I have problems when I want to write a post that covers a lot of ground, which results in my writing and rewriting notes and not getting anything up. For instance, I'm working on a post with My Thoughts on the Differences Between MIT and UW
, but it's only 30% done, and it will probably be months before I get it out. So my apologies in advance if this entry comes out a little scattered.
With that in mind, I wanted share some thoughts after seeing a speech by David Suzuki
, who is a well-known Canadian scientist/broadcaster/environmental activist. One of the bios on the web
describes him as "one of the world’s most effective popularizers of science, alongside Carl Sagan and Jacques Cousteau." He spoke at the University of Waterloo to help kick off the One-Tonne Challenge
, a Canadian government effort to help reduce greenhouse gasses/energy use.
I have to say that he is a truly amazing speaker--for an hour and a half, with no slides or visuals, he just talked, and had the entire sold-out theater enthralled. He certainly got my attention on a bunch of topics. For instance, I have been on the fence on GMOs (genetically modified organisms; e.g., BT/transgenic crops)--it was my understanding that this technology might displace the need for nastier technologies (pesticides), and enable no-till agriculture--see this Atlantic Monthly
article "Will Frankenfood Save the Planet?"
. Suzuki's qualifications on the topic are pretty strong--he's a geneticist by training (PhD/Professor). He pointed out the lack of understanding of the complex natural systems--for instance, we had no idea that bioaccumulation of DDT up the food chain occurred before seeing the problems actually occur (i.e., Rachel Carson's Silent Spring
), and warned strongly against proliferation of GMO technologies. He said (paraphrasing), "Any scientist that tells you there are no risks is either willfully lying or stupendously idiotic." He doesn't have me totally convinced to his side, but I'm definitely leaning that way.
I am currently reading one of his books that I grabbed from the library (From Naked Ape to Superspecies: A Personal Perspective on Humanity and the Global Eco-Crisis
). A very informative read; if any of you have a chance to read his stuff, he is a prolific author. He has an interesting way of backing up ideas which seem to be "crunchy-granola" thoughts with a measure of logic and scientific rigor.
During his speech, he stated that he gets asked over and over, "Okay Suzuki, you've convinced me. But what can I do?" He said he spoke to the people at the foundation that he heads, and they came up with the "Nature Challenge"
("top 10 ways you can conserve nature"). His response was, "What, is that it?" I agree--they do seem relatively small and insignificant on the scale of things... but worth checking out.
In regards to these challenge steps, I am proud to say that none of my friends drive SUVs, to the best of my knowledge (item 6) (with exceptions for "cute-utes" like the the Honda CR-V--unibody car chassis based, relatively high mileage). Suzuki pulled no punches in his speech--he said, "If you drive an SUV, you can't tell me that you give a damn about the environment." During my time working with production home builders, it was pretty heartening to see the ones who really "got it," (in environmental terms) and didn't drive the typical contractor F-150 pickup--because they didn't friggin' well need to. (i.e., one drove a VW Golf, another drove a tricked-out Subaru WRX).
I am very happy to both be living near my work (item 8) and rarely using my car (item 7)--once or twice a week, at most. I was actually eating a lot of vegetarian lunches (item 4) back in Boston (I could keep veggie pucks in the freezer for sandwiches), but I've fallen off the wagon on that front. I'm a huge fan of mass transit, when I can get it (i.e., in Boston)--item 9.
And I guess what I'm doing right now (sharing with family and friends) counts towards item 10.
Items 1 and 2 are particularly close to my heart, and something that I can speak on with some measure of authority: energy efficient homes. The graduate work that I do is pushing towards reducing building energy use and increasing building durability (i.e., it's pathetic to have the first one while you are harming the latter, which is often the case)--see my graduate group's website
. It's also what my job was all about, before coming to UW. But during my seven years working with production home builders trying to increase the efficiency of their housing stock under the Department of Energy Building America Program
, I have to say that I have been immensely frustrated with the economic system which provides almost no incentive for builders to increase their efficiency.
First of all, nationwide production home builders make their big money not from houses, but really from land speculation: they figure out which locations will be the new hot markets, grab the land, build houses on it, and hopefully make a profit. I figure they are mostly happy if they build houses that sell at a decent margin, that don't have too many warranty callbacks, and don't get them into a class action lawsuit. The builder has little incentive to push the envelope into energy efficiency. First of all, homebuilding is one of the most technology phobic fields around--i.e., "we fear change." If it requires new materials, new supply chain items, or new thought processes or subcontractor interactions, they will typically be pretty leery (although they can be convinced). Second, it is an incredibly low margin field: they are often loath to put in a $200 upgrade item. My understanding is that houses often sell at a mostly fixed price point--consumers are making decision based on calculations like, "In this neighborhood, builder X sells at $x per square foot, while builder y is at $y per square foot." This makes it hard to sell the idea that, "well, you can pass the cost on to the selling price by demonstrating that it is a superior home." Third, they do not see any
direct benefit from energy efficient homes. The consumer sees the reduced energy bills, not the builder. Yes, there is the marketing niche where they can become known as the efficient home builder--Jim Sargent
in Texas is one guy we've been working with who is building spectacularly good efficient houses, and he has a long waiting list of customers. And my company worked on an home energy bill guarantee program, which would provide a marketing boost for production builders who worked with us. But in the direct sense, the money is not directly going into the builders' pockets.
I would love to be proved wrong, but it seems like consumer demand and/or knowledge is just not high enough to push the majority of production homebuilding towards greater efficiency. I don't think market forces alone can possibly create the transformation that we would all like to see. Well, unless we get $2/therm natural gas prices... which would make my job a whole lot easier ;), and make me laugh at people heating their 5000 sf ego-monument suburban mansions. In the meanwhile, a tax credit for houses reaching a certain efficiency level is a good start. Or, as usual, California leads the way on progressive lawmaking, having a statewide home efficiency requirement (Title 24
)--which could certainly be a lot more stringent, but is a good start (a big shout out to Judy's sweetie John
Okay, end production homebuilding rant.
Anyway, I know that I'm writing to an audience of people with a similar mindset. There were a bunch of topics that David Suzuki touched on that made me say, "oh yeah, sure, I know about that." However, I realize that I naturally gravitate towards reading a lot of these items--if I see an Atlantic or National Geographic with an article on the end of oil or something, I typically grab it up and read it. I just wanted to mention my suggested reading on these topics, and see whether most of my readers were pretty conversant on these topics. There are loads of topics, but here's what's off the top of my head:
Global warming--a great resource was a joint Nova/Frontline documentary "What's Up With the Weather?"
; National Geographic devoted a good portion of their December 2004
issue to the topic. Bottom line: atmospheric CO2 is definitely greater than it has ever been, and can be distinctly linked to the industrial revolution. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. The only thing that is questionable is what the end result will be--i.e,. how much warming. The climate models are too sensitive to initial inputs and assumptions to really give any definitive answer, despite NCAR's best efforts (Hi Beemer!
The peak of oil production (M. King Hubbert and all that
), combined with the rise of China's consumption, due to a billion-person population trying to match first-world standards of living.
United States' ridiculously high standard of living/level of consumption with respect to the rest of the world (6% of the world population consuming 30% of the world's resources.
Internalities and externalities (language used in economics), and the fact that purchase prices do not necessarily reflect the true environmental cost of produced items (for instance, see this David Suzuki column
To be honest, I really do think it is quite possible that the world will start sucking more and more (due to the confluence of various environmental disasters) during our lifetimes, and that we all might be watching the slow horrible slide. Of course, the people who will get clobbered the most by climate change will be the third world--compared with the first world, which has the economic and technological resources to counter it (read: dikes and bigger air conditioners. smirk). I sometimes want to do everything that I can to "fight the good fight" on these issues. And I will
probably do what I can in my little piece of it, trying to get better, more efficient houses built.
But all my experience in my 34 years has taught me that the vast majority of the population is too self-entitled, self-interested, resistant to change/happy with the status quo, oblivious and unresponsive to science, shortsighted, worshipful of "the economy" as a divine force, and convinced that "it can't happen to them" that it's mostly a hopeless effort. Since I have no plan to have children, my basic hopes are to ride out the rest of my life, see if I can pull my retirement money out of the market before things go to shit, and hole up in a nice off-grid house for my retirement (with a collection of single malts to pass the time, and a large stockpile of ammunition as insurance). Enh... crap... maybe it's not that bad. Let's see what I think in the morning.