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Archive for September, 2008

Dear Al,

You and I just met last weekend. I had traveled far in my Prius for the chance to have a few words with you, my hero. When my turn came, I made sure to let you know how grateful I was, for the presentation you gave three years ago, at Stanford, on “An Inconvenient Truth”. I told you I had come out of the event transformed and determined to help somehow with the global warming crisis. You seemed flattered, and you moved on to the person next in line, a funny guy named Dana Carvey.

You were supposed to give a political speech, but you could not stay away from your favorite topic. And you spoke at length about the need to bring about a change in consciousness, regarding the moral challenge of our time, our role in the destruction of the future of our planet. I loved listening to you, and so did the rest of the audience. You delivered your message with feeling and conviction, and we readily joined you in your outrage, down to your last word. “Damit!”

That’s all good. And that’s not enough. You see, what I took away from this time with you, was not the thrill of meeting you, nor the heartfelt speech you gave, nor the majestic scenery surrounding us. No, instead I will remember the sight of all the cars parked along the road, and filling every free parking space on the compound. Call me a party spoiler, but it bothered me that you seemed oblivious to the lack of carpooling for the event. When I brought up the subject with my neighbors at the lunch table, all expressed interest. I know this is a small detail, and you are dealing with the big picture.

I just want to raise this question with you. What if the big picture was all in the details? How different would have your message been, if you had sent a request ahead of time to all the guests, asking them to carpool? You could have carpooled yourself, rather than just driving with your daughter in her Prius.

Al, I hope you will consider. As the world leader on climate,  you bear a huge responsibility. Please do not misuse it, and realize the power of your actions, not just your words.

Respectfully,

Marguerite Manteau-Rao

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Every month I participate in a Green Moms Blogging Carnival. This time, we are to blog about the commercialization of holidays. At first, I thought of recycling the Halloween post I wrote for Groovy Green last year. That would have been too easy, and also I have a subversive idea I want to put out to all green mommy bloggers during this holiday season.

I have played before with the “Green Drop” idea, a green twist on artist Ryan Watkins-Hughes‘ original shopdrop concept:

shopdrop: to covertly place merchandise on display in a store; a form of “culture jamming”, reverse shoplift.

For the “Mommy Green Drop” Initiative we will only shopdrop green things. Imagine for instance, going to a Target store before Halloween, and taping subversive flyers on the back of items in the costume section. These would be flyers you would have prepared ahead of time and brought with you into the store. Or you could create almost identical replica of costumes sold in the store, with your own  green twist of course! Part of the fun, is performing the shopdropping unnoticed, while documenting with your camera – video or still -, and then reporting in your blog. There are no limits to what you can do, really.

To keep track of your participation in the project, I have created a “greendrop” Twitter account, where you can input your “greendrop” performances, with links to documenting posts in your blog. All you need is to email me for the password. If you do not have a blog, you can upload your videos on YouTube, or your photos on Flickr, again using the Twitter account as a central log.

I am feeling excited just writing about this project. If enough of us get involved, we can create a big green ripple in the holiday shopping frenzy.

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“Next year, when my youngest daughter goes to college, I wouldn’t mind spending more time in Hawaii” I mused over dinner with my friends Tom and Betsy. And quickly added that I felt conflicted about the idea. Given the climate situation, I told them, it felt irresponsible to engage in such gratuitous behavior. Both of my friends looked at me as if I was some crazy woman. Why wouldn’t I want to fly to Hawaii? No way would they change their habit of flying to Europe three of four times a year.  Tom started ranting about not subscribing to moralistic attitudes towards climate change. No, the solution lied in new technologies. What about all the predictions that keep getting worse and worse? I asked. Tom, an engineer with an interest in data visualization, expressed skepticism. There is a lot we don’t know. All those data are to be taken with a grain of salt. No, both he and Betsy were adamant they were not about to change their lifestyle, one bit. I was shocked. And changed subject.

This morning came this alarming news from the Associated Press:

The world pumped up its pollution of the chief man-made global warming gas last year, setting a course that could push beyond leading scientists’ projected worst-case scenario, international researchers said Thursday.

The new numbers, called “scary” by some, were a surprise because scientists thought an economic downturn would slow energy use. Instead, carbon dioxide output jumped 3 percent from 2006 to 2007.

That’s an amount that exceeds the most dire outlook for emissions from burning coal and oil and related activities as projected by a Nobel Prize-winning group of international scientists in 2007.

Meanwhile, forests and oceans, which suck up carbon dioxide, are doing so at lower rates than in the 20th century, scientists said. If those trends continue, it puts the world on track for the highest predicted rises in temperature and sea level.

The pollution leader was China, followed by the United States, which past data show is the leader in emissions per person in carbon dioxide output. And while several developed countries slightly cut their CO2 output in 2007, the United States churned out more.

Still, it was large increases in China, India and other developing countries that spurred the growth of carbon dioxide pollution to a record high of 9.34 billion tons of carbon (8.47 billion metric tons). Figures released by science agencies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia show that China’s added emissions accounted for more than half of the worldwide increase. China passed the United States as the No. 1 carbon dioxide polluter in 2006.

Emissions in the United States rose nearly 2 percent in 2007, after declining the previous year. The U.S. produced 1.75 billion tons of carbon (1.58 billion metric tons).

“Things are happening very, very fast,” said Corinne Le Quere, professor of environmental sciences at the University of East Anglia and the British Antarctic Survey. “It’s scary.”

Gregg Marland, a senior staff scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, said he was surprised at the results because he thought world emissions would drop because of the economic downturn. That didn’t happen.

“If we’re going to do something (about reducing emissions), it’s got to be different than what we’re doing,” he said.

The emissions are based on data from oil giant BP PLC, which show that China has become the major driver of world trends. China emitted 2 billion tons of carbon (1.8 billion metric tons) last year, up 7.5 percent from the previous year.

“We’re shipping jobs offshore from the U.S., but we’re also shipping carbon dioxide emissions with them,” Marland said. “China is making fertilizer and cement and steel and all of those are heavy energy-intensive industries.”

Developing countries not asked to reduce greenhouse gases by the 1997 Kyoto treaty – and China and India are among them – now account for 53 percent of carbon dioxide pollution. That group of nations surpassed industrialized ones in carbon dioxide emissions in 2005, a new analysis of older figures shows.

India is in position to beat Russia for the No. 3 carbon dioxide polluter behind the United States, Marland said. Indonesia levels are increasing rapidly.

Denmark’s emissions dropped 8 percent. The United Kingdom and Germany reduced carbon dioxide pollution by 3 percent, while France and Australia cut it by 2 percent.

Nature can’t keep up with the carbon dioxide from man, Le Quere said. She said from 1955 to 2000, the forests and oceans absorbed about 57 percent of the excess carbon dioxide, but now it’s 54 percent.

What is “kind of scary” is that the worldwide emissions growth is beyond the highest growth in fossil fuel predicted just two years ago by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said Ben Santer, an atmospheric scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

Under the panel’s scenario then, temperatures would increase by somewhere between 4 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit (2.4 to 6.3 degrees Celsius) by the year 2100.

If this trend continues for the century, “you’d have to be luckier than hell for it just to be bad, as opposed to catastrophic,” said Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider.

I read this, and I think about my conversation with Tom and Betsy. And I wonder, what is it going to take, for the reality to sink in, with people like them. The message is not getting through.

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I know, I know, the economy and partisan politics have taken over our conversations, leaving little room for anything else, let alone problems that are still removed from the reality of our lives. Huge global issues such as the water crisis. A chance business meeting with a friend, about to launch a new water efficiency venture, got me thinking about water. Just as with deforestation, and biodiversity loss, I am shocked by the magnitude of the problem, and the corresponding relative inaction to curb it.

The water crisis raises some critical questions about water economics, water ethics, water technology, water efficiency, water conservation, water waste, water inequities, water rights, water laws, water politics, water awareness . . . all of which need to be addressed at the various appropriate levels.

As with other global environmental issues, it is easy to feel lost as an individual citizen.  Yet, there is lots one can do to favorably impact the situation:

  • boycott bottled water
  • conserve water at home, and other places
  • blog about it, and also comment on other blogs
  • support watchdog organizations such as Food and Water Watch
  • support legislation to encourage water conservation and efficiency
  • share problem and possible solutions with friends

You may also want to go see “Flow”,  Irena Salina’s recently released documentary on water,

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Sustainability wikis such as Wikia Green or Appropedia have an important role to play, in the gathering of solutions for a sustainable future. The big challenge of course, is how to engage contributors into volunteering free content. As a content creator in the sustainability field, with hundreds of articles to my credit, all on blogs, I yet have to contribute to a collaborative platform. I started sharing some of my reasons in previous posts, here and here. In a nutshell:

  • I am comfortable with blogging. It is what I know, and past the initial hurdle of setting up a blog, which by the way is very low, it’s been smooth sailing ever since.
  • I like the feeling of being in control, and of having all my stuff in one place.
  • When I contribute to other blogs, it is usually a boost for my recognition and helps enlarge my audience.
  • Contributing to other blogs is a no brainer; hardly any setup is required, and I usually do a slight rewrite to address issue of duplicate content.
  • I love the creative freedom of writing whatever I want whenever I want.
  • My blog is also a social place to meet cyberfriends I have made along the way, and who keep coming back for more discussions.
  • I get tremendous satisfaction from direct feedback from readers, particularly when something they read on my blog, either from me or other readers, is making an impact on their thinking or behaviors.
  • There is lots of reciprocity going on amongst bloggers, thanks to linking, trackbacks, and pingbacks. As a result, the give and take feels very fair.
  • Although I am very familiar with wikis, have consulted for wiki startups, and have started several private wikis of my own, I find making the move from blogging to contributing to public wiki platforms a huge step.
  • First, there is the issue of time. If I could somehow export content that’s already on my blog, automatically, I would consider it.
  • Second, is the problem of attribution, and ownership of content. Although, I am not one to hang on to my creative product with steel claws, it is very important to me that I be given credit for it.
  • Third, is the issue of duplicate content, and how that might affect ranking of original content with search engines.  If content is going to be exported automatically, and frequently, I would not have the time to do rewrites to avoid duplicate content problem.
  • My blog is not my only source of content either. There are quite a few projects I have been working on, that are sitting either in some files on my desktop, or in Google groups discussions, and that I wouldn’t mind sharing, if I could just turn those over with one click.

The bottom line is, if you want my content, make it super easy for me, and make sure I get credit for it.

There is a huge pool of potential content providers like myself, scattered all over the Internet, and elsewhere, who could share their knowledge, under the right conditions:

Marguerite Manteau-Rao)

Sustainability Wikis - Contributors' Engagement Map (Marguerite Manteau-Rao)

I will end by sharing my dream of the perfect sustainability wiki. Imagine a place where you can find nearly all that has been published about sustainable solutions all over the world. Imagine that contributors would not have to worry about adapting their content to the specific wiki requirements. Wiki editors could take care of that chore. Imagine that contributors could get credited each time, with ample linkage back to their original websites. Imagine a widget that would allow contributors to send their content automatically to the wiki in one click. Imagine that getting my content on the wiki would be all benefit for me, in addition to the reward from helping the greater community. Imagine . . .

Maybe this discussion can be continued at the upcoming Open Sustainability Network Camp that will take place in October, in San Francisco?

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I just came back from trip to Honolulu. For those of you who have been there, you probably noticed the spectacular old trees that stand tall all over the Hawaii capital. I certainly did. I also noticed the absence of new trees, and the long stretches of cement, with no shade to protect people from the scorching sun. Planting a tree is so simple, and such a great investment. So, how come the city officials in Honolulu, do not make the trees more of a priority? The big talk is about building a mass transit system, that would cost 3.7 billion dollars. The mayor has made it the main theme for his reelection campaign. That’s all good. And that’s no excuse for forgetting the trees. 

In my own city of Palo Alto, I have been remarking on the same problem, although to a lesser extent. Trees missing here and there, along tree lined streets, and no replacement in sight. Across the freeway, in East Palo Alto, the situation is even more blight. Hardly any trees. Its residents have other worries than planting trees, too busy they are to survive, and stay safe. 

I have been wondering for a while, what is it with the trees that makes them the forgotten child of environmental policies? Part of it is taking for granted what gives us so much, and asks so little in return. If tomorrow, the trees were removed from our urban landscapes, we would instantly notice, and plead to get the green giants back. 

Just when I thought I was done thinking about the trees, I get this mail from Glenn Pricket, the head of Conservation International:

“The CO2 emissions from deforestation are greater than the emissions from the world’s entire transportation sector-all the cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. Less forest cover means fewer acres of habitat for species, so they must move or adapt. Those that can survive; those that cannot, go extinct. … There have to be limits to how much and where we encroach on the natural world.” 

Call me clueless, but that is news to me. I had no idea trees in faraway places were this critical to our survival. And that is a problem. Our collective ignorance is doing a number on us.

I take issue with the clever tagline used in the Conservation International campaign. “Lost there, felt here” fails to capture the whole issue. I am not, you are not feeling it “here”. The challenge is how to translate this remote tragedy, into one that’s personally relevant to all the world citizens. More accurate would be “Lost there, problem for you”

Let’s face it, we are squandering away one of our most important natural capital. Today, I am asking you to take a few minutes, and claim your one acre of the tropical forest

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Maybe I will change my mind about the “we” campaign?

Their latest “Oil and Coal” ad is getting at the main issue, at last:

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This parrot fish at the fish stand in Honolulu Chinatown looked too good, not to buy it.

After yesterday’s post, I just wonder how safe is it? How much of the chemicals from the pelagic plastic we found on the beach, have made their way into the flesh of the parrot fish?

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Landed in Honolulu. Couldn’t wait to take long walk on beach. As usual, such a treat, except for this:

Flickr - "meerar"

Credit: Flickr -"meerar"

Add a few dead fishes. And Prad and I had plenty of material for another depressing conversation. I told him about the work done by Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and their expeditions to the Garbage Patch in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.

If I hadn’t researched this before, I may even have missed the tiny plastics. Every time I visit the island, I am struck by the casual attitude of its inhabitants towards their environment. Trash not just on the beach, but also along hiking trails, roads, . . .

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Two weeks and 77 tweets later, the Twitter “green_watch” project has come to an end. Lots of insights, problems raised, and beginning of answers. With great input from the La Marguerite blogging community.

8 lessons learned from the project:

#1. The more engaged we are in flow-like activities, the less our propensity to consume energy and buy things that depend on energy for their production:

Adults and children should be encouraged to develop capacity to engage in activities that are deeply satisfying by themselves, eg, hobbies, work, physical activities. Early education could play an important role in that respect. Children’s creativity should be encouraged more, including the ability to do much with little.

#2. Energy vampires, although well known by now, continue to do their silent work of sucking up electricity unnecessarily, and with no added benefit for the end user.

Smart meters, power strips, are available. But how many people use them? How many know  much they could save? The effort required is still too great for the mainstream.

#3. There are no readily available monitoring system to alert us when we are consuming energy, and how much, and in ways that talk to us.

I understand $, comparisons, savings, cute pictures, and sensorial signals such as bells and changing colors. Forget kWhs, tables, and graphs. Lots of work is currently being done in this field. But it still has a long way to go, and is still in pilot stage.

#4. The switch from car to alternative low energy mode of transportation requires that people experience first hand the superior benefits of those alternatives.

From riding my bike a few times, I realized that biking was better for my health, took no more time than driving, avoided traffic jam and parking problem, was a lot of fun, and cost me nothing. Same with taking the train, and realizing that I could use time riding productively, working on my laptop, or reading, plus I did not have to find parking. This shows the importance of jumpstarting the conversion  process by eliminating barriers to trial of other mode of transportations.

#5. We are addicted to convenience, even more than to things. Rather than fighting that addiction, we should focus on sustainable alternatives that are as, if not more convenient that current solutions.

The bike example also applies here. If we can convince people that biking is as fast, and less hassle than driving, at least for short distances, then we will have an easier sell. Trying to go against that cultural reality of our Western world, is likely to be met with great resistance, and be counterproductive.

#6. There is a huge fuzzy area in collective energy consumption, and indirect energy use. How does one establish the share between individual and institutional responsibility?

At home, and in my car, I am in charge. What happens when I consume electricity from lighting on the freeways, or university campuses? Or when I buy processed food, without any knowledge of the energy that went into producing it? Information becomes critical, as in food carbon labeling, or public display of energy consumption, for let’s say a public pool. Although not a mainstream reality yet, such information would empower individuals to make informed decisions about their use of such collective services.

#7. Green-ness is a privilege of the rich. People with money to spend on home solar installations, hybrid cars, and carbon offsets for air traveling, can lower their carbon footprint, a lot more easily than their less well-off fellow citizens.

That is a fact. In the absence of significant government subsidies and investments, the average person needs to work a lot harder to decrease his or her carbon footprint

#8. Energy efficiency and conservation, the two low hanging fruits of climate change remediation, have not yet entered the public consciousness.

I am dreaming smart homes, smart transportation, smart consumption. No fancy new technologies required. Only a shift in mindsets, and the pulling together of existing technologies.

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