The Climate Change Greatest Hits

Since I publish a sustainability tip in my company newsletter, I couldn’t let Blog Action Day go by without chiming in. The good thing about cranking out a tip every couple weeks is that a lot of good stuff comes across my desk. So I thought I’d share some of it.

In 2004, the Worldwatch Institute published a 35-page PDF called the Good Stuff guide, an outstanding primer on the environmental and social impacts of all kinds of … well, stuff.

One of the things the guide contains is a consumption manifesto, which contain some great principles:

Principle One. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This brilliant triad says it all. Reduce: Avoid buying what you don’t need—and when you do get that dishwasher/lawnmower/toilet, spend the money up front for an efficient model. Re-use: Buy used stuff, and wring the last drop of usefulness out of most everything you own. Recycle: Do it, but know that it’s the last and least effective leg of the triad. (Ultimately, recycling simply results in the manufacture of more things.)

Principle Two. Stay close to home.Work close to home to shorten your commute; eat food grown nearby; patronize local businesses; join local organizations. All of these will improve the look, shape, smell, and feel of your community.

Principle Three. Internal combustion engines are polluting, and their use should be minimized. Period.

Principle Four. Watch what you eat. Whenever possible, avoid food grown with pesticides, in feedlots, or by agribusiness. It’s an easy way to use your dollars to vote against the spread of toxins in our bodies, land, and water.

Principle Five. Private industries have very little incentive to improve their environmental practices. Our consumption choices must encourage and support good behavior; our political choices must support government regulation.

Principle Seven. Prioritize. Think hardest when buying large objects; don’t drive yourself mad fretting over the small ones. It’s easy to be distracted by the paper bag puzzle, but an energysucking refrigerator is much more worthy of your attention. (Small electronics are an exception.)

Principle Eight. Vote. Political engagement enables the spread of environmentally conscious policies.Without public action, thoughtful individuals are swimming upstream.

Principle Nine. Don’t feel guilty. It only makes you sad.

On the heels of principle nine is a remarkable interview with Peter Senge, a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, who dislikes the term sustainability. He says it “motivates out of fear, but it only motivates for as long as people feel the issues are pressing on them. Soon as the fear recedes, so does the motivation.”

He floats a substitute for ‘sustainability’: ‘All about the future.’ You just ask, what’s the world of your children or grandchildren going to be like? What would you like to see it be like? Do you have a sense of giving them a world that’s in better shape than your parents and grandparents gave you?”

If you’re looking for a reason to take action on climate change, that seems the strongest argument of all.

PS – Last but not least: three fairly easy ways to cut your carbon footprint in half.

The Poor, Poor Rich

Today is Blog Action Day, and the theme is poverty. Considering the meltdown of the US financial system, it’s a really timely topic.

Both the New York Times the Wall St. Journal have been hard at work covering how the souring economy is having an effect on the rich.

On Oct. 3, the Times ran “They’re Pinching Hundred-Dollar Bills,” noting that the number of private jets for sale is up 31 percent, that champagne sales have softened (“but sparkling wine has gone up”), and that some of the super-rich are downsizing from three multimillion dollar homes to two.

“The superwealthy in America are in a state of shock,” said Ronald Winston, honorary chairman of Harry Winston, the jeweler. “They are not rushing out to buy expensive diamonds. The psychological mind-set of the nation is keyed to the stock market, and in a downturn everybody is psychologically affected.”

The next day, the Times ran this:

This was further navel-gazing: a yacht broker noted, “The yacht is probably the first thing to go,” the bar and bat mitzvah market is soft, more luxury homes are on the market, etc. etc.

Then, this:

DESPITE these gains in the middle class, though, the truly wealthy have pulled away from the pack. Not since the late 1920s, just before the 1929 market crash, has there been such a concentration of income among individuals and families in very upper reaches of the income spectrum, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Paris School of Economics.

Some say that anger over the yawning wealth divide found traction in the highly charged and polarizing debate in Congress over the bailout bill.

Which is somewhat shocking, since it’s true, but off-topic. Isn’t the point of these articles to let us know about how the rich behave so we can emulate them?

Today in the Wall St. Journal, “The Billion-Dollar Question: Is Bling Over? How Luxury Executives Are Handing the Financial Crisis; Selling the Yacht.”

It’s about as nauseating as you’d expect. Sure, there’s a tinge of schadenfreude in reading that the pampered rich have to cut back, but selling one house is infinitely less painful than being foreclosed out of your only one.

Bad as that is, it’s nothing compared to real poverty. It just so happens that I was researching refugee camps recently, and read an article in the Guardian about the Dadaab settlement, which is the world’s largest refugee camp:

An increasingly violent insurgency in Somalia is fuelling a fresh refugee crisis with nearly 40,000 people arriving at a desert camp in north-eastern Kenya this year despite the border being closed.

The Dadaab settlement now hosts more than 210,000 people, making it the world’s biggest refugee camp. With at least 200 new arrivals every day, aid workers are struggling to cope.

“We are already at bursting point,” said Maeve Murphy, field officer with the UN Refugee Agency in Dadaab, 60 miles south of the border with Somalia. “And more refugees are on their way.”

The temperatures reach 104F (40C). “The newcomers’ shelters are desert igloos; bent branches covered with plastic sheeting and blankets.” Rapes and violence are common. Another story notes that “Life in the refugee camps is harsh. The refugees have no legal status and cannot move beyond the camps without permission.”

Joseph Stalin was reputed to have said, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”

It’s not worth thinking about the rich and their millions. It’s a statistic. And it’s too hard to think of 210,000 displaced, suffering people, since that’s a statistic too. But it’s worth thinking of that child in that photo. I was looking at a clothing catalog last night, and realized that boy needs my money more than I need that sweater.

It doesn’t matter that Ralph Lauren upped the ante on its notoriously expensive Ricky bag, that it’s now available in 20 shades of alligator skin, including platinum, “vibrant cherry” or cobalt, that it’s priced from $12,995 to $28,995, or that the company is confident that it’s well-positioned with its customers. No matter what the Wall St. Journal writes, that’s all bullshit.

What matters is stepping away from the American consumer trap (and the American media that perpetuates it), and realizing that you have all you need — in fact, you have more than you need. You were incredibly lucky not to have been born in Somalia, or in about half the world, where people live on less than $2.50 a day. You were lucky not to be one of the 26,500-30,000 children who die each day due to poverty.

Christmas is coming. If you’re going to spend money, here are five places guaranteed to put your money to better use than Ralph Lauren or a yacht broker.

  • Mercy Corps -works with countries recovering from disaster, conflict, or economic collapse
  • UNICEF -The UN Children’s Fund provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries
  • -created by the UN refugee agency to give children better access to education, sport and technology
  • Right to Play -uses sport and play to improve children’s health, life skills, and foster peace in disadvantaged countries
  • Kiva – the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website

Want to Help the Environment? Aim High


Today is Blog Action Day, which (if you’re reading blogs) is pretty hard to escape. The idea is for a whole buncha bloggers to write about the same thing— this year, it’s the environment. Good choice.

I’ve been writing a sustainability tip for work for a year and a half, and while I feel like I’ve done some good, I often feel like I’m pissing in the wind — that if you want to make a real difference, you don’t spend your time encouraging the lamer of your co-workers to recycle or compost when they’d otherwise be lazy and venal. Instead, you aim high, like working to prevent the construction of coal plants (Here’s why. Here’s more.) Here’s where they’re being proposed, with links to members of congress, the senate, and state legislators.

So that’s my humble proposal for today: Voluntary measures are great. Use compact fluorescent bulbs. Green your power, if it’s an option where you live. Reduce, reduce, reduce, reuse, recycle.

Meantime, take a look at that map. Is there a red dot near where you live? Or where one of your loved ones lives? Or, I dunno, on planet earth? Then write a letter (here’s a sample). Because stopping the construction of just one of those coal plants will do more than all your voluntary efforts combined.