Thursday, February 28, 2008

Oceans and atmosphere: a perspective view

Here's a neat visualization from Dan Phiffer, seen on Grist:

"Left: All the water in the world (1.4087 billion cubic kilometres of it) including sea water, ice, lakes, rivers, ground water, clouds, etc. Right: All the air in the atmosphere (5140 trillion tonnes of it) gathered into a ball at sea-level density. Shown on the same scale as the Earth."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Perceived/Actual risk

Yesterday there was a big blackout in southern Florida. Two consequences of which were:
  1. A nuclear power plant was forced to shut down for safety reasons, and

  2. Hundreds of traffic lights in Miami went dark.
Which of these was more dangerous? News headlines and reports generally seemed more concerned with the former, but the latter caused more actual damage by precipitating dozens of traffic accidents. The nuclear plant's shutdown harmed no one; in fact, it demonstrated that the plant's safety measures and backup precautions were all working as they should be.

And no, the terrorists were not involved, even though the New York Times asserts that "such fears were prevalent."

The blackout provides a nice example of how people worry too much about things that are actually pretty unlikely to harm them and not enough about the things that actually kill dozens of people every day. The graphic above, by artist Susanna Hertrich, is a lovely illustration of how the things we worry about are wrong. I'm not sure where her data is from, but this article cites astronomy research that pegs the odds of getting killed by an asteroid (along with a few million fellow humans) as roughly equal to dying in a plane crash, and both ends are several times more likely to happen than dying in a terrorist attack. In other words, the war-on-terror hawks are about as wacky as the people who wear tinfoil hats to protect themselves against "electrosmog."

Note how the closest we come to matching perceived risk with actual risk is in the "environmental pollution" category - but even there, we're too distracted by Osama bin Laden to pay as much attention to the problem as we should. And while we hyperventilate about imaginary terrorists, we're incredibly blasé about the daily slaughter on our streets.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Safer streets, cleaner watersheds

My old college town, the other Portland, gets lots of credit from environmentalists as a "green city". But for all of its innovations and accolades, the city still deals with terrible sewer overflow problems. Every time it rains, thousands of gallons of runoff flow into storm drains, mix with human sewer waste, and overflow into the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Visit the city's famed waterfront parks, and you'll see frightening signs warning you against even touching the water.

The city is spending billions of dollars to separate storm drains from dirtier sewer water, but at the same time, they're implementing much less expensive efforts to reduce urban runoff before it even gets to a drain: by subsidizing green roofs that absorb rainwater on top of buildings, and green streets that soak up water from the pavement before it goes down a storm drain.

Here are a few photos of Portland's NE Siskiyou "green street" project, courtesy of the project's designer, Kevin Robert Perry (as seen on Pruned):

Above: rainwater flowing along the curb enters a vegetated basin before it gets to a storm drain.

Plants inside the basin help aerate the soil, which in turn improves the basin's absorption capacity. Their root systems also support bacteria that can absorb and break down pollutants that flow off from the pavement.

The "green street" occupies what had been underutilized curbside parking on a neighborhood street. It's traffic calming, neighborhood green space, and inexpensive water treatment, all rolled into one elegant solution. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to become a landscape architect myself.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Preserving real estate, not nature

Maine's in the middle of a midwinter thaw, and yesterday, after a day of rain, I went with Jess and two other friends for a walk through the fog in a wildlife preserve in Cape Elizabeth, the fancy oceanside suburb just south of Portland. I had a great time: it was just what I needed after a frustrating day in front of the computer, we saw a big barred owl, and we got to play with a really fun dog.

That said, in the next two posts I write, I'm going to be really critical of land trusts that preserve property in upper-class enclaves like Cape Elizabeth. As nice as the place is, I can be fairly certain that its main purpose is in preserving neighbors' real estate values, not nature.

Much like Portland's other wealthy suburban neighbor, Falmouth, the wealthy residents of Cape Elizabeth spend lots of their money on their conservation land trust. The land trust is a nonprofit organization which buys up forests and farm fields, the last vestiges of the town's rural roots. Residents can donate easements or outright gifts of land to the trust, which ensures that the scenic landscape will be preserved in perpetuity and returns, in exchange, substantial tax benefits to the donors.

Ostensibly, the trusts exist to preserve ecological functions, wildlife habitat, and, in some cases, working farmland, a historical connection to a rural heritage in a suburban era. And to give fair credit, many land trusts do manage to accomplish these things. In close-in suburbs like Falmouth and Cape Elizabeth, though, the ecological wastelands of suburban backyards crowd up against the fringes of the conservation land, and the preserves are usually too small and too disjointed to provide significant wildlife habitat. Here's a satellite view of one Cape Elizabeth "preserve":

View Larger Map
Above: Cul-de-sacs and Cape Elizabeth Land Trust's Stonegate preserve.

To speak frankly, the real function of many of these preserves is to conserve scenic picture-window views of woods and fields, and to preserve residents' illusions that their town is still a wild, rural community. These places assure well-paid white-collar professionals that the place where they live (if you can call sleeping and lawnmowing "living") is still tied to the land, even if its residents are chained to desks downtown.

There are several big problems with this kind of "conservation". First and foremost: it's elitist. Conserving lots of land in Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth is effectively a form of exclusionary zoning that prevents other people from building their own houses there. This raises existing residents' property values even more and is a big reason why Cape Elizabeth and Falmouth are essentially unaffordable to anyone who hasn't spent at least eight years in a university.

There are also tremendous environmental costs hidden in those pastoral meadows: because the close-in suburbs are unaffordable, the hoi polloi must move further out to places like Scarborough or Windham (which were, until recently, actual rural communities) in search of affordable housing, with the net result being more pollution everywhere. By any measure, putting ten houses on two acres of a Falmouth "preserve" is better than ten houses on a thirty-acre ex-pasture in Gray.

Finally, I'm concerned the illusion of wilderness that these "preserves" maintain in a suburban community doesn't just shield their neighbors from consorting with the working classes: I suspect that they also shield suburbanites from thinking seriously about the environmental consequences of their own hyperactive consumption. Seeing a forest or a pastoral meadow out the window seems like a good way to buy falsely rosy assurances about the world's condition. Cloistered in the woods at the end of a long driveway, you can avoid environmental responsibility almost as effectively as you can avoid your neighbors.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The City trumps the Prius

Hey, all you granolas. Sell your Prius, sign over the homestead to the lumber company, and move to town - it's the new frontier in honest environmentalism.

As America's unmoored energy policy flails about for some kind of "sustainable" solution to keep us moving between our American Dream wilderness retreats and the closest Wal-Mart (turns out the biofuels that won the jackpot in Washington's latest energy bill are are only going to make matters worse - oops), it's becoming increasingly clear that there isn't any sustainable way to maintain the massive amounts of energy and highway infrastructure that suburbs require.

That's the gist of a new essay-in-progress by WorldChanging editor Alex Steffen: My Other Car is a Bright Green City.

Steffen argues that even if Detroit were able to pull a 135 mile-per-gallon-equivalent hybrid out of its ass and into mass production tomorrow, the age of happy motoring would still be doomed (although any efforts that Detroit might invest to that end would be very much appreciated). Modest efforts to increase transit infrastructure and support density in existing towns and cities will have much bigger effects on our total greenhouse gas emissions than the most ambitious gas-mileage standards. Besides that, city-dwellers on average spend less energy on electricity, heating, and cooling as well.

So pack up your geodesic dome and reserve your spot at the community garden - there are still plenty of vacant lots left over from the slums they bulldozed while you were dancing away at Woodstock. The future of environmentalism is in our cities: as Steffen writes, "we might just awaken on the other side of this fight to find ourselves prosperously at home in the sort of communities we thought lost forever, leading more creative, connected and carefree lives."

Monday, February 11, 2008

Contraband bulbs

Sen. Ethan Strimling, my neighbor and representative in the Maine senate, has proposed legislation that would ban most types of incandescent lightbulbs - the kind that Thomas Alva Edison invented 130 years ago - by 2010, as a way to hasten our transition to more efficient light sources. Here's a Portland Press Herald article on the subject.

I think this is a decent enough idea, although, as I'll soon explain, I also think that there are much more effective ways to deal with greenhouse gas pollution. But first, consider that if everyone in the whole state switched their lights to compact fluorescents, or even more efficient LEDs, ratepayers could save over $40 billion on electric bills every year, and we might reduce annual CO2 pollution by almost half a trillion pounds (source).

But at the same time, if I look at this from an economist's point of view, banning light bulbs begins to look like a clumsy and ineffective way to deal with global warming. The light bulbs are only an indirect cause of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants: few people would quibble with an incandescent light hooked up to a solar panel. Besides that, General Electric claims that it's working on developing a super-efficient incandescent bulb that would be as efficient as a CFL - and, presumably, not have any toxic mercury inside, as CFLs do. If we ban incandescents, we'd block off this avenue of "green" research and development.

Sometimes it seems to me as though the old light bulbs are being used as a political scapegoat, while we fritter away more effective opportunities to deal with the global warming's root causes. It's noteworthy that the recently-passed 2007 federal energy bill, which was widely criticized for its political pandering and failure to support truly renewable energy, also included a goal of phasing out incandescents by 2020. It came off then as a whimpering assurance that our Congress was trying their best, even though we all knew that the effort was completely inadequate.

So, here's how I would improve Senator Strimling's bill: instead of banning a certain type of light bulb, let's harness the free market to promote energy efficiency everywhere. Here's one way we might do it: get rid of the sales tax on light bulbs, then replace it with a wattage tax.

Let's say we decide on a two cent-per-watt tax for bulbs. Then a 50 watt incandescent would cost an extra $1.00 to the consumer, while a 11 watt CFL, generating an equivalent amount of light, will only cost an extra $0.22 cents (plus a deposit). This would make most CFLs cheaper and more salable than their incandescent competitors on the shelf, which, in turn, would give General Electric and any other light bulb manufacturers a stronger incentive to produce more efficient bulbs, no matter what kind of technology they might use.

The state could take this idea even further by dedicating a portion of the tax revenues to weatherization programs for low-income households, to developing renewable power sources, or to promoting other forms of energy efficiency. This strategy is similar to the one public health advocates have taken with cigarettes: instead of banning them, tax them and use the proceeds for something useful.

Who knows, though - it might be a nightmare to administrate, with tax collectors poring over hardware stores' inventories to figure out the bill. But if they could figure out a way to make it work, it would give Mainers an elegant path to take towards better efficiency.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Clean Power

Clean Power
Originally uploaded by brentdanley.
Local Flickrer Brent Danley was on the scene earlier this week when construction workers erected a new 50 kW wind turbine on Saco Island, a redeveloping 19th-century mill district that lies between the downtown areas of Biddeford and Saco, Maine. The municipally-owned generator is expected to power the cities' new train station, which also includes offices for the local chamber of commerce. I'm looking forward to seeing it myself on my next train ride south.

The old textile mills on Saco Island have been largely abandoned for years, but now there are ambitious plans to revive them with new offices and condos. One thing that I find appealing about this new windmill is how it salvages a small scrap of the island's historic role as a productive, industrial place, even as it aims to transform itself into a yuppie consumers' haven.

The other neat thing about this new windmill is its odd-couple pairing with an older feature of the Biddeford-Saco skyline: the Maine Energy Recovery Corporation's (MERC) waste-to-energy incinerator, whose smokestack rises just a stone's throw away from the windmill on the Biddeford side of the Saco River.

Since the late 1980s, MERC has been incinerating Mainers' garbage to produce electricity, and in recent years, it has been facing increasing criticism from neighbors who think that the incinerator is incompatible with the twin cities' revitalizing downtowns.

MERC probably isn't going anywhere fast, but its new rival on the skyline ought to at least make a lot of Biddeford/Saco residents (including all those new condo dwellers) think hard about the electricity they use and the garbage they produce.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The next manifest destiny

Photo by Vincent Laforet, National Geographic Magazine

It's beginning to look as though the spectacular economic boom in America's arid west - the golf courses in the desert, the huge dams, the miles and miles of tract housing, the strip malls with palm-and-lawn landscaping - coincided with the wettest century of the past millennium, according to an article by Robert Kunzig in the latest National Geographic Magazine.

So now things are getting back to normal, which is way too dry for the West's new arrivals: Lake Powell is half empty and wildfires in suburban subdivisions have become an annual event. The alfalfa farmers in the desert are getting militant. Your southwestern country clubs are getting nervous.

The West's recovery from the past century's bout of relative dampness is actually likely to go speeding right past "normal" and enter into a few centuries' worth of mega-drought, thanks to effects of global climate change that are already taking hold. The warming globe is baking the moisture out of the air in the world's desert regions and making their climates even drier, even as it relocates that moisture north to wallop more temperate latitudes with increased precipitation and more powerful storms.

In Western mountains, which typically attract enough moisture to sustain forests, increased heat and drought and decreasing snowpack are exposing forests to more and more wildfires, while the trees that don't burn are left to contend with exploding infestations of pine beetles and other pests. The West's sky islands, isolated remnants of ice-age ecosystems that survive high up in desert mountains, are retreating further uphill every year as their forests seek the cooler air they need to survive. Like spruce-fir forests in New England, most of these ecosystems will shrink to nothing when they reach the summits of their mountains.

A landscape ecologist for a federal land agency says that "the projections are that Joshua trees may not survive in Joshua Tree National Park. Sequoias may not survive in Sequoia National Park. What do you do? Do you irrigate these things? Or do you let a 2,000-year-old tree die?"