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Saturday, August 31, 2013


Footprint is a part-time activity for me, and a lot of other things have been going on over the last couple months which have conspired to keep me from spending as much time as I'd like on this.  Nonetheless, since Footprint launched I've had an opportunity to talk with many people and organizations who have been helping me shape the vision of where to take this work.  I wanted to summarize the current state of the vision - and invite your thoughts and participation.


The key aspect of Footprint that people have been finding particularly valuable is the "What If?" simulation.  

I've been passionate about the power of simulation for most of my career.  The most unique thing that computers can do is simulate - bringing ideas and processes into a tangible, interactive form.  Simulation is fundamentally different from calculating, searching, rendering, and playing back pre-created information.  It extends our cognition and allows us to link our thinking together into communal problem-solving.  Simulation has been primarily available to domain experts in technical, special-purpose tools, and at the other end of the spectrum, in games.  There is a middle ground that has been only lightly explored: Interfaces and interactivity as accessible as games, but applied to important, valuable, and hard problems. 

The Vision

Imagine a publicly-accessible, data-driven platform for creating, testing and refining scenarios for a sustainable future.  This platform would be a catalyst for change in public policy, individual behavior, and corporate strategy.  This holistic view of society, fusing domains such as energy, food, resource use, urban planning, environmental and public health, education and economics, would grow wiki-style, capturing the collective wisdom and vision of society's best and most creative thinkers.  

This platform will empower us as individuals to explore possible futures, understand costs and consequences, and collectively build a vision of where we want to take society and how to get there.  With a united vision, we have the chance to influence government and industry to create a just, sustainable, and high quality life.

A Call to Action

The iPad app I recently created, Footprint USA, is a prototype of a small portion of that vision - a catalyst for thinking about and planning the real platform.  If you are interested in helping evolve this vision and take it the next step forward in design and implementation, let me know!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Just Say No to Corn-Fed Cars

It is great to see our President delivering a specific action plan to begin to address climate change. While there are may aspects to praise, one that should perhaps not be on the list is "supporting the renewable fuels standard and investing in research and development to help bring next generation biofuels online."

Biofuels are a challenge because, at least for the case of corn-based biofuel (ethanol), land, water and fertilizer that could be used for growing food are instead used for fueling cars.  But more importantly, biofuels don't really reduce energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions. 

'Are biofuels a good idea?' was one of the main questions that drove me to create Footprint USA.  Based on the "What If?" model, a doubling in biofuel production lowers the "Scenario Score" from 100 down to 89.  You can try it in the app yourself, as well as exploring other levels of biofuel production.

What are the overall effects of biofuels?  As the image below shows
  • Fossil fuel use decreases, as biofuels replace fossil fuels
  • Acres of crops increase, to grow the corn or other crops from which the biofuel is made
  • Water use increases, to irrigate the crops
  • Electricity use increases, because it takes a lot of electricity to make fertilizer  9.5 megawatt-hours per ton, which is 4.7 KWh per pound.  That means for every pound of fertilizer spread on crops, the equivalent of running a 60 Watt light bulb for 78 hours.  And most electricity generation is contributing to CO2, as well as other atmospheric gasses.
  • Heath decreases to the extent that pesticides are used on crops grown for biofuels.
There are a number of other approaches to biofuels, including non-food crops such as switchgrass, algae, and genetically modified bacteria, but these presently use even more energy that corn biofuel.  Investments in these technologies have not been panning out.

I will end this post on a positive not - there the action plan does address decreases in fuel consumption and increased renewable energy sources.  Those are the key to improving the future, as long as we don't fall prey to Jevon's Paradox.  But that is a topic for another post...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cars, Cans and Calories: The Culture of Consumption

What do a jaywalker, a litterbug and potato chip have in common and why am I exploring them on a blog about sustainability? Read on, friends. First I'll lay the groundwork and then at the end of my post I'll circle back to connect them to the Footprint app.

One of the challenges to sustainability is American culture's obsession with consumption.  Why is this so?  There is nothing endemic in the North American environment that caused this.  Nothing in the customs that the original settlers or later immigrants brought to the US.  Our culture of consumption has been shaped by corporations which, like any living organism, are simply trying to grow.  The 170 billion dollar US advertising industry has, for decades, worked to modify your behavior in the interest of its corporate clients.  Some examples follow.


There is a fascinating podcast called 99% Invisible about "the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world".  In Episode 76- The Modern Moloch, host Roman Mars starts with: 
"On the streets of early 20th Century America, nothing moved faster than 10 miles per hour. Responsible parents would tell their children, “Go outside, and play in the streets. All day.”  And then the automobile happened. And then automobiles began killing thousands of children, every year."
How did this shift happen?  It was the automobile industry addressing an issue blocking its growth - the inability of cars to operate at a useful speed because of pedestrians:
"Automotive interests banded together under the name Motordom. One of Motordom’s public relations gurus was a man named E. B. Lefferts, who put forth a radical idea: don’t blame cars, blame human recklessness. Lefferts and Motordom sought to exonerate the machine by placing the blame with individuals."  
Lefferts coined the term "Jay Walking" as a derogatory reference to a person meandering like a country bumpkin in the streets, casting the then normal behavior of people using the streets to get around on foot into a personal fault.  Motordom got people to mock others as jay walkers, laws passed to make jaywalking illegal, and gradually behavior changed.  Cars were free to roam the streets, driving faster, killing more reckless jaywalkers. And with a simple advertising campaign, it became the cultural norm for cars to own the streets and thousands of pedestrians to be killed each year.


According to Wikipedia, "Keep America Beautiful [KAB]was founded in 1953 by consortium of American businesses (including founding member Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola) reaction to the growing problem of highway litter that followed the construction of the Interstate Highway System. The original goal of the organization was to reduce litter through public service advertising (PSA) campaigns"  One of KAB's creations is the iconic crying indian (actually an italian man), mourning the destruction of his land by careless individuals.  

In "State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?", Annie Leonard writes:
"KAB worked diligently to ensure that waste was seen as a problem solved by improved individual responsibility, not stricter regulations or bottle bills.  It even coined the term "litterbug" to identify the culprit - individuals.  By spreading slogans like "people start pollution, people can stop it", KAB effectively shifted attention away from those who design, produce, market and profit from all the single-use disposable bottles and cans that were ending up in rivers and roadsides."

The Bliss Point and Vanishing Caloric Density

A recent article in IEEE Spectrum discusses how the food industry is working to change the way we eat - to their benefit, not ours.  Diligent research into how our brains process sensory information is being leveraged to identify the bliss point, "the optimum amount of salt, sugar or fat" that generates craving and satisfaction.
"Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt.… So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then “supersize” to sell more.… And advertise/promote to lock in “heavy users.” —Bob Drane, former vice president for new business strategy and development at Oscar Mayer, quoted in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (Random House, 2013)."
"The holy grail of junk-food science is vanishing caloric density, where the food melts in your mouth so quickly that the brain is fooled into thinking it’s hardly consuming any calories at all, so it just keeps snacking. In the process, packaged-food scientists want to avoid triggering sensory-specific satiety, the brain mechanism that tells you to stop eating when it has become overwhelmed by big, bold flavors. Instead, the real goals are either passive overeating, which is the excessive eating of foods that are high in fat because the human body is slow to recognize the caloric content of rich foods, or auto-eating: that is, eating without thinking or without even being hungry."
Is it any wonder there is an epidemic of obesity and type II diabetes in the US?

Take Back your Mind

The first step is admitting there is a problem.  Knowing that our behavior is being manipulated, often against our best interests, we can begin to think about what we might do in response to this.  Some options:
  • Maintain the status quo, blissfully moving along the current trajectory
  • Rage against the machine, attacking big corporations
  • Create a countervailing force that is equally funded, organized and connected
The consequences of maintaining the status quo are obvious - high consumption affects our resource use, our health, and the environment of our future generations. (Note 1).  Attacking corporations isn't helpful - corporations are simply operating within the rules as they are currently defined. Attacking them won't accomplish anything - the rules need to change.  Right now the rules are written by those who have the funding, the vision, and the collaborative structures to perpetuate the culture of consumption. 

We as a society have the tools to shift the balance of power.  To change policy, money is not really the issue.  Corporations capture the attention of the government by contributing to campaigns, but that money is only useful in trying to persuade us to vote.  What we need to do is first figure out what we want, converging on a vision that is better for us as humans, which will of necessity be better for the environment as well (Note 2). Knowing where we want to go, and agreeing on that, we can then take the next step(s) in working to make our unified vision a reality.

Obviously this is an idealistic fantasy, right?   I mean, in order to achieve this we'd have to do some ridiculous things like:
  • Decrease consumption
    • Buy stuff when we need it, not because we want it or because in our extra time we troll stores for stuff that might catch our interest or try to fill a void in our lives.
    • Trade stuff with friendsbuy it usedshare it, and make it last longer.
    • Buy things that are designed for disassembly
  • Manage our information diet
    • Ignore advertising.  Rent DVDs instead of watching TV.  Pay for Spottily or Pandora subscriptions, and download podcasts, rather than listening to the radio.  Stop getting the newspaper and instead read articles online.   Yes this, means paying for our media, but it also means regaining our free will.
  • Work together to create a vision of the future
    • The is one of the reasons I created Footptint USA - a simulation model that allows us to imagine the future, understanding the leverage points, and the tradeoffs involved in moving to a sustainable future. 
  •  Make the future happen
    • Over time, I hope to improve the simulation to model actions we can take to make the changes that we envision.  The actions will have costs, unintended consequences, and will take time.  Like learning anything, we need to experiment, practice, solve sample problems, and gradually increase our mastery until we're ready to engage the real world.
I created Footprint USA as a way to explore some of these ideas (Note 3).  The app is just one tool; people are connecting and working together many ways to build a better future.  One great resource you may wish to check out is The Center for a New American Dream, whose mission is to "help Americans to reduce and shift their consumption to improve quality of life, protect the environment, and promote social justice."

Note 1

To explore the consequences of our present state of over-consumption, try the "getting started" example in Footprint USA.

Note 2

At least one reason the Occupy movement was a failure precisely because there was no shared vision of what needed to be accomplished.  Another reason was the anti-corporation feeling drove a desire to eschew any kind of organizational structure, which is essential in creating and presenting a countervailing force.  

Note 3

The data visualized in Footprint USA helps us see life as it is today.  The simulation model helps us start to create a vision of a sustainable future - the potential destination.  In future versions, I would like to add simulation of actions we might take - how a policy change might affect behavior of corporations and individuals, what we would have to trade of to drive development of renewable energy at the scale necessary to make a difference, and how long it might take.  

Footprint USA is just one tiny element to help raise the level of critical thinking on sustainability from sound bites to a broad, deep, personal understanding.  Towards this goal, the app is
  • data driven, to try to minimize assumption and bias.  
  • holistic, seeking to capture all the subsystem interactions and "externalities".  
  • interactive, allowing people to poke at it and see what happens.  
  • accessible - you don't need to be an expert n anything to use it (though you do need an iPad, at least for now).
  • transparent - through this blog and documentation in the app, I an seeking to make clear exactly how it is implemented.  I encourage people to ask questions, challenge my assumptions, and out any biases or inaccuracies I may have  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Efficiencies of Cities

In The Conundrum: How scientific innovation, increased efficiency and good intentions can make our energy and climate problems worse,  David Owen gives us the bottom line on living more sustainably: "We need to live smaller, live closer, and drive less."  This is exactly how people live in the most resource efficient communities in the US - Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, and other dense urban areas.

Advantage: City

Yes, while cities as a whole consume vast amounts of resources, on a per-person basis cities are the most resource-efficient paces to live.  Here are a few reasons why:
  • Housing density
    • Living space is smaller, which results in a lower need for heating, cooling, lighting, and stuff to fill the space.  (See note 1 below to explore this in Footprint USA)
    • Use of land is much more efficient, because living spaces are stacked up in tall buildings
    • By sharing walls, floors and/or ceilings, living spaces are connected to more spaces at the same temperature, making for further increases in heating and cooling efficiency
    • Without back yards and their attendant grass and pools, there is much less water use per household.
    • Many people do not have cars, which means they don't need garages. Or parking spaces. And they don't need to buy, ensure, maintain or fuel cars.
  • Traveling less
    • When cities integrate living, working and retail spaces, people can walk more often to their destination.
    • When trips are too far for walking, the density of travelers and destinations makes public transportation practical.  
    • Public transport, when fully utilized, is much more resource efficient than personal vehicles
    • Even when not more efficient that personal vehicles, the shorter trips made by public transport within cities still save resources over personal vehicles traveling longer distances fro suburbs to commercial areas
Cities also improve quality of life in a number of ways
  • Provide access to high quality health care, education, and entertainment
  • Housing mobility:  More people rent than own, which makes it much easier for someone to choose to move to take advantage of new opportunities
  • Job mobility: With a higher density of companies in a small area, there is more interaction between people in different companies and industries. 


At the same time, cities provide some challenges that need to be addressed to draw more people to them:
  • Expensive housing:  This is a big challenge that can only be met with increases in the supply of housing.  One way to achieve this is to convert primarily business zones into more mixed use.  Mixed use areas, where people have a reason to stay in the area other than for work, provide many other advantages cogently described in Jane Jacobs' classic work Death and Life of American Cities, published more than 50 years ago.
  • Lack of green space: Urban areas like San Francisco, Manhattan, and Chicago have large green spaces and waterfronts that give people a place to play and enjoy nature.  It is also possible to build more green spaces into our structures, as in the re-imagination of Chicago's Marina City Towers, below (source):   

  • Potential for higher crime:  Many cities have high crime areas.  Jacobs makes a case for mixed use urban areas, where people are on the street, or looking down at it, at all times of day, rather than just 9 to 5.  Also, when people live in an area, they are more likely to get to know each other, making it harder for anonymous transient criminals to prey on the public.  
  • Manufacturing and agriculture not nearby:
    • Manufacturing is a relatively small employment sector, as most manufacturing is done overseas, and the production in the US tends to be geographically isolated. Thus manufactured items need to be transported long distances no matter where people live.  If people live more densely, then there are fewer destination points for manufactured items, which makes their transport more efficient. 
    • With regards to agriculture, vertical farms, described in The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century by Dickson Despommier, are a compelling way to bring food production near to population centers, provided that plentiful renewable energy is available.

The Bottom Line

As we begin to feel the effects of having only one planet to share, living small, closer, and driving less will be a requirement.  The only alternative is for a lot fewer people to be inhabiting the earth.

Note 1: Exploring housing density in Footprint USA

  1. In the Visualization menu, select Selection Summary
  2. In the Data menu, select Population -> Number of Rooms -> All
  3. Select County in the Visualization menu
  4. Zoom in on the New York City area (by Long Island)Tap on the tall skinny county, New York County.
  5. Scroll down in the Selection Summary view to the Homes section,  Number of Rooms subsection.  You should see view similar to that shown below:
  6. Copy the selected data.  If you have Numbers installed, paste it into a spreadsheet.

  1. Go back to footprint and select another county - I choose Putnam, the light colored roughly rectangular county above New York County.
  2. Copy the same data, paste it into the spreadsheet next to the first set, label the columns and generate a bar chart.   Here's what I got:
In this chart you can clearly see that the majority of houses (or apartments) in New York county are 3 or 4 rooms, while in Putnam county the majority of homes 5 rooms or larger.

How do these counties compare in terms of Travel Time to Work?  How about Water use Per Person?  What do these statistics look like for the county in which you live?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

One-Planet Living

Each year the Worldwatch Institute publishes a State of the World, which is a collection of articles by different authors. This year's version, State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, has some fascinating and enlightening articles. This is a first in a series of blog posts relating ways in which you can use Footprint USA to further explore some of the ideas discussed in the State of the World.


The chapter "Getting to One Planet Living", by Jennie Moore and William E. Rees, discusses the limits of available resources created by the fact that all seven billion of us share one planet. This is captured in the concept of an "Ecological Footprint" which is defined as:
"The productive ecosystem area required, on a continuous basis [by the] population to produce the renewable resources it consumes and assimilate its … wastes.  There are only 11.9 billion hectares of productive ecosystem area on the planet.  If this area were distributed equally among the 7 billion people on Earth today, each person would be allocated just 1.7 global hectares (gha) [4.2 global acres] per capita.
In 1961, humanity's ecological footprint was about two thirds of global biocapacity; today humanity [requires] 1.5 planets… [This] cannot continue indefinitely; ultimately, productive ecosystems will become depleted.  Global productivity is further at risk because of potential climate change, ocean acidification, and other consequences of the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere."
This chapter goes on to introduce the concept of a "fair Earth share" of global biocapacity - that amount of resources that 1.7 gha can provide.  The authors then compiled, from a variety of sources (Footnote 1), what a fair Earth share can provide, and compared it to what is actually being used, as well as to what the highest consumption societies are using (Footnote 2):

Metric One-Earth Living Current Global Average Three-Earth Living
Daily calorie supply
Meat consumption (kg/year)
Living space (square meters)
People per household
Home energy use in GJoules/year
Motor vehicle ownership
Motor vehicle travel (km/year)
Air travel (km/year)
CO2 emissions (tons per year)
Life expectancy (years)

Exploring Fair Earth Share in Footprint USA

We can use Footprint USA to explore some of the aspects in the above table for life in the US - daily calorie supply, meat consumption, home energy use, motor vehicle travel and CO2 emissions - and what it would take for us to get to one-planet living, where we use only our fair Earth share.

Daily Calorie and Meat Consumption
In the navigation menu of Footprint USA, select "Food".  This does not show calories, but it does show  how much food is wasted in the US (Footnote 3).  From this diagram we can see that, in the case of vegetables, fruits ,and nuts, more are wasted than are eaten.  The primary waste comes at the point of consumption (at home and in restaurants). 

The good news here is that you can control this as an individual. End-consumption waste is about 20% of all food grown in the US.  Without this waste, our 3383 calories would go down to 2899 calories.  It would take eliminating all waste to get down to one-plant living.  That's obviously not feasible, but notice something else in this chart: how much food goes to feed the animals we eat.  This is approximately equivalent to the amount of food wasted.

Livestock consume calories from plants that we could otherwise eat.  Let's drill down into this a bit.  Select "Selection Summary" from the Visualization Menu, and you'll see a summary on the left side of the screen of how much food is eaten per person per year.  In 2009, 191 pounds per person of meat and seafood were eaten.  That's a half-pound of meat per day (averaged across everyone, including vegetarians, babies, etc.).  If everyone who ate meat cut their meat consumption in half, we'd save as much food as cutting out all end-consumption waste.  If we do both, then we can reach one planet living for calorie supply.  

However, we're currently living 5 planets per year of meat consumption, so cutting meat consumption in half won't get us to one-plant living in this dimension.  It is unlikely that we would be willing, as a society, to eat one-fifth the amount of meat we eat today.

Besides using agricultural land, why do we care so much about meat consumption?   One issue is greenhouse gasses.  Livestock produce methane as they digest their food.  To get a sense of the impact of this, select "Atmosphere" from the Navigation menu.  Note that Methane is listed in the flow diagram as "Methane 25X".  This is because methane has 25 times the greenhouse gas warming effect of the equivalent amount of CO2.  Now, tap on the "Methane" box on the right of the flow chart.  You'll see all the sources of methane, and you'll also see that Agriculture is the single largest source.  Agricultural contributions come from more than just livestock, but livestock is the largest source.

So, if we want to continue to eat more than our fair-Earth share of meat, we'll need to find other ways to cut greenhouse gasses.  More on this later.

Home Energy Use
One-planet living requires a home energy use of 8.4 gigaJoules per year, which is 6.4 kilowatt hours (kWh) per day.  How are we doing in comparison?  In Footprint USA, select "Footprint" from the Navigation menu.  For the entire US, household energy use is 83 kWh per day.  However, the majority of this is transportation.  You can see this by selecting "Legend" from the Visualization menu, and then tapping on the "Energy Use" pie chart.  You'll see what is shown in the image below, illustrating that non-transportation home energy use is approximately one-third of the total, about 28kWh per person per day; 4.3 times the one-planet value.

Can we reduce our non-transportation energy use by a factor of 4?  Yes, it is feasible.  Select "Energy" from the Navigation menu, and you'll see the diagram shown below, indicating where energy is going.

Some ways can we reduce household (residential) energy usage:
  • Conversion loss: Energy is lost converting heat into electricity, and transmitting the electricity from the point of generation to the point of consumption.  The majority of this loss is conversion.  Were we to switch to solar and wind, this conversion loss - an amount equal to about half of the residential, commercial and industrial electricity use - would disappear.  This takes us from 28 kWh to about 18.5KWh.
  • Heating and lighting: There is a building efficiency standard called Passive House, which results in ultra-low energy buildings.  It uses between 75% and 95% less energy for heating and cooling.  Homes can limit energy spent on lighting by using skylights to harness sunlight for daytime indoor lighting, and LED lighting at night, which uses  75% less energy than incandescent lighting.  The combined decrease in heating, cooling, and lighting energy use easily reduced household energy use by two thirds.  This decreases the 18.5 kWh number to 6.1 kWh.
With solar and wind power and efficient heating, cooling, and lighting, we can reach the one-planet goal for household energy use without sacrificing our quality of life. This calculation does not count the energy required to build all the wind and solar electricity generation capacity.  It also does not count the energy required to rebuild or retrofit all the homes in the US.  How to think about the impact of that transition is left to a future article in this blog.

Motor Vehicle Travel
The greatest challenge to achieving one-planet living in the US is how much we travel.  The fair Earth share is 582 km (361 miles) of motor vehicle travel per person.  Where are we in comparison?

In Footprint USA, select "Transportation" from the Navigation menu.  In the Visualization menu, be sure that "Selection Summary" is checked.  On the left side of the screen (with your tablet in landscape mode) you will see "Travel Details".  Scrolling down a bit, you will see "Person Miles per Year by Vehicle Type."  Adding all the personal vehicles together (car, van, SUV, pickup truck, other truck, RV, motor cycle and light electric vehicle), we get 10,679 miles per person, almost 30 times higher than our fair Earth share.  Is it posible to get close to the fair share?

One thought is to use public transportation.  This is only practical when we live close together.  For example, Let's take a look at New York State, home to the densest city in the US.
  1. Select "Geographic Map" from the Navigation menu.  
  2. In the Data menu, navigate back to the top.  From there, select "Travel", "Trips by Purpose, then "All".  (You should see a single pie chart over the US.  If you don't, then go to the Visualization menu and select "US"
  3. Tap on New York State.  The pie chart and information in the Selection Summary will change to   reflect that of New York State.
Adding personal vehicles together, we get 7,000 miles, about a 45% reduction from the US average but still 19 times too high.  If everyone carpooled, we might cut that in half again, to 3,500 miles per person, still almost ten times our fair share.  Taking half as many trips gets us down to 5x our fair share.  The only way we would have any chance would be if we lived in a dense city.   It would be great if we could zoom in on New York City and see what the miles per person looks like there - unfortunately, this data is not presently available at the city level.

Footprint USA does have information at the city level for public transit ridership.  Let's take a look.
  1. Navigate up one level in the Data menu, then select "City Transit Ridership".  Select "All"
  2. Zoom in on New York state.  Once it is filling most of the screen, select "City" from the Visualization menu.
  3. Tap on the dark green shape that is New York City.
  4. Scroll down to the the bottom of the summary view on the left, to the section marked "Public Transit Ridership".  You will see something like this:

Here you can see that the average New York City resident takes 402 trips per year on public transit - more than one a day.  While we unfortunately don't have the data available to see if that gets us to the fair-share level of travel, it provides strong evidence that living in high-density urban environments is a key part of the solution.

CO2 emissions
The global fair Earth share for CO2 emissions is 2 tons per year.  To explore how we're doing in the US today, please select "What If" from the Navigation Menu.  If it is not already open, select the "Status Quo" scenario.  Then tap on the box labeled "Atmospheric Waste".  You'll see a pie chart, and above it a total of 16.8 million tons of CO2 per day.  The US has a population of 308,745,472 people, from which we can calculate our current CO2 emissions as 19.8 tons per person per year.  Ten times our fair share.  Let's see what we could do to fix that.

First, create a new scenario by tapping on the title in the "What If" view, then tap on the "New" button, and then the "Open Button".  You'll start out with exactly the same situation as the "Status Quo" scenario.   As a first step, let's switch to solar and wind power.  To do this, tap on the box labeled "Electricity", and drag all the sliders to the left except for Solar and Wind.  (You'll probably need to increase solar and wind first).  Tap "Save", and then tap on the "Atmospheric Waste" box again.  Now the total CO2 output is 9 million tons per day, which is 11 tons per person per year, still a factor of 5.5 too high.

But remember above when we decreased energy use in our homes?  Let's account for that.  Tap on the box labelled "Homes" and drag the slider for energy efficiency all the way to the right.  This cuts household energy use in half, from 68.3 kWh per day to 34.1 kWh per day.  Let's also assume solar space heating for everyone, by dragging that slider all the way to the right.  Now the household energy consumption is down to 24.6 kWh per day.  Taking a look at Atmospheric Waste, we see that CO2 is now 8.4 million tons per day, a small decrease which still leaves us at 9.9 tons per person per year, 5x too high.  Note that this change is small because we're getting all our electricity from solar and wind now, which generate no CO2.

There are some other changes we can make.  One is to buy less stuff.  Tap on the box labelled "Retail Consumption", and drag the slider "Discretionary Consumption" all the way to the left.  This cuts down the amount of stuff we buy by 50%.  Tap "Save" and then look at "Atmospheric Waste" again.  It is now down to 6.4 million tons per day, which is 7.6 tons per person per day, 3.8x our fair share.

Now let's switch to electric cars.  Tap on the box labeled "Personal Travel".  Drag the slider labeled "Electric" all the way to the right and tap "Save".  Tap again on "Atmospheric Waste".  We are now down to 2.2 million tons of CO2 per day,  or 2.6 tons of CO2 per person per year.

One last thing to get us there - let's make manufacturing more efficient.  Tap on the box labelled "Manufacturing".  Drag the slider labelled "Energy Efficiency" all the way to the right.  Also drag the slider "Manufacturing Commodity Waste" all the way to the left.  Tap "Save" and take a look at "Atmospheric Waste".  1.5 million tons of CO2 per day, which is 1.8 tons per person per year - we did it!  And with some to spare, which meas we don't have to decrease our meat consumption as much as we otherwise would to reach our fair Earth share for meat consumption.

Adding it All Up

While we didn't look at all the aspects of one plant living, we got a taste of what it would be like:

  • Cut out food waste at home and in restaurants
  • Eat half as much meat
  • Switch to power generation that is predominantly solar and wind.  Nuclear would also be an option.
  • Make houses much more efficient in heating, cooling and lighting
  • It's pretty hard to decrease diving to the level we would need, but living closer to each other would help, and having electric cars would defray that main negative impact of cars - generating CO2 - provided we are using wind and solar (or nuclear) for electricity.
  • Finally, make manufacturing more efficient in terms of energy and material use, and cut discretionary consumption in half.
The infrastructure changes would be massive, but they don't require any magical new technologies.  Making those changes would use huge amounts of resources that we have not talked about here, but that is a one-time expense.

Given that we made all those changes, our daily experience wouldn't be extremely different - we'd still be living comfortably.  And we might end up spending less time working, because we'll be spending less money on discretionary consumption and won't have to produce as much stuff.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

One thing we have not discussed is that fact that another two billion people will be showing up in the next several decades.  This decreases the fair Earth share for each individual inhabitant by about 29%.  And, at the same time, many people now in poverty will be moving into the middle class. That means they'll want to eat meat, drive cars, have more living space, and use more electricity.

So we'll need to do a lot more than was outlined above to live sustainably on our one planet.  There are some interesting possibilities for addressing this challenge, such as vertical farms (see The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, by Dickson Despommier).  Play around with the "What-If" interface to get more ideas to help us create a sustainable future!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


The Vision

In the just-published book The Nature of the Future, Dispatches from the Socialstructured World, Marina Gorbis, executive director of The Institute for the Future, describes a scenario in which individual citizens participate directly in government, shaping their own future via a forum called the "New Agora".  The fictional character in this vignette, Rosa, is getting ready to participate:
"In preparation for her first session in the New Agora, Rosa had gotten an online orientation ... She had feared she would not be able to comprehend all the data, but it was presented in a very intuitive and visual way, plus there was an online simulation that demonstrated the many complex effects of different budget decisions.  Throughout the proceedings, New Agora members would have access to these online simulations ...[which] allowed users to see the impacts of budget decisions on particular groups and regions, the environment, and so on."
My goal when I started working on Footprint USA three years ago is cogently captured in Gorbis' scenario.  I want to empower all of us to understand the world we live in now, and mindfully choose the future we want.  Visualizing data in Footprint USA paints a picture of the world we live in today (at least the United States).  The What-If? simulator allows us to envision the future.

The What-If? Simulator

The What-If? simulator allows you to experiment with more than 80 variables - ranging from where we live to what we eat, from how we spend our time and money to how we generate and use electricity,  how and where we travel, how we educate ourselves, and what we put back into the environment.

The image below illustrates the interface to the simulator, which is organized into 25 individual models.  By tapping on any individual model, you access an interface with parameteras to explore.  The image below shows the options for electricity generation, where you can shift the mix to whatever you like.

When you select a model, lines connect it to the other models that influence it (to the left), as well as the models it influences (to the right).  In the case of electricity, it is influenced by homes, personal travel and manufacturing.  There are additional indirect influences captured in the model.  For example, using more fertilizer in agriculture drives the manufacturing of more fertilizer, which generates a need for more electricity, as fertilizer production is energy intensive.  

This comprehensive aspect of the What-If simulator enables the exploration of interesting questions, such as 'What is the impact of biofuels on electricity use, compared to electric cars?'

The electricity production model influences solid, atmospheric, and hazardous waste, as well as water, land and fossil fuel use.  The waste models have further "downstream" influences in the simulator, such as health.  The What-If? simulator does not yet cover the effects of global climate change, but additional models will be added in the future.

When you make changes to any parameter, the effects ripple through the model and a Footprint Score is calculated.  This allows you to compare the future you are designing to the present day, which has a score of 100.  You also see the individual components that contribute to the Footprint Score, as shown here:

While it is easy to create a rosy (or should I say green) future clean energy scenario, the picture changes when you include the population growth expected by 2050:

I encourage you to explore the What-If? simulator and experience first-hand the ways in which the things that shape our lives are interconnected, and what kinds of options we have in designing our future.

By the way, another use for the What-If? simulator is to calculate your own personal Footprint Score.  Set the variables for how you live today - how big your home is, how much you travel, how you spend you time and money, etc.  Are you above 100, or below?  Where would you like to get to?  What one step could you take today towards getting there?

What's Next

The What-If? simulator in its current implementation is designed to help us chose a way of living we'd like to work towards.  It reveals the interdependencies, the total systems costs, and the areas that can provide the greatest return on quality of life.

But it doesn't tell us tell us anything about how to achieve the future we want.  For example, if we wanted to switch to renewable energy production it would be a very big investment.  According to The Conundrum, by David Owen:
"Suppose we agreed on the goal of capping atmospheric CO2 at 450  parts per million - 15% higher than today and consistent with a 2 degree C rise in global temperature.  This would require freezing global energy consumption at current levels despite a projected increase in global population from 7 to 9 billion people.  It would also require the equivalent of all of the following:
  • 100 square meters of solar cells, 50 square meters of solar thermal reflectors, and one Olympic-sized swimming pool of algae for biofuel, every second for the next 25 years. 
  • One 300 foot diameter wind turbine every five minutes
  • One 100 megawatt geothermal-powered steam turbine every eight hours
  • One 3 gigawatt nuclear power plant every week"
If we did do the above, or its equivalent, what would we have to give up instead?  Would it be more practical to focus the change on decreasing consumption?  A combination of both?

These how questions will be addressed in future releases of Footprint USA.  And the vision is for much more than just a simulator.  I want to connect all of us who are interested in creating our future, through shared experiences in designing scenarios, debating the goals, and improving the models.

This first version of Footprint USA is just the first step on this path.  Your purchase of this app will fund the next steps.  I hope you will join me on this journey!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Part V: Putting It All Together In The Footprint View

As I explored the data fueling Footprint USA, an image began to from in my mind of our society as a giant flow of atoms from mines, wells, forests and farms.  A flow through a process of  refining, combining, trimming and distributing, with our households as the ultimate engines drawing all this matter through.  And, when we're done, every single atom that comes in has to go back out - to our atmosphere, waterways, landfills, or storage lockers.

I wanted to a way to see this in a concise overview, where I could better understand how my personal consumption influenced that much larger flow.  How big is that flow, compared to the part I use?  How does the flow in my city, county, or state compare to other places?  What is the resulting quality of life?  Thus was born the Footprint view.  Here it is for New York State:

On the left are the inputs, on the right the outputs - these balance out, though for simplicity's sake not everything is shown on both sides.  In the center is the portion of this flow we actually use to sustain ourselves and our households.  Everything else is overhead.

About half the total energy production is used directly by us, with two-thirds of that half going to transportation. (You can see this in the app by tapping on a pie chart, which makes it colorful and displays a legend).  Only one quarter of the crops produced are actually eaten by us.  (In the app, you can explore where the rest goes).  In our households we personally use only one tenth of the water  that we consume as a society.  And, each and every day, 22.8 ton-miles of stuff is moved on our behalf (this does not include our cars, busses, trains and planes, which move each resident of the Empire State, on average, 26.4 miles every day).

There are many ways to think of quality of life - I selected a few items for data was available:  Health, education, cime, and natural hazards.  There are a number of other factors which impact our quality of life by inspiring us - art, nature, mastery of our vocations and avocations - but for these I had no consistent data, and they are much more subjective.

Finally, everything is combined into a Footprint Score.  For New York state, despite all the inefficiencies listed above, the score is 150.  That is 50% higher than the national average (higher is better), which is, by definition in Footprint USA, 100.

In the app you can find out exactly how the Footprint Score is calculated.  You can find the score for where you live.  And, with the What-If? simulator, you can explore what you can personally do, and what we can do as a society, to change the Footprint Score.  I'll write about that in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Screen Shots, Part IV: Demographics

As I researched the data sources to draw from in creating Footprint USA, the second place I went was the US Census (the first was the National Atlas).

My first impulse was to look at the US Census data on a map, which of course I did, and have made available in the app.  But geography doesn't tell the whole story.  While reading the book How Many People Can the Earth Support?, I learned more about demographics and a particular way of visualizing them with bar charts.  

This led me to selecting a small subset of Census data to display on a single screen such that you can see at a glance how age, employment, education, birth, death, and a few other items are distributed in a given population.  And, in the spirit of competition, you can compare any two locations, from cities to counties to states.  

Here's an example comparing the states of Louisiana and New York

There are a number of factoids this visualization reveals (at least in the case of this comparison)...
  • Males and females are born in equal numbers, but men die younger.    
  • The population skews younger in Louisiana, but not because life expectancy is short - the distribution of people age 65 and up is about the same in both states. 
  • Higher education attainment corresponds to a larger percentage of the population being employed.  (Not a surprise)
  • In Louisiana, the ratio of women to men employed is more equal than in New York.
  • A larger fraction of people rent in New York state than in Louisiana, but people change address less frequently in New York.
  • There are more households in New York than Louisiana with 4, 5, 6, and 7+ people.
What does it all mean when you put it together?  Is low education in Louisiana driving more women to work?  Are smaller families a result of people leaving the state when they hit their mid 20's?  How much is the result of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina?  How will life in New York City, another coastal megalopolis, change when rising seas and more intense storms combine - a preview we saw with hurricane Sandy?

What is perhaps most fascinating (or at least most germane to this post) is how data, visualized properly,  can get us thinking more deeply, motivating us to explore the stories behind the numbers, and enhancing our mental models in ways that allow us to ask better questions.  And maybe even find some answers.  

Watch for the next part and final installment in this series: Part V: The Footprint View.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Screen Shots, Part III: Tree Maps

Tree Maps visualize data by area, much like a pie chart.  Tree maps differ from pie charts by providing a way to clearly compare a larger set of data categories, especially for hierarchical data.  Also, tree maps use rectangles instead of circular slices.  Tree maps that are interactive enable selective drilling down into particular areas, while maintaining a perspective of how the details relate to the whole.

Footprint USA displays a variety of data in the form of tree maps to help build a comprehensive view of how we live as a society.  These cover aspects of the natural environment (Ecoregions, Natural Hazards), how we use resources (Land Use, Commodity Use, Commercial Energy Use, Air Pollution, Residential Energy Use) and our behavior and quality of life (Businesses, Degrees Granted, Diet, Spending, Time Use)

For example, here is a view of total Land Use in the United States:

We can drill down into Field Crops, and see how much of our country is dedicated to growing corn:

Most of this corn goes to feeding livestock, so that we can eat meat.  However, an increasing percentage is being used for biofuels.  We're not eating less meat, so increased biofuels will need to take their land from something else... But that is a topic for another post.

Speaking of diet, have you wondered how our diet has changed?

Looking from right to left, we can see that fruits and vegetables had decreased slightly from 1980 (top) to 2009 (bottom), and there has been a shift from processed to fresh fruits and vegetables.  Cereals, fats & oils, and sweeteners have increased significantly, taking away from dairy, meat & eggs.

What makes up those sweeteners?  The chart below shows how corn is taking over:

There is growing evidence that high fructose corn syrup is driving an epidemic of type II diabetes.

Tracing the path from land-use to diet to health effects is an example of the power of data visualization to enable us to understand the forces shaping our lives.  Knowledge is power, and understanding where we are today as a society empowers us to think about where we want to go.  That is one of the main reasons I created Footprint USA.

Next up:  Part IV: Demographics

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Screen Shots, Part II: Flow Diagrams

Flow diagrams, also known as Sankey diagrams, are a great way to see where a resource goes.  Starting from the left (usually), the diagram shows the sources of the flow.  Proceeding to the right, there is a column which contains the destinations of the flows.  This column might be the source of flows for another column, and so on.  The flows themselves are typically drawn such that the width represents the amount flowing from a source to a destination.

Sankey diagrams are a powerful visualization for seeing the big picture - the relative impacts of various things, bottlenecks, and dependencies.  Creating a Sankey diagram helps you to understand where everything is going.  If you are missing some data, the flows won't add up.  This is usually not a problem if your data all comes from one source.  In the case of several of the Sankey diagrams in Footprint USA, such as the Energy diagram, the data comes from a variety of sources.

Here is the national-level energy flow diagram from Footprint USA:

One of the most striking observations from the diagram above is how much energy is wasted - that's everything that is grey on the right side of this diagram.  But that is a topic for another post...

Footprint USA allows you to generate these diagrams for every state and county in the US.  You can also compare two regions.  Note the difference in the sources used to generate energy in New York state versus Washington state:

So, if you are driving and electric car in Washington state, it is primarily hydroelectric powered, while in New York you electric car is partially nuclear powered (Ford was ahead of its time).

Many of the Sankey diagrams in Footprint USA are interactive.  For example, you can tap on any of the boxes in the Transportation diagram, shown below, to display only the flows into and out of that particular box.

Footprint USA visualizes the flows of many of the major systems of our society, including Atmospheric  gasses, food, commodity flow, waste, and water use.

To see a wide variety of Sankey Diagrams, check out this site.  Lawrence Livermore National Lab has a site where you can explore deeper into energy flow in the US.

Watch for part III, Tree Maps.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Screenshots, Part I: Exploring the Map

Welcome to the first in a series of posts about what you can see and do in Footprint USA.

Much of the data in Footprint USA is viewable on a map.  Maps are displayed as line drawings that can be rendered at any resolution.  This means you can see the whole country... well as zoom in to specific areas, with high-resolution renderings at any magnification:

You can select specific geographical areas, and see the data behind the map.  In the image above,  San Jose California is selected, and a summary of transportation information is provided on the left.   Below, the map is changed to a county-level view of electricity generation:

The map below takes a different view of electricity generation, coloring the counties by the dominant source of electricity for each county:

There are many dimensions of data to view in Footprint USA.  For example, air traffic:

Next up:  Flow Diagrams.

Monday, April 1, 2013


We have the power to change the world.

Every decision each of us makes, from what to eat or what car to drive, from what to wear or where to live, from what to study or how to spend time and money, has an impact on the world.  The challenge is knowing what the best decisions are - for us individually and for the world.  This software is designed to help us explore the impact of some of the decisions we all face, both small and life-changing.  While only you can know what's right for you, this tool can offer a glimpse of the larger social and environmental impact of many choices we have direct and indirect control over.

With millions of people in the US and billions across the planet each making decisions every day, the impact intensifies. The challenge, however, is in understanding precisely how these individual choices add up, including the inter-dependencies,  side effects, and  hidden costs and benefits.  This is a daunting task, because the world is a complex place.  And because consequences can occur years in the future, the connection to the causes is even more difficult to decipher.

Footprint USA is designed to empower us individually, and as a society, to make better informed decisions by:
  • Integrating the major systems we interact with in our daily lives, such as energy, agriculture, manufacturing, and education
  • Simulating, in just a few seconds, the long-term consequences of changes in our behavior- consequences such as health, crime, waste and free time. 
  • Visualizing 
  • Democratizing this experience through an interactive iPad application. 
  • Seeding  learning and action by providing the data and links that allow you to dive deep and follow your curiosity.
May the emergent vision created by those of us who will inhabit the future become a powerful counterpoint to the commercially-driven vision of those who want to sell future to us.