Five O'Clock Somewhere

Welcome to Five O'Clock Somewhere, where it doesn't matter what time zone you're in; it's five o'clock somewhere. We'll look at rural life, especially as it happens in Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, cats, sailing (particularly Etchells racing yachts), and bits of grammar and Victorian poetry.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unclear on the concept

Being well-meaning is good, but it's not enough …

Something that bugs me a whole lot is people who are all gung-ho about saving the planet (reducing our carbon footprint, saving energy, saving water, saving the whales, saving … whatever) but who don't really have a good idea how to go about all of that saving.

One of my pet peeves is the so-called "water-saving" toilets that flush themselves whenever they feel like it. How does it save water for a toilet to flush itself when flushing is not needed, especially when somebody is seated upon said toilet and isn't finished? And then, to make matters worse, once the person IS finished, there is often not a manual flush option, so matter that should be flushed goes unflushed. Don't the powers-that-be trust the general public to flush the toilet when a flush is needed? Just give us toilets that use very little water per flush; let us decide when to flush.

Many of the people who are most vocal about saving the planet are also not terribly well in tune with it. It seems they often come from urban or privileged suburban backgrounds, and they aren't so aware of the realities. One current example is a project called the WaterPod, in which a colony of artists is attempting to create a self-sustaining ecosystem on a barge. They found out it wasn't so easy as they thought it would be. "I kind of thought we'd just be able to float around," one crew member said. NOT! Gardening takes work, and so does maintaining a boat. It's not the Garden of Eden. On the other hand, if this crew learns from the experience, it will be A Good Thing.

One of the most horrible examples of "unclear on the concept" was the 20th anniversary Earth Day celebration in New York City in 1990. Pat and I had been to a conference of Girl Scout leaders in upstate New York, and we had a weekend in the big city before returning home to Iowa and Minnesota and Kansas and Alaska and New Mexico. First, there was a parade. It consisted of a bunch of people dressed up in primitive costumes mostly depicting endangered species, with the occasional unicorn or mermaid thrown in, carrying banners saying things like "Save the Wales" (yes, that's how it was spelled, although the guys carrying that banner were wearing little other than some body paint that seemed to depict orcas). Yes, the participants in the parade had a lot of enthusiasm, but they really didn't seem to go much beyond trendy sayings. There was no meaning.

Worse was the rally in Central Park following the parade. Pat and I didn't know how awful it really was until after we got home and we saw the footage on the television news showing the bulldozers corralling the 600 tons of garbage that had been left in the park by the rally participants. Here we were, a group of people from an organization that abides by the saying, "Leave the campsite cleaner than you found it," and we were observing an event that was supposed to be about saving the planet, and the people participating in that event were completely clueless. We may have been just hicks from the sticks, but we were utterly aghast. I don't think that an Earth Day event in Iowa or Minnesota or Kansas or Alaska or New Mexico would have resulted in much trash to pick up at all – maybe if the trash cans or recycling bins got full, there would be some overflow.

Good intentions alone are not going to save the planet. The good intentions have to be backed up by good science and realistic expectations. Carrying a misspelled banner while wearing body paint to look like an orca is not going to save the orcas. Thinking that operating a self-sustaining ecosystem will be like the Garden of Eden is utterly unrealistic. Toilets that flush themselves when they don't need to be flushed will not save water. Holding a rally to promote ecological consciousness while producing 600 tons of trash is completely counter-productive.

The WaterPod people might perhaps learn from the EarthShip people. It's a similar concept – create an ecologically self-sustaining dwelling – and while it's in a different environment (the desert near Taos, New Mexico, as opposed to the water off New York City), many of the same principles apply. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the EarthShip was at a similar level of development as the WaterPod is today: idealistic people planning an idealistic way of living. Early on, the EarthShip had similar problems to the WaterPod, such as people discovering that idealism alone isn't enough to make a project successful; some hard work is involved as well, and there are hardships in the lifestyle that many modern Americans aren't willing to tolerate. The good news is that, with four decades' worth of improvements, the EarthShip has become a viable mode of living. Houses are spacious and comfortable, and improvements in technology have led to better solar and wind electricity generation, more efficient storage battery systems, and appliances that consume far less energy while providing greater convenience.

But even with all the improvements, EarthShips aren't for everyone. It's important to provide ways that people can contribute to the well-being of the planet without making a huge sacrifice, and without moving to the desert outside of Taos. Mainstream developers need to provide housing that people will buy that is also environmentally friendly. Artistic Homes is such a developer. People who buy in one of Artistic's green subdivisions have three options: a small photovoltaic system on the roof that provides for about a third of the house's electricity needs; a larger system that provides for all of the needs of an all-electric home; or, for those who prefer to use natural gas for heating and cooking, a yet larger photovoltaic system that provides more power than the house needs, with the surplus to be sold to the electric company to pay for the cost of the natural gas. All three options also have a direct-heat solar system for heating water. The idealists may scoff at such a conformist solution, especially one that is produced by a big-business developer, but the thing is, it's realistic and doable, and the only sacrifice people have to make is paying more for their homes – and that added cost is offset at least partially by tax incentives.

Meanwhile, people who already own homes and aren't looking to buy new ones can – if they have money – install solar or wind powered electrical generating systems. While it might be romantic to be "off the grid," being on the grid is actually an advantage nowadays, because a battery storage system becomes unnecessary. The way it works here in Albuquerque is typical – if a customer has a "cogeneration facility" (solar or wind power generation system), then when the customer is producing more power than the customer is consuming, the meter runs backward. If the customer consumes more than the customer feeds into the system, the customer is charged the retail price for the electricity. But if the customer generates more than is consumed, the power company pays the customer the wholesale price. Essentially, the customer becomes one of the providers of the product, and the power company resells it for the usual profit margin.

That's good for those people who have the wherewithal to install their own generating systems. The power company here in Albuquerque has proposed a way of allowing people with less money to get in on the action – the power company will lease space on the customer's roof for a photovoltaic system owned by the power company, and the power company will pay the customer rent for the rooftop plus a royalty based on how much the system produces beyond what the customer uses. At first glance, that looks good. The customer doesn't have to come up with the upfront cash to buy the system. However, in asking state regulators for permission to create this plan, the electric company has requested a tradeoff – that the electric company be allowed to regulate the number of customers with their own cogeneration facilities, and the size of those facilities. That's not good. We want to encourage cogeneration, not put caps on it. The question now is whether public outcry can sway the overtly corrupt regulators. This is where we need the fanatics – except they don't seem to understand the issue. They're just blindly opposed to anything the power company wants, and they don't produce any sound reasoning to back up their arguments.

Yes, we want to save the planet. Yes, we admire the idealists. But the actual saving of the planet is going to happen when sound thinking replaces fanatical and ignorant idealism. And sometimes, corporate America is an ally rather than an enemy.

But as far as I'm concerned, self-flushing toilets are always the enemy.

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Blogger Andrew said...

My Mother grew up in Wales and we now have a no flushing, waterless toilet. Can this be a coincidence?

Thu Sep 17, 08:06:00 AM MDT  
Blogger bonnie said...

I see I failed to mention it but the "I thought we'd just be able to float around" comment completely cracked me up. Somewhat the same ilk as the freegan dory-builders who discovered at the same City of Water day that maybe having lifejackets on board their little plywood creations was actually a good idea.


I can hardly keep up with my little 4x6 garden & I'm always thankful that growing food is purely a hobby.

Still like to have a room with a view like that, though.

Thu Sep 17, 06:56:00 PM MDT  
Blogger bonnie said...

Actually I saw an even better example of the exact sort of NYC environmentalist stupidity you are talking about when I went to a community board meeting after seeing these horribly alarmist posters that said that the meeting was RE: Toxic Gas Drilling Planned for the City's Upstate Watershed.

Turned out to be a bit of an overstatement. And the lunatic fringe was definitely there.

There were people in that room who loudly proclaimed that they would be in favor of a ban on gas drilling anywhere in this country.

I couldn't quite believe it.

Thu Sep 17, 07:28:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Pat said...

Bumper sticker.... probably would fit in well in Alaska....



Then there was the "Carbon Neutral" sailboat expedition ... that had to be rescued ... by diverting a big ship that burned many tens of thousands of gallons of fuel ... and left the sailboat as a hazard to navigation.

Thu Sep 17, 09:19:00 PM MDT  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Bonnie -- I liked what you said in your blog -- gas has gotta come from somewhere, so banning all drilling is just plain not possible.

And the concept that if some community favors drilling for gas, probably because the positives outweigh the negatives, that community is thinking wrong and needs to be corrected ... I don't buy that.

Yes, it is good to keep drilling out of environmentally sensitive areas, but drilling, managed in such a way as to reduce environmental impact, is not bad when it's in a good place. What would be bad would be to prevent drilling in the U.S. so the drillers would go someplace where there is less regulation and more pollution. I have had a couple of students who have come from such areas, and they have told me of utter environmental devastation -- and lingering health problems that they are dealing with.

We don't want to become so pristine in the U.S. that we transfer our pollution problems to other parts of the world. We should never make our own pollution "someone else's problem."

But we also aren't going to get anything done unless we all (individuals, local governments, states, the feds, the world) come to some sort of arrangement where we can work together.

Fri Sep 18, 02:42:00 AM MDT  
Blogger yarg said...

I think there are three good things about these silly environmentalists. First, the dumb ones at least talk the right talk in the reductionist world of sound bites. They could say "drill, baby, drill." Second, the idealists show us and themselves how far we have to go to get our consumption back in balance with sustainable supplies. Third, it all provokes the detailed discussion of what works and what doesn't, and that is where a lot can be accomplished.

Sat Sep 19, 06:34:00 AM MDT  
Blogger Pat said...

Every decision about energy is one of trade-offs. No one should forget that.

If we choose to consume less energy by using more energy-efficient technologies, then we have to spend time, energy, money, and other resources to achieve these efficiencies instead of achieving something else we desire.

If we choose to consume less energy by doing without, then we give up some comforts or conveniences. The one exception of course is the elimination of waste and grossly inefficient uses.

If we choose to use the same amount of energy by changing to renewable sources, these still have costs. Dams disrupt watersheds and kill living rivers. Solar technology is still somewhat inefficient and requires expensive resources to set up and replace. Wind turbines can kill birds, be visually unsightly, and also require expensive resources.

If we choose to switch among non-renewable resources, those tradeoffs, too, have costs. Coal is quite the polluter; burning it generates all sorts of particulates and even an appreciable amount of radioactivity! So-called "clean coal" technology is not without costs or limits. Nor is the mining of coal without some horrendous human costs, hazards, and environmental concerns. Some of these depend upon the type of mining and the ability and willingness of governments to enforce safety and reclamation laws.

Also, the production of electricity and energy often depletes other scarce resources, particularly water.

In the western USA in particular this is a significant cost. Here, the water part of the equation can factor into the decision to use air conditioning instead of evaporative cooling or cloth diapers instead of disposables.

Sat Sep 19, 12:17:00 PM MDT  

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