governments were well behind business in preparing for the challenges ahead," and that if they fail to make an agreement now, after the strongly-worded consensus of the IPCC and 130 nations, we're all in "deep trouble" (The Guardian). Indeed.

It comes down to international diplomacy, now, to save the world, or burn it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The platinum flop

Last year, Maine's Wright-Ryan builders finished the first LEED-certified platinum green home in the northeast: a "luxury" 3200 square foot spread in the bobo Elysia of South Freeport. A year after its completion, though, the house is still empty while its brokers struggle to find a buyer.

So, why doesn't anyone want to shell out $1.1 million for this place? It's got custom cabinets made from sunflower seed shells, and triple-pane south-facing windows, and exceptional indoor air quality. It comes with 2.6 acres of land on a former woodlot, PLUS a two-car garage, which will come in handy because the nearest jobs, stores, and services are all miles away.

Sunflower-seed cabinets aside, it's a bit hard to understand how a such a large suburban dwelling built in a formerly rural area could be considered "green." Solar panels are cool and everything, but if your grocery shopping trip burns as many BTUs in an hour as they'll produce in a whole week, then what the heck is the point?

This is an oft-cited shortcoming of the LEED rating system: because the US Green Building Council's awards are points-based, a builder can make up for points lost on a lousy, unsustainable site by going the extra mile on things like insulation and renewable power systems.

The Freeport house may have gamed the LEED system, but homebuyers in the market aren't so easily fooled. The people looking for green homes just aren't that interested in paying $1 million to live in a huge house in the boondocks. Hopefully, the builders' experience with this place provides them with some valuable lessons without scaring them off from future LEED projects.

Related: Maine Sunday Telegram: "Unaffordably Green?" By Tux Turkel. November 4, 2007

Friday, November 09, 2007

No Country for Old Men

Between Alpine and Marfa, Texas. Photo by davidteter.

So two of my favorite directors have made a movie based on a novel by one of my favorite authors that's set in one of my favorite places: the Coen brothers, Cormac McCarthy, West Texas. Awesome.

I read "No Country for Old Men," the novel, shortly after it was published last winter. I'm rarely frightened by books while I'm reading them, but this one kept me on an emotional edge the entire time I read it, and several scenes stood out as the most suspenseful I've ever read. I am frequently frightened by movies that intend to be scary, so, given the material it's based on, I expect this one to be exceptionally terrifying.

Jess and I spent a week in west Texas in early December of 2005, a trip to Big Bend right before we moved back north. In an area the size of the entire state of New Hampshire, bewilderingly vast plains surround just five small towns like living history museums of the old west: Marathon, Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis, Sanderson. Between them, the jagged teeth of ancient mountain ranges stab the long horizons.

Cormac McCarthy is probably the best nature writer living today: his descriptions of these landscapes are almost as beautiful as the real thing. McCarthy also gets compared to Melville a lot, and like Melville, he doesn't romanticize wild nature: more often than not, the protagonists in McCarthy's novels find themselves nakedly visible and vulnerable in the open plains while the evil men hunt them down. This is a wilderness too vast to credit any significance to any individual life or death. I love it.

Marfa Prada. Photo by eggyplants.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bringing the solution home

A 57 megawatt wind power project has been approved for Maine's Washington County, and the 38 turbines could start spinning within a year. This is great news, of course, but, like many of Maine's proposed wind power projects, this one is going to be in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles away from where most people will use the electricity they generate.

This a bit unfortunate - the wind energy generated will lose a significant chunk of its power during its delivery over hundreds of miles of transmission lines - but this is how the politics of wind power work in the post-industrial state of Maine, where our primary industry now consists of simultaneously coddling the egos and satisfying the appetites of retiring baby boomers.

Putting wind turbines in a working forest near a major ski resort and hundreds of second homes (as the beat-up Black Nubble wind project proposes) is an unacceptable violation of "pristine wilderness," but putting wind turbines in a real wilderness, far away and out of sight from rich retirees' vacation homes and resorts, garners the endorsement of every "environmental" organization in the state, even though the big transmission costs will substantially dent the project's benefits.

How closely we rely on our natural resources in Maine is something that most people, honestly or not, say that they admire about our state. Who doesn't get a hackle-raising thrill when some jerk from Massachusetts whines about the smell of fish from the quaint lobster pound next door to his new multi-million dollar cottage? "This is Maine," we shout. "This is our tradition of living off the land and sea! This is where food comes from! Suck it up and deal!"

The same protest should apply to people who whine about the sight of electricity being made - the board members and major donors of Maine Audubon and the Appalachian Mountain Club who are dead set against seeing wind turbines through the picture windows of their ski condos. While we wait for them to resolve their blinkered environmental ethics (this could take a while), we'll need to come up with other solutions without them.

In Portland, residents are beginning to talk about setting up test anemometers on the crest of the Eastern Prom, where the peninsula separates Back Cove from the rest of the harbor. It looks like a fantastic wind power site, with open water to the east and west and a hillside that runs perpendicular to prevailing winds (the "wind rose" above shows the typical frequency and strength of winds in the area). Turbines here would not have to lose energy by traveling for miles on the transmission grid: here's a chance for the "Portland Buy Local" movement to make a meaningful move into the energy sector.

Plus, it's a highly visible site - as well as the home of Portland's first certified green building (the East End School). I suspect that most Portlanders would consider turbines here more a source of civic pride than an "eyesore".

Portland wouldn't be the first city to give a wind turbine or two a prominent spot: Toronto has one, as does the town of Hull on the eastern end of Boston Harbor, and the IBEW union in Dorchester installed a turbine right next to I-93.

So, is Portland really a "sustainable" city? Let's put our money where our mouth is by building windmills where the views are.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Truth in advertising: Pay Powerball

The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math, and for a couple of months now, the subversives at Nicely's Market in West Gorham have been broadcasting this anti-tax message to motorists on Route 25.

Tomorrow, Maine voters will decide whether to allow an Indian tribe to build a new casino in the economically-depressed Washington County, the most rural and most northerly county on America's eastern seaboard. This is Maine's big chance to redistribute wealth from poor people to other poor people, with a big slice of the small pie going to an assuring crowd of Las Vegas mobsters. If it sounds like a gamble, then let luck be a lady...

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Sewage Lagoon Wilderness

Via the local Portland Press Herald: those of us who missed the owl-watching in downtown Portland last weekend can make a trek instead to the sewage lagoons of nearby Sanford, Maine, where expanses of open water and mud flats attract migrating shorebirds every fall.

An Audubon Society excursion last year identified pied-billed grebe, double-crested cormorants, Canada geese, green-winged and blue-winged teal, many ducks, American pipits, pectoral sandpipers, Savannah sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, and Wilson's snipe. Sewage plant workers also have a photograph of a bald eagle that once came to visit.