Wednesday, November 21, 2007

worth its weight?

I've been seriously looking into going biodiesel in 2008, and this news is all the more reason to do it! This would mean unloading my smooth ride, and getting an old Mercedes (possibly another smooth ride but with more character and smelling of french fries).

I also have decided to become a locavore. Not necessarily one of them, per se, but doing what they do (eat local).

17 comments:

Nigel said...

The Economist had an interesting editorial about corn-based biofuel a while back. Subscription required at their website, but it's reprinted for free here. I don't have general knowledge about the issue in general to argue one way or the other, but it's an interesting perspective.

KT said...

Hey Nigel, I didn't yet read the article, but I know that the cons regarding corn-based biofuels are these: 1) negative energy balance (meaning it takes more energy to produce 1 gallon of ethanol than what that gallon can give), 2) mass-produced agriculturally grown ethanol contributes to carbon emissions and 3) is not sustainable agriculture. So, biodiesel is interesting because 1) it has a positive energy balance, 2) you can actually make it yourself from waste vegetable oil. The same can be said if you're going to mass produce it, that growing GM soy is also not very environmentally friendly. I like biodiesel because it promotes this option for community-based production.

Nigel said...

Ah, interesting stuff, thanks for the info. My level of ignorance was such that I didn't even realise there are competing forms of "green" fuel. I need to do some learning...

KT said...

P.S. The link to the article you referred to doesn't work!

Nigel said...

Hm, that's odd. Let me try posting the link again here.

The Lonely Trader said...

There are a lot of things we can do to reduce our carbon footprints...but it is hard work. Most who are not American are already doing more than most Americans who work very hard at it -- so you can go on being the eco-codgers you know you are and still go to sleep at night with a *relatively* clear conscience. Haha! I think per capita the average American sheets out something on the order of twenty METRIC TONS of CO2 in 2002…while the average for the entire region in the Middle East / North Africa was about four tons. While the devil is obviously in the details with these figures, they are telling nonetheless. And at least in the near term Americans, even stripping their lives down to what they perceive are the barest of the bones, will out-sheet others in the world by far. We are only 300 million or so…and bigger nations are catching up fast. Ugh.

I do very little compared to what is necessary to really effect needed changes. I acknowledge the problem, but I’m apathetic. When I’m in the US, I do drive an efficient car, but I do so because it’s cheaper to operate and maintain. I ride my bike when I can, because I get too angry at inconsiderate drivers and like the fresh air. (When it rains, I drive my car.) I also use a canvas bag to carry my groceries, because I hate plastic in the house. I don’t eat pre-packaged food, because I’m a snob. I buy local and eat raw foods as much as possible because of the health benefits. I don’t use much electricity for heat or air conditioning, because I live in a temperate climate.

While I’m in Cairo, one of the most polluted and least progressive cities on the planet (an accurate reflection of the majority of its inhabitants as well), I don’t drive a car because I’m terrified of Cairene drivers. (Savages!) I buy local because the produce comes from the Nile River Valley near Cairo. But it still comes to market on a truck that virtually vomits CO2 and other emissions. The rest is pretty much similar to life in the US.

I work for an organization that pollutes on a massive scale – and will continue to do so. I also have one router, three computers and five screens at home, and always connected to the internet. (I think many of us would be surprised and perhaps a little chagrined at how much energy it takes to go digital. It’s not as green as we would like to think.) And then there are all the peripherals. Oh, and all the other accoutrements of conspicuous consumption, besides.

So what do we do? Do we quit our jobs and work on an organic farm and wear clothes made from hemp fiber? Some very smart people have proposed measures that would offset our carbon footprints. But I say this isn’t enough. The system on which the USA was built will not permit a complete offsetting of any pollutant. It’s a shell game we play to lull ourselves into a false sense of security. We would have to change the way we organize our societies. Our technological and industrial platforms would have to change radically – resembling something out of science fiction. But this world is several hundred years away. We don’t have that kind of time.

Let’s back up for a moment or two. I remember a discussion I had in one of my college courses back in 1993 or 1994. A student was talking about the virtues of using a laptop instead of pencil and paper and how he was saving trees. I asked him how much energy it took to produce one laptop every three to five years for his personal consumption, along with the electricity and emissions that come with it over its lifecycle. Was that really a "green" answer? Not in the least. He might have saved a few trees that year. Down the line he was killing the equivalent of many more trees to use just one laptop than he would have killed in ten or perhaps twenty years of using paper and pencils. Producing any of these products is toxic to the environment, but trees are at least renewable. I did give him credit for being a vegetarian….

I was secretly reading Ivan Illich in those days, who opened my mind to a new way of thinking about modernity and its real costs. He really drove home the point that we need to change radically. Is buying a Prius enough? Is buying local enough? Is going solar enough? I think most of us would agree that it will at best take a nibble out of our per capita carbon emissions. In fact, just cutting down on meat would probably have more of an impact over one's lifetime when it comes to equivocations about consumption. But is that enough? No, it isn’t. Of course, there is also the question of whether owning a car or any modern contrivance really improves our quality of life in objective, measurable terms. (Again, see Illich.)

The issue is deeper. Our modern lives are built on this consumption, which in turn depends on a very complicated system that is predicated upon infinitely expanding production horizons. And all this depends on fossil fuel production for energy to power the system. We can only replace a fraction of that output with all alternative energy production combined. And production capacity has always lagged demand! Our very identities depend on our consumption and our relationships to and roles in this system. Even the products posing as eco-friendly are not friendly at all. (You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.)

To sum up: I am a dirty little creature on this magnificent planet. I am motivated more by economic imperatives than by ecological imperatives, no matter what I tell myself. Although I know what the consequences of our consumption will be in the future, I am personally unwilling to take the radical course of action required. (Game theorists would say I am utterly predictable in this regard.) Instead, I offer to myself palliatives that enable me to say I am making an effort. No matter how much knowledge I may have about the subject, I will likely not change. I know that even the greenest of us are still guilty…except perhaps those of us who choose to live completely off of the grid. We are few and far between in developed countries…and those of us who are off the grid in poor rural areas have other issues to deal with.

So what are we to do? I don’t have an answer to that question. Instead, I humbly offer a few websites for those who want to see just what their carbon footprint might look like – although these will only show a fraction of real emissions per person. I think it is better still to look at total carbon emission as a per capita expression, because we are all responsible for what we produce in both the public and private spheres. You can find these figures easily on the World Resources Institute, the US Department of Energy, or the United Nations websites. I also offer a website for further reading on Illich’s work – unique, provocative, and of course sharply critical of everything we hold most dear in the modern world. You can read more about his ideas at his archive.

http://www.cogsci.ed.ac.uk/~ira/illich/

I’ve rambled on. There is so much more to write…

Carbon footprint calculators:

http://www.gdrc.org/
http://www.carbonfund.org/

Global emissions data:

http://earthtrends.wri.org/

Nigel said...

So are there solutions? Because when confronted with evidence suggesting that our current way of life is not, and can never be, sustainable, part of me thinks "fuck it, if everything's going to hell anyway why bother buying organic/cutting down the amount of meat I eat/saving power". Surely it helps in some way.

KT said...

Of course you saw Al Gore's movie, which illustrates that if we start to make significant changes in how we live our lives, we can turn things around. So it's not one magic pill, it's a combination of many behaviors and consumer habits! Have faith!

KT said...

Hey Lonely Trader, you need to start your own blog because you have a lot of interesting things to say that shouldn't be hidden in my comments section!

The Lonely Trader said...

Are you "KT" from Tam High? Oh, and sorry for the rant. I'll move them to my blog at wordpress...when I get time. This stuff is more of a spur of the moment thing and apologies if I have cast a pall on the otherwise positive and friendly ambience.

Nigel said...

Whether here or on your blog, keep it up. I found what you wrote really interesting.

KT said...

No worries, Lonely Trader. I appreciate your ideas and that my questions incited such a reaction! If you have a blog then you're all good. So now I must ask who are you? Please identify yourself since you know me from Tam. And btw, what's your blog address so I can start posting comments there too! Although my comments will be much shorter than yours. ;-)

KT said...

P.S. Nigel, I finally read the Economist article. Good points, indeed! BTW, in Germany, biodiesel is made almost exclusively from rapeseed oil (not soybean), which comes from a lovely little yellow flower. ;-)

The Lonely Trader said...

Jason Schneider, AKA Jason Gribling, from Tam High...that flakey geeky sporty wierdy guy with the bad haircut and crooked smile/smirk...

http://www.linkedin.com/in/lonelytrader

The Lonely Trader said...

Yep, you're the KT I thought you were. Well how the hell are ya?

KT said...

Jason Gribling! What is up? Where are you in this world?

riker said...

re: gribling/schneider. i've been trying to ping him for years. we've had many fond memories and it would be great to catch up. not much of a trail to follow, but he has justifiable hints that explain being unavailabe to the public. regardless, if he comes to the surface plz have him contact me! thanks everyone. martinblank7@yahoo.com (aka: c. harwood)