Aaron Antrim wrote a sensible Facebook note downplaying the concept of the digital divide as it relates to giving digital access to transit information. In the world of public transit, there's a common argument that it is unfair and wrong to provide excellent digital access to transit information, since some elderly and low-income riders do not have access to digital information.
These days, a lot of people have internet access. Aaron points out recent statistics showing that overall, 75% of U.S. adults use the internet, and 56% of people who make less than $30,000/year use the internet. In the Bay Area, the overall numbers are higher, and the low-income numbers are similar: 79% had internet access in 2008, including 59% of households with income under $40,000.
It's fair to be concerned with the digital divide. But the everybody or nobody approach is poor business judgment. What company would reject a service that broadened their market, because only 60-80% of their customer base would use it?
The recession and extreme decline in car demand is a blessing in disguise for green innovation. Typically, better new cars are adopted slowly because of slow installed base turn. People in the US keep their cars an average of 6 years, and the cars last 8-10 years on average. Even if a great new car comes on the market, someone who just bought a new car isn't going to be looking for another six years. Now, people are holding onto their cars for longer, and new car sales were down 30-40% quarter over quarter in late 2008.
Meanwhile, there are some impressive, energy efficient new cars on display at the Auto Show in Detroit. Now on the edge of commercialization, these models have been shown in advancing stages of development over the last several years.
This car is Honda's new Insight, coming in 2010. Larger than the original Insight, but cheaper and a little smaller than a Prius, it gets 50-60 mpg.
What this means is that when demand for cars returns, more people will be ready to give up their clunkers. And the next generation of EVs and plug-in hybrids will be ready and waiting. When an economic revival will push demand for gas up past supply again, the technology will be there. This is good news for greenhouse gas emissions since lower carbon cars will be able to gain market share more quickly.
Corson knows and loves sushi, and loves to teach about it and that shapes his book. Casual sushi fans will learn surprising facts: sushi evolved from a dish of preserved, fermented fish. The "traditional sushi bar" arise from the post-WWII reconstruction period, when the American occupiers banned outdoor stands as a health hazard. The little cultural habits of American sushi eating aren't authentic. Japanese eaters of sushi don't mix wasabi and soy sauce; they dip the fish side of the sushi; and they use fingers not chopsticks. Readers will learn about the biology of fish and fermentation, subtle techniques of shaping rice and slicing fish.
With a cultural historian's eye toward the evolution of sushi, and an educated palate, Corson is cheerful about many adaptations of sushi in American culture: the field is more open to newcomers, including women and people of various ethnicities. California rolls and western-style sushi bars have become popular in Japan. His dislikes - sweet, fried adaptations of sushi - are esthetic but not purist. He is sympathetic to working class people who see sushi as a source of jobs, celebrities drawn to fashionable tasty food; learned and creative scholars and artisans. He's an esthete but not a snob.
David Kamp, the author of The United States of Arugula, enjoys food. He's a second generation upper middle class foodie, the child of parents who went through phases of Julia Child, Moosewood, and "do everything the New York Times weekend section tells you to do." Most of all, he loves chronicling the mores and foibles of upper middle class trendsetters. The United States of Arugula is at least as much about the rise of food publicity and celebrity as it is about food.
The book chronicles the rise of promoters of American food culture, from the francophile tastesetters Child, Beard and Claiborne, to California's post-hippie promoters of fresh local food at Chez Panisse and Niman Ranch, to the celebrity chefs of the day before yesterday, with shows on the food channel and franchise extensions in Vegas.
Readers will learn the origins of numerous food trends that have flitted into fashion; baby lettuces, pizza with artichoke hearts, sundried tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. An underlying theme of the book is food as fashion; an individual or group discovers or invents a style; popularizes it, and creates a career. Another theme is foodiehood as social climbing. The aspiring upper middle class uses culture as a badge of membership in the club, and chases the latest trends in cooking and restaurants to compete for social status.
Kamp has some self-awareness about food-snobbery -- he's a co-author of The Food Snob's Dictionary. But it's self-awareness of the Saul Steinberg New Yorker Map - poking fun of one's own parochialism while celebrating it.
Readers will learn about the love affairs of Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, the drug and alcohol habits of various food celebrities. Kamp feels the need to take sides in various internecine feuds. For example, he quotes numerous rivals and detractors of Alice Waters, pioneer of the goat cheese/walnut/baby greens California local style. Over the years, she has struck some ex-friends, ex-lovers, and ex-acquaintances as smug, bossy, promiscuous, politically naive, and not a very good cook. The takedowns of Waters strike this reader as a "foodie" variant on "punching up" - drawing attention to oneself by criticizing someone who is popular in order to get attention. Waters didn't have to be perfect to be a pioneer. Though she may be temperamentally unsuited to win the political battle for a sustainable food system, she has been a founding visionary, and that counts.
I enjoyed the book. It was fun to read about the origins of trends that played as the food version of life's soundtrack. But it made me squirm a little. While I was reading the book there was butternut squash evangelized by a Full Belly Farm stall staff person waiting on my countertop. I craved raisins to go with it, inspired by childhood tzimmes. In the supermarket bulk bins, next to the golden raisins were tasty-looking sour cherries. I bought them instead. I mixed the squash with chopped walnuts and sour cherries. Yum, and wow. Farmers Market butternut squash bears no resemblance to the bland supermarket product. The sweet squash, tart cherries, and savory walnuts were a simple and inspired combination.
You see, I am also a bastard cultural stepchild of Alice Waters. At social events in the Bay Area, one of the perennial topics of conversation is local food. As someone who came up from middle class cookery in which canned mushroom soup was a major food group, I've looked to magazines and cookbooks and blogs for entree into broader worlds of tasty and sophisticated food. The pleasure and guilty self-recognition reminded me of the promo blurb on the 80's classic "Preppy Handbook" -- "look, Muffy, a book about us!"
Two important bills escaped Governor Schwartzenagger's veto temper tantrum. SB735 requires regions to connect transportation and housing plans to reduce the need for car travel and help reach greenhouse gas targets. AB 1358, the Complete Streets Act requires city and county general plans to take into account the requirements of pedestrians, cyclists, the elderly and disabled.
The suburban pattern of development in post-WW2 US wasn't "natural" -- it was shaped by policies that favored the automobile and sprawl. These two bills are major steps to reverse that trend.
October is eat local challenge month. The goal is to eat locally grown food for the month of October. My participation will be to highlight the locally grown food that I'm already eating. I buy almost all produce from local farmers markets, because it's environmentally sustainable, and especially because it's fabulous.
Farmers market fruit and vegetables are so good that they often seem like different substances from the stuff you get in the store.
* Jujubes. A farm that sells many varieties of asian pear also carries jujubes, an asian fruit that has been cultivated for thousands of years. They taste like apples, but dryer and more floral.
* Pomegranates. These are traditionally eaten for the Jewish new year. Eating pomegranates in the Northeast US is a tedious and disappointing obligation. In-season pomegranates in California still takes some care but is a real treat.
* Artichokes from Guisti farms in Half Moon Bay. They sell an older, tastier perennial variety; a newer annual variety grows faster and produces more but doesn't taste as good.
The goal isn't necessarily to be as strict as possible. Many people use a "Marco Polo rule" - products with old traditions of trade: spices, coffee, tea and chocolate are exempt. The guidelines are pragmatic:
If not LOCALLY PRODUCED, then Organic.
If not ORGANIC, then Family farm.
If not FAMILY FARM, then Local business.
If not a LOCAL BUSINESS, then Fair Trade.
If you have access to farmers market or locally labeled seasonal give it a try. Skeptics invoke January hothouse tomatoes in Maine to argue that local isn't always more sustainable; but in-season apples are probably "greener" than apples from halfway around the world. And tastes better. And there are bargains at high season. So enjoy!
The Complete Streets Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Mark Leno, is queued up for debate in the California Senate. The bill requires local governments to take into account users other than cars when updating general plans. Pedestrians, bicyclists, children, people with disabilities, seniors, all need to be considered. In a "complete streets" world, cars have a vote, not a veto on how streets are used.
More background on the bill from the TransBay Blog. The bill is queued for the Senate floor, but is being held while the Gov. plays chicken with the budget. If you live in CA, call your state Senator in support of the bill.
The man who sells fish at the Menlo Park farmers market with his family is a good guy and a community leader. There is no local salmon for him to sell this year, because the Delta where the salmon grow up -- an estuary at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers -- is dying.
Today, water is drawn from Northern California through the Delta. Too much water is being taken out, and too much fresh water is being drawn through what used to be a tidal flux.
My weekend housecleaning radio listening was a KQED forum program about a proposal to build a Peripheral Canal, which would route less fresh water through the Delta, and would take more water around the Delta. After listening to the program, I'm still not sure what to think about the canal proposal. I think that key questions are how much water is moved, and how we live with less. One of the guests on the program was Peter Gleick, a water expert and Macarthur grantee who's written a report on California water policy.
These water debates are the stuff of Cadillac Desert and Jared Diamond's Collapse, the tactical decisions that affect the rise and fall of civilizations over time.
I read the Economist's alternative energy special. It made the case that a post fossil fuel future is sooner than one might think, and had good stats on overall market size, growth rate, and competitive costs.
The big weakness was in the way it handled energy efficiency. The article pooh-poohed notions of energy conservation, identifying it with dour do-goodism. The economist doesn't have trouble with other sorts of efficiency driven by technology price/performance, or reducing labor. But somehow, if you can get comparable results with less energy, that's not worth considering.
Organic, Inc is a good companion to The Omnivore's Dilemma. Where Michael Pollan deplores and bemoans the corporatization of organic food, Samuel Fromartz investigates it, tracking the rise of Whole Foods, Earthbound (the salad mix people), White Wave (the commercialization of soy milk). Fromartz is a business journalist by trade, and he does a good job of tracking the "Rolling Stone" narrative where the counterculture becomes mainstream. He also astutely perceives the increasing segmentation of the market between supermarket organic, and local CSA/farmers market which can exist alongside.
The book takes on a bittersweet, world-weary attitude about commercial success, in telling the story of the mega-lettuce growers who put their small counterparts out of business, and the visionary soy entrepeneur who stole an idea from a former business partner, and was himself ousted by his corporate acquirers. Sure they are selling out, but compromise is part of the price of going mainstream. This attitude, ironically, buys into the mythos of the organic counterculture, where a set of values are tightly woven together: local, small, humane, unprocessed, authentic, and deviations from the norm are seen as selling out.
I am skeptical of romantic purism, and much more concerned with sustainability. What kind of food system is needed to feed the population without environmental disaster, especially after the cheap oil is gone. So I would rather see the strands teased apart and tested -- which aspects are inherently required for sustainable agriculture, and which aspects can scale up sustainably.
Recent studies show that organic farming can feed the world. If so, what social and economic structures are needed to make that happen? That's the evolving story I'd like to see covered. It's possible that the answer is homesteads where we bake our own bread, brew our own beer, and beat our laundry on rocks again, but I doubt it. Civilizations tend to move by evolving, not by simply turning back the clock.
In his blog, Fromartz shows less of need for "on the one hand/on the other hand" neutrality, and is more of an investigative activist. The lack of false balance is better journalism.
Sometime in the mid-90s I was driven up 280 for the first time with a colleague, and I marvelled at the unbuilt hills. "Why isn't this covered in houses,", I asked. I had grown up in suburban Philadelphia, and sprawl was an unchecked force of nature. Why weren't those hills all built up? My colleague didn't know. The Country in the City answers the question.
Land conservation has been part of San Francisco Bay Area culture since John Muir's Sierra Club in the 1890s, and the Sempervirens club founded to save remaining strands of Redwood trees in 1900. The best-told narrative of US environmental history is a national story, tracing from Muir's romanticism and Teddy Roosevelt's outdoorsiness through the founding of the national parks and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. The story Richard Walker tells is a distinctively regional story, with Bay Area groups of citizens organizing to protect land from residential and industrial development, using a set of beliefs, organizing methods, and institutions, with some dramatic successes over periods of many decades.
The preservationist history has a number of themes: protecting watersheds, creating networks of parks inland and on the coast, protecting landmarks like Mount Tam and Mount Diablo, and the dramatic and ongoing movement to Save The Bay. Part of the story is financing -- in the wake of Proposition 13, which reduced state funding for conservation, the Bay Area made increased use of private land trusts to continue to preserve land.
Part of the story is grass roots community support. There is a nonprofit organization devoted to taking care of San Francisquito creek which runs through my neighborhood, a group that is part of a network of groups that care for local creeks.
Part of the story is entrepreneurialism and fragmentation. Where there is a ecosystem to preserve or a development to fight, Bay Area residents spontaneously create organizations that work in coalitions to achieve the common goal. This reflects several cultural traits: skills and enterprise at creating organizations; and preferences for independence and alliance-buliding. Part of the fragmentation is regional. The Bay Area is big and not easy to get around. On any given topic, there are likely a variety of local groups connected with loose social and organizational ties. This may be a strength in some ways (local experimentation). In some areas, like transportation, the fragmentation and competition results in a flawed and suboptimal system.
The story is ongoing, and the cultural themes are current. Menlo Park is one of a number of towns currently organizing to combat global warming, and forming loose regional connections. This is following in a long tradition of loosely affiliated local groups working on environmental issues. Two of the biggest controversies in the last Menlo Park election cycle were about building a golfcourse at Bayfront Park, and a controversial infill which is reclaimed landfill open space. The development referendum was defeated. Another controversy was about a 135-unit mixed use development, which is part of a trend toward suburban infill.
The idea that environmentalism is about preserving open space is a cultural trope. When I told a woman at a community event that I was interested in environmental topics, she referred me to the groups that work to preserve open space in the hills and by the bay, though my personal interests are more about energy and global warming.
Another cultural theme, I suspect, is poor memory for local history. Walker tells the stories of local heroes:
* Bill Kortum who was a leader in protecting the coastline
* Edgar Wayburn and Amy Meyer, the patrician physician and local teacher who were leaders in the expansion of Golden Gate Park in the 70s,
* Claire Dedrick, the research scientist who was active in preserving the peninsula foothills and saving the bay, and went on to a career in state environmental agencies
* Newton Drury, the advertising executive who was a stalward of the Save the Redwoods league
* Dorothy Erskine and Jack Kent, cofounders of what became the Greenbelt Alliance.
The obscurity of local heroes reminds me of a recent conversation with Eugene Kim who was lamenting the poor cultural memory of people who contributed to ideas about technology that we now take for granted. The Bay Area is great at hype but perhaps not so great at history.
The way Walker tells the story, preservation is the result of an ongoing, never-finished series of battles between the forces of development and the forces of conservation. That is surely part of the story, but the conflict narrative underestimates the roles of built-up institutions at protecting the environment. When I got to California and started looking around to figure out how this place got to pass AB32 (the global warming bill) and the less glamorous but hugely important SB1368 which bans out-of-state coal power, and what created the beautiful path around the bay, I found established and professionalized institutions, with sources of funding, executive directors, staff research departments and scientists.
Richard Walker is a proud lefty, in a way that is refreshing to read coming from Texas, where folk left-of-center have self-esteem issues from years of right-wing mockery and marginalization. The leftiness also leads him to be chronically surprised that rich people and businesses can sometimes do good and useful things. This is particularly true in the global warming fight, where capitalism is a critical to the infrastructure transformation needed to reduce the use of carbon-based energy.
At the end of the book, there is a short and unsatisfying chapter on the environmental justice movement, which calls attention to the fact that poor folk are disproportionately the victims of environmental degradation. Poor folk are more likely to live near toxic industrial sites and neighborhoods at risk of flooding, and have had less clout in fighting these problems. The way Walker tells the story, the environmental justice movement is small, fragmented, disempowered, and rather isolationist, which doesn't help with the disempoweredness. I don't know how much of Walker's picture is accurate, but surely the story isn't over.
The book is about the successes of environmentalism at preservation and restoration. Walker's preservation is more domesticated that Muir's vision of primal wilderness -- the parks, watersheds, and truck farms integrally connected to the urban and surburban landscape. But the vision is still one of protecting nature from development. The current environmental crises -- and new understandings of old ones -- eliminate the barrier between "nature" and "development".
The book's introduction was written by William Cronon, an environmental historian who specializes in the interconnection between "nature and "civilization" Walker goes part of the way -- but not all of the way -- toward fleshing out that vision. I had the honor of taking Cronon's course in college. One of Cronon's themes is that the idea of nature is a profoundly cultural idea.
Cronon himself is an environmentalist - he serves on the board of national and local land conservation organizations. He also critiques the idea of "wilderness" untouched by human hand. In North America, the idea of primal wilderness is created by forgetting the role of native Americans in shaping the landscape they lived in (Cronon's great book, Changes in the Land). The idea of western wilderness is created by forgetting the role of the state at creating and protecting franchises for the extraction of water, mineral, and forest resources (Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West). The idea of "wilderness" can seem to absolve environmentalist Americans from their responsibility for the consequences of our resource-extracting civilization.
The 21st century issues -- global warming, peak oil, water supply, fisheries, sustainable agriculture cannot be addressed through a lens of protecting islands of nature from people. These issues result from the ordinary patterns of food, housing, and transportation -- the basic elements of material culture. There is no "preservationist" tactic that will help with global warming or peak oil. We need to fix how we live or go down as a civilization.
* Proposition 13. Has anyone wrote a good history of prop13 and its affect on California other than the trashing of the school system?
* Global warming and environmental justice in the Bay Area. When I cycle by Belle Haven and East Menlo Park, it doesn't take a scientific study to see that poorer folk who live in the low-lying neighborhoods are more likely to be flooded when sea level rises. Who is doing neighborhood organizing on the issue?
* When China wakes up in 50 years (assuming industrial society gets through peak oil), will the institutional knowledge about habitat restoration be available to them.
Bloomberg reported yesterday that KKR, the LBO firm bidding to buy out Texas utility TXU, would abandon plans to build 8 of 11 coal plants, the New York Times gives more background on KKR's courting of environmental groups. This is excellent. TXU had been pulling strings and bending rules to get the plants -- with the most polluting design possible -- rushed through the regulatory approval process before anti-greenhouse policies closed the door on maximally polluting plants that would double TXU's carbon pollution, not to mention smog and various other poisons. TXU had been garnering opposition from the mayors of Houston and Dallas, and members of the Texas business oligopoly, in addition to local residents and environmental groups.
Tom Evslin takes a contrarian approach, arguing that Texas needs the energy, and this is a sign of a buyout firm getting green cred for their selfish interest in treating the buyout property as a cash cow. Still, there isn't any good reason to build power plants with the dirtiest possible technology. Texas faces an energy shortage, but the 11 polluting coal plants were the worst of all possible ways to address the shortage.
Since the State of the Union speech proposed an energy policy high on ethanol, the mainstream media has started to cover the flaws and risks of corn-based ethanol.
In the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Chicago SunTimes, and Albany Times Union, to take an anecdotal sample, news analysis and op-ed pieces notice that:
* even if the entire US corn harvest were dedicated to ethanol production, it would replace only 20% of current gasoline use
* ethanol production doesn't save much, if any fossil fuel. Pessimistic estimates say that corn ethanol production is net negative; it takes more energy to produce then you get in return, while optimistic estimates are only about 1.3-1, compared to 10:1 for oil.
* corn for energy cuts into the amount available for corn flakes and pig feed.
Hopefully the conflict between food and fuel will cause the ethanol fad to flare out. Once the cost of food raw material and cattle feed cuts heavily enough into the earnings of food producers, there will be a powerful industrial lobby counterposed against the corn processors who are currently buying US policy.
One of the biggest barriers to solar energy is financial. It's cost effective but has a really long payback period. SunEdison is a Goldman Sachs based venture that solves this problem by building solar installations on the roofs of retailers like Staples and Whole Foods, and then sells them the power at a fixed cost. SunEd can raise the capital for the installations, and expects the retail energy will be higher than the cost of their capital. The customer doesn't need to pay the upfront cost. Solar energy by closing the financing gap.
A company named CitizenRe is trying this model out in the consumer market.They'll put solar panels on a homeowners roof, and sell them power in one, five, or twenty-five year increments.
They claim to have $650 millin in capital. But their web site doesn't have any information about the source of that capital, unlike SunEdison which is clearly a Goldman Sachs backed company. Their execs don't appear to have posted bios.
They claim that "Over 70% of our customers sign the 25-year contract because that locks in their rate for the entire term of the contract. " They are planning to do their first installation in September, and claim 3694 customers for a pre-released product. Uh oh.
How have they found 2500 buyers to take a 25 year contract with a brand new company for a pre-released product. This smells fishy to me. The model is certainly attractive, but I wouldn't sign a 25 year contract for a brand new product with a new company. I'm leery enough about a 2 year cellphone contract in a dynamic voice market. Thirty year mortgages are stable, because there is a huge legal and financial infrastructure behind them. Who are they selling to, and how are they selling? Do they have sales people visiting retirees in Florida and Arizona, or what?
Solar leasing seems like an excellent market opportunity. Moving from the business to the household market seems like a good and inevitable idea, especially with incentives such as the California Million Solar Roofs project. CitizenRe, though, sounds fishy.
Personal Kyoto is a service that lets New Yorkers analyze their ConEd electric usage information. This wants to be a game. Connect with people you know, or people on your block, or people with a similar sized house. And then compete for energy efficiency. Sign up with your name or a handle. Get a blog for your account, and write about your adventures with LED lightbulbs or zombie-busting electronics powersavers or solar panels. This would take advantage of social pressure, competitiveness, and social learning.
Hmm... PG&E is introducing a SmartMeter service across California. They could do this.
The California legislature and governor agreed on a deal to cap greenhouse gases and set up a market that lets polluters trade greenhouse pollution credits. Yesterday, a SacBee columnist argued that this was window dressing, but it seems to me like a big deal. Limiting greenhouse pollution helps the world on global warming, and helps California develop a post-peak-oil economy.
The Reality Based Community has a great post comparing/contrasting to the Kyoto protocols. The Cali bill is somewhat weaker in terms of goals -- a reduction to 1990 levels by 2020, instead of 5% below 1990 levels by 2020. Also, the bill is slower in timeline, with operation kicking in in 2012. California could join the European trading group by piggy-backing with an existing member.
Even though the terms are somewhat weaker than Kyoto , this is a huge step in the right direction. The anti-Kyoto-camp argue that if everyone isn't doing it, nobody should do it, but that discounts the role of leadership, which gets others moving in the same direction. California's policies often lead the US; the bill sets a strong precedent for national action, and additional regional action in advance of national action.
Where the Saudi oil production numbers are potentially influential and very bad, this story is potentiall influential and very promising.
A company in the Boston area, Beacon Power, is running trial systems for the grids of New York and California that use flywheels to balance out the fluctuations of supply and demand in the grid. Today, when peak demand strains the grid, the network sends a signal to a power plants with idle capacity to start producing. This is costly and polluting, since power plants are cheapest to run and least polluting when they are producing at a steady level. The flywheel system can respond faster -- seconds instead of minutes -- and doesn't add pollution.
If the six-month pilots of scale model systems in New York and California go well, the company will be able to sell their first production-scale systems next year, perhaps in time to spare the grid in air conditioning systems. The company, which started by selling backup power for telecom, and went public in 2000 right before the bottom fell out of that market, has retooled to sell to the electric grid. They've been losing $2-3 million per quarter, and have working capital of $8.5 million. Here's hoping the technology, timing and investment banks all work out to get this technology on line.
One piece of information I haven't yet been able to find -- how much C02 and other polution is due to the marginal use of natural gas plants to cover spikes in electricity demand. If the role of spare power was filled by flywheels instead of power plants, how much would emissions be reduced?
California's greenhouse gas bill promises to cap state emissions at 1990 levels by 2020. The bill would impose mandatory reporting and a "cap-and-trade" system. This vision is far ahead of US national policy which is to shut eyes tightly while headed for the cliff.
The legislature is pushing to get the bill done before a recess at the end of August. A hearing is expected in the Senate Appropriations committee in two weeks.
It sounds like the bill outlines the goals, and delegates the implementation rules to a task force. The current squabbling surrounds who will have the power to write the implementation rules. The original bill gives the power to the California Air Resource Board, while the Governor wants to give that power to a board appointed by the governor.
Backers of the bill include the Union of Concerned Scientists They have a Climate Choices very polished site with action alerts, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense. These sites all have action alerts, press a button to support the bill.
On July 20, California's energy regulators approved a program to roll out smart meters to 9 million gas and electric household customers. These meters report electricity consumption on an hourly basis. This enables PG&E to set pricing that varies by season and time of the day, rewarding customers who shift energy use to off-peak periods. The peak pricing program will start out on a voluntary basis, and the full rollout is expected to take five year.
The he said/she said coverage found an industry watchdog group that is skeptical that the increased rates to pay for the capital costs of the program will pay for benefits in conservation, and concerned that the program does nothing to decrease overall demand. It seems logical that giving consumers feedback and differential pricing will shift demand off peak. Thipilot programwith 100 households in Oregon shows the successful shift of demand away from peak hours.
Jesse Berst, the former IT analyst who's now covering energy cautions that smart metering technology is changing, and buyers should watch out for total cost of ownership and standards support. I haven't yet found information about who is supplying the meters to PG&E.
More confirming reports are out that Saudi oil production has been down for a couple of months, while their orders of new drilling rigs have been going through the roof. A completely unscientific poll of my reasonably well-informed friends and acquaintances reveals that nobody has heard of this. This isn't proof of peak production, but it seems rather ominous. This series seems at least as worthy of headline attention and anticipation as the federal reserve interest rates and George Bush's poll numbers.
Journalist Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey are having a wonderful public dialog about the organic supermarket chain living up to its values. The first Whole Foods response to the Omnivore's Dilemma was good -- it acknowledged Pollan's critique, and provided substantive information about Whole Foods' role in the growth of organic food, and some decent information about Whole Foods support for local agriculture. But it also read like it was written by 10 people in 30 drafts, with old-school marketing folk giving it a few good swipes with the marketing-speak polishing rag. It didn't acknowldge room for improvement -- it focused on defending Whole Foods history and policies. The bit about animal treatment standards sounded particularly phoney and substance-free.
Pollan wrote back with a respectful letter, re-asserting some of his criticisms about local suppliers and the treatment of animials in the name of shared values, and encouraging Whole Foods to use its power to lead. Mackey's latest response to Pollan's letter is much better in substance and in tone. Whole Foods is making substantive changes in response to Pollan's critique. Mackey acknowledges that it has been hard for them to find suppliers who treat animals well. So Whole Foods hired someone to be in charge of sourcing meat from farms with better standards. They have also created a financing arm to supply low-cost credit to farmers who want to supply Whole Foods. Mackey also acknowledges that the move to regional distribution has lost some suppliers, and Whole Foods is increasing the charter for individual stores to buy locally.
Mackey's letter also sounds more human, and more like a manager taking responsibility for his business. This is what Mackey says in response to the report that some Bay area farmers stopped selling to Whole Foods. "Whole Foods Market would like to try working again with any of the Bay Area farmers you know who are unhappy with Whole Foods Market and no longer sell to us. Please encourage them to contact our Northern California and Pacific Northwest Produce Director, Karen Christensen, at 415-307-5337 about selling directly into our stores again. You've also got my e-mail address. Please encourage those farmers to contact me directly via e-mail (but don't give my e-mail address out to anyone else, please) if they don't want to talk to Karen. I want to talk to them. Thanks."
In the second letter, Mackey answers the question about sourcing food internationally in terms of values. The first letter described the long distance sourcing policy as simple response to customer demand. Customers want asparagus in December, so we need to supply them. The second letter explains that organic food production offers farmers in poor countries better income, healthier working conditions without toxic pesticides, and improves soil degraded by non-organic market agriculture. One might disagree with the result on balance -- the costs of subsidized transport, vs. the benefits of organic agriculture around the world -- but the answer has integrity.
Mackey still doesn't answer Pollan's question -- what is the share of local food in dollars, not just in number of farms. You'd expect to see a larger number of local farms, but that doesn't say anything about the proportion of food they offer.
Overall, though, this is a great example of blogs supporting meaningful public dialog, and, if Whole Foods does what they say, using the conversation to make the world a bit better.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey blogs an extended blog defenseto Michael Pollan's critique of Whole Foods "industrial organic" model. The response is partly satisfying; it's a good example of a business using blogging to participate in a public conversation about it's business; and Whole Foods could go much further to use blog openness to be better corporate citizen.
The strongest part of John Mackey's post is his explanation of Whole Foods support for local agriculture. With statistics about support for local farms, information about the decentralized purchashing practices of local and regional stores, and a history of Whole Foods' role in reviving local farming with organic agriculture, Mackey makes a strong case against the accusation that Whole Foods is too big these days to support small local farms. The statistics about the declining use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers in some regions were particularly inspiring.
The defense of animal raising practices is less strong. Mackey cites one big organic dairy that Whole Foods doesn't buy from because of it's factory farming, and another big organic dairy that has improved it's practices; but he doesn't name names, and therefore doesn't do a good job of rebutting Pollan's specific critiques of the practices of brands found the Whole Foods shelves.
Mackey justifies shipping organic produce half way around the world because customers demand the products. This is a fine explanation for Whole Foods shareholders, but a non-answer for constituences who want agriculture to be sustainable. On the other hand, Whole Foods marks the origin of its produce, so US customers who don't want to buy products from Chile and New Zealand con't have to. This puts Whole Foods on a continuum of ethical choices; do you want to buy more local when you can, or do you want to avoid businesses that have anything to do with global transport of food.
It's a fine thing that Mackey and his executives used the blog podium to publicly explain Whole Foods practices. The post was open to comments, and the conversation around the post was discoverable with Technorati or other blog search tools. Michael Pollan responded to Mackey's post in a NY Times column republished on his blog, and moderated his tone in response to Mackey's letter, encouraging Whole Foods to do what's in it's power to live up to its stated philosophy instead of using the philosophy as an empty marketing slogan.
Whole Foods could do even better to communicate its day-to-day efforts on behalf of local and sustainable food by blogging more; by having divisional and regional managers blog about what they're doing. More information about Whole Foods day-to-day execution of their practices would help build their reputation where they deserve it, and make it harder to obfuscate in areas like energy use and animal farming.
One good thing about following the blog debate was finding some interesting blogs about local food, including Small Farms and Saute Wednesday, the blog by the editor of a newspaper about sustainable food in the San Francisco bay area.
Economist James Hamilton and commentors examines the possibilitie. Is it high inventory, like the Saudi's say? Hamilton doesn't buy it. Are the Saudi's trying to keep prices high? Is there a distribution bottleneck? Or Saudi Arabia closer to the bottom of the barrell -- is the quality of newly pumped oil so low these days that refineries can't handle it? Can they just not pump any more?
If it's the latter, then this story is the equivalent of the assassination of the archduke of Sarajevo for our time. Here's hoping that's not the case.
A hybrid solar/diesel ferry made by an Australian company called "Solar Sailor" has been chosen to shuttle visitors to the Alcatraz national park. The ferry is twice as fuel-efficient as typical diesel ferries. They cost about $5 million, or about twice as much as traditional ferries. The vendor says that the system would save $6 million over the 15 year life span of the vehicle, so 7 year payback period, not counting the value of reduced pollution and noise.
This is the first hybrid ferry in use in the US, ever. Meanwhile, it costs $5-10k to retrofit a Prius to get 100mpg. Today, the plugin hybrid technology is costly enough to be more of a status symbol than a cost-savings (if plugin hybrids displace some sportscars as status symbols, it's a non-problem). Putting the technology in production will help it get cheaper. It's possible to get more energy-efficient by a factor of lots, the question is how long we have for the transition.
I was chitchatting with a fellow at a party who keeps up with middle east news by reading English versions of local papers. The conversation turned to Saudi Arabia's support for militant islam. I mentioned as a by-the-way that Saudi Arabia is the single largest source of oil in the world, the government is the only authorized source of reserve numbers, they have incentive to lie. Meanwhile, career oil engineers have reverse-engineered the Saudi reserve figures and believe that Saudi production has peaked. He hadn't heard this. All in a calm, neutral tone appropriate for chips and beer.
The Crepes Cafe in Menlo Park uses fair trade coffee, and locally-grown produce where it's available. The owner used to say it on the menus, but replaced the disclosure with a few more square inches of menu items. So, the weather is perfect out on the patio and the food is eco too.
The car-dependent suburbs were created by an interlocking set of policies:
That's less glib than this week's political grandstanding, lifting gas taxes (D, R), taxing oil companies (D) or relaxing environmental regulations (R). The Oil Drum has a strong critique of the demagoguery.
The interesting thing about the policies that created the gas-dependent suburbs is the relationship between national government, local government and private action.
National government made a few critical investments and commitments
* the interstate highway system
* tax-deduction and subsidy programs for mortgages
Local governments made zoning and transit mix decisions.
Private businesses and citizens decided where to live, where to site their busiensses, which cars and trucks to buy, how to get to work. Their decisions were strongly shaped by the infrastructure.
The oil drum recommends:
" large-scale research, development, and implementation programs to improve the scalability of alternative sources of energy
* improving mass transit and carpooling programs
* providing incentives to buy smaller and more fuel efficient vehicles
* promoting a campaign to increase awareness about conservation.
Inspired by the original programs that created the suburbs, other logical steps include:
* government backing for financial products that make conservation technology cost-effective (these things apparently exist but are hard to use)
* government investment and policy changes facilitating distributed energy generation
* repairing local zoning for mixed use
Pull for these kinds of policies would come from businesses that make money from green energy and finance, citizens demanding solutions. Somebody somewhere is doing this stuff.
The suburb-creation policy list is taken out of context from this comment about about cities and race on Talking Points Memo.
One of the bloggers at The Oil Drum takes out his trusty napkin and does a number on the latest sanguine article in The Economist about oil supply. It's true that new technologies help wring more oil from a reserve. But the more efficient technologies also result in faster depletion rates once a reserve starts declining.
It is also true that as oil gets more expensive, then lower quality and harder-to-reach reserves become economical to produce. But it takes more time to set up that production, making it hard for supply to keep up with demand.
Meanwhile, the LA Times has a column praising the California energy strategy, including:
* a mandate to generate 20% of electricity from renewable sources by 2020
* legislation to reduce auto emissions
* a "cap and trade" policy for greenhouse gas emissions (Schwartzenagger just backed off from the "cap" side.
Perhaps California can take the lead. I'd love to find out what citizens' groups cover the legislation and promote good green policy. A search on AB32 -- Assembleywoman Fran Pavley's cap and trade bill -- yields few results.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Economics explains that the current spike in oil prices might be due to the financial market, not oil supply. Futures are bid up, so oil suppliers are hoarding oil for more expensive future delivery.
Walmart's experiments with eco-buildings reek of greenwashing, since its big box format is inextricably tied to sprawl and its economic model tied to global shipment.
But this announcement that Walmart pledges to source all of its fish from fisheries that meet Marine Stewardship Council's sustainable criteria sounds real, and sounds like it would make a real difference in avoiding the destruction of wild fish.
I'm not going to shop there because of their treatment of humans, but I'm really happy to hear that a retailer with enough market share to make a difference is planning to avoid overfishing. The march toward fishstock depletion is one of the several scarier threats to human civilization.
Sustainablog writes that Walmart's getting into organic food. One excellent thing about this is that Walmart scale can help take soil conservation mainstream. Factory farms producing better soil are much better than factory farms mining soil. Another excellent thing is scaling up agricultural practices that don't depend on petroleum-derived fertilizers.
Walmart's entry into the market is a big threat to smaller organic farmers, but it also creates an opportunity. Buy local, brand local. The eco-conscious buyers who were buying organic for the environmental benefits will also be thinking about the unsustainability of long-distance food transport. Small players who can brand local will be able to get higher prices from customers buying sustainability.