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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

When Does It End?

posted by on May 14 at 10:15 AM

Bruce Ramsey pitches a fit in today's Seattle Times about, yes, his inalienable right to plastic shopping bags.

I don't want to use a cloth bag. I don't want to carry the bag to the store, and I don't want to limit my shopping to the capacity of my bag.

What if I want to buy more? I can pay the 20 cents, but it is a punishment tax, a city-wagging-its-finger-at-me tax: bad, bad, bad.

I don't want the disapproval and I don't want the people in Shoreline, Edmonds, Redmond, Kirkland, Bellevue, Renton, Kent and Burien laughing at me for being a sap for the greener-than-thou progressives in Seattle. And I don't want the people who did this to have my 20 cents.

Jesus Fucking Christ, when does the whining end? So the extremely well-compensated Bruce Ramsey doesn't want to pay $.20 for a plastic bag. Boo fucking hoo. And Bruce doesn't want people in Seattle's suburbs—cities that are likely to follow Seattle's lead, if the city has the courage to buck the almighty Seattle Times on this issue, and ban wasteful, polluting plastic bags in the very near future—snickering at him. It might shrink his dick.

The Seattle Times' faux-populism on this issue is as revolting as it is hypocritical.

Right now the Seattle Times is running a front-page series on protecting Puget Sound. The series is so very high-minded, so very liberal, so very—what's the phrase again? Ah yes: it's so very greener-than-thou. Well, guess what, Bruce? Reducing or eliminating the number of plastic bags we use will not only keep them out of our waste stream, but it will keep them out of Puget Sound. Here's a little factoid from a wire service story that ran in the PI some time ago:

One of the most dramatic impacts is on marine life. About 100,000 whales, seals, turtles and other marine animals are killed by plastic bags each year worldwide, according to Planet Ark, an international environmental group.

Last September, more than 354,000 bags—most of them plastic—were collected during an international cleanup of costal areas in the United States and 100 other countries, according to the Ocean Conservancy.

The bags were the fifth most common item of debris found on beaches.

Plastic bags are wasteful, stupid, and do real harm to our beloved Puget Sound and our local marine life—just like bulkheads, the destruction of wetlands, and industrial and residential runoff.

The issues being raised by the Seattle Times in its "Failing the Sound" series are tough ones, hard to solve, hard to reach consensus about. And, man, is the Seattle Times ever wagging its fat fingers! At rich people building bulkheads on Bainbridge Island, at developers, at local politicians. But Bruce Ramsey bravely draws the line at inconveniencing himself. So what if the damage done to our environment by plastic bags is, as Ireland has demonstrated, an exceedingly easy problem to solve—and one most easily solved with, yes, a tax. From the New York Times:

In 2002, Ireland passed a tax on plastic bags; customers who want them must now pay 33 cents per bag at the register. There was an advertising awareness campaign. And then something happened that was bigger than the sum of these parts.

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars... “I used to get half a dozen with every shop. Now I’d never ever buy one,” said Cathal McKeown, 40, a civil servant carrying two large black cloth bags bearing the bright green Superquinn motto. “If I forgot these, I’d just take the cart of groceries and put them loose in the boot of the car, rather than buy a bag.”

Gerry McCartney, 50, a data processor, has also switched to cloth. “The tax is not so much, but it completely changed a very bad habit,” he said. “Now you never see plastic.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Obama and Coal

posted by on May 13 at 12:14 PM

Part Two:

Randy Henry, a thick-accented coal miner from Kentucky: "Barack originates from Chicago, but he came to southern Illinois and seen (sic) the devastation and the loss of jobs in this coal industry. Washington, D.C. is not listening to us. Barack understands this."

Narrator: In Illinois and in the US Senate, Barack Obama helped lead the fight for clean coal. To save our environment, and protect good-paying American jobs.

Coal miner: "He's figured it out. It takes trust in each other to get the job done."


The only problem: Even if you assume that Obama is referring to coal gasification--rather than coal-to-liquid technology, which is even dirtier than burning plain old gasoline--Kentucky does not have a single facility producing gasified "clean coal." Moreover, the sequestration technology that would make Kentucky's nonexistent gasified coal "clean" does not exist--and won't, experts predict, for at least another decade. So while those Kentucky coal jobs may be both "good paying" and "American," they're anything but clean. As the presumptive Democratic nominee, Obama should distinguish himself from McCain on environmental issues now, instead of pandering to red states that aren't likely to support him in the general election anyway.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Transpo News Roundup

posted by on May 5 at 10:56 AM

I know, you can't wait to start reading, right?

There's been a ton of stuff happening in the transportation policy world lately--and not just proposals (ranging from merely pointless and idiotic to outright insane) to temporarily reduce the gas tax.

First up: Bikes! The Worldwatch Institute reports that public bike-sharing programs are taking off all over the world, including here in the United States, where one bike-sharing program is already underway in Washington, D.C. Most bike-sharing programs offer bikes free for the first half-hour or so, then charge a nominal fee for longer use.

To those who say bike-sharing is impossible in Seattle--too many hills, too much water, "unique topography", blah, blah, blah.--consider this: The next city in line to start a bike-sharing program is San Francisco--hilly, foggy, water-surrounded San Francisco. If San Francisco can make it happen, surely we have no excuse.

But what about the hills? Well, the bikes will probably end up at the bottom of them--and the bike-sharing company will do what bike-sharing companies do all over the world: Send a truck down a few times a day to haul them back up. Compared to the impact of all the cars bike-sharing takes off the road, a small fleet of trucks is a small price to pay.

And speaking of hills: Slog tipper Stinkbug sent us this link to photos of a bicycle lift in Trondheim, Norway, essentially a guided train track that pulls cyclists uphill. Since I don't think there are many hills in Seattle that are actually too steep to ride, I can't wholeheartedly endorse this idea; but if it gets more people out of their SUVs and onto bikes, I guess it's worth considering.


Photo by Pug Freak, licensed under Creative Commons

Meanwhile, the New York Times has some encouraging news about car sales: US car buyers are buying smaller, greener cars, thanks in large part to rising gas prices. During April, one in five vehicles sold in the US was a compact or subcompact car--up from just one in eight a decade ago. Sales of traditional SUVs, meanwhile, have plummeted. In the words of AutoNation CEO Michael Jackson, quoted in the Times article, "the era of the truck-based large SUVs is over." Intriguingly, the Times article notes that when gas prices are high, "many drivers simply drive less to save money." Human behavior, in other words, is adaptable, and people have a choice about how much they drive. That punches a big hole in the the belief that the amount we have to drive is fixed--the kind of arguments I hear all the time from people who live in the suburbs or insist that anything that adds to the cost of driving disproportionately hurts the poor. The idea that we don't have to drive as much as we do is becoming conventional wisdom--as the Sightline Institute's Clark Williams-Derry recently pointed out.

Still, not everybody gets it. Unfortunately (as the examples of McCain and Clinton suggest), the people who actually make energy policy still have a lot of catching up to do. Just last week, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), along with 18 Republican cosponsors, introduced legislation that would increase US production of oil and natural gas and fund the development of oil shale and coal-to-liquid technology. The bill would authorize drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on the Outer Continental Shelf, and mandate the production of 6 billion gallons of coal-based fuel in the next 15 years.

Finally, in only indirectly transportation-related news, go read Eric de Place's compelling defense of townhouses, also at Sightline. De Place argues that "socialistic" permitting requirements and off-street parking mandates are driving up the cost of housing and helping to create townhouse developments that sit at a remove from the street, isolating their residents from the surrounding neighborhood.

Nearly every townhouse in the city is required by law to provide offstreet parking. Since cars don't fly, the practical effect of the minimum parking regulations is that each and every townhouse has a garage on the bottom floor. And these garages are often the prime culprit in walling off the townhouses from the street, and of sending the residents upstairs. They also severely crimp design possibilities, making the units tend toward uniform. Somewhat ironically, because the garages are small and the driveways are tight, the residents who have cars often end up parking on the street anyway. All this puts city planners in a lose-lose situation.

One obvious solution would be to strip out the parking requirements, which would revolutionize the design possibilities. But so far, the city's modest attempts to remove minimum parking mandates in a few urban areas have been greeted with howls of protest from angry mobs wielding pitchforks and torches. (Socialist-style parking requirements are apparently something akin to a constitutional guarantee in Seattle.)

Oh, and if you're pissed about high gas prices, keep this in mind: Even with gas at $3.45 a gallon, the US has the 45th cheapest gas in the world, according to a recent survey of 155 countries. In Europe, by comparison, prices top out at well over $8 a gallon.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Global Energy Flux

posted by on April 30 at 11:50 AM

I've tried to stay out of this little fight, but I have to jump in here.

(As a prelude, I think both Erica and Annie are smart and all three candidates energy policies are an embarrassment. As an example, corn-based biofuels are a fucking farce.)


And she addresses some of the actual reasons gas prices are at record highs: America’s refusal to dip into oil reserves, and OPEC’s stranglehold on oil production.

is wrong.

1. The strategic petroleum reserve is intended for, and should remain for, genuine supply shocks--sudden losses of major sources of oil. A nuclear war in the Mideast, a revolution in Russia, a massive earthquake destroying the Alaskan pipeline, a hurricane decimating the gulf oil platforms, New Orleans and Texas--these are good uses for the strategic petroleum reserve, not as a response demand-driven rises in energy costs. If we use up the reserve in a vain attempt to reverse long-term trends, we will be left without petroleum when we really need it. And we need it. Without petroleum, our society stops. No food at the grocery store. No clean water coming out of the taps. No lights. No heat. The reserve is absolutely necessary to keep our civilization afloat after an unexpected sudden hit in production, to give us enough time to scramble and find an alternative source or drastically ration.

Any politician than wants to use the reserve for short-term political gain--to drive down energy costs temporarily before a key election--is profoundly selfish and irresponsible.

2. With the rise of major new suppliers and alterative oil sources, OPEC plays an increasingly minor role in global energy production. Further, the oil reserves and production rates in most OPEC countries have already started their decline.

Let's talk numbers. In 2007, the United States imported 13,439 thousand barrels of oil per day from foreign countries, down slightly from 13,707 in 2006. Domestic field production was about 5,103 thousand barrels per day in 2007. Therefore about three quarters of oil consumed in the United States is from foreign sources.

Personally I think this is a good thing. I'd much rather the United States consume other nations oil resources for as long as we can get away with it, saving our deposits for the future in which they will inevitably be more valuable than they are now. From a strategic point of view, it's a decent trade-off. We keep an intrinsically valuable resource in our nation while sending off a fiat currency abroad. Far better than the trade deficit from China, in which we mostly receive shitty consumer goods.

But wait, you say, why should we send all this money to the Mideast! Only about 2,170 thousand barrels per day came from the Persian Gulf, or 16% of all imports, ten percent of the total. Imports from all OPEC nations were just shy of 6000 thousand barrels per day, or just under half of all imports, a third of all oil consumed.

The nation from which we imported the most petroleum? Canada at 2,426 thousand barrels per day. For those of you keeping track, that's more than we imported from the entire Persian Gulf in 2007. Much of this was alternative petroleum sources, like oil sands. As I've written before, these alternative sources often come at a horrific environmental cost.

Which brings me to my final point. Probably the single most important technology to develop right now, if you care about protecting the environment and expanding energy reserves, is carbon sequestration. Coal, oil shale, tar sands and other dirtier fossil fuels are going to play in increasingly large part in global energy production. China and India are, right now, embarking on a massive expansion of coal-fired power plants. Italy and Germany, having banned nuclear power, are also on a coal-plant building spree. With carbon sequestration, at least, the emissions of these plants can be contained and the impact reduced.

Carbon sequestration, often absurdly wrapped under the term "clean coal," remains a lab process. No one has invested in the R&D needed to make it commercially viable. We should. It's the most obvious, the easiest and clearly most potentially effective way of reducing the impact of coming environmental and energy crises.

So, I give Obama credit for having a policy position that recognizes coal as an increasingly dominant source of energy worldwide, a policy that seeks to reduce the environmental impact of this reality--even if I think the majority of his energy policy is about as crappy as the others...


Commenter arduous takes me to task:

First of all, I disagree that carbon sequestration should be our first priority. Carbon sequestration is far from proven, and like hydrogen vehicles, appears to be pie in the sky and somewhat of a red herring. The science isn't there yet, and may not be there for a long while. Our first priority should be on alternative energy like solar and wind. According to Scientific American's article entitled "A Solar Grand Plan" investment in solar could supply "69 percent of the U.S.’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy by 2050." Here the science is much more clear, and the technology is closer to being developed. Renewables HAVE to be our first priority....

Read what Tim Flannery has to say about carbon sequestration.

Even if you are right and he is wrong about carbon sequestration's viability (and honestly I hope carbon sequestration is eventually viable because I think it would be another useful tool to have in our arsenal, shouldn't we be focusing the bulk on our money on REDUCING emissions rather than something that MIGHT in a few decades be able to sap emissions out of the air?

Solar energy might be cheaper than oil in about FIVE years. We're so close. It's ridiculous to say that carbon sequestration should be our first line of offense.

To which I reply:

If I was elected president in 2000, I would have invested massively in solar and wind technology. Solar and wind power are among the very few energy sources with even the possibility of having a lower lifetime environmental impact--when considering producing the plant, running the plant and dismantling the plant--than fossil fuels.

I wasn't president; arduous wasn't. Bush was.

The policy decision worldwide--in India, in China, in Germany, in Italy and dozens of other nations--was to stick with coal for at least another thirty years. We didn't make this decision. The lack of a viable non-fossil fuel technology right now, not five years from now, did.

The plants are going to be built, regardless if we get carbon sequestration working. So, although I don't prefer carbon sequestration and I share the doubts that it'll ever work on a commercial scale, it's our best and last hope for dealing with the decisions already made.

Since we're in fantasy land, if I were president today, I'd focus policy on the demand side of the equation. I'd progressively increase the gas tax over time, add in a fossil fuel windfall tax and use the revenues to invest massively in deploying existing energy efficient technology. Increase federal subsidies for mass transit. Invest in a West coast high speed rail corridor. Pay for homeowners to put in new insulation and windows, new boilers and air conditioners, new refrigerators and ovens and so on.

Dick Cheney Never Met A Whale He Couldn't Kill

posted by on April 30 at 11:40 AM

Joining the many things Vice President Dick Cheney has no patience for? The endangered Right Whale, which has the unfortunate distinction of having become a nautical speed bump for high-speed shipping approaching American ports.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued new rules calling for slower ship speeds off the coasts, hoping to save the lives of the whales. The Vice President's office was less than enthused, according to a House oversight report (PDF):

Another internal document shows that the officials working for the Vice President also raised spurious objections to the science. According to this document, the Vice President's staff "contends that we have no evidence (i.e., hard data) that lowering the speeds of 'large ships' will actually make a difference. NOAA rejected these objections, writing that both a statistical analysis of ship strike records and the peer-reviewed literature justified the final rule. In its response to the objections from the Vice President's staff, NOAA reported that there is "no basis to overturn our previous conclusion that imposing a speed limit on large vessels would be beneficial to whales.

In the immortal words of Marge Simpson:

"Out of my way, nature."

(Via TPMMuckraker).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Memo to Joni Balter: Calm Down.

posted by on April 24 at 2:47 PM

Today's column from the Seattle Times' Chicken Little editorialist Joni Balter has it all. The phrase "nanny state"? Check. Overwrought references to "social engineering"? Check. Mockery of organic food and gardening as "enviro-dogma"? You betcha.

Take it away, Joni:

[Seattle City Council president Richard ] Conlin's latest proposal is a wide-ranging resolution that aims to strengthen "Seattle's food system sustainability and security." The measure promotes healthy eating, militant vegetable growing, greenhouse-gas-reduction opportunities related to food. It aims to address obesity and food waste and improve everyday access to farmers markets.

If that sounds like a nanny state in a bib overall, it's much more. It's 12 pages of enviro-dogma that might, finally, take the green-city bit overboard ... into the compost bin.

Shorter Balter: If we stop eating fast food and buying all our groceries exclusively at Wal-Mart, the terrorists have won!!! (I'll leave it to readers to figure out what the hell "militant vegetable growing" means.)

Since becoming council president a few months ago, he has become Conlin Unplugged, pushing Seattle to the forefront of sustainable living. Sometimes it seems he is trying to out-Berkeley Berkeley.

The proud architect of the city's pygmy-goat policy — he pushed to permit miniature goats as licensed pets — seems more focused on Green Acres than Green Lake.

Conlin is a social engineer who clearly sees himself as the overseer, left unchecked, of Seattle as one giant kibbutz. Pesticide-free, of course.

Well, for God's sake, Joni, spray some pesticide on me STAT!

Keep in mind that the proposal that's got Balter all hot and bothered is, in her own words, a "measure [that] promotes healthy eating... vegetable growing, [and] greenhouse-gas-reduction opportunities related to food. It aims to address obesity and food waste and improve everyday access to farmers markets." A kibbutz, in contrast, is this. See the difference?

But boy, is Balter good at framing:

Conlin has pushed a plan to recycle kitchen waste, whether customers want to or not. Starting next year, many Seattleites will be issued another container for garbage, to pull food waste out of the waste stream.

Let's try phrasing that another way: Conlin has pushed a plan giving customers the option of recycling kitchen waste, instead of just throwing it out. Starting next year, Seattleites who want to recycle food waste can get another container to pull food waste out of the waste stream.

But Balter isn't done yet. She hasn't mentioned the poor! Oh, here they are:

About a year ago, San Francisco outlawed plastic bags at large grocery stores. Conlin and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels go further. Conlin is a proponent of the plan to charge 20 cents per paper and plastic bag in grocery, drug and convenience stores to reduce landfill space and cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

One gets the impression no price tag is too high if Conlin and his pals can feel they are saving the Earth with every breath they take and every move they make.

Middle- and lower-income residents have limits. Most will follow along, grab a canvas bag and do the right thing. But where does it end? Bit by bit, baby step by baby step, we are pricing the middle class out of the city — sometimes in an effort to turn our city into one giant commune.

Um, Joni? A tax on plastic bags does not "go much further" than banning them outright. The reason: Unlike a ban, charging a nominal fee gives consumers a choice. If you want to bring your own bag, it's free. Or, if you prefer to use a disposable bag, you pay 20 cents. Nobody's putting a gun to your head, nor is anyone taking any options away.

Also: "No price tag is too high"? How disingenuous can you be? It's a 20-CENT FUCKING FEE that is COMPLETELY OPTIONAL. Conlin isn't forcing anything on anyone (and for the record, the fee has strong support from the rest of the city council)--and even if he somehow could force the plastic-bag fee down an unwilling city's collective throat, it's still 20 FUCKING CENTS. If a middle-class person uses so many optional plastic bags that they can no longer afford to live in Seattle, that's their own stupid fault.

But not to fear--Joni's a reasonable anti-environmentalist. Hey, she even shops at the PCC from time to time!

I am all for farmers markets and food grown close to home. I sometimes shop at the Puget Consumers Co-op in my neighborhood, which procures some vegetables a few miles from where my mother-in-law lives in Sequim. I favor reasonable behavior changes — steps like conserving water and energy to be green and help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

But, damn it, she's tired of these enviro-commies marching us all off to their eco-rehabilitation camps!

But give me — no, give our residents — a break. This is not a commune. This is a big urban city.

Hey, you know what's great about "big urban cities"? They're the kind of places where environmental policies--recycling, bans on environmentally harmful (and unnecessary) things like plastic bags, city-run composting programs, policies that promote local food--first take hold. If it weren't for environmental efforts that initially took hold in big, urban cities, we'd all still be driving massive gas guzzlers, throwing our newspapers in the trash, and eating pesticide-drenched produce and antibiotic-injected meat. So I'm all for big urban cities setting an example for everybody else. In a sense, it's our job.

I understand that right-wing editorialists like Balter trade in "they're trying to take away our FREEEEEEDOMS !" outrage. But using a bully pulpit like the editorial page of the Seattle Times to argue against even the mildest environmental improvements (read the resolution if you don't believe me, but it calls for things like "strengthen city support for the local food economy" and "identify additional locations and infrastructure for community gardens) isn't just disingenuous. It's irresponsible.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Thomas Friedman: Dense Metaphors Deflect Pies

posted by on April 23 at 1:05 PM

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman—a man whose surreal use of the English language can hold some of the same psychedelic properties as overdosing on codeine cough syrup—narrowly avoided having an Earth Day pie thrown in his face during a talk on renewable energy and green technology at Brown University.

From the Providence Journal's harrowing account:

Friedman ducked, and was left with only minor streams of the sugary green goo on his black pants and turtleneck.

He stood in bewilderment and mild disgust as the young man and woman bolted from the stage and out the side door, throwing a handful of fliers into the air to relay the message they apparently were not going to deliver personally.

“Thomas Friedman deserves a pie in the face…,” the flier said, “because of his sickeningly cheery applaud for free market capitalism’s conquest of the planet, for telling the world that the free market and techno fixes can save us from climate change. From carbon trading to biofuels, these distractions are dangerous in and of themselves, while encouraging inaction with respect to the true problems at hand…”

After five minutes, Friedman returned to the stage undeterred, with only faint traces of the green cream on his clothing.

While the pie-thrower's manifesto may having lacked any discernible sense of humor, it still led to the the publication of the sentence, "Friedman returned to the stage undeterred, with only faint traces of the green cream on his clothing," which is totally fantastic.

My personal favorite analysis of Friedman is still pie-throwing connoisseur Matt Taibbi's piece about Friedman's book The World is Flat, written for the New York Press. The piece is calle 'Flathead,' and it ends thusly:

Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

For Earth Day, Please Don't Buy a Bamboo Shirt

posted by on April 22 at 4:59 PM

Hey, it's Earth Day! As usual, that means it's a day for you, individual American, to take a few small steps to "save the planet" while political and corporate America do absolutely nothing to fix the society-wide structural problems that are actually destroying the environment in the first place.* (See also: Al Gore's "We" campaign, the P-I's list of "52 tips for living green"--clean your coffee maker with vinegar! don't dump your toxic electronics in the trash!--and any number of green-lifestyle web sites).

For example, check out Michael Pollan's piece in the New York Times' "Green Issue" last Sunday (which, by the way, is chock full of exactly the sort of "little things you can do" that make people feel better but don't really have much impact, such as making a slow-cooker out of hay, buying organic bamboo clothing, and stopping junk mail.) In it, he attempts to answer the inevitable (and reasonable) question about such individual efforts: "Why bother?"

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit.

While Pollan acknowledges, several pages in, that "some ... grand scheme may be necessary" to prevent environmental catastrophe, he adds that until someone else comes up with that scheme we can all occupy ourselves by setting an example for other individuals. We can do that, Pollan argues... by planting a garden.

Rip out your lawn, if you have one, and if you don’t — if you live in a high-rise, or have a yard shrouded in shade — look into getting a plot in a community garden. Measured against the Problem We Face, planting a garden sounds pretty benign, I know, but in fact it’s one of the most powerful things an individual can do — to reduce your carbon footprint, sure, but more important, to reduce your sense of dependence and dividedness: to change the cheap-energy mind. [...]

This is the most-local food you can possibly eat (not to mention the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious), with a carbon footprint so faint that even the New Zealand lamb council dares not challenge it. And while we’re counting carbon, consider too your compost pile, which shrinks the heap of garbage your household needs trucked away even as it feeds your vegetables and sequesters carbon in your soil. What else? Well, you will probably notice that you’re getting a pretty good workout there in your garden, burning calories without having to get into the car to drive to the gym ... Also, by engaging both body and mind, time spent in the garden is time (and energy) subtracted from electronic forms of entertainment.

All of which, I can assure you, is true--I myself have spent much of the last several weekends destroying the lawn and planting a garden, and not only is it gratifying, tough, enjoyable work, it does indeed keep me from, say, dinking around on the Internet or sitting inside watching a movie. But a frugal, healthy, rewarding hobby does not an environmental revolution make. If it's true that, as NASA climate expert Jim Hanson has said, we only have about eight more years to start cutting (not slowing the growth of--cutting) the amount of carbon we're emitting, planting a garden--"bothering," in Pollan's term--may give us better food and something to do on the weekend, but it won't do a damn thing to ensure that we don't destroy our climate and our planet.

To be clear: I don't think Pollan is wrong when he suggests that people plant gardens. Gardens are good, especially at a time when food prices are soaring. But they aren't the answer to the question "How can we save the planet?" (Or even, for that matter, to Pollan's own question, "Why bother?") As an environmental leader at this moment in American history, it would be nice to hear Pollan suggest more radical changes--new regulatory policies; incentives and disincentives to push land use in a more sustainable direction; a massive education campaign aimed at schoolchildren who will inherit the climate we create--instead of blithely suggesting that planting a garden will raise other people's consciousness enough to make a quantifiable difference.

*Footnote 1: I am not saying that a "thousand little things" can't make some difference; just that individual efforts won't, on their own, stop us from burning up the planet. If you don't believe me, check out the debate going on over at Seattlest over the Global Footprint Network's new carbon footprint calculator, which makes it basically impossible to have a "carbon footprint" of less than two "planets." Put another way, even if we make all the individual changes we can, we're still using resources at a level it would take two planets to support. Seattlest concludes that this is a "downer," but I think it's a message: Real change will have to come from the top down as well as the ground up. As a (very small piece of) evidence of that, the Times didn't even print its "green" issue on recycled paper. Bet you that, until some percentage of post-consumer material is required by law, they won't.

*Footnote 2: Elsewhere in the magazine, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (the Freakanomics pair) argue that fixed rates, cheap gas, and free roads hide the "negative externalities" of driving--all the costs of driving that the driver doesn't actually pay. These include congestion, emissions, and traffic accidents, among others. Added up, Levitt and Dubner estimate, those externalities total more than $300 billion every year--about ten cents a mile. Instead of lobbying for individual drivers to drive less, Levitt and Dubner make the case for top-down change: higher gas taxes, tolls and other forms of congestion pricing, and pay-as-you-drive insurance. Those are the kind of solutions that change behavior. Planting a garden, in comparison, is just a pleasant, harmless hobby.

Commodifying Earth Day

posted by on April 22 at 10:54 AM

It's Earth Day. Who wants processed chicken soup?


From the label:

By letting you add the water at home, we can make the cans smaller, which saves a lot of metal, and lighter, which saves fuel when bringing it to your local store shelf.

Please, for one day, try to forget Campbell’s plastic packaging of its non-condensed soup.


The green-label can is available exclusively at the earth liberation bunker known as WalMart. If you want to know why I was there, it was because I was purchasing a pair of sexist, anorexic, drunken, corporate, made-in-China pajamas.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It's Snowing

posted by on April 19 at 4:20 PM

…on Capitol Hill right now. In April. The Seattle Times quotes a National Weather Service meteorologist saying, "It's schizophrenic weather. There was sun, it was dark and now there's snow. It's bipolar." Um, yes. Aren't crazy weather extremes a sign of climate change?

UPDATE: I note that the "Snow Sports" category is no longer available on Slog. I guess Slog has realized that instead of driving SUVs up to go snowboarding, we might want to be occupying ourselves with kissing our own asses goodbye.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Don't Make Me Ride Bike To Work! Anything But That!

posted by on April 18 at 2:07 PM

Second in an ongoing series? (Again, via Grist):

Sierra Club Pushes for 520 Changes

posted by on April 18 at 1:59 PM

Under pressure from Sierra Club activists who refused to sign off on the agency's latest transit plan unless it met certain conditions, Sound Transit just agreed to replace the parking garages in the plan with more flexible "station access funds"; agreed to fund a first-of-its-kind greenhouse-gas analysis of the project; and agreed in principle to leave a future rail line across 520 on the table.

Fresh from that major victory, the Sierra Club is trying to bring the same pressure to bear on the city, state, and federal governments.

In a letter earlier this month, the Sierra Club's Mike O'Brien and Tim Gould urged Gov. Christine Gregoire, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and WSDOT and Federal Highway Administration officials to "correct [the] deficiencies" in the current, six-lane plan for replacing 520 during the upcoming environmental review. Among other things, the Sierra Club wants the plan to include a greenhouse-gas analysis; update 520's traffic models to account for changes in traffic patterns due to tolls; reserve two of the six lanes as "transit only," and build the bridge to accommodate light rail in the future, instead of retrofitting it later; and continue evaluating a "reasonable" four-lane alternative. "Past assumptions and practices concerning our transportation system will no longer serve us in a changing world," Gould and O'Brien's letter says. "We know that our future will bring us climate change impacts and rising energy costs, the only question is how rapidly. ... The objectives that all these alternatives seek to achieve must emphasize moving people and goods rather than vehicles."

It's unclear how receptive city and state leaders will be to the Sierra Club's request this time around. Because the Club's (extremely vocal) opposition helped sink last year's roads and transit ballot measure, Sound Transit came into this year's discussions about a possible 2008 ballot measure with a strong incentive to get them on board. This time around, though, there's no vote to give the Sierra Club political leverage over the state. Without that leverage, it's hard to see a cautious governor and a so-far-disinterested mayor pushing for measures (like the greenhouse gas analysis) that are sure to be controversial with voters outside the Puget Sound region—including those who might support Gregoire's road-happy opponent Dino Rossi.

Northwest Gas Consumption at Lowest Level Since 1966

posted by on April 18 at 1:20 PM

According to a new report by the Sightline Institute, drivers in the Northwest are using less gasoline than at any point since 1966. In fact, per-capita gas consumption has dropped 11 percent in the last eight years, an average of nearly a gallon a week. Put another way, that's the equivalent of every driver in the Northwest taking five weeks off from driving last year. According to the report, people are driving less, using transit more, buying more fuel-efficient cars, and moving to compact, pedestrian-friendly communities.


But never mind. Obviously, driving is inevitable, people never change their behavior, adaptation is impossible, blah, blah, blah. I mean, why look at the evidence when you've already formed an opinion?

2008 Green Architecture Awards

posted by on April 18 at 9:15 AM

There’s a lot of talk about green design: why we need it, which developers are doing it, when elected officials set goals for it. This is all good. But under-recognized are the architects who actually figure out how to reduce a building’s environmental impact, while still creating structures that meet the traditional challenges of good design.

So three cheers to the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects. For the past ten years it has encouraged architecture firms to submit designs for a “What Makes It Green” gallery. This year AIA Seattle received 57 entries from around the Pacific Northwest. And last week, before about 250 industry bigwigs at a forum called Regeneration, the top ten submissions won awards for the first time.

“We wanted to inspire designers and policy makers to think about the future of the built environment in creating sustainable design,” say Lisa Richmond, Executive Director of AIA Seattle. The awards give architecture firms the recognition they deserve.

Here are two of the ten. The Bertschi School on north Capitol Hill, completed in April of last year, won the jury’s unanimous approval.


In addition groovy stuff like re-using rainwater and recycling building materials, the smart architects at The Miller|Hull Partnership were recognized for conserving energy.

The new project incorporates photovoltaic panels which will supply 6.1% of the school’s energy. … The gym has an integral natural ventilation scheme which uses fresh air coming in low at the roll up doors and the natural stack effect of hot air and vents high with operable louvers in the skylights tied to a thermostat. No CFCs or HCFCs are used in the mechanical units. The scale and proportion of the building enhance it’s ability to use daylight to illuminate the spaces. A daylighting study was used to optimize window and skylight size and placement for this use. Occupancy and daylight sensors are used to minimize the use of electric lighting.

Another winner--yet unbuilt--Portland City Storage will store 350 boats to reduce river contamination. It’s designed by MulvannyG2 Architecture and slated to be finished by 2010.


The project’s goal is to meet the USGBC LEED gold certification requirements and produce more power than it uses through alternative electrical power in the hopes of giving back to the Portland grid. The hybrid design will integrate a wind farm located at the top of the storage buildings and an innovative regenerative elevator system that feeds into the building system grid. … Using median average figures based on average wind speed for the Portland metropolitan area, the wind farm should produce approximately 800,000 KWH of usable system power output per year.

The full line-up of winners, including Seattle's Mosler Lofts by Mithun Architects, is over here.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

After We Ban Plastic Shopping Bags...

posted by on April 17 at 1:30 PM


...can we please ban the freaky-ass hairy plastic balls—made in China, from God only knows what—sitting on the floor at Walgreens?

Night of the Living Swag

posted by on April 17 at 11:52 AM

Two weeks ago, in honor of its new "eco-awareness" campaign, a certain mega-department store mailed me—and presumably 100,000 other people—a tote bag for us to throw away.


(I'm sending mine to Joel Connelly, compliments of ECB.)

And yesterday, in honor of its new "eco-awareness" campaing, this certain mega-department store mailed me—and presumably 100,000 other people—a tiny tree.


Another Take On McCain's "Gas-Tax Holiday"

posted by on April 17 at 11:27 AM

By Grist guest writer Ryan Avent, who points out that the real failure of leadership isn't the failure to keep gas prices low, but the failure to give people alternatives to buying gas:

The few lucky metropolitan areas with transit systems have enjoyed record ridership as drivers gladly substitute away from gasoline. Elsewhere, there are no such options. Families trim spending to buy gas. They become less mobile to conserve fuel. If they can afford it, they purchase a hybrid (even though that also requires trips to the local gas station). And every product that has gasoline somewhere in its production process grows more expensive.

We are, as a nation, incredibly vulnerable to increases in gasoline prices, because, as a nation, we have done so little to diversify our transportation network. We placed all our bets on roads, cars, and gas. Sadly, those were losing bets, and we did practically nothing to hedge.

Oil prices will fluctuate in the future, but the long-term trend is likely to be up, and up, and up. If we hope to minimize the pain of future fuel price hikes, now is the time to invest in automobile alternatives. We can do this by shifting funds from new highway construction to new transit construction. We can do this through congestion pricing. And we can do this by keeping and increasing our pitifully low gasoline tax. Better to suck it up and pay those few extra cents now in order to enjoy a range of options tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


posted by on April 15 at 11:51 AM

Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi released his "transportation choices" plan today.

Some of the highlights:

• Replacing the 520 bridge with an eight-lane floating bridge.

• Widening I-405 from Renton to Bellevue.

• Widening SR-509 to I-5.

• Build the Cross Base Highway in Pierce County.

• Building the North Spokane Freeway from I-90 to US-2.

• Opening car-pool lanes to all traffic during off-peak hours.

• Replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel.

He'd pay for all this and much more--a total of $15 billion over 30 years--in part by earmarking 40 percent of the sales tax on new and used vehicles for roads projects; that money (a total of $7.7 billion) is currently being spent on other state needs. He'd also dedicate money from Sound Transit's account for Eastside projects ($690 million) and anticipated toll revenue from the 520 bridge ($1.6 billion) to his massive road-building agenda. That money would have otherwise paid for transit.

Leaving aside the fact that Rossi would pay for most of his plan by cutting spending or raising taxes, the particulars of his proposal are just... delusional. Sure, discussing environmentally ruinous projects like the Cross Base Highway may have made sense a couple of years ago. But those discussions are over, and Rossi's side lost. Virtually every big Rossi proposal has been rejected--by voters (the unpopular Alaskan Way tunnel, which nearly 70 percent of Seattle voters opposed); the "roads and transit" Proposition 1, which included funding for 405 expansion and widening 509; 2002's Referendum 51, which would have funded the North Spokane Freeway); by legislative bodies (the Cross Base Highway, dropped from the roads and transit proposal and thrown into mediation in 2007); by state officials (the eight-lane 520 bridge, which the state department of transportation scuttled years ago) The carpool proposal, meanwhile, is something Tim Eyman has been pushing for years.

So to recap: Virtually every single project in Rossi's transportation plan has been rejected, in many cases because they were too expensive and would have had devastating environmental consequences. Whether it's because of spiking gas prices or increased environmental awareness, people want alternatives to driving alone. A "transportation choices plan" in which the only "choices" are roads is not going to win over Washington voters who want more choices, not less.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The True Cost of "Affordable" Suburban Housing

posted by on April 10 at 1:40 PM

People love to bitch about how Seattle is becoming unaffordable for the middle class. (For the most recent example of this, see KC council member Reagan Dunn's rehash of the thoroughly debunked Theo Eicher study contending that land-use regulations are driving people out of the city in yesterday's Seattle Times). This is the argument most commonly used for anti-growth management, pro-suburban land use policies--middle-class people have to live somewhere; the suburbs, and exurbs, just provide them an affordable place to do it.

One factor that often doesn't get considered in discussions of Seattle's rising prices is transportation costs. It makes sense that if you have to "drive until you qualify," as one common justification of living in the suburbs puts it, the cost of that driving ought to be considered as part of the cost of living far outside the city. Generally, though, it isn't--allowing pro-suburban, anti-regulation, anti-density pundits and politicians to claim that Seattle's housing prices are "out of control" and that the suburbs are the only "affordable" alternative.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology wants to change that. Injecting a dose of badly needed sanity into the debate over housing costs, CNT has put together an "affordability index" that considers both housing prices and transportation costs in about 50 metropolitan areas. According to CNT's analysis of the Seattle region, the most affordable parts of our region are actually inside city limits--once transportation costs are factored in.

Check out CNT's map of central Seattle. Blue areas are those where housing and transportation together cost more than 48 percent of median household income ($50,733 for a family of 2.5); taupe areas are places where they cost less. As you can see, while there are certainly parts of the central city that are unaffordable to the median Seattle worker (North Capitol Hill; Madison Valley), most of the center city is well within reach--once transportation costs are factored in.


Now check out North Seattle.


Less affordability here, yes, but still, there are many, many areas where the total cost of housing and transportation put housing well within reach of the median Seattle household.

Now let's take a look at some of Seattle's suburbs. First up: Sammamish and Issaquah, two popular places for suburban commuters to settle down.


You'll notice that the map is virtually all blue, with the exception of a tiny stretch around downtown Issaquah.

In Maple Valley and Black Diamond, the picture's much the same:


I could go on, but the results are consistent: If you live in a dense area with good access to transit, you'll drive less, and pay less overall.

Incidentally, this trend holds true in dense inner-ring suburbs with access to transit, too--as you can see from looking at a map of the entire Seattle region:


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rice Riots; Or Why Michael Pollan is Wrong

posted by on April 9 at 4:04 PM

According to the UK Guardian, "A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world's most important staple foods increase by 50 per cent in the past two weeks alone is triggering an international crisis, with countries banning export and threatening serious punishment for hoarders."

In Thailand, lower-quality rice has risen between $70 and $100 a ton this week alone. In the Phillipines, agricultural secretary Arthur Yap has ordered fast-food restaurants to halve the amount of rice they supply with each purchase. And in China, the government is paying subsidies to farmers who switch to rice production. Prices, already at record highs, are expected to soar even higher in the coming months, as rice production -- a staple food for three billion of the world's people -- fails to keep up with population, a consequence, in part, of a worldwide shift from food to biofuel production.

All of which provides a chilling context for eat-simple guru Michael Pollan's blithe statement in the New York Times that "higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.” Grist's Tom Philpott had a great post on Pollan's pricier-is-better argument a few days ago, arguing that Pollan (and sustainable-food icon Alice Waters, who suggested in the same Times article that people who can't afford their higher food bills "make a sacrifice on the cell phone or the third pair of Nike shoes") are "grossly simplifying" the issue of rising food prices. He argues that, in fact,

Rising costs may end up increasing the allure of large entities with economies of scale, cutthroat buying practices, and experience in transforming low-quality ag inputs into stuff people like to eat. I'm talking about fast-food companies, which can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap -- and rake in profits. If that's true, prices at the drive-thru won't rise quite as steeply as those in the supermarket line, giving people yet more incentive to abandon their home kitchens and flock to the Golden Arches.

Fortunately, Philpott writes,

there's another way. Just as public policy can be used to consolidate the grip of industrial agriculture, it can also be used to increase the accessibility of sustainable agriculture. Admittedly, the 2007 farm bill, still belatedly knocking around Washington waiting for agreement between the president and Congress, probably can't be counted on for much relief.

Sustainable agriculture shouldn't be something available only to elites; poor people don't eat junk food because they don't want good food, they eat it because our food system makes such foods affordable while making sustainable food expensive. What will change that is not an increase in prices (and I'm not talking about the optional 20-cent charge for plastic bags here; I'm talking about suddenly having to pay twice as much for food) but systemic shifts in the programs and policies that make bad food cheap and good food unaffordable.

The Times' Pro-Plastic Bag Crusade Continues

posted by on April 9 at 10:40 AM

Continuing the Seattle Times' ongoing crusade against a 20-cent fee for disposable bags (shorter version: What is this, Soviet Russia? But what will I put my cat shit in? And what about the poor single moms whose minimum wage we opposed increasing?), columnist Danny Westneat weighs in today, writing that since plastic bags make up just a fragment of all the crap that's in our oceans, they're not really worth worrying about.

Maybe you've heard of Curt Ebbesmeyer. He's considered one of the world's leading oceanic garbologists (though, as he jokes, how many can there be?).From his basement in Ravenna, he uses beachcomber reports to track the comings and goings of floating sea trash. Like dozens of rat-poison canisters that washed onto Washington shores this spring. Or computer monitors, which "always float screen up, eyes peering out of the waves."

An oceanographer, he also named the Earth's most shameful man-made feature, the "great Eastern garbage patch." That's a Texas-sized soup of plastic junk, swirling in floating clouds across the Pacific between us and Hawaii.[...]

So when I asked him what he thought of Seattle's plan to crack down on disposable grocery bags, I was surprised when he sort of shrugged.

"It's OK, but plastic bags are not the real problem," he said. "It's one little battle out of a million. Go look at what the ocean carries in on a given day. You'll see what I mean."

Last month, Ebbesmeyer held a "Dash for Trash" in Ocean Shores. In two hours, 50 people collected an astonishing 2,000 pounds of junk from the beach. Almost all of it was plastic — from fishing floats to shotgun shells to dolls from Japan. Yet very little of it was the plastic bags targeted by Seattle.

See? Anecdotal evidence from a single source = irrefutable fact. Banning plastic bags--whoops, sorry, charging a nominal fee for people who refuse to bring their own canvas, cloth, paper, or plastic sacks--is totally pointless. Although there's evidence that plastic bags do make up more than just a tiny fraction of the oceanic trash gyres (in fact, they're the 12th most common form of debris washed up on shore), the thing that drives me nuts about arguments like this is that they're selectively defeatest. Trading incandescent light bulbs is just "a drop in the ocean," too. So is turning down the thermostat, driving less (hell, even giving up your car doesn't do that much for the big picture), inflating your tires, or moving to a denser, more walkable community. Every individual step is a drop in the bucket. The reason the city is proposing a fee for plastic bags is that it may make some people decide it's worth it to bring canvas bags instead. That won't, on its own, fix global warming or un-pollute the oceans. That doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

And while we're on the subject of plastic bags and pollution, I should point out that Westneat ignores some much more significant problems with plastic bags: They do make up a huge portion of the trash in landfills, and even recycling them is riddled with problems, the first of which is that the recycling process itself pollutes the atmosphere. What's more, the production of plastic bags for American consumption alone requires an estimated 12 million barrels of oil a year. According to the Worldwatch Institute, Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags a year--that's throw away, not recycle. Most of those bags end up in landfills, where they take an estimated 1,000 years to dissolve. The rest end up in the air as lightweight, long-traveling litter that threatens wildlife (particularly sea life) and creates an eyesore; in South Africa, they bags are known as the "national flower." '

So should we focus on other problems, as Westneat suggests--the ubiquitous plastic water bottles, perhaps? Absolutely. So will the Times, which cries "nanny state" every time the city proposes penalties behavior that's bad for the environment, support a ban (or fee) on plastic bottles? I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Google on a Bicycle

posted by on April 8 at 12:28 PM

An online petition...

To: Google, and the Google Maps team

We would like a 'Bike There' feature added to Google Maps -- to go with the current 'Drive There' and 'Take Public Transit' options....

...30270 total signatures at the moment. Here's the organizer's blog.

The Seattle Times Discovers Poor People

posted by on April 8 at 10:43 AM

In between campaigning against the estate tax and opposing an increase in the minimum wage, the Seattle Times has suddenly discovered: Poor people exist! And they, like everyone else in the city, will have to pay 20 cents if they choose to use paper or plastic bags instead of bringing their own!

The Times is outraged:

Nickels says we need to recycle kitchen waste and stop using plastic and paper bags to help the environment. The rub is, citizens are not rewarded. A rate increase pinches an already strapped lower and middle class.[...]

Leadership should find a way to make the numbers work better. Seattle is becoming a very expensive place to live.

Sure is. But charging 20 cents for a plastic bag--that is, charging something approximating the real cost, in both pollution and monetary terms, of producing that bag, carting it to the recycling service or the landfill, and getting rid of it--isn't going to have a noticeable impact on anybody's budget. (Unlike, say, capping the minimum wage at the federal level.) And if you buy five cloth bags for a buck apiece, you'll make your investment back in just a few trips to the store.

And if the Seattle Times showed a lick of interest in the "lower class" in any other context than a hysterical, poorly argued screed against environmentalism, I might have less trouble believing they give a shit.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Gore's "We" Campaign: Not Far Enough

posted by on April 7 at 11:47 AM

The blog Smart Growth Around America has a smart post addressing one of the most glaring deficiencies in Al Gore's $300 million Alliance for Climate Protection (AKA the "we" campaign): It focuses on small-scale, individual "solutions" (changing your light bulbs, inflating your tires, etc.) while ignoring changes that are harder to do but more effective--like driving less and moving to a dense, walkable community.

With one-third of our emissions generated by transportation, where we choose to live has quite possibly the largest ramifications on our own personal emissions. So it’s discouraging that the most well-known climate advocate running the most well-funded climate advocacy campaign doesn’t see encouraging more people to live in places where they have to drive less as an obvious — and simple — solution.

BeyondDC, while like us hopeful for the success of the campaign, also expressed their disappointment in the lack of mentions for smarter growth, walkable neighborhoods, public transit, or related options in an open letter to Al Gore:

You spend plenty of time talking about techno wizardry and new sources of energy, but we pored over your solutions page and find nary a mention of anything about changing our gluttonous driving-based lifestyle. You have a whole section titled Cutting fuel costs on the road, but in the entire piece the message “drive less” is nowhere to be found.

Tucked way down deep below whole chapters about minor subjects like light bulbs, properly inflated tires, and residential air filters, there’s a single sentence about public transportation and a passing reference to walking to work, but that’s the extent - a single sentence and a passing reference. Nowhere on the entire We Can Solve It site is there any mention about living in a walkable, urban community. Nothing about the damage caused by sprawl. Searches on your site for “transit“, “walkable“, “downtown” and “suburban” come up completely blank.

Perhaps Gore and the team are hesitant to be perceived as telling people where and how they should live. But they shouldn’t be. As Growing Cooler shows (and the recent NPR story highlights especially), making a big dent in our emissions is as simple as meeting the radically underserved demand for compact, walkable, connected places where driving may be one of only several options.

Having looked at the "we" web site, my own assessment isn't quite so harsh--the site does mention commuting by bike, and it notes the need for "innovative leadership," which could be read as support for smarter growth management policies, among other things--but for such an enormous effort, it would have been nice to see some bolder suggestions than "turn down the thermostat." Riding the bus to work, moving to a denser community, and having fewer kids would be a start.

If you want Gore's campaign to stand up for transit and smart growth, drop them a note here.

Biking to Work

posted by on April 7 at 10:15 AM

Sent by Slog tipper Jen, the (Canadian, sigh) counterpoint to the State Farm ad that had me so riled up last week:

Update: Now with new headline that makes sense! (Our Slogging software likes to fill in headlines for us, and, well, it's early.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Don't Make Me Ride a Bike to Work! Anything But That!

posted by on April 4 at 3:12 PM

In this State Farm commercial (via Grist), a well-heeled professional is forced by high gas prices to--the humiliation!--ride his bike to work. In BIKE SHORTS. Oh, the humanity!

Fortunately, State Farm's low, low prices can "get you back behind the wheel." Thank GOD State Farm is there.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

But What Will The Children Play With If We Take All Their Lead Toys Away?

posted by on March 27 at 5:17 PM


So apparently, Governor Christine Gregoire may veto a law restricting the amount of lead, cadmium, and softening chemicals called pthalates in children's toys. The new law would make Washington State's toy standards the strictest in the country.

According to the Seattle P-I's (insanely pro-industry) story:

Gregoire said that she met with Mattel and Hasbro officials and took their concerns to heart. She said she had been unaware of some restrictions established with the legislation.

As to whether she'd sign the bill, she said Wednesday morning: "I don't know yet." [...]

"A lot of things in the law are very ill-defined," Wahl said. "It doesn't really define very clearly what a toy is or what a child is, which seem to be important, and a lot of the things that we sell might fall under the category of the law."

The Sigmund Freud action figure, for example, likely wouldn't appeal to an 8-year-old. The store does sell kid-friendly jars of bubbles, sewn-finger puppets and winking plastic rings.

"We are extremely active in making sure everything we have meets the federal product safety standard, but we think it's a well intentioned law that's going to have unintended consequences," Wahl said.

"Washington state accounts for less than 2 percent of all toys sold in the United States. What will happen is a lot of the small- and medium-sized companies will just decide it's cheaper to not sell to Washington state," he said. "A lot of the companies will choose not to sell to us and if we decide to do the testing ourselves, we have 10,000 items in our store, it would cost about $5 million a year do that. It's about $500 per test."

Huh? Seriously, it's like the P-I's reporter didn't even bother reading the bill--I really don't know how you could and still think the language is somehow vague. From the bill itself:

"Toy" means a product designed or intended by the manufacturer to be used by a child at play.

There are also several lengthy definitions of children's products, but all of them include the following phrase:

made for, marketed for use by, or marketed to children under the age of twelve

Moreover, the legislation applies only to companies that produce toys. They're the ones who have to test them, not the seller. Most of the toys sold by Archie McPhee--including the Sigmund Freud figure cited by the reporter (see below)--are made by other companies. Really, the only people that might be hurt by this legislation are toy manufacturers that market toxic products to children.

And you know what? Fuck them. The P-I story doesn't manage, in more than 1200 words, to explain any of the specific problems caused by the chemicals the legislation would restrict, so allow me. Phthalates can disrupt kids' metabolisms, damage their endocrine systems, and lead to sexual malformations such as decreased testicle size and "feminization" in boys. They can also damage children's developing nervous systems. Cadmium, meanwhile, is a known carcinogen that's associated with developmental problems, including delayed sensory-motor development, hormonal effects, and behavioral changes. And lead exposure causes learning and developmental problems and damages children's nervous systems. Right now, the state regulates none of these toxins.

As for the argument that banning toxic chemicals in children's toys will put manufacturers and sellers out of business: The European Union actually banned phthalates outright eight years ago, and toy manufacturers--most of them based in China--adapted. Now they produce phthalate-free toys for the European market, and phthalate-laced toys for us.

Come on, Gregoire. A Republican governor signed a total, statewide ban on phthalates last year. Surely the Democratic governor of Washington State should have the political backbone to do the same.

(Commenters have pointed out that the Freud action figure is made by Archie McPhee's parent company. Fair enough. I still don't think kids should be playing with it if it's full of lead.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Downtown Hotel Gives Away Gas

posted by on March 26 at 4:59 PM

Let me repeat that: DOWNTOWN hotel gives away gas.

From: "Mayflower Park Hotel"

To: Undisclosed-Recipient:;

Subject: Guests Gas It Up

Date: Wed, 26 Mar 2008 08:27:59 -0700

SEATTLE - "No relief in sight for soaring gas prices," says the American Automobile Association. With no way to push back prices at the pump, the Mayflower Park Hotel has created a Guests Gas It Up Package for guests who have traveled the distance to stay at the historic hotel. "We want to take the sting out of high gas prices," says General Manager, Paul Ishii. "With record costs to travel this spring, we feel the need to pitch in and let our guests know we appreciate the time and money they spend in order to stay with us. The Guests Gas It Up Package offers a classic or deluxe guestroom
at the Mayflower Park Hotel, complimentary valet parking, and a $20 Shell gift card for each night of stay.

Okay, A) Who the fuck stays in downtown Seattle and drives enough to use up $20 a day? And B) Why the fuck would you want stay at a hotel in Seattle with such shitty environmental values?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Left Coast

posted by on March 24 at 10:18 AM


According to, the future is the Pacific Seaboard.
Sadly, there's a very long way to go to get to where we need to be now.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Religion: Not All Bad!

posted by on March 11 at 5:06 PM

Sometimes, the stars align and religious people take positions that hippies like me agree with. Like the Vatican, which just listed "pollution" among its "new sins," and a group of renegade (gulp) Southern Baptist leaders, who are backing a declaration calling for more action on climate change.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled anti-religion programming.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Re: Sympathy for the ELFers

posted by on March 7 at 5:40 PM

I have a piece up on about the suspected eco-terrorism near Maltby, and the fact that the destroyed "Street of Dreams" was not exactly a cherished local landmark.

Here's a quote that I was surprised to get for my story. It comes from FBI special agent Frederick Gutt:

A lot of people in the Northwest, on the west coast, and in the U.S. and in the world today are environmentalists, have concerns about the earth and mother nature, myself included... A lot of people up here may be more sympathetic to the objective. It's a social objective many people can share.

Surprising because law enforcement officials are not always so thoughtful and personally forthcoming in their remarks about crimes such as this. Lest you think him an ELF sympathizer, however, here's what else Gutt said:

I don't think it makes the methods any more acceptable. There are ways to effect real change without resorting to crimes of violence.

The "Doomsday" Seed Bank

posted by on March 7 at 2:07 PM

The Global Seed Vault in Norway--AKA the Doomsday Seed Bank--just received its first installment of a million seeds. According to the NYTimes, the goal of the vault's creators is to store and protect samples of every type of seed from every seed collection in the world, "in case natural disasters or human errors erase the seeds from the outside world."

Although the NYT doesn't go into much detail about this aspect of the story (noting only that "economics encourages farmers to drop crops") those "human errors" include the near-universal practice of monoculture farming, which has replaced native and traditional seeds (the kind the multimillion-dollar Seed Vault will preserve) with hybrids developed for pest resistance and productivity. In other words, the "doomsday," if it comes, will be mostly of our own making.

However, as the Slow Food USA blog points out, freezing seeds inside a mountain in the Arctic isn't the only way to preserve rare seed varieties. Here in the US, at least two organizations--the Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH--are saving seeds the old-fashioned way: by encouraging farmers (and ordinary citizens) to grow them.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Total Damage!

posted by on March 5 at 3:28 PM

Click for bigness.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

In Environmental News

posted by on March 4 at 2:37 PM

1. Gas breaks record high, even adjusted for inflation; News Tribune speculates that people may actually start finding other ways to get around, but only once "it really starts to hurt."*

2. Two US agencies announce plan to "flush" the Grand Canyon with a simulated springtime flood, which they say is needed "to scour accumulated sand off the Colorado River bottom, then gradually restore sandy beaches and side pools for endangered species and campers," the LA Times reports. The US Park Service is not happy.

3. Although virtually every media outlet initially reported uncritically that the Earth Liberation Front "had claimed responsibility" for a Snohomish County arson (based on the presence of the ELF's initials on a sign at the site), FBI officials are now saying they did not find any "sophisticated incendiary devices," like those found at other ELF-associated arsons, at the site.

* And a footnote: While the TNT is right that people drive less when gas is more expensive, they reach the wrong conclusion: Instead of arguing that we need new technology to make cars less dirty, they should have made the case that governments should promote smarter development patterns, so that people can live, work, and shop without needing a car to do so.

Sympathy for the ELFers

posted by on March 4 at 9:37 AM

A friend who's an architect at a fancy out-of-state firm, and who used to live near the site of yesterday's suburb-burning eco-terrorism, writes:

I hate to say it, but if this was ELF, they're making an interesting point. The house that got totally torched was the "greenest." But of course it was a 5000 sf house in the middle of nowhere.

He's not the only one. From today's New York Times:

On Monday, Eric Olsen, 21, who grew up in the area and still lives a few streets north, said many neighbors were still angry that the development had ruined beaver dams and backwoods trails. He said some people believed the increased paving in the area had already pushed polluted runoff into streams where salmon spawn.

“Stick it to the man!” Mr. Olsen said when told who claimed responsibility for the fires. “I’m not supportive of those tactics but there’s been far too much development.” He added, speaking of the development, “Nobody wanted it.”

Having looked at the Quinn's Crossing web site, my architect friend tells me the project that was burned down smacks of what people in his office call "greenwashing." Which is, he says: "Marketing a product or building as environmentally-friendly when the only efforts are token."

While we're airing reactions that people are hesitant to have in public, here's another reaction, this one involving only suspicion and wild speculation, not fact, and also from my architect friend:

There's a part of me that suspects that it was actually just an insurance job. Here's why: The 'Street of Dreams' was in June. And not a single house has sold yet. Each one is about $2M. And the market is only getting worse. If I were a developer. . . a $7M insurance payout would help a lot.

Again, suspicion and wild speculation not founded in anything but... suspicion. But it says something about the animosity and cynicism some people feel toward developers of these huge suburban houses that this idea, and the above reactions, would come immediately to some people's minds.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Question for the AP Reporter Covering the Eco-Arson in Woodinville...

posted by on March 3 at 2:59 PM

If they were really "seven-figure dream homes," then how come no one had bought them?

(This provides some of the answer, as does this and this.)

Obviously, I don't condone burning down houses (even unoccupied, unsold "eco-dream homes")--for one thing, it obliterates the efforts of mainstream enviros to get the word out about the real, catastrophic climate impacts of choices like living in the suburbs. But the statement the ELF allegedly spray-painted on a sign at the arson scene--"McMansions in [rural cluster developments] r not green," is neither debatable nor particularly controversial.

Up In Smoke

posted by on March 3 at 8:39 AM

The Street of Dreams... is burning.

Four large homes are burning at a "Street of Dreams" model home development north of Woodinville, and the Snohomish County District Seven Chief Rick Eastman told KING-TV that a sign saying ELF was left at the scene.

ELF, of course, stands for Earth Liberation Front.

KING-TV video of the sign spray-painted on a sheet found early today shows that it mocks claims the homes are environmentally friendly and refers to rural cluster developments (RCDs):

"Built Green?

Nope black!

McMansions in RCDs r not green.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Disposable Plastic Shopping Bags Banned...

posted by on February 27 at 8:30 AM China.

China's war against "white pollution" has claimed its first large-scale victim with the closure of the country's biggest plastic bag manufacturer.

The shutdown of Suiping Huaqiang Plastic, which employs 20,000 people, highlighted the social costs of a government drive to clean up one of the world's most polluted environments.

It comes less than two months after the state banned production of ultra-thin bags and ordered supermarkets to stop giving away free carriers from June 1. That surprise move--which went further than anything done by the US, the UK and many other developed nations--was hailed by Greenpeace, Earthwatch and other green groups as a sign of growing environmental awareness in China.

So Washington state lags behind China--China--on this issue. Pathetic.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Coming End of Expensive Energy

posted by on February 19 at 7:00 PM

Today, for the first time ever, oil ended the day above $100 a barrel.

It won't last.

Why not? Ask Canada.


An even more impossibly nerdy version of this post is on my blog. Else please continue after the jump.

Continue reading "The Coming End of Expensive Energy" »

Monday, February 18, 2008

American World

posted by on February 18 at 11:16 AM

The solution to our immigration problem?
Let the whole fucking world live here:

The US debate about immigration has been brewing for some time. It has triggered emotions on many sides and given rise to many proposals, including the bipartisan reform legislation pending before Congress. What would the population density of the United States be if everyone in the world, about 6.7 billion people, were to live there?

A. 400 people per square kilometer

B. 700 people per square kilometer

C. 1,000 people per square kilometer

D. 5,000 people per square kilometer

B. 700 people per square kilometer is correct.

If the entire world population of 6.7 billion lived in the United States, the country's density would be about 700 people per square kilometer, according to the New York-based Center for Migration Studies.

The Netherlands has a density of about 400 people per square kilometer. Other cities with a high number of people per square kilometer include Singapore (6,500), Hong Kong (6,600), Macao (18,500), and Monaco (22,000).