Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Air Pollution and “Draconian” Environmentalism

March 6, 2010

I’ve been having a lot of personal and online conversations about environmentalism with self-described conservatives lately, and noticed an interesting trend. All agree in theory with the root concept of environmentalism. They all agree that we need to be good stewards of the land, air, and water upon which we rely. But they still bristle about environmentalism, because they see it as “restrictive.” The agenda of the movement has been referred to by such terms as “draconian,” “coercive,” “autocratic,” and “repressive.” According to their philosophy, environmental protection and stewardship should be advanced through non-coercive and non-punitive means.

It’s a wonderful idea. Sadly, it doesn’t work in the real world. Exhibit A: Utah. Our conservative legislature has persistently maintained an attitude ideologically opposed to regulation, insisting that individual agency is the best method of environmental stewardship. This year, the only bills related to pollution or the environment making headway through the Utah legislature are a message bill discouraging federal legislation based on the “global climate conspiracy” (despite opposition from BYU and U of U scientists, who are apparently part of the nefarious global climate cabal) and bills whose purpose is to enable increased extraction of fossil fuels in Utah—fuels the consumption of which contribute to air pollution. And the fruits of this attitude and agenda? Utah can lay claim to the worst air quality in the nation.

Many people of all stripes are sincerely concerned about the environment, and make laudable efforts to minimize their environmental impact on a voluntary basis. Despite the fearmongering of the Right, no one supports a green police a la the absurd and insulting Audi Superbowl commercial. But without any sort of restrictions— “coercive” though some might consider it—there is too much incentive for society collectively to pollute the public commons upon which we all rely for life. There must be rules based on an understanding of the the limitations of the ecosystem which prevent us—”draconian” though that may seem to some—collectively from damaging the environment (and ultimately each other). Unrestrained consumption/pollution and the sort of sprawling exurban communities which maximize automotive use, and which conservatives seem to favor, are simply unsustainable in our geographic circumstances. Some combination of pollution tax, restriction on polluting activities, and reorganization of our communities is imperative if we want to avoid the increasing harm to human health associated with air pollution. Given that government is the only entity which has the authority to do these things, the Reagan mantra is wrong: government is in part the solution. The idea that government has no role in using its power to prevent people from harming others by their consumption decisions? That’s the problem.

President Bush Deregulates Coal Mining Debris Disposal

December 13, 2008

Despite what the headlines seem to suggest, President Bush is not yet inconsequential. His executive powers are maintained for another few weeks, and like the last several of his predecessors, he is spending that time issuing eleventh hour executive orders and regulatory changes. Among the most distressing of the changes is one which lifts many restrictions on the disposal of mining waste. In truth the rules regulating that disposal have widely been ignored for years. Lifting those restrictions will allow mining operators even greater freedom to dump their mining refuse into nearby streams and valleys. Mining runoff contains high levels of selenium and other hazardous chemicals, which threatens not only local fish and wildlife, but the local communities.

Deregulation has always been a central tenet of conventional free market theory as a means to maintain freedom for society. The argument is in theory very persuasive. Why is it that in practice deregulation so often means keeping producers free to pass off the true costs of their production onto others; free contaminate the private property and health of the less powerful, as well as the public property on which we all rely, in their pursuit of profit? So much for the people downstream being “free to choose.”

Reducing Packaging Waste

December 12, 2008

One of the things which drives me nuts about shopping is the amount of packaging. We seem to have been victims of “packaging creep.” Now just about any sort of consumer good has some type of cardboard container, two layers of hard plastic clamshell cases, a few pieces of styrofoam, and soft plastic bags surrounding everything. When you’re done shopping, and after you find a way to break upon the seemingly impenetrable packaging, you end up with half-a-dozen plastic bags. All of this plastic has to be disposed of—most of it ending up preventing natural decomposition in landfills, or collecting in the ocean.

So its nice to see that the tide may be turning. I see more people declining bags when their purchases are easy to carry (something I’ve practiced for years—I don’t need an extra plastic bag for a package of pencils or an apple!). Reusable gift bags are becoming more popular, a more sustainable option than gift wrapping. More people are using reusable shopping bags. More stores are offering bulk bin options for foods and cleaning supplies, which eliminates individual containers. Amazon is trying what should be a common-sense idea of utilizing “frustration-free” packaging, which minimizes the packaging and appears to be fully recyclable.

Small steps, but worthwhile ones to promote. How else can we cut down on the waste associated with shopping?

Utah Solar Tour

September 11, 2008

This Saturday (September 13), the Utah Solar Energy Association is sponsoring the Northern Utah Solar Tour. It appears that over fifty buildings will be exhibited in Ogden, Park City, SLC, and Orem/Provo showing off various types of solar energy features. The tour is part of the National Solar Tour promoted by the American Solar Energy Society. Should be some very interesting information and ideas for how to reduce energy use and dependence on fossil fuels.

(for any readers in the Dixie area, the Southern Utah Solar Tour, with buildings in St. George and Cedar City, will be on September 27).

BYU Professor Chris Foster on Animal Advocacy

July 23, 2008

Yesterday, BYU Professor Chris Foster gave an interview on KCPW’s The Public Square about animal advocacy and humane treatment. I think his arguments are very persuasive. Of course, I’ve never been a fan of the machismo and violence of the rodeo. And over the recent years, I’ve been moving my family more and more towards a plant-based diet. I’m not necessarily planning on a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet, if for no other reason that there are some meats and animal products which I really enjoy (sadly, my favorite meats tend to be the most highly processed, the various sausages). Any consideration of an outright ban is met with a fit from my palate. So instead, I’m simply seeing how many great meals I can make without meats, or with very small quantities of meat. I’ve found plenty of pasta, legume, or grain salads which are every bit as delicious as any meat entree. I’ve learned plenty of ways to get protein and the umami hit of meat without resorting to a cow (I’m not keen the texture of tofu, but there are plenty of ways to prepare great tempeh dishes!). I hear that many who go for a plant-based diet end up finding meat distasteful. If that happens, great. If not, we’ll continue to eat meat on occasion to satisfy those occasional carnivorous urges, but focus on plant sources of nutrients.

Concern for the treatment of animals is only one factor in my decision. The meat-based diet of modern U.S. society has been a key factor in the rise in obesity, heart disease, and various other ailments over the past few decades. Given the recent concern over food production and costs, it is worth noting that meat is a terribly inefficient source of energy; it takes many more times the amount of energy and land to produce a calorie of meat than to produce the same amount from plants. Many free-market advocates have made a big deal about the impact of increased biofuel production on food production, and their points are certainly not invalid. But long-term, the increasing emphasis on meat in diets throughout the world, and the increasing amount of resources needed to provide that meat, could be seen as a far greater threat to the world’s food supply than biofuels. Rather than encouraging developing nations to adopt the Western/U.S. style diet, we should probably be doing more to adopt diets more similar to theirs and to our ancestors. As Professor Foster pointed out, such diets would be much more consistent with the counsel of the Word of Wisdom than the hamburgers, hotdogs, steaks, roast beef, and other staples of the U.S. (and Mormon) diet today.

Earth Day Reflections on Consumption

April 22, 2008

There is reason to be optimistic about the environmental movement as we celebrate this Earth Day. No longer the province of hippies and other “fringe” members of society, Earth Day has become more mainstream. While there may not be unanimity about global climate change, acceptance is spreading even among the ranks of the Republicans. While federal action has been mixed at best, many local governments such as Salt Lake City have taken bold steps to promote environmental values. “Green” architecture is becoming rather popular. There are more options for consumers to make renewable energy choices. Hybrid vehicles have been enormously popular. The selection of environmentally friendly consumer products continues to grow, from compact fluorescent light bulbs to cleaning supplies, to home building materials and furnishings. Local entrepreneurs have successfully opened environmentally friendly businesses, such as Earth Goods General Store, Underfoot Floors, The Green Building Center, and Green Peas Baby. The “green consumer revolution” is a positive development to see.

As grateful as I am to see the rise of environmentally friendly consumer choices out there, I’m skeptical about relying on new products, new technologies, and new energy sources to solve our environmental problems. Every new development comes with overlooked disadvantages and unforseen consequences. We’ve seen it happen before with hydroelectric power, with nuclear power, and now with much of the biofuels craze (nod to Jeremy). We have to realize that there are no perpetual motion machines, no magic pills to solve our environmental problems. It all comes back to consumption. Monica Hesse, columnist for the Washington Post, recently made some very keen points.

When renowned environmentalist Paul Hawken is asked to comment on the new green consumer, he says, dryly, “The phrase itself is an oxymoron.”

…The good thing is people are waking up to the fact that we have a real [environmental] issue,” says Hawken, who co-founded Smith & Hawken but left in 1992, before the $8,000 lawn became de rigueur. “But many of them are coming to the issue from being consumers. They buy a lot. They drive a lot.”

They subscribe, in other words, to a destiny laid out by economist Victor Lebow, writing in 1955: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction…in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

The culture of obsolescence has become so deeply ingrained that it’s practically reflexive. Holey sweaters get pitched, not mended. Laptops and cellphones get slimmer and shinier and smaller. We trade up every six months, and to make up for that, we buy and buy and hope we’re buying the right other things, though sometimes we’re not sure: When the Hartman Group, a market research firm, asked a group of devout green consumers what the USDA “organic” seal meant when placed on a product, 43 percent did not know. (The seal means that the product is at least 95 percent organic—no pesticides, no synthetic hormones, no sewage sludge, no irradiation, no cloning.)…

…Really going green, Hawken says, “means having less. It does mean less. Everyone is saying, ‘You don’t have to change your lifestyle.’ Well, yes, actually, you do.” (“Greed In the Name Of Green

In her own essay on the subject for Sojourners, Kim Szeto noted

True environmental consciousness will challenge the way we respond to our culture of consumerism and create changes in lifestyles. I do think that you can be an environmentally conscious consumer. However, this will most likely mean being less of a consumer to begin with, and when you do have to put on your consumer hat, be critical and read between the lines of “brand organic” (as well as everyone else’s) advertisements. (“Green Greed“)

No matter how environmentally friendly a given product is, its production will generate some level of waste and pollution. The best way to conserve energy is not to use it in the beginning.

(for an interesting analysis of consumption, view The Story of Stuff )

There are other reasons besides environmentalism to try to reduce consumption. Over the course of the last few years it has been reported many times that average household consumer debt is at all all-time records (adjusted for inflation) as is the average household’s debt-to-savings ratio. This places our families in rather precarious financial positions, often causes a great deal of stress for (and friction between) couples, and distracts us from many of the more important aspects of life.

The U.S. has long been swayed by the siren song of overconsumption, wryly diagnosed as “affluenza.” Despite the fact that our families have almost halved over the past half-century, house size has almost doubled. The number of automobiles in our driveways have multiplied like rabbits, and have burgeoned in size—despite a persistent lack of passengers when on the road. I wouldn’t even hazard a guess at how much larger our television screens have grown, nor how many more we have per household. Then there is the proliferation of other electronics, the clothes, the toys—for adults as much as children.

Do the bigger houses, bigger screens, and more toys make us any happier or more fulfilled?

I don’t propose that we live as beggars or luddites. But I believe we can make more conscious choices about how we live. Can we live just as well in a smaller house? Would life be worse without all the video game consoles and other toys? Can we make do with one less car, or even without a car altogether (Local blogger Green Jen has been documenting her efforts to wean herself from her car)? Can we make do with what we have? Can we find another use for that which we plan to throw away? Have we considered the all-but-forgotten environmentalist maxim: Reduce, reuse, recycle? The answers and methods will legitimately be different for each of us, but I suspect there are few among us who cannot find ways they could significantly reduce consumption.

There has been a quiet movement rejecting conspicuous consumption and encouraging more frugality, providing a number of resources for those interested in exploring a simpler lifestyle. If you are interested, look into these.


Internet Resources

  • New Roadmap Foundation was founded by Dominguez and Robin to provide support and tools for people in their efforts to change their relationship with money and align their living choices with their values.
  • The Simple Living Network provides resources for people in their quest for a more simple life.
  • The Dollar Stretcher is a great online resource for ways to save money, reduce consumption, and be frugal.
  • Freecycle is an online community dedicated to reducing waste through re-use.

The local Utah Society for Environmental Educators sponsors and mentors discussion groups for people interested in starting programs in voluntary simplicity and sustainable living.

It is difficult to make frugal choices in a world which revels so much in reflexive materialism. The consumption is so much a part of our culture that our President’s answer to terrorism and to economic difficulties is the same: go forth to the mall and buy! Vice President Cheney claims that our lifestyle is non-negotiable. I disagree; persistent untreated affluenza will lead to ruin. Like any addiction, kicking the consumption habit is challenging—having been raised in a very consumptive family, I truly understand! But through the effort we can find greater peace of mind, more financial security, more time for the things we really value, a greater joy in our relationships and experiences, and a healthier planet to boot.

Sustainable Food Systems in Utah

April 20, 2008

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that modern U.S. food industry, a combination of agribusiness and corporate food processors, tends to be harmful to our environment, our health, and the viability of our rural communities. Many of the leading agribusiness companies are actively attempting to use genetic modification and the loosening of restrictions on patent law to create virtually monopoly control of the agricultural sector.

But the agribusiness model is not an inevitable nor inescapable feature of our world. There is a growing movement to return to “slow food,” more sustainable ways of cultivating, obtaining, and preparing food, ways which typically hearkening back to the traditional methods which have stood the test of time. Mark Pollan, one of the primary spokesmen of this movement has come up with a slogan which distills the essential concept behind the Slow Food movement. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”—advice rather consistent with the essential dietary concepts of the Word of Wisdom.

Additionally, instead of relying on impersonal, sprawling international networks of commerce spanning thousands of miles, the movement seeks to re-integrate and bolster local producer-consumer networks. The U.S. has a strong rural tradition, as much here in Utah and in the history of the Church as anywhere. But we seem to have become confused as to what that means. Idealizing the superficial trappings of rural life—boots, hats, rodeos, or country music—does nothing substantial to support or honor that rural heritage. If we really want to show respect for that heritage, we should support the vocation and lifestyle which is at the root of traditional rural communities: the family farmer.

There is a growing assortment of alternative options from which you can make more sustainable food choices. And with the growing season soon upcoming, now is an good time to see what appeals to you. We can grow our own food through gardening (I know two local bloggers who are raising their own chickens for eggs and poultry in urban/suburban communities). There are a number of local organizations involved in education on local gardening, such as Wasatch Gardens and the Utah botanical Center in Kaysville. Maybe you would enjoy the dynamic community atmosphere of the various farmers markets around the state part of a renewed tradition around the U.S. over the past couple decades. Consider joining a local CSA, or (Community Supported Agriculture), in which you purchase shares of a local farmer’s harvest, providing the farmer more money up-front and therefore more financial security, and providing you with seasonal fresh produce. When you decide to eat out, look into one of the restaurants which chose to patronize local food producers.

As we support these alternatives, we will build more sustainable agricultural and economic networks. We will develop more ecologically beneficial food systems and protect the bio-diversity of the world’s bounty. We will promote more healthful diets.

And you may just find that real food tastes better.

Moral Responsibility on Global Climate Change: Take Two

March 14, 2008

In my last post, I used the example of one particularly widespread argument against the Kyoto Protocols as an example of the sort of inappropriate moral relativism which is often used in politics. I made the case that you cannot ethically use the argument that “if they don’t do x, we shouldn’t do x” on this—or any other—issue. And yet, in the comments, one poster completely ignored my argument and rehashed the very position I had been criticizing.

According to the International Energy Agency, as much as 85 percent of the projected increase in CO2 emissions over the next 20 years will be produced in exempt countries like China. As long as China is exempt from Kyoto (or the like), what evidence shows that the rest of us – even in unanimous die-hard commitment- can put a dent in the climate change problem?

Not to put to fine a point on it, this is simply a morally bankrupt argument. Would we argue that because our efforts will not make a dent in the level of global infidelity in society, we should not bother being faithful to our spouses? Others will continue to steal whether or not I do—so why shouldn’t I get mine? My lack of participation hasn’t made any splash in the drunk driving rate, so why shouldn’t I go ahead and get liquored up behind the wheel?

We should expect ourselves to do the moral, the just thing, regardless of what others do, regardless of whether we think it will make a difference. We are called to fight the good fight because it is right.

And will it make a difference? Maybe not. But maybe—just maybe—when the most wealthy and economic power is willing to repent for its monumental contribution to the problem in question (carbon emissions and global climate change) by committing to and achieving massive change, that leadership may inspire other nations to follow our example. I am an idealist, and I do believe in miracles. I could be naive. But I can absolutely guarantee that no dent will be made if nobody is willing to make the committment.

This commentor brings up another issue of morality important to address in all realms of politics and social action.

We have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this earth. I do not feel morally obligated to support international treaties that would slow wage growth, widen the rich-poor gap by eliminating the middle class, or raise taxes. Government action is will coerced. Coerced morality is not morality at all.

People of the libertarian persuasion often bring up the immorality of government coercion in rejecting government action on a given topic. Because government’s authority ultimately comes from the point of a gun, any claims to morality are merely pretense. The only real morality is individual in action.

I agree that freedom is a crucial concern, as I noted in my post “Social Justice III: The Libertarian Criticism of Social Justice”. However, this claim does not trump all other concerns. No libertarian I know of would claim that murder should be legal. I’ve heard of none who would claim that freedom of speech permits people to use that speech to deliberately put others in harms way (the classic “yelling fire in a crowded theater” scenario). No libertarian politician has suggested theft should be decriminalized. No, even libertarians recognize what John Stewart Mill referred to as the harm principle.

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others (On Liberty)

Government has the authority, granted it by the consent of the people, to restrict the freedom of the people when the exercise of that freedom would result in harm to others. Say what you want about the government’s monopoly on violence; given the widely recognized harm principle, it is fundamentally immoral for the government not to use its power to prevent direct harm to others in the name of freedom.

There is a great deal of evidence that the byproducts of our consumption (the production of the goods we use, the powering and use of those goods, the disposal of those goods, the energy to transport those goods or ourselves, et al) is causing great harm to others. This happens on a local scale (along the Wasatch Front, there are a number of days each winter and summer when we are advised not to breath the air). And I believe that there is pretty comprehensive evidence that this is also happening on a global scale.

As I said in my original post, there are other arguments which can be made the Kyoto Protocols. You may believe that human activity does not impact climate, that our consumption activities cause no direct harm in that regard. If the volume of scientific data and opinion which has come forth in the past couple decades hasn’t convinced you, I’m certainly not about to try here. You may believe that there are other methods are more likely to effect positive change than international agreements or federal legislation. I may disagree with those arguments, but they are morally legitimate positions. The “they’re not, so I won’t” and government coercion arguments are not. When people use those arguments, they undercut any sort of rational discourse and any moral authority they might have.

Moral Responsibility on Global Climate Change

March 12, 2008

Want a non-military related example of the principles I referred to in my recent post, “Moral Responsibility is not Anti-Americanism”?

Think the Kyoto Protocols.

Back in December, the very first act of the government of newly elected Australian Prime Minister Rudd was to ratify the Kyoto Protocols. This leaves the U.S. as the sole remaining developed nation which has not committed to the agreement. The Democrats, who are so willing to campaign on environmental issues and sustainability, have been tepid at best in their efforts to promote the treaty. Republicans have sneered, scoffed, and actively opposed any cooperation in the agreement.

There are a few different reasons which people give for resisting Kyoto. Some simply refuse to believe in human-influenced global climate change (though their numbers dwindle over time). Or they might accept some problems, but insist that those ills can best be cured by a laying off of hands, so that the omnipotent and omnipresent panacea of The Market can work its mighty miracles. They reject the Kyoto requirements because they might potentially have negative consequences on the U.S. economy (a strange protest, as global climate change is much more likely to wreak worldwide economic havoc if left unchecked). Those can all be argued at another time. But the most common, and yet least sensible, reason I’ve heard is that Kyoto is “biased” against the U.S, setting a higher bar for us and others among the developed nations than it does for “developing” nations—including such populous and polluting nations as India and China. The Senate in 1998 unanimously (that is all senators, Republican and Democrat ) passed Resolution 98, which asserted that the U.S. would not become a signatory unless emissions requirements were standardized for all nations. The Bush administration, to the extent that they have even acknowledged the human impact on atmospheric carbon levels and climate change, has used this as the excuse for dismissing Kyoto.

“It isn’t fair! ” is the essence of this argument. “Why do we have to and not them?

Very mature.

Certainly, we should be concerned with the incredible levels of pollution created by the rapidly industrializing juggernauts. I would strongly encourage China and India and the rest to be responsible for their emissions levels and to seek a more sustainable path to development. But we need to consider the moral principles I discussed as we examine at the situation. We need to take a good look at ourselves as we address the issue of global climate change rather than point fingers elsewhere.

We have been the primary cause of carbon emissions for more than half a century. It was either created by us, or created by other nations as they exported resources or goods to feed our voracious consumption, or created by other nations seeking to emulate the very attractive U.S. consumer lifestyle. It is only just that we should take responsibility for it.

Developed nations have a great deal which we can sacrifice in order to cut emissions. Our standard of living is better than the vast majority in developing nations by several orders of magnitude. We, “those who have,” can certainly change our culture for the good of the planet. Developing nations, which are still grappling with rampant poverty, malnutrition, and a dearth of resources necessary for a secure life for its population, have much less to sacrifice.

If our nation is to be the world leader we like to think it is, we need to be willing to lead. The Savior showed that leadership is less about ordering others around than about blazing the trail, sacrificing, and serving others.

Our nation should sign Kyoto or some other similar international agreement. Our commitment should not be based on whether others have the same level of commitment, or whether other nations have disingenuously signed without strong intent to fulfill their goals. We should have the integrity not only make a concerted effort to hit the targets, but exceed them. We should use our vast resources, ingenuity, and will to provide the model of how a nation can embrace sustainable development, and secure a health lifestyles and communities for its citizens. Once we have done so, we will have the moral authority to exhort other nations to join us on that path. We will have the experience not only to show the developing nations what they can accomplish, but help them to avoid the pratfalls we’ve found and the errors we’ve made in the past.

That is leadership.

The reticence of our elected officials has put us behind the game. But I’ve no doubt that we can galvanize our politicians if we impress upon them our concern for good stewardship of our planet and a mature sense of moral responsibility.

This Green House — Building and Remodeling to Reduce Energy Consumption

March 3, 2008

From Post Carbon SLC:

This Green House — Building and Remodeling to Reduce Energy Consumption

  • Friday, March 7, 2008, 7:00-9:00 pm
  • First Unitarian Church, 569 S 1300 E, SLC

Did you know that buildings are the largest users of energy in the United States (Almost as much as industry and transportation combined!)? Did you know that in Utah, our reliance on coal-fired power plants means that your house is part of the air-quality problem? Is your house, apartment, place of business or worship an energy hog? What steps can you take personally to reduce your energy footprint and become part of the solution?

The evening will begin with a brief presentation of fundamental facts on building energy use reduction by Myron Willson, MHTN Architects. A recent Salt Lake Tribune article noted that Myron is “one of the few architects in the state whose sole duty is to look for environmentally friendly strategies in every design project.” This presentation will be followed by a panel discussion with Myron and other SLC experts who will answer questions about what you can do to reduce your personal, business, and congregational impacts on the planet. You will leave this presentation with practical ideas for reducing your overall energy consumption (and energy costs), and reducing your impact on air quality and global warming.

This presentation is part of a Lecture Discussion Series co-sponsored by Post Carbon Salt Lake and the Environmental Ministry of the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City. We are pleased to welcome Utah Interfaith Power and Light as a sponsor this month. Previous speakers have included Vanessa Pierce, HEAL Utah, outgoing Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, Dr. Brian Moench of Utah Physicians for a Health Environment, newly elected Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, Utah Moms for Clean Air, and The University of Utah Student Leaders of S.E.E.D. (Sustainable Environmental and Ecological Design).