Casaubon's Book

Why I Hate Earth Day

I bloody hate Earth Day. No offense to those of you who love it, and I know there are some awesome Earth Day programs out there, but by the time we get there, I’m spending my days hiding under the covers, because every freakin’ time I open my email inbox a wave of the most nauseating spew of greenwashing comes flowing out.

Guess what? A major department store chain, nearly in bankruptcy, is now selling the eco-tote, made from organic sheepskin, embossed with “Think Global, Act Local” to show your care for the earth and indifference to grammar. And not to trouble me, but just so you know, the manufacturers of a disgusting sugar laden soft-drink have a new organic one, in a special collectible earth-day bottle. Don’t forget to follow the adventures of Eddie, who is marching nude across the Alaskan wilderness (except for his high priced hiking boots, oh, and the camera crew is clothed, as are the drivers of the six suport jeeps that follow him at 3 mph for the whole way) to raise awareness of Caribou migration Here’s a new website that helps affluent consumers buy carbon offsets so they don’t have to give a shit about their flights to Cancun wants to let me have an interview with their CEO. And don’t forget the chance to meet the manufacturer of a new, even bigger hybrid SUV that gets …woah…23 mpg!

This happens every year, but of course, for the fortieth anniversary of earth day, the bullshit levels reach new heights. My favorite new innovation is that now the press-releases actually acknowledge the problem of greenwashing, implying that you can’t trust those other manufacturers of pointless bullshit, but you definitely, really and truly, can trust someone who a. knows the word “greenwashing” and b. cares enough to add your email to a mailing list of 70,000 people.

I find myself frustrated by the way that words like “organic” and “local” and “sustainable” are used by these companies. I know that most of them have only the lightest relationship to environmentalism, and many of them have given money to politicians and institutions that have tried to delay or stymie global warming legislation. Moreover, the culture of buying new, high status clothing every season, or driving around in slightly more fuel efficient cars simply can’t get you where we need to go in the relevant time. Utlimately, their products are part of the problem. Moreover, track back the histories of many green products and you find they aren’t really green. Consider bamboo fiber, touted as a replacement for cotton – the process used to soften and process it is incredibly polluting and toxic. Or look at “biodegradable” diapers and plastic bags – manufactured from corn grown in China with heavy doses of nitrogen fertilizer. There’s nothing sustainable about this. Or organic food grown by enormous companies who use more fossil fuels and treat their farm workers badly.

Colin Beavan, aka “No Impact Man” used to say that environmentalism has to become as easy as rolling off a log to get most people invested, and there’s some real truth there. The problem, of course, is that it can’t be. It isn’t easy to figure out what the right choice is – and there isn’t a universal right choice. Should you eat meat? Well no one should eat feedlot meat. But what about a small amount of local and grassfed? Well, it depends on where you live – is your soil mostly tillable? Is there enough water to feed cattle? Do you live on a prairie that needs grazing animals, or on the side of a mountain where you can’t grow wheat? Do you live in a city where you could raise poultry or rabbits on food waste that would otherwise be producing methane in landfills? Even if the answer is yes doesn’t mean unrestricted or infinite numbers of cows – grazing populations have to take water availability and a whole host of other things into consideration. But it does mean that there’s not one answer.

And when there is one answer, when it isn’t complicated, the answer doesn’t usually involve buying anything. It involves using a lot less of that thing – cutting the amount of shampoo you use in half, and then half again and seeing just how little you can use and still have passably clean hair. It involves thrift shops and mending and creative reuse – and hard work and thought about whether you really need something.

The thing is, it is possible to engage people with these more complex strategies. Historian Timothy Breen argues that these “rituals of non-consumption” emerge in difficult times to replace the satisfaction people gets from consumption. But they are communal, collective, and they involve conversations and practices that replace, rather than just eliminate. It isn’t enough to say “stop shopping” – instead you have to give someone something as satisfying as shopping to do, and a community to do it within. When Miranda Edel and I founded the Riot for Austerity, we found that this was the esssential element – that we could get people to cut their usage by 70, 80 and 90% over the average American – and without major political interventions or buying that 20,000 dollar solar system. But what was needed was the fun of the participatory exercise of reducing one’s usage. What was needed was a good story about how we were all part of something.

And that’s why I’m a skeptic about Earth Day and Earth Hour and anything that has you be green for a weekend or a day or an hour. Yes, I’m the original poster girl for “your personal choice makes an impact” – but not one day a year. And yes, teaching kids about the basics of environmentalism is awesome, and having festivals is good. But the truth is that I don’t see it sticking.

I see Earth Day as the new Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, a Hallmark holiday for us to give lip service to the environment. There are contrary forces, good in the mix – but then there are good things in the mix of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or Valentines as well. But the reality of Mother’s Day doesn’t seem to be that it inspires us to be more respectful of the needs of mothers – what comes out of Mother’s Day isn’t more calls for breastfeeding stations and child friendly policies, but a “we told you we loved you last Sunday…aren’t we done yet?” The same is true of Valentines Day – there’s no compelling reason to believe that once a year special chocolates and sex really do all that much to lower the national divorce rate.

The problem of living in a culture whose dominant message is that consumption is all – that we are not citizens but consumers, is that we learn to think of ourselves as baby birds with our mouths open. Our job is to create markets, to buy the right things, to spend money. And how you spend your money definitely matters. But it matters in context with how you vote and act and live your life and demonstrate and speak and model a meaningful way of life. More is simply required of us that opening our beaks.

Isak Dineson famously said “All suffering is bearable if seen as part of a story.” The emptiness that people feel when they live a life primarily as consumers is no accident – the problem is that the story we’re engaged in isn’t very interesting. A story where your primary role is to create a market, to consume and come back for more is incredibly dull – try writing one someday. But the good news is that there really is a worthwhile story to be told – just not one to be told one day a year. It has all the best elements you can imagine – survival against odds and courage and journeys through difficult circumstances. It has heroes and acts of heroism and passion and drama. It is the story of our lives in the circumstances we find ourselves in – and it is no accident that despite the fact that bazillions of dollars are spent telling us we are just consumers, and that’s all the story we could ever need, people by the thousands and sometimes even millions are frustrated and looking for a better story. And it is here.

It is also no accident that corporations and others are attempting to transform the story of our future, of our journey to and through a difficult and remarkable transition as the story of just another shopping day.

Is it any wonder, if you live your life like a baby bird with your mouth open that what gets dropped into it every time is a worm? People will attempt to reshape your worm and convince you that it is extra yummy this time, but it is still a worm. And the story of consumers is still boring.

If you are going to get better than that, we’re going to have to participate, and go out and seek new sources and resources and options, we’re going to have to replace much of our consumption with rituals of non-consumption. We’re going to have to write a good and compelling story with our lives. The good news is that it is a lot more fun to be a citizen than a consumer, and rituals of non-consumption are just as satisfying as retail therapy. The good news is that there are better stories out there for the claiming and the living, and events are conspiring to keep our times interesting. The good news is that we can do better than worms.

Sharon

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Lora
    April 21, 2010

    The new thinking is that it takes ~ 66 days (possibly more for the change-resistant) of daily practice to give up a bad habit or develop a good one. And we know that the effects of the Great Depression, which lasted a lot longer than 66 days, affected the behavior of a generation for the rest of their lives, as did the post-WWII British economy.

    It seems like there should be some cutoff point where, if various habits developed in the name of frugality are not abandoned, the part of the economy dependent on disposable income (entertainment type of things, restaurant meals, etc.) will not recover for at least a generation or longer.

    Clearly this doesn’t worry the C-levels, who will get paid even if McDonalds’ et al. stock is in the composting toilet, but doesn’t it worry the middle managers? It’s their careers and incomes that are really going to take the hit.

  2. #2 Don
    April 21, 2010

    What I love about Earth Day is wearing my T-shirt that says:

    PAVE THE PLANET

    One World
    One People
    One Slab of Asphalt

    (Pave the Earth Foundation — Newark NJ)

    People’s reactions are priceless . . . .

  3. #3 Adrienne
    April 21, 2010

    For the most part I agree with you. Earth *Hour* in particular ticks me off. But I also think… maybe five out of a hundred people really learn something on Earth Day, and start doing something differently, or start *not* doing something, because of what they learned. It’s not much, but it’s something. And even though I think *everyone* needs to change in order for much good to come out of it, and some people won’t change until they’re forced to, the more people that do something now, voluntarily, the better.

  4. #4 Sharon Astyk
    April 21, 2010

    Adrienne, you are right, of course, and I know I’m being a bit churlish. But earth day doesn’t bring out my best side ;-).

    Sharon

  5. #5 darwinsdog
    April 21, 2010

    Something that started off with good intentions gets co-opted by the forces of greed and that surprises you? Welcome to capitalism. Any good you try to accomplish will end up co-opted too, Sharon. You might as well accept it and market your own product line of nifty homesteader stuff made of recycled plastic. Make a killing. Contribute 10% of your profits to the environmental charity of your choice. Party in Cancun with the administrators of the nonprofit.org you contribute to. Live in style while the biosphere goes down.

  6. #6 ET
    April 21, 2010

    So true! Here people light petroleum based candles while turning off electricity produced by hydro – it makes no sense. It’s a scam to make people feel better about consumption the other 364 days.

    Guess I’m not a joiner as I curb my consumption just fine w/o joining a club or movement.

  7. #7 James Hrynyshyn
    April 21, 2010

    Bang on.

  8. #8 Greenpa
    April 21, 2010

    I do understand.

    But, in hopes I may be able to alleviate a bit of your pain, I have a somewhat parallel story to relate.

    In summer of 1970, on my first honeymoon, I found myself one day on a ferryboat running the length of Lake Chelan, Washington. We were coming out of remote backcountry, after backpacking in wilderness- a much less common practice in those days. Sitting next to us on the benches was an older (65?), very weather beaten man, and his wife, of the same age, but a bit less weather beaten. They were coming from backpacking for weeks in an even more remote area.

    Chelan is a long lake; we got well acquainted. It turned out this guy was THE senior official from the US Park Service, for the Pacific NW and Alaska; and had been for many years. Wow, what a goldmine.

    Eventually, in the conversation my bride and I asked why the HELL the park service provides huge, paved, “camp” sites, for the RV crowd. That ain’t camping, and they often have zero actual interaction with nature- they park, hook up, turn the tv on, and swap stories with the people in the next space. Disgusting! :-)

    Rather than set us straight, or discuss the politics, he simply related his observation, from many years.

    The RV’ers never change. But their children- become backpackers.

    Herding is a slow process. :-)

  9. #9 Natalie
    April 21, 2010

    As a side note, you’ll actually save more gas if you replace your gas-guzzling Hummer with a slightly more efficient model than if your replace your gas sipper with a better gas sipper. Now, what we really need is just to take those Hummer’s and SUVs off the market, but until then, those little improvements do make a difference.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    April 21, 2010

    …while turning off electricity produced by hydro – it makes no sense.

    ET, you do understand that dams turn vibrant, biodiverse lotic & riparian ecosystems into stagnant nasty reservoirs and that the methane produced in the anoxic sediments of said reservoirs more than offsets in heat capacity the CO2 saved from being emitted from a coal fired power plant of equivalent megawattage, I hope. It almost sounds as if you’re implying that dams are a good thing.

  11. #11 Leigh
    April 21, 2010

    Several years ago I received a complimentary copy of a small business magazine. This particular issue addressed “going green” for small businesses. I read it from cover to cover and was absolutely shocked that of the numerous articles, comments, ideas, letters to the editor, etc, not one person mentioned anything about going green for the sake of the planet and environment. Everything in that magazine focused on the cost of going green, how to offset the expense, and the profits to be made. No one mentioned doing it because it was the right thing to do. It was all about money.

  12. #12 Sabrina
    April 21, 2010

    I’m an avid reader of Rosenhouse’s Evolution Blog and becoming a fan of others here on ScienceBlogs. After reading this, you have a new reader.

  13. #13 sandy ellis
    April 21, 2010

    Sorry–it’s “whoa” NOT “woah”.

  14. #14 Susan
    April 21, 2010

    My first recollection of Earth Day was in 1970, when I was in kindergarten. Our teacher wanted the class to take a field trip to collect trash and to plant a tree. My dad said H*** no, his child was going to school for an education, not to be free slave labor for collecting garbage, and if they wanted trees they could go to our homestead (in the woods).

    Now, you might think that he wasn’t a fan of Earth Day and you would be right, but he did (and does) live a lifestyle of about 70% less consumption than the average person — growing his own, canning, hunting and preserving, and so on.

    They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; I would have to look back and say that’s a true statement. While I was hurt that I couldn’t participate with the rest of my class at the time, I think the greater message I was instilled with, every day, was that taking care of your own by growing and raising your own matters. I would have to credit my parents’ non-consumerism with my non-understanding of consumer (dominant) culture generally.

    I have to smile because I used to be weird, the “tree-hugging feminazi” as one of my good friends used to call me. Now I’m cool, because ‘sustainability’ is hip. People ask me for advice now on the same stuff I used to get made fun of about. Man, life takes strange turns!

  15. #15 Brad K.
    April 21, 2010

    I got a Staples catalog today. I noticed that a case of copy paper was about $34 bucks. 30% recycled copy paper was $38. And 100% recycled paper was $50 or more.

    This tells me that recycling may – or may not – conserve material. But the economic cost involved don’t make the practice sensible. Sustainable, but not sensible – you create gray markets and people evade the law when you mandate non-sensible practices. But in addition to the economic cost of using recycled material, I wonder if the energy and environmental impact of using the recycled paper don’t also exceed using new materials. Except for glass, I understand this is common, for recycling to be problematic with regard to total conservation.

    Reuse is another matter entirely. Where it is legal.

    @ Natalie,

    Keep in mind the cost in material production, and impact on water usage, to make any new vehicle. If computers are horrendously impactful, I wonder how “green” the new hybrid and electric auto batteries are.

    Why not focus on replacement engines and transmissions that promote better mileage for the Hummers and the older cars? Why not change the tire laws to condemn a tire at 2/32 tread instead of 3/32 inches? Why not experiment with horse or mule-drawn trolleys in neighborhoods, preferably on rails? Why not focus on bicycles that don’t require a paved path, so that asphalt roads can be reclaimed or when they stop being maintained?

    Why not focus on the dual purpose small store, where the owner/operator lives above the store, instead of miles away? Why not encourage building local, corner shops in residential neighborhoods, to make walking to the store more likely? Why not tax employers for employees that live more than two miles from the place of work – and get employers and communities together to reform how work and living places are managed?

    @ ET,

    Personally, I will continue to consider all electricity to be coal or oil fired, until the last coal and oil fired plant is retired. Because everyone that uses wind or water driven electricity keeps the demand present, to require those coal and oil fired plants to stay in operation. The total usage of electricity has to drop below that level, when the last coal or oil fired plant is retired, to not be responsible for burning fossil fuels.

  16. #16 KiwiRach
    April 21, 2010

    I think Buy Nothing Day ( http://www.buynothingday.co.uk ) would be more up your street.

  17. #17 Cathy
    April 21, 2010

    If it’s true that every journey begins with one step, then we can also say that every lifestyle change begins with just one hour, onr day, or mone month…..

  18. #18 Teri
    April 21, 2010

    Adrienne and Cathy,

    I think you are so right.

    As for the author’s assertion that Earth Day makes no difference, I was born in 1970, and I have seen tremendous improvement regarding conservation in that time. Has it all been due to Earth Day? Probably not, but some of it has surely been due to changing perceptions, that are at least partially attributable to efforts to present environmental-awareness as hip.

  19. #19 Jesse
    April 21, 2010

    Brad K:

    You bring up a common issue — the cost of doing X may not make sense, but does it if we work in “externalities?”

    During WW II people recycled quite a lot of stuff. And cars, believe it or not, are 90% recycled. (The metal is too valuable to just chuck — the only reason you see piles of cars in junkyards is that it takes some time to get through them). Airplanes are also actually recycled and re-used quite a bit. A very large chunk of the world’s airlines are using planes that are rather old.

    So in those cases nobody notices. The price of recycling is worked in, and it is cheaper than going new. In other cases it might or might not be. Paper is an interesting case. Recycling it isn’t that hard to do. But it is costly, and as long as it is cheaper to chop down new trees that will be the case. The key thing is to increase the cost of tree-cutting.

    Bamboo is one area where the impact of using it is actually much less, in that it grows quickly and you needn’t deforest whole swathes to make floors. But then you have to move it someplace.

    Fundamentally, the only way to go no-impact is to reduce the
    population drastically. But that is going to take some time to do.

    In the meantime you have to offer people something better. Ronald Reagan was onto something when he said that Americans – but certainly other people I would think — are less interested in a world where their kids’ prospects are more limited than their own. I don’t think it has to necessarily be that way, but really, would you want to say to your kids “Hey, you’ll be poorer, and die sooner! Good times, though, we’re sustainable!” That just doesn’t work for most people.

    More importantly, the way to reduce population is, in fact, to raise living standards. I don’t mean giving everyone an SUV. I mean ensuring that your kids will live to be five. It’s no accident that societies with high birth rates all have high infant mortality as well (this applies to the US also — we have a high birth rate compared to other industrialized nations and are the worst at keeping kids alive). In one sense, the key to sustainable living is to ensure that there is less incentive to have scads of kids in the hope that one or two won’t die.

    That’s going to require a lot of basic policy changes, both here and elsewhere.

  20. #20 Lora
    April 21, 2010

    I just realized my comment would have made a lot more sense if I had prefaced it with the question, “Fine, how long SHOULD Earth (time) be, then?”

    Ans.: ~ 66 days, minimum.

  21. #21 lynxreign
    April 21, 2010

    @10 – darwinsdog

    Citations needed.

    Even if dams give off large amounts of methane, that methane can be captured and used for energy genertation in addition to the hydroelectric the dam itself produces.

    As for changing their ecosystem, these effects aren’t the same everywhere for every dam and can often times be ameliorated by good water control policies.

    What kind of energy generation do you advocate?

  22. #22 Joseph
    April 21, 2010

    No need to apologize for having an iconoclastic attitude toward greenwashing – someone has to do it.

    As I remember it, the original Earth Day was considered to be a commie plot. This is even mentioned in Wikipedia.

  23. #23 V. infernalis
    April 21, 2010

    You want to be really depressed? Read this editorial from The Objective Standard:

    “Because Earth Day is intended to further the cause of environmentalism—and because environmentalism is an anti-human ideology—on April 22, those who care about human life should not celebrate Earth Day; they should celebrate Exploit-the-Earth Day.
    Exploiting the Earth—using the raw materials of nature for one’s life-serving purposes—is a basic requirement of human life. Either man takes the Earth’s raw materials—such as trees, petroleum, aluminum, and atoms—and transforms them into the requirements of his life, or he dies. To live, man must produce the goods on which his life depends; he must produce homes, automobiles, computers, electricity, and the like; he must seize nature and use it to his advantage. There is no escaping this fact. Even the allegedly “noble” savage must pick or perish. Indeed, even if a person produces nothing, insofar as he remains alive he indirectly exploits the Earth by parasitically surviving off the exploitative efforts of others.”

    http://theobjectivestandard.com/blog/2009/04/on-april-22-celebrate-exploit-earth-day.asp

  24. #24 Sandy Broadus
    April 21, 2010

    inspiring. Thanks.

  25. #25 Brenna
    April 22, 2010

    I am not a fan of Earth Hour or things that are created simply to exploit people’s naievete or denial about what it takes to really “be green.”

    I don’t necessarily think that Earth Day embodies those things. Yes, there are people and corporations that do incredibly ridiculous things in the name of Earth Day, but there is so much good that can come out of celebrating Earth Day, Earth Week, Earth Month… but it is up to each person to take what they want from it.

    Personally, I think it’s a great way to introduce or explore new ways to conserve, reuse, recycle, etc. that I will use throughout the years. Not just one day. That is the message we need to be sending to our kids, since they are our best chance at making a change.

    Maybe I am the naive one, but I sure hope not…

  26. #26 Fran Barlow
    April 22, 2010

    Now please don’t get me wrong. I very much share your distaste for greenwash. That said, I think greenwash is the overhead we pay for having the marquee issue — in this case sustainability — in the mainstream. Until lots of people think the issue is important, wondering whether something really is part of the environmental problem or part of the environmental solution is pointless.

    It’s astonishing that anyone would imagine that there could be any significant body of opinion with an attached culture that would not attract the interest of marketers. Depending on where you live and when you do it, if you leave food out you will attract ants or bears or anything between. Pathogens will grow on it and it will stop being food for humans. It’s the same with green issues.

    While I don’t doubt your earnest, your post reads a tad like the secular equivalent of “christmas is so commercialised” … which is kind of funny given that the date was chosen originally to fit in with a pagan festival. Sadly, not a few of those who complain about this sort of thing include those who don’t share your desire for authentic action in defence of the integrity of the biosphere. For them, pointing to the “hypocrisy” and irrationality of “greenies and tree huggers” is an appeal for normal service to be resumed since in the end, the aim of environmentalism is simply a hollow sham. Roll on business as usual. IMO, such people have no basis for complaint.

    If I am to argue with someone about greenwash, I want to know that their objection is that it undermines some specific constructive action on sustainability that they would support.

    On the whole, I like Earth Day, despite the dubious hoopla. I’m an atheist but I go to Christmas parties and share the bonhomie while cringing inwardly at the pious declarations of faith in god. I care about my fellows even though I think many of them misguided.

    On Earth Day, we hold a local event where people get together (including some of our vulnerable and older persons) over whole food, share their humanity and feel connected with people across the face of the planet who care as much as they do about protecting it from wanton depredation. Everyone is included.

    So I love Earth Day.

  27. #27 Fran Barlow
    April 22, 2010

    Oh … and I almost forgot a good reason for liking Earth Day … my son’s birthday … today he turns 26 …

  28. #28 Fred
    April 22, 2010

    I’m rather dense and lacking in education, but I am striving to learn. Could someone please tell me, is this true?

    Darwinsdog@10 wrote;

    ET, you do understand that dams turn vibrant, biodiverse lotic & riparian ecosystems into stagnant nasty reservoirs and that the methane produced in the anoxic sediments of said reservoirs more than offsets in heat capacity the CO2 saved from being emitted from a coal fired power plant of equivalent megawattage, I hope. It almost sounds as if you’re implying that dams are a good thing.

    If it is I feel I may just fucking kill myself.

  29. #29 Richard Eis
    April 22, 2010

    -The Objective Standard:-

    Wow. Not objective, no standards. Can’t say much more than that.

    It’s nice that people are waving their arms about on Earth day to get attention… but I agree that’s all it really is. Hand waving.

    ..and don’t get me started on what I think of valentines day.

  30. #30 Chris Foltz
    April 22, 2010

    I remember the 1st EARTH DAY ,I was 15 years old & being taught about Human Overpopulation & the Population Bomb.Now 40 years later the Population Bomb is now forbidden being Politically Incorrect ,we now have 130+million more humans in the U.S. with more showing up everyday to destroy what natural resources we have left.Will there be anything left to have a Earth DAY 40 years from now.(From a 15year old American now 55 -we’ve been duped!!!)

  31. #31 Sharon Astyk
    April 22, 2010

    I think it is interesting, the reactions this engenders. Fran, I don’t have a problem with someone celebrating the birth of Christ because they like parties, but I guess I’m not the sort of person who can imagine doing that and rolling my eyes at people who are actually celebrating the birth of Christ (I’m no kind of Christian, so this is largely hypothetical – I don’t celebrate Christmas in any way, ironic or sincere ;-).) So I suspect maybe there is a basic difference here – for me the question isn’t “is there an attempt to cash in” but “is Earth Day actually getting us, to put ungrammatically, forwarder?”

    And I’m not convinced – Teri and others suggest that we’ve seen enormous progress in the last decades, in part due to environmental awareness. I’m not at all convinced that that’s true. We certainly have seen some steps forward, most of them decades back – the most successful environmental initiatives were mostly the clean air and water acts and their successors at state and national levels. There are others. But every objective standard suggests we’re putting more carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere, on a scale that has us headed for disaster. What’s the case that this has made a big difference?

    Sharon

  32. #32 Fran Barlow
    April 22, 2010

    It took me a while to unpick it Fred but the terms are inadequately specified to make the inference.

    Dams can certainly produce CH4 — this was discovered in Brazil a while back — and CH4 is a greenhouse gas. This depends on where the dam is built and whether water flow is maintained (to prevent anoxia).

    Bottom line is that whereas coal plants keep getting new feedstock to oxidise, dams do not and eventually methanogenesis will exhaust the organic matter, so I’d say no.

    This is not an argument for run of the river hydro, because they do have negative impacts on riparian systems.

  33. #33 Fran Barlow
    April 22, 2010

    I don’t celebrate Christmas in any way, ironic or sincere

    Nor I … but I do show up …

    every objective standard suggests we’re putting more carbon and other pollutants into the atmosphere, on a scale that has us headed for disaster. What’s the case that this has made a big difference?

    It hasn’t made a big difference, but that’s because getting and idea accepted and trasnlating that to policy takes a long time, especially when there are entrenched interests opposing.

    Montreal happened and action on ozone depletion followed. SO2 was also much reduced in separate programs. GHGs is a tough one because carbon goes right to the heart of the way we consume and it’s not only economic, it’s existential — one can see that in some of the tea-party style opposition.

    You are right in that we are staring at disaster and if we are a day late and a penny short, — oh dear — but taking a swing at Earth Day won’t change that for the better.

  34. #34 Sharon Astyk
    April 22, 2010

    Fran, I think that the ozone example is actually a pretty trivial comparison (I’m not suggesting that the fault is yours for using it, you didn’t invent it) – as you say, this is much more fundamental. But I’d disagree that is a matter of taking time – 40 years is long enough for almost all social movements to make significant change. By 40 years, you get to say whether something is a success or not ;-).

    Sharon

  35. #35 Ewan R
    April 22, 2010

    You may get to say whether something has been a success after 40 years, but are you making a fair comparison? Is the world now in better shape than it would have been without the environmental movement? I’d argue that it is, although this arguement is probably equally as baseless as an arguement that it is not – it’s not a comparison you can truly make – there is no way to know what state we’d be in now if it wasn’t for various aspects of the environmental movement (although I guess if you look at scales of gray rather than a binary win/lose then you may be in shades of loss rather than shades of win, which is arguably better than being a flat out loss (ie how things would be without any action whatsoever) while at the same time not being good enough)

  36. #36 darwinsdog
    April 22, 2010

    #21:

    Citations needed.

    Do your own homework. You can use Google as well as I can.

    Even if dams give off large amounts of methane, that methane can be captured and used for energy genertation in addition to the hydroelectric the dam itself produces.

    Sure. Stretch an impermeable membrane across the entire bottom of the reservoir, or something. Good idea.

    As for changing their ecosystem, these effects aren’t the same everywhere for every dam and can often times be ameliorated by good water control policies.

    This is true to a certain extent. Reservoirs located in the tropics give off more CH4 than do those in temperate & arctic regions. The Kariba Reservoir, for instance, on the Zambezi, is a horrible CH4 emitter, as will be the proposed new dam on the Solimoes. But all reservoirs everywhere emit CH4 and all utterly disrupt vital lotic & riparian ecosystems, preclude the spawning migrations of fishes, displace people and inundate valuable floodplain farmland. And by catching sediments they preclude the renewal of delta wetlands, resulting in the disasters we see on the Mississippi & Nile. “Good water control policies” can deliver oxygenated water to the benthos but don’t prevent anaerobic decomposition in sediments.

    What kind of energy generation do you advocate?

    I heat my home with wood.

    #28:

    If it is I feel I may just fucking kill myself.

    You’ll be dead soon enough, brother. No point in accelerating the process, but to each his or her own.

    #32:

    Bottom line is that whereas coal plants keep getting new feedstock to oxidise, dams do not and eventually methanogenesis will exhaust the organic matter, so I’d say no.

    The river and the wind continually bring organic detritus into the reservoir. The fact is that the useful life of most if not all reservoirs is considerably less than the time required for all the organic material buried in sediments to rot, even if this material were not continuously renewed by fluvial & aeolian processes. The reservoir will be silted in long before methanogenesis ceases.

    #33:

    You are right in that we are staring at disaster and if we are a day late and a penny short, — oh dear —

    We are centuries late and trillions of dollars short. Open your eyes, people.

  37. #37 Sharon Astyk
    April 22, 2010

    Well, let’s distinguish here between “Earth Day” and the Environmental Movement, which are two different things. They may have heavily overlapped in 1970, but they aren’t the same now and haven’t been for decades. I’d like to think that you can be an environmentalist and still hate Earth day :-).

    This seems like a reductio ad absurdum argument – sure, we’re better off than if we’d imposed no constraints at all. But as we don’t say “hey, awesome, we gave women the vote so just shut up about the domestic violence and rape stuff and let’s all talk about how great we are because they get to vote” we don’t have to limit ourselves to the claim that because we didn’t do things as badly as we possibly could, we deserve a big pat on the back ;-).

    Sharon

  38. #38 lynxreign
    April 22, 2010

    @36 – darwinsdog

    darwinsdog

    I did, I found nothing to support your statement. Since you choose not to support your extreme claim, we’ll consider it false. Also, I don’t have time to investigate every crazy claim people make on the internet. If you’re claiming something unusual, you provide sources. This is common practice, at least here on Scienceblogs. Most people who don’t turn out not to have any source other than their own imagination.

    Sure. Stretch an impermeable membrane across the entire bottom of the reservoir, or something. Good idea.

    Or something, yes.

    But all reservoirs everywhere emit CH4 and all utterly disrupt vital lotic & riparian ecosystems, preclude the spawning migrations of fishes, displace people and inundate valuable floodplain farmland.

    “All everywhere?” No. Lake Mead and Hoover Dam for example did neither of the latter. Fish migrations can be assisted and while ecosystems are disrupted, the effects can be mitigated. As for silting, it is entirely possible that this can also be accounted for with better maintenance/dredging or some other technological solution.

    What kind of energy generation do you advocate?
    I heat my home with wood.

    Good for you, of course that’s likely the worst possible way to heat homes when you extrapolate out to the entire population. Deforestation would likely harm ecosystems far more than dams or even coal.

    Where do you get energy for lights, your computer and internet, cooking, etc? What power source do you suggest for all these things and for transportation, industry, etc?

  39. #39 Fred
    April 22, 2010

    @Fran, thank you for addressing my question @32.

    I live in Charleston WV, so it isn’t as if any of the electricity I use comes from any source other than Coal burning at John Ammos power plant, but I had hoped that there were places actually utilizing clean hydro from dams.

  40. #40 Fran Barlow
    April 22, 2010

    Not a problem Fred …

    It is important to note that there is no such thing as a zero footprint (=clean) source of energy. Every strategy for converting energy into the kind of energy that is useful to humans involves a footprint or human encroachment.

    We humans are, unsurprisingly, concerned most of all with what meets our perceived needs and so we prioritise that over the footprint we leave. What environmentalists are striving for, it seems to me, is to tread as lightly as one can upon the biosphere. Bearing in mind that all us humans are ultimately critically dependant on a predictable and adequate flow of ecosystem services, if we tread lightly on the biosphere, we also tread lightly on our fellow humans, present and future.

    There are two basic ways in which we can do that. Firstly and most obviously, we can demand less service. This is the ascetic approach — the living simply so that others may simply live” — caricatured as “hair shirt” by sneering proponents of (destruction) business-as-usual. I don’t think there are many who don’t find this principle seriously appealing. It seems just and fair and rational. It appeals to our desire to connect with others and to be involved. This theme is prominent in things often said to be greenwash (whether they are or aren’t). It’s important though not to overstate the practicability of this though. Apart from the political difficulties of getting large numbers of people to do this on the scale needed during the timeframe needed, the marginal benefits of this are modest. Sure we could use public transport more, car pool, telecommute, video conference, walk to the local shops for stuff, consolidate trips, recycle, demand less packaging, buy less technojunk, be less demanding of hosuehold or office comfort, have better designed buildings and so forth. These are not nothing but they won’t get us anywhere near the per capita energy consumption of people in the middle ages — which is where we need to get near if we are going to operate on renewables — and bear in mind that in the middle ages, arable land-per-person was much greater. Bear in mind also that about half the world’s population has only limited and fragile access to potable water and that fixing that will not be assissted much at all by us first worlders being less profligate. Moving potable water is very energy intensive and irrigation and fertilisation of crops even more so. If we are not buying their products we still need to fund them living at least as well as we demand and that requires more energy. Bear in mind also we are looking at 9 billion by 2050 or so. We have to be 20% less demanding per capita just to break even and we are not doing well now.

    So that brings me to how we can increase energy consumption while reducing the footprint. It seems to me that well-designed nuclear power is the closest thing there is to a low footprint source. It requires less land. It need not use potable water or any water at all and indeed with fast spectrum reactors, one can use existing nuclear hazmat and weapons grade materiel as feedstock — so we need no new uranium or thorium to be mined and we reduce the quantity of weapons-grade materiel as well. Fast spectrum reactors are about 160 times as good per unit of mass at generating energy as conventional reactors which are in turn orders of magnitude better than coal and oil. If all of the energy of an average first worlder could be sourced from a fast spectrum reactor, and that person lived for 85 years, then the total demand for uranium for that person would be about 1.5Kg. That’s a light footprint, especially if all of that is already existing hazmat. And of course the physical space taken up by reactors is a mere fraction of that demanded by dams, windfarms and solar plants. They demand a rtiny fraction of the concrete, copper, rare earths and steel that renewables need. They are orders of magnitude safer than coal, resort to which which kills people in large numbers every day.

    So this Earth Day, I’d like us to think not only of living simply and of our fellow humans’ needs, but of how we can get exchange fossil fuel harvest for Gen III and Gen IV nuclear power. Clinton abandoned this in the 1990s but it is time it was restarted. It is the starting point for progress in practice towards sustainability.

  41. #41 Sharon Astyk
    April 23, 2010

    Fran, my difficulty with this is the time to scale up nuclear – at 10-15 years per plant in the US, it doesn’t make a critical difference in the short term – generally speaking, a major technological upgrade takes about three decades for full scale implementation – which means there’s no real way of getting out of the hairshirt for at least a generation, even if it could be done. And I have real doubts – because by the time we’re talking about, the GDP real costs estimated by things like the Stern Report (which are almost certainly too low) mean that we probably will be diverting large chunks of our wealth to mitigation of climate damage. Add in the high cost of the fossil fuels and those plants get awfully expensive – not to mention the political barriers.

    It isn’t an ideological objection, so much as a practical one. I’m all for bringing renewable energies (nuclear doesn’t quite count, but it is a lower risk than others) to low income nations for more consumption on their part – but if we actually gave a shit about world poverty (I do, you do, but our nations don’t seem to) they’d have done this earlier. We’ve had time and capacity and plenty of wealth to do it. Instead, what we’re seeing is a global pull back on aid and commitment – witness the climate change lack of commitment and the fact that during the 2008 food crisis, the US and most other major nations failed to make good on their basic promise even to feed the starving, much less give them nuclear power.

    I find myself here needing to quote Cletus from the Simpsons “Shoulda, but didna.” The reality is that options are closing down – I don’t like it any better than you do. The answer to all these questions is we should have started when we knew there was a problem, or at least ten years later, or twenty years later. But now we’re stuck with what we have now, the material realities we’ve chosen. And depressing or not, they don’t change because we want them to.

    Sharon

  42. #42 darwinsdog
    April 23, 2010

    I did, I found nothing to support your statement.

    Then you must be a piss poor researcher. I typed in “reservoir methane” and got 2,020,000 hits.

    Since you choose not to support your extreme claim, we’ll consider it false.

    Fine. Consider the fact that anaerobic decomposition in the sediments of artificial reservoirs contribute significantly to anthropogenic CH4 emissions to be false, and publically display your ignorance. But, then, it was already obvious that you’re ignorant.

    If you’re claiming something unusual, you provide sources.

    I claimed nothing “unusual.” Anyone with any knowledge of lentic ecology knows full well that methanogenesis takes place in reservoir sediments. Get an education lynxreign. I don’t get paid for teaching environmental science 101 to every ignoramus on the internet.

  43. #43 Kate
    April 23, 2010

    I mentioned we were celebrating Earth Day to my children. My son said ‘Mommy, isn’t every day Earth Day? We ARE on the Earth all the time!’

    He’s a very smart boy.

  44. #44 Fran Barlow
    April 23, 2010

    Sharon said:

    Fran, my difficulty with this is the time to scale up nuclear – at 10-15 years per plant in the US, it doesn’t make a critical difference in the short term -

    The reason for this long lead time has less to do with anything inherent to nuclear power than with

    a) the political processes attending development
    b) the non-modular nature of plants — most are first of a kind designs. (Imagine if every car had to be custom built)

    There’s no reason not to come up with two or three basic plant designs, plonk them down in places of existing coal or other heavy industrial capacity where the net environmental effect would be positive and move on.

    In China, the latest Westinghouse plants are going to be online in five years. Once there are a bundle of them, why not mass manufacture components? There are more than 400 coal-fired plants in the US alone most of them not meeting the fairly lax standards on toxic emissions.

    And whatever the time window is, if you commission 20 or 30 plants at once, the time window is in parallel and if they are all the same or similar, the cost per plant will be lower.

    Moreover, it is in the developing world we need to gear up especially because that is going to be the next big surge in emissions. They absolutely won’t take 15 years.

    I’m all for bringing renewable energies (nuclear doesn’t quite count, but it is a lower risk than others) to low income nations for more consumption on their part

    I see little point in making a big deal about what counts as renewable. What I am interested in is the speed and cost of abating the harm industrial society is imposing on ecosystem services. I’m for choosing the suite of technologies that abate the harm most effectively and efficiently at the speed required. I spent a long time as a “renewables” enthusiast, but I ultimately came to the painful conclusion that most of the time, they could at best play a marginal role in industrial scale abatement. They take up too much space, demand too much steel, concrete, copper, glass, potable water, rare earths, land and even redundant fossil capacity for load balancing to compete with even conventional nuclear power. And they are orders of magnitude worse on most measures than the fast spectrum reactors that the Russians, with American help, are developing now to commercial scale. We should see the first of these in 2015.

    You are right that we should have started 20 years ago. IMO, we should have started 60 years ago, because it was clear even in the 1950s, without a clear signal on CO2 sensitivity that the development choices the first world was making for itself and attempting to build in the developing world and Europe could only end in tears.

    Our antecedents failed, but we can’t change the past. We must look forward rather than back. It would be a fabulous start if the developing world implemented its commitment to 0.7% of GDP in aid — real aid mind you rather than pretend aid designed to advance parochial trade interests.

    In the interim though the best approach might be for each of the major developed states to work with a cohort of developing states to fund clean development, including the development of urban infrastructure, under the aegis of MDC and CDM bodies. Of course, that implies setting a good example at home and so that is probably the first step — having a government that is really interested in infrastructure policy. The US has probably got one now at Federal level, but it plainly the politics of this is an enormous speed hump. We need to focus on how to smooth these out.

  45. #45 Flu-Bird
    April 24, 2010

    They have turned EARTHDAY into a pagan fesitval for worshipping false deities and to recruit kids into the new age movment

  46. #46 lynxreign
    April 24, 2010

    Then you must be a piss poor researcher. I typed in “reservoir methane” and got 2,020,000 hits.

    Very good, you researched part of your claim, the unexceptional part. Whoop de do. The exceptional part of your claim was

    more than offsets in heat capacity the CO2 saved from being emitted from a coal fired power plant of equivalent megawattage

    and I’ve found nothing to support that claim.

    You only got 2,020,000 hits? I typed in the same thing and got 2,820,000 hits. Clearly I’m the better “researcher”.

    And look at that, one of the very first hits shows that they might capture the methane and use it to generate power.

    One intriguing aspect of this issue is proposed new technologies to capture tropical reservoir methane and use it to generate electricity. Such technologies, which began field-testing in Brazil at the end of 2007, could greatly reduce the climate impact of hydropower and, by increasing electricity supply, also reduce the need for new dams.

    One of the proposed technologies

  47. #47 lynxreign
    April 24, 2010

    @darwinsdog

    I also notice you still haven’t bothered stating how you propose to generate energy for the world if you give up on hydro and coal. I don’t think hydro is nearly as bad as you imply and it is certainly better than burning wood, which as something of a non-sequiter you offered up for how you heat your home. BTW, what do you do about the pollutants generated by burning the wood? Your implication that burning wood is somehow relevant to the discussion of power generation is ridiculous if extrapolated beyond a very small subset of people.

    Combine traditional hydroelectric with methane capture, wind, ocean hydro and various forms of solar power to start. Then add in generation methods like waste plants like they use in Holland, geothermal and fuel cells, link everything into a distributed generation grid and we can have our energy needs met. Slightly further out are satelite solar, fusion and core taps, but these aren’t just in the realm of SF anymore. Significant progress has been made in each in recent years.

    The real issue is how hard we push toward these new sources and that’s where we haven’t worked hard enough.

  48. #48 debra
    April 25, 2010

    a wonderful example of why i enjoy your blogs

  49. #49 Morné
    April 26, 2010

    Great! Someone that sees the forest and the trees.

  50. #50 Lauren
    March 26, 2011

    Since you choose not to support your extreme claim, we’ll consider it false. Weathercast Forecaster

    Fine. Consider the fact that anaerobic decomposition in the sediments of artificial reservoirs contribute significantly to anthropogenic CH4 emissions to be false, and publically display your ignorance. But, then, it was already obvious that you’re ignorant.

  51. #51 Electronic Cigarettes
    March 28, 2011

    I see little point in making a big deal about what counts as renewable. What I am interested in is the speed and cost of abating the harm industrial society is imposing on ecosystem services. I’m for choosing the suite of technologies that abate the harm most effectively and efficiently at the speed required. I spent a long time as a “renewables” enthusiast, but I ultimately came to the painful conclusion that most of the time, they could at best play a marginal role in industrial scale abatement. They take up too much space, demand too much steel, concrete, copper, glass, potable water, rare earths, land and even redundant fossil capacity for load balancing to compete with even conventional nuclear power. And they are orders of magnitude worse on most measures than the fast spectrum reactors that the Russians, with American help, are developing now to commercial scale. We should see the first of these in 2015.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!