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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