Posts tagged change

Solarious, the Sequel

It all started with a plan to get a little real-world experience in green. I was going to learn how to use a solar panel, and maybe hook one up to the place where I live, achieve true energy freedom, and hopefully help a few mega-corporations forget my phone number in the process. It felt innocent, idealistic, practical even. So I started Solarious here to follow the journey and catalogue some of the things I learn along the quest for self-sustainability. Today, almost three years later, it’s the journeys I haven’t shared here that have most greatly affected my destiny on this planet. But I’ll have to fill you in on all that later. In an effort to explore the world of green employment and a couple creative projects as well, I took a break from writing here last year. But the good news is I’m back, and could never have guessed how fast things can change even in a single 12 month period!

One major change is that green has finally gone from the niche market to the mainstream. Now I’m not arguing that adoption of policies and practices has approached the levels which it should. If anything we are like scrawny freshmen showing up for the first day of high school, ready to have our minds filled with the “answers” to life. There is so much we don’t know, both in and outside the classroom/laboratory. We are hardly even skilled at figuring out the things we have to know, much less knowing those things themselves. But at the end of that first day of school, we are at least learning that the cool kids aren’t always the established social powers, the big companies and time-honored traditional ways of doing things. No, becoming an entity of value, and not just financial value but a more-encompassing social and existential value, is becoming trendy.

This is an important moment for the “green movement”. Suddenly, you bring your canvas bags to the grocery store and no one stares you down. The farmers markets are crowded like never before if the owners of hybrid cars are an example, then anyone can be persuaded to join the green team! There is a danger posed by the level of acceptance that trendiness brings. This is the period in which society opens its ears to an idea. The people who are committed to this idea have a responsibility to carry the weight of the lifestyle they espouse. If people think that going green is about canvas bags and farmers markets and fair trade certified and recycling, then it will become something like so many movements before, a fad which fails to entertain its masters, and what an opportunity we will have lost in an age of potential.

When I started to learn about sustainable living, I was fascinated by the number of different ways in which you can change your life to become more self-reliant. It’s a little intimidating actually, when faced with the vague idea of “greening” your life. As time has progressed, I’ve come to see this area of thinking less a green movement and more one toward sustainability. Semantics, you say. Call it whatever you want so long as the job gets done. Well, I heartily agree. But in this case, the idea of green has become something quite corporate. Coca-Cola has a green division, so do BP, Walmart, and countless other behoemoth corporations who clearly don’t place doing the right thing above financial profit. No, they would not even be allowed by corporate bylaw to exist in such a state, so I feel fairly comfortable saying that efforts toward “greening” their work processes and products are largely driven by profit and little else. And there is little doubt on the surface that such a condition is less than conducive to long-term sustainability!

But this is where one must look deeper. True self-interest alone would force individuals to not drive the world down to the rims, because they still need a place to live. It is possible to be quite “green” and lead a totally unsustainable lifestyle. You buy carbon credits to offset your abnormally high amounts of air travel for work. Or maybe you bought a Prius so that your 40 minute commute each morning and evening wouldn’t make you so guilty. How about going “organic” and paying more for the privelege to eat steaks and drink exotic coffee and eat fair trade chocolate without remorse.

Hey, I do love a good Andean chocolate bar too, no need to protest. Just realize that there is a difference between being green, which is largely about taking your current habits and sprucing them up to where no one was harmed in the making of your XX so you can consume it happily, and sustainability, which means that somehow or other, we need to start living within the means of this planet and the systems which operate therein. Change is coming and it’s not going to be found all dressed up pretty with a pretty organic hemp ribbon and pricetag at a farmers market booth. No, this change, like all before and the myriad yet fated to come is going to be gritty by the terms of the day. Trust me, there is nothing sustainable about sipping a fair-trade columbian coffee and ordering the free range bison burger if that’s all you’re doing to combat the processes of inefficiency taking over our society. You thought it was “green” to buy hemp clothing. Could you MAKE that fabric from a plant?

I do understand that there is a line to be drawn in this age of interconnectivity and mass learning called the internet. You don’t have to know how to do everything, you just Google it and ten minutes later you’re a Minor Expert, whose degree from the school of everything is already in the mail. So there’s plenty of time to look that stuff up when it becomes relevant. Again, we’ve got plenty in common, no judgements here, but what would you do if your cell phone and all-access (wind-powered?) DSL plan went down and there was no internet freely available to you? How would you go about getting the knowledge you need? Don’t you think it’s time to start taking some of those steps toward knowledge now? This all sounds a little doomsday, and it’s designed to, because the aim is more about illustrating that sustainability is the true paradigm for future decision-making.

When you make a decision in your life, it’s fine to start with thinking about reducing your current burden on the planet. There’s so much that can be done in this area you could easily occupy a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect Nalgene bottle and recycled tile for your bathrooms. It’s like being a programmer and wanting to know every latest language that’s introduced to the market in a quest to be the newest greatest thing out there. Facebook may have wanted you to learn their proprietary FBML in 2008 but now they are deprecating the entire language in favor of more traditional programming language solutions. So if you spent a lot of time learning FBML to break into that lucrative user base, your time would have been better spent elsewhere, learning a language that’s useful in many applications and will stand the test of time.  It’s a matter of depth, you have to know something pretty well, and for a time, before you actually know much about its strengths and limitations.

Too many green products still go by the adage “Why have one tool when you can have two?” when sustainable thinking, like the standard language framework, are built on the priciple of “Why have two when one will do?”. So pick your battles wisely by learning about the processes underlying the actions you take for granted in your daily life. It’s a level of scientific examination for which few currently have the stomach, but it’s essential that as people in the greater public come with questions about being green, what they see is a message of sustainability, one that respects nature and our place within, one that doesn’t gloss over the issues at hand in order not to scare away potential advocates, and one being delivered by people who live whole, happy lives that just don’t happen to hurt the planet. So find a corner of the issue and start biting away at it, get to know it thoroughly. When people come asking how you did it, it will seem natural to share your journey and help them to take the leap.

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My Letter to Obama about Energy and the Environment

Well, okay, it was to his energy and environment transition staff, but hey, you never know!  One of the things about this upcoming administration to which I’m most looking forward is their commitment to getting public feedback as a regular part of the legislative process.  So of course, when they asked for my (and your!) opinion on what we as a nation can do to invest in alternative energy and the environment, I had to do my part.  You can too by visiting http://change.gov/page/s/energyenviro and sending them a message of your own.  Below, in somewhat edited form, is the environmental and energy wish list I hope to see in this country in the upcoming years in hopes that it will foster debate here on the site and elsewhere about the most important conservation and resource generation issues we face and how they may be solved.  What do you want to see happen?  Comment below and then head over to Change.gov to participate today!

***** My Energy and Environment Wish List *****

I think the most important thing that people need to realize is how the current energy supply affects prices and the need for more infrastructure.  For example, the concept of peak load on power plants: though conservation initiatives often highlight using off-peak power, rarely is it explained that central utilities must offer enough wattage to supply the highest moment of demand in a year.  Therefore, redesign of total power loads is highly beneficial, such as the advantages offered by off-peak charging of electric/hybrid cars (and tractors/industrial vehicles?), use of alternative energy storage programs such as that by LADWP (which uses off-peak hours to pump water uphill so that peak hour demand can be offset using hydro power and the excess supply built into the system is not wasted), programs which reward consumers for reducing their PEAK POWER LOAD (and therefore also their total power bills!), and more localized power production which loses substantially less than the 50% average wattage which travels over wires and is better tuned to the needs of a particular location.  This form of savings would allow existing power plants to use their energy much more efficiently and reduce need for new utility construction all while increasing our national security from foreign attack.  (Oh yeah, and phase out incadescent lights and unnecessary “standby” mode appliances!)

Mandatory minimum Leed certification levels (or some similarly arranged standard) for new construction starts and promoting eco-remodeling over creating new buildings where possible (with corresponding tax incentives for each) will go a long way toward reducing environmental toxins and energy use loads while stimulating the building and sustainable material markets.  Of course, tax credits for passive solar design and thermal resources (geo and solar) should be in the mix to highlight these low-impact technologies, which have relatively fast break-even points.  Tax credits for using non-toxic building materials and for installing “greenswitches” (which allow you to deactivate wall outlets and lights from a single light switch by the door when you leave the house for the day or go to sleep at night) would be great too!  Also, promoting organic food and material production greatly reduces our overall need for petroleum supplies (for pesticides and herbicides), while helping to restore America’s soil health and ecosystems.  Community garden programs could also use a boost, maybe by offering a green roof gardening program on existing public roofs, producing food for community programs while reducing the buildings’ energy needs.  And incentives for greening cities (like the Million Trees LA program), with special emphasis on using plants which produce edible fruits, nuts, and other foodstuffs to increase urban agricultural density and further buouy city budgets (an interesting example of a group trying to promote this is fallenfruit.org).  Perhaps also offer incentives for people who spend locally and stimulate their towns’ and cities’ economies and efficiency?  (RecycleBank has an successful program along these lines)

More research should be done on using nature’s own arsenal of environmental restorers and protectors (for example, using mushrooms for reforestation and toxic chemical environmental remediation).  We can also use certain restorative biofuel feed crops to rebalance the natural soil cycle, preventing erosion and therefore water pollution.  Our water, in particular, is a resource we cannot continue to allow to be polluted by heavy metals and current waste streams.  Providing farms better incentives for (or harsher punishments for not) properly collecting animal wastes that end up in the water supply.  Also, active superfund sites, especially mining sites, need to be addressed as soon as possible to prevent further contamination downstream.

As for alternative energy sources, there are so many different exciting technologies out there in the prototype and early market stages, the next phase (besides, of course, funding more R&D and business development!) will be ensuring that we have qualified technicians who can utilize these developments and technologies within the current marketplace competitively.  Offering more GANN-style grants for alternative energy and resource management studies at both undergrad and grad levels and creating and/or expanding a GreenCorps (modeled after the PeaceCorps) program which could first be challenged to green all federal and governmental facilities are both interesting options.  They can also promote public awareness of the consequences of their waste disposal actions and maintain a national resource database, which would help to source materials from within the country and with minimal transport for manufacture and also further educate people about the natural resources of the areas in which they dwell.  America could easily create lease or loan programs modeled after Japan’s successful solar leasing program or the SELF (Solar Electric Light Fund) loan initiatives in developing nations.  Both have been extremely successful in increasing solar adoption in times of economic despair (Japan) and area with fewer monetary resources (SELF), and could easily be applied to other alternative technologies.  Cuba’s solar school mandate is another great application of initial investment leading to long-term savings.

Two side notes on R&D for alternative energy technologies.  First, we need further development of integrated technologies, such as solar roof shingles, which serve multiple purposes and fit within current design models.  Currently, most alt technologies are add-ons – you mount them onto something else that’s already there.  With integrated technologies, the need to do this would be reduced, such as cars that have wind driven motor rotation when traveling above certain speeds (when wind can be effectively funneled through existing structures).  The other side note is that the digital divide, while not expressly an environmental problem, is something that we and all other nations will have to address in the coming years.  If we could fund people seeking ways to power computers without grid power or create highly efficient digital components, this will obviously help reduce future energy burdens on the US and globally.

(well, it continues beyond here, but congratulations if you’re still reading, ’cause I know I can really get talking when it comes to saving the earth! ) What are your ideas? Do you have stories of people (other than the listed examples) already doing these things?

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Rogue Waves: Putting it in Motion

There is a phenomenon in the oceans known as a rogue wave. For reasons until recently unfathomable, occasionally, a single ENORMOUS wave would arise from its surrounding brethren and cause devastation to anything whose path it crossed. Sort of like a 90 foot tsunami without the underlying earthquake, and out at sea. According to the History Channel, recent advances in marine science have allowed us a better glimpse into possible causes. They theorize that these waves, defined by being more than twice the size of any surrounding wave, are caused by undercurrents which slow down the wave and basically cause water to pile up high. Other waves also overtake this slowed wave and add to its strength and content, pushing it forward with great power. Here’s my oversimplified diagram:

To me, this seems like the perfect analogy for changes in your life. We are all just flowing along like waves, each on our own “wavelength” but still in accordance with the greater tide. Occasionally, we are slowed down by currents flowing in another direction, currents which underly our own existence and form the foundation of our own flows. History, media, physical laws. These base currents are traveling in their own wave pattern, and so they interact with each wavelength, or individual, differently depending upon where in their period the two collide.

Obstacles in life be they physical, emotional, or intellectual can cause us to literally slow our roll here on earth. It can be frustrating. What I like about this analogy is that when you slow down, your momentum and that of others actually catches up with you and feeds you force and strength. What you might perceive as a breakdown in the flow is actually a period of recharge for you to gain whatever strength you require. If you are trying to get your landlord to let you install drought-friendly landscaping, and he or she insists on calling you that “garden nut” no matter how many good reasons you supply about how much money this will save their business, you can either be frustrated or you can use that to your advantage. After all, now you have a big folder of solid reasons that xeriscaping makes sense at your disposal. A folder that you can take to local businesses at which you already shop and show them why it is in their interest to consider such installations at their storefront. You can start a business that outsources the work of it, and you make money and the world gets a little more responsibly beautiful BECAUSE your landlord frustrated you by asking for fifteen sources and still saying no.

Or, if the last scenario seemed too user intensive to you, how about this one? You sit down at your computer, frustrated by the recent response, and you start searching for that perfect source. Along one of the twisted lanes that Google weaves, you discover a chat room of people frustrated just like you. You start talking about what you’d REALLY like to happen in the world. It makes you start thinking a little deeper about it, and you realize how much you love plants. So much, that you might like to get a plot at the community garden. You get one and get to know people there as well as staying in touch with people from the chat room. When a big-city developer comes in and wants to turn your community garden into condos, you rant about it in your chat room, and someone, a lawyer, offers their services to save the garden free of charge. Garden saved. A garden that you weren’t even involved with until your landlord said… NO!

Rogue waves are the result of the interaction of many different energies, just like social progress. It can feel overwhelming to think you are only one wave in a big old ocean, but rest assured, there are other forces at work that you can’t necessarily see, and that just might work to amplify your cause in strange and unpredictable ways. You’ll never know until you put it into motion.

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Who’s Hiding in Your Kitchen?

Scryve.com

Scryve.com

“Scryve is a collaborative web resource and browser tool combination that provides a resource for environmentally and socially aware Internet browsing. Look up company ratings using the search box below, or Download our browser tool to see the rating of any company whose website you are on in the top right corner of your browser. If you like the rating, keep browsing, if you don’t like it, click on it and we’ll show you why the company is rated that way and give you alternative companies to use.”

I figured I’d just let them speak for themselves, this time. The browser interface is very nice, though the recommendations seem to be based on a keyword algorithm that sometimes return humorous results. As is it obviously designed to be a user-driven site, right now, in its youngest stages, there are a lot of basic ratings and company information. Probably with a little more time and user traffic to get the recommendations streamlined, this site will become a valuable resource. For now, it functions best as a lesson in who owns what in the world. You might be surprised just how few people that could really be.

Going green and/or running from the grid are drastic changes to make in one’s standard lifestyle. But not because they require you to sell your soul or start making pemmican professionally from a National Forest treetop. It also has a lot to do with looking at the greater picture of things, which is a skill that translates across to successes in all walks of life. When I realized how easy it is to make a few simple changes and effectively shut out the power (both literally and figuratively!) of the people that I didn’t want telling me how to live each day, well, I was hooked. Success coaches stress the importance of success as a mindset. We would all do well to start out giving ourselves small goals that we actually achieve rather than big ones left half done. Try picking one alternative company to your mega mart today. Then, once you’ve adjusted your routine, pick another. Then you build with a solid foundation for future change.

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