Monday, September 28, 2009

The age of stupid?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

I recently went to the remote global premier of the film The Age of Stupid, which included a live simulcast to over 500 theaters in 45 countries as a tie-in to climate week and the UN climate meetings in New York.

The movie is set up as a series of modern day vignettes looked at through the eyes of an archivist 45 years in the very bleak future, who can only wonder at why we were so stupid. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical that this film would cover any new ground: There are only so many ways to represent the potential dangers and damage of climate change, many of which were covered via Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's 11th hour (and in the case of a few scenes, the lightweight and unbelievable "The Day After Tomorrow".)

But I was impressed by the honest treatment of the complexity of the issues surrounding action on climate change. The film acknowledges that it isn't as easy as simply turning off the 'carbon tap'. The aspirations of billions for a middle class life, the entrepreneurial spirit, the contradictions between what we need to do for a living and what we believe, and even the simple unwillingness of many to accept aesthetic inconveniences (even while expressing concern over the climate) are all featured, providing an interesting human face and counterpoint to the growing body of scientific evidence and urgency for action. The film is full of ironies, such as the segment on a young Nigerian woman who points out the injustices of Shell Oil in her community, while selling diesel and wistfully aspiring to the "American good life", which of course is powered at least in part by Shell.

Most of the characters seem to feel "trapped" in a lifestyle that they know is unsustainable, even as the evidence of the planetary impact mounts around them. Perhaps we are not living so much in an "age of stupid" as an age of covet or inertia? Whatever the case, these are very real behavioral barriers to tackling the climate issue. For the "haves", we need to somehow increase the sense of urgency without waiting for the kind of planetary apocalypse to occur that the film projects. For the "have nots ", using climate action as a tool rather than barrier for development is also a way to encourage positive change.

The post film discussion was equally interesting, featuring the film's director (Franny Armstrong), Kofi Annan, the head of the IPCC, and many others. All seem generally alarmed at how much hangs in the balance in the next few months, both with US climate policy and worldwide commitment in Copenhagen. There was also a strong and consistent call for serious lifestyle change and economic retooling in the west as a matter of self preservation and social justice.

Finally, Ms. Armstrong rolled out a "10:10" campaign, urging a voluntary commitment to reduce emissions 10% by 2010. While the idea to send a message of public will is a strong one, the target is pretty tame, requiring little change, inconvenience or financial commitment, and is simply not enough. If anything, it may send a message that true public will is lacking.

Has she fallen into one of her film's traps of symbolic gestures over real change? Or perhaps as a Brit, she has does not fully appreciate that for the average American, 10% is easy. While Europeans have already captured the low hanging fruit, we clearly have not. For this "side of the pond", I have been a proponent of 20:20 or more, which is 20% via reduction and 20% more via offsetting.

Whatever your commitment, all of this attention is well timed. A strong populist message to the UN and the climate delegates needs to be sent.

Photo courtesy Spanner Films, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Are We Too Locavoracious?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

If you open the latest Merriam-Webster's Collegiate dictionary, (or use it online) you'll now find an entry for "locavore". The New Oxford American Dictionary made it the "word of the year" way back in 2007, so no kudos for the Websterites...they're bit late to the party. In any case, Webster defines it as "one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible."

But the bigger question is why? The three reasons I hear come up most often are:
  • it helps the environment,
  • it's healthier and fresher, and
  • it supports small farmers in your area.
I'm all for fresh and healthy food and supporting local farmers, and the locavore movement is also a statement against the many negative aspects of the global corporate food system. (Having recently seen Food Inc, these negative aspects in particular are fresh in my mind.)

But when it comes to helping the environment, local is not always better. "Food miles" aren't typically the largest component of the carbon footprint of a product. One Carnegie Mellon study put the transportation piece in the 5-10% range on average. Our own in-depth study of beer put transportation in the 3-4% range, jumping to 10% if your product is shipped cross-country (intermodal). Significant, but the use of recycled glass, organic grain, and green energy all have a potentially larger impact.

Another study from New Zealand found that New Zealand pasture grazing lamb was 4 times less carbon intensive than feed lot lamb. Not only does this negate the food miles, personally I would rather buy pasture raised meat from overseas over that from a local high density feed lot. Similarly, a local non-organic source may not be 'better' than an organic alternative from farther away, and a locally grown hothouse tomato may use a lot more energy than an outdoor tomato from another state.

One local supermarket chain in my area is advertising their produce section as an "indoor farmer's market" (yikes!), and "all natural" seems to be the most misleading adjective of the decade. We need to look beyond marketing claims, and try to really understand where our food comes from, and how it's produced. As one of the Carnegie Mellon scientists pointed out "for the average consumer, buying local is not as important as what you eat."

Photo: Creative commons license - copyright swanksalot at

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Green Economy and A Moving Van

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Did he or didn't he? We'll probably never know the true story behind Van Jones' signature on a 911 conspiracy petition that ultimately caused him to step down as green jobs czar. Politics is a dirty business (made dirtier by the internet) and he certainly is not the first or the last victim of partisanship. (Nor will he quietly vanish from the public spotlight!)

The real question is whether his passion for reinventing our economy so that tackling climate change actually creates opportunity will be a victim as well. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times did a profile on him in 2007 which featured a great quote summing up his position:

"The green economy has the power to deliver new sources of work, wealth and health to low-income people - while honoring the Earth. If you can do that, you just wiped out a whole bunch of problems. We can make what is good for poor black kids good for the polar bears and good for the country."

To that I would add that we also have a chance to solve problems in the developing world. While we tend to focus on the sky high average US footprint and the 'westernization' of successful economies (cars, televisions, appliances) leading to climate threats, there are a host of solutions to deep rural poverty issues that can be beneficiaries of action on the climate.

Imagine a future where we divert some of the $600 million we spend daily on oil imports (and $100 million per day on coal) to producing energy by capturing the wind, sun, tides, and heat. Imagine also trading out energy purchases for smarter design and construction of buildings, machines, cookstoves in Africa, and even cities. This future - where energy is a clean product rather than polluting resource controlled by a few large oil companies and countries, where we replace thoughtless disposable consumption with a skilled service and manufacturing sector, and where we practice natural capitalism (valuing ecological systems) - is an exciting and energizing counterweight to the normal doom and gloom surrounding the climate change discussion.

As Van Jones has said "Dr. King didn't get famous giving a speech that said, I have a complaint." Let's keep the dream alive.

Photo copyright psd at

Monday, September 7, 2009


By Dave Rochlin - Originally posted on

Imagine generating solar, wind, or geothermal power for your home and selling the excess to your neighbors. In the future, will you be the power company? If we are serious about renewable energy, the answer could be yes.

In many other countries, they have successfully put in place feed-in tariffs to accelerate this. Unlike "net metering" which allows cleanly generated electricity to be fed into the grid to offset electric bills, feed-in tariffs basically require utilities to pay a premium price for renewable energy they purchase from homeowners and businesses that install wind turbines, solar panels, or other clean-energy generating devices on their properties. Many see this as a faster way to get to more renewables, while creating green jobs and avoiding the barriers that have slowed the changeover here in the US. Germany in particular has used this model very successfully.

What's the alternative? California has a 33% renewable energy target for the year 2020. Unfortunately, using large scale solar and wind projects to meet this goal (mostly in remote areas) creates the need for an estimated $12-15 billion for transmission lines alone, a figure that will no doubt go well beyond $20 billion if and when they actually build them. T. Boone Pickens' project to install hundreds of massive turbines in the Texas panhandle was abandoned due to similar transmission line issues, and a fight is brewing over who should pay for a $12 billion project to connect wind from the plains to the large cities in the Midwest.

Centralized power generation could be a thing of the past. Fast Company described the renewables push in the United States as "big, expensive, slow, and spectacularly uncertain." Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute compares the push for "big renewables" as similar to proposing more hardwired telephone exchanges and mainframe computers in a world that has moved on to internet telephony and laptops. The large power generators have some interesting technologies on the horizon, but creating a vibrant decentralized industry where individual energy customers can compete with the utilities is likely to create more change and a better long-term outcome. A variety of bills are moving through state legislatures and and congress...keep your eyes open!

Photo copyright mjmonty at (Creative Commons license)