Posts tagged ‘Environment’

April 25th, 2013

Conservation Hobgoblins

Taking steps that reduce the negative impact each of us has on the earth–being environmentally sensitive–is unambiguously good. While some of us are surely more virtuous than others (as in most things), I often feel as though the questions and answers around environmental sensitivity are not as clear-cut as all that. Getting into discussions about it (such as with my mother) pulls out the Hobgoblins of Logic and makes me wish that some combination of environmentalists, scientists, economists, and database engineers (I’m looking at you, Wolfram|Alpha) would get together a create a computational database to help resolve certain tricky questions.

What are those tricky questions? Well, here are a few, divided by category:

Power conservation:

If you live in Texas, Ohio, Indiana or Pennsylvania, is a plug-in electric car worse for the environment than a hybrid-electric model that charges its battery from a gas-powered engine? Those four states are among the top users of coal for electricity generation–and the emissions from coal are worse than those from gasoline. (North Carolina and Georgia should also be on this list, since two of the three largest coal-powered power plants are in those two states.) So perhaps it is better not to increase electricity demands in those states by charging your “clean”, “zero emissions” vehicle with coal-powered electricity?

Meanwhile, all those electric cars use special lithium ion batteries. Those are technically recyclable… but the costs (and energy) involved seem disproportionate to the value, which means it’s less likely to happen. So the question is: if you buy a hybrid or all-electric car, but use it in ways that diminish the life of the battery (such as letting the car sit unused for extended periods of time), is it still better for the environment? Is a 50% reduction in battery life a fair trade-off for burning fewer fossil fuels?

And speaking of transportation challenges: The “locavore” movement sure does sound appealing. And for a city slicker it’s especially appealing, because the idea that one can get fresh food from farms just a short distance away, well: this has to be better, right? Better food, better for the environment? Except that there’s all these arguments and some evidence showing that maybe that isn’t true: that an old farm using an old (less fuel-efficient, less efficiently-packed) truck coming from traffic-congested nearby areas might use more energy than a modern transportation network that ships food by plane or train long distances with great efficiency. So, which is it, local or not? And how are we supposed to know, product by product?

Water conservation:

If you live in the water-deprived Southwestern United States, and you go to the grocery store, is it better to buy the bags of greens that have been pre-washed or the greens you bring home and wash yourselves? Assuming the plastic levels are equal (since you would likely bag your unwashed greens before taking them home), what is the environmental impact difference, factoring in water and power usage?

A variant of this question is relevant here in the water-plentiful New York. Last year, some of the greens and other vegetables we received from the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group to which we belonged were so fresh-from-the-farm dirty that it took significant time under the sink to clean them. (The CSA in this case is a group that buys organic produce from some farms in Long Island; those farms bring their goods directly to a central distribution point in the neighborhood.) Is it generally better to buy these vegetables even if it takes more water to wash them, then to buy the more industrially produced organic–but pre-washed–greens at the grocery?

We are devoted to reusable containers for food storage. We buy good quality ones that can be reused many, many times, and we rarely microwave them (so they tend to last longer). So even though it seems more virtuous to use these than, say, a ziploc bag … can I take it for granted that the water required to wash them is a better use of resources than throwing out the bag? And what kind of recycling processes do we need to have in place before that equation may not be true?

Pesticides, etc.:

It’s easy to scare the bejeezus out of people about pesticides in food. (“Thanks,” Environmental Working Group!) How about telling us more info about the pesticide residues? If I peel the apple, does that get rid of it? If the strawberries are well-washed, does that get rid of it? Or are we talking about leached-into-the-food residue here? How would you balance the organics-cost-more vs. needing-to-feed-a-family dynamic?

Let’s assume that money is actually an issue. If buying organic groceries reduces my available funds for charitable donations by 15%–charity that might be given to help the hungry–is this still worth the trade-off? That is, is the environmental impact of organic produce so powerful that it can have that kind of offset?

I could probably go on. (And on.) Is the question about charitable gifts a red herring? Possibly. But overall these are very real problems–for which we are mostly unequipped to come up with genuinely logical answers. If environmentalism is to succeed–I mean, to really succeed in reshaping behavior in the modern world–someone is going to have to tackle these and other questions, probably state by state and city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood. Personalized environmental audits: the wave of the future.

January 26th, 2013

Shitty Shoes, Part “Deux”

This morning, NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley weighed in with an important story for those of us who do not live in Paris and are in need of a solid rationale to defend such a decision: “Not Just A Fashion Hot Spot: Paris Is Also The Capital Of Dog Mess“. It is an instructive story, not only for bringing us knowledge of the French term for dog poop–they call it a “canine ejection” or “d’éjection canine,” which sounds better in the way that so many things sound better in French, though I cannot think of any others off the top of my head except, perhaps, “tant pis” for “too bad”–but for highlighting an important distinction in political world views:

“There are people who think because they pay taxes, the street cleaners should clean up behind their dogs,” he says.

This is clearly a contrast with much of the United States, at least the Red State parts, where there can be little doubt that people would rather pay less in taxes and be responsible for not picking up dog poop themselves instead of assuming this should be a government responsibility not to do. Where I live, in New York City, we have a more communitarian sensibility (of course). Many dog owners are quite good about cleaning up after their pets, but for those who do not there seems to be a common understanding that one of two things will happen:


1. Building superintendents will expend significant water resources to pressure-spray the poop off the curb, where its bio-degradation will be enhanced as it is run over by cars parking along the streets.


2. Citizens of the City will help with the bio-degradation by stepping in the poop and then spreading it in increasingly thin layers around other parts of the sidewalk, at which point it will be easier to wash away naturally after four or eight rain storms.

Personally, I have always seen Paris as one of those “It’s a nice place to visit, but…” cities. I would much rather move to Berlin, even as I recognize that it has its own problem with canine ejection.

April 3rd, 2011

Flights of Fancy

Time Magazine recently ran an article encouraging readers to think of airports as small cities. From Beijing to Dubai, the last decade or two has seen mammoth new airports built in expectant hotspots. (Although the US has generally lagged in building new airports or rehabilitating older ones, part of our multi-generational failure to invest in our own infrastructure.) Airplane orders are sometimes looked at as a sign of economic health, given the average cost per passenger jet (upwards of $300 million for a Boeing 747) and the broad supply chain of manufacturing needs and services that go into building each one. Orders are up so recent indicators suggest that, indeed, things are improving in our economy.

All of this was on my mind a couple weeks ago as I sat with a colleague at the airport in Buffalo, New York, waiting for my flight back to JFK. Before you jump to the wrong conclusions, the fault this time was not with the airline (JetBlue, which was generally strong on service and on its communication around the delays) or with weather in Buffalo. It was raining and windy in New York, and JFK was suffering from a range of unspecified delays, which meant that my 6:30pm flight didn’t leave until 11pm, and didn’t land until 1:30am. The only good thing about the situation was that flying into JFK meant we were able to get home: the flights into LaGuardia airport were all canceled.

If you live virtually anywhere in the United States, you will know that 2010-2011 has been an especially rough winter. The eastern states, from north to south, were hammered with snow, causing numerous kinds of shutdowns. So was the Midwest. There was even snow in San Francisco, definitely not the norm there. While “winter” is technically over, and temperatures in New York are a bit warmer, this only means that what would be snow has been replaced by a lot of rain. Much of this can be attributed to global warming, and specifically to the environmental impact of having a few percentage points more moisture in the air than we did a decade ago. More moisture in the air means more moisture that’s likely to come down in the form of rain or snow. And if the pattern of more rain or snow—more in frequency and more in volume—continues, it means we won’t be flying as much as we think we will in the future.

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics provides a database of flights, including those that were canceled. As you can see from these two charts, cancellations in January 2011 from two airlines at two airports were significantly higher than in the previous four Januaries: for USAirways, a high of 140 in 2011, compared with only 68 canceled flights the year before; for American Airlines, 95 cancellations in 2011, compared with a previous high of 30 in 2008. (I chose USAirways and American Airlines based on an awareness of their frequency of flights from LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports respectively. I selected LGA and JFK because they are my two local airports.) Sorry, you’ll have to click to see the charts at full size.

Sure, it’s possible January 2011 was an anomaly, the weather-and-airline-traffic equivalent of an earthquake. Only time will tell. But if this past winter’s weather continues as the norm, we may need to reevaluate our expectations about the role of air travel in the global economy, not to mention as a means of getting around. Perhaps there will be some environmental benefits as a result, though one gets the sense sometimes that it may be too late to reverse the damage.