The Friday Sustainability Roundup, Quiz Style

For the past five years I’ve written a sustainability tip for my company newsletter. This past week I imitated Paul Slansky, who used to do brilliant quizzes in the New Yorker during, as he calls it, “the Bush coup d’etat.” The column appears below the tiger.

Three interesting quotes came over the transom this week, from interesting sources. See if you can guess where these came from.

1) “We call on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants.”

2) “America is a resplendent, plentiful and fertile land, rich with natural resources, bounded by vast ocean spaces. Together these gifts are ours to be enjoyed for their majesty, cultivated and harvested for their abundance, and preserved for following generations. Many of these resources are renewable, some are not. But all must be respected as part of a global ecosystem that is being tasked to support a world population projected to reach nine billion peoples midway through this century. These resources range from crops, livestock, and potable water to sources of energy and materials for industry. Our third investment priority is to develop a plan for the sustainable access to, cultivation and use of, the natural resources we need for our continued well being, prosperity and economic growth in the world marketplace.”

3) “…the basic idea is that all the CO2 we emit stays around for a long time. That’s a very unfortunate fact, and that leads to the warming. That’s about as clear as anything can be. You can argue over, as the temperature goes up, will it go up even more. There are certain feedback effects that are the subject of a lot of inquiry. But almost no one basically doubts the fact that you’ve got to reduce the CO2 emissions.”


1) A Vatican working group of scientists.

2) The second quote is from a paper by Capt. Wayne Porter (Navy) and Col. Mark Mykleby (Marines), called “A National Strategic Narrative.” (PDF). It’s not an official military document, but the two authors are high-placed advisers to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

A New York Times story goes into more detail, and quotes Mykleby speaking to the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce: “It’s a strategic liability to keep subsidizing our agribusiness model the way it is for any number of reasons — the decay of our soil, the health of our citizens, because our food is not healthy any more, etc., etc.’ ” he says. “Remarkably, it was very well received in the middle of corn country.”

3) Microsoft co-founder and CEO Bill Gates, who is now better known for the efforts of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates gave a TED talk about energy last year, and the quote comes from a conversation about the same issues sponsored by Grist.

In other news:

  • A UK government report concludes that Wi-fi internet access and other communications are at risk from global warming. (Guardian)
  • An analysis of 900 academic papers supporting climate scepticism found that 9 out of the top 10 authors were linked to ExxonMobil.
  • Girl Scouts, parents, and cookie buyers logged onto the Girl Scouts’ USA Facebook page to ask that palm oil be removed from Girl Scout cookies. (Harvesting palm oil destroys tropical rainforest, and has contributed to habitat loss for species such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and rhinoceroses). The organization’s response? It simply deleted the comments. (Good write-up about the story and issues from Grist.)
  • A new paper from a Swiss researcher found that singals from cell phones cause honeybees to become disoriented, and then drop dead. (Fast Company)
  • From the Dept. of Read this While Standing Up: Scientists in Louisiana found that people who sit for most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of heart attacks. There’s also an infographic that spells out this research in more detail.

The “Piano Stairs” Experiment

In many situations, escalators are just stupid.


Exhibit A: One really stupid escalator

In an article called “Taken for a Ride: The Insanity of Escalators,” Jeffrey Hill rises to the challenge of describing how wasteful they are:

The national energy use of escalators is estimated at 2.6 billion kilowatt hours per year, equivalent to powering 375,000 houses; its cost is roughly $260 million. What’s harder than stomaching these statistics is finding sources to back them up.

The escalator industry is extremely secretive about pricing and energy specifications on specific models. Even though Kone Inc. provides detailed CAD drawings on their website, their cheery phone representatives claim they can’t verify the figures: “it’s a 9-11 thing.”

Hill notes that the treads are extremely heavy, and quotes a sales rep who claims that each job has to be customized (which adds to the expense). Here’s my favorite quote:

Although quiet and convenient, escalators unfortunately cost more money to install, operate, and maintain than raising a child, and there are 30,000 of them in the United States.

So I was cheered this morning to see Joseph Rose’s Hard Drive blog, where he posts this great video of a little experiment in Stockholm:

What happened afterwards? The video more or less speaks for itself. Those humans are having fun! They’re also using the stairs 66% more than normal. Good for them.

Why can’t we have more keyboard stairs instead of escalators?

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.

Never Argue with a Pretty Face

My company is having a roundtable about sustainability, and on the home page of our intranet, I published a promo for the meeting, and a form so people could ask anonymous questions.

But when I built the page, the headline and text looked a little too stark. The page needed a photo. I looked on under “landscape,” and this showed up on the first result screen:

Landscape fail.

Landscape fail.

Not quite. So I went for something iconic and cute and kinda sustain-ity. I went with this:


The next day my boss came in to tell me she decided to swap out the photo, to generate some more questions for the round table. She swapped in photos of the three people hosting the event (the faces have been pixelated to protect the innocent):


Sure enough, the questions started rolling in. First question:

What happened to the picture of the duck? — end message

Second question:

I liked the picture of the duck better. — end message

Links to What Distracted Me from Working This Week

This week, I read someone talking about legal threats to bloggers linking to the New York Times. The writer made the comment that the Web is basically a giant copying machine. How true, how true.

In that spirit, links to some of the stuff I happily distracted myself with this week:

On the highbrow end, not one but two interesting pieces about online reviews. First, from the Economist, this discovery:

a handful of bad reviews, it seems, are worth having. “No one trusts all positive reviews,” he says. So a small proportion of negative comments—“just enough to acknowledge that the product couldn’t be perfect”—can actually make an item more attractive to prospective buyers.

And this one: A company that researches this “shows that visitors are more reluctant to buy until a product attracts a reasonable number of reviews and picks up momentum.”

Know who does this really well? One company estimates that one little feature of reviewing on the Amazon site is worth $2.7 billion of new revenue. Wow.

On the middlebrow end, I wrote my sustainability tip this week about how green cigarettes are, based on an excellent article by Nina Shen Rastogi, a.k.a. The Green Lantern, a columnist on

Long story short, cigs are a disaster. 27 million pounds of pesticides every year in the U.S., nearly a half-million acres of forest and woodland cleared every year for tobacco farming, 84,878 tons of fine particulate matter (bad stuff!), 1.7 billion tons of cigarette butts … yuck.

message-traffic-pollution-mAlso, British project is showing the effects of traffic pollution. Using a network of wireless sensors near major roads, they collect data on carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, other pollutant levels, temperature, humidity and noise levels, as well as a count of vehicle passages. The result is a real-time “pollution map” of London, to help people choose travel routes, and government officials figure out solutions.

In lower brow fun, The New York Times has a great article about kooks who do like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, right down to the costume, and building replica chairs. The photos are priceless. I’d run one, but the New York Times is pretty ornery about that nowadays.

The UK’s Telegraph has a list of 20 the most ridiculous complaints made by travelers to their travel agent.

One of my favorites:

A tourist at a top African game lodge overlooking a waterhole, who spotted a visibly aroused elephant, complained that the sight of this rampant beast ruined his honeymoon by making him feel “inadequate”.

On that note, courtesy of the Boston Globe’s Braniac blog, I also had to laugh at one of the funniest faux-self-help books I’ve ever seen. (Which is not for the more prudish of your friends and relations.)

And last but not least, some clever Brits did their take on what the publisher’s meeting might have been like for the Harry Potter books. Which is funny as hell if you’ve every tried to pitch a book.

Orange Juice: C02 in a Glass

I like orange juice. It tastes good, it’s pretty good for me, and it’s an essential ingredient in a screwdriver. Then I did my fortnightly sustainability tip for work about it. What a massive bummer that turned out to be.

OJ has been taking its knocks in the news lately, thanks in part to a new book called Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice. The author, Alissa Hamilton, recently had some revealing things to say about OJ:

“In the process of pasteurizing, juice is heated and stripped of oxygen, a process called deaeration, so it doesn’t oxidize. Then it’s put in huge storage tanks where it can be kept for upwards of a year. It gets stripped of flavor-providing chemicals, which are volatile. When it’s ready for packaging, companies … engineer flavor packs to make it taste fresh.”

“The orange growing is moving to Brazil, which grows the most oranges for juice by far. Land is cheaper, and environmental regulations are almost nonexistent.”

Last month, Tropicana revealed the carbon footprint of its Pure Premium orange juice. Treehugger compared it to Fiji bottled water, which is about the worst of a bad thing.

  • 2 liters of Tropicana Pure Premium (.53 gal) = 3.96 lbs of CO2.
  • 2 liters of Fiji bottled water = 1.1 lbs. of CO2

And that doesn’t even count OJ’s water footprint (story and photo from the Economist)


How to Sell ‘Green’ Internally

Part of my work involves doing internal communications, and one of the organizations that’s involved with communications is Last summer they profiled me about the sustainability work I do at my company.

Having been on the other side of the steno pad, it’s interesting to see what happens when a journalist profiles you (instead of the other way round).

From what I can tell, Ragan’s publication model is to make their stories free, then off-limits unless you’re a subscriber, and then free again. Thus, after nine months we appear to be in phase three, when it’s free … at least, for now.

Let me know what you think!

Want a Sustainability Tip? Ask Anyone

I’ve been writing a sustainability tip for my company’s internal newsletter for about two years. When I started, I had to go searching for sustainability tips, and found some good ones from places like the Georgia Conservancy.

But things changed quickly, especially as people started to figure out that climate change might actually be a problem. Not long after I started writing my tips, magazines started running “green” features and “green” issues, with helpful tips like change to CFL light bulbs, and buy a designer reusable shopping bag. (The Onion nailed this with their “Obligatory Green Issue” — which I’d link to, only their archives suck.)

Nowadays green advice comes from everywhere, including the American Psychological Association’s annual meetings. Here are two tidbits of their advice I covered in my newsletter:

1) Walking outside rather than inside — even for just 15 minutes — makes you feel happier, more energetic and more protective of the environment, two studies found.

2) “One of the first things you think of is turning off lights when you leave a room or changing the thermostat settings in the house. They don’t think first of caulking windows or upgrading your furnace,” says Paul Stern, a researcher at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

“More insulation in the attic and tight windows make more difference than changing the thermostat setting. Having a more fuel-efficient car makes more difference than any amount you’re likely to decrease driving.” (Source: USA Today)

Two weeks later, I found three more. This is also from my newsletter:

1) The United Nations is hitting us where we eat. Last week Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that people should reduce their meat consumption. Though his comments are controversial, the UN estimates meat production accounts for nearly one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions (more).

2) Instead of “Drill, baby, drill!” the American Physical Society urged the US last week to insulate, baby, insulate. The 46,000-member group suggested that with current or almost-on-the-market technologies, buildings could be made dramatically more efficient — enough to cut projected energy use in U.S. buildings 30 percent by 2030.

3) Tinkerbell is teaming up with the US Dept. of Energy to help teach kids how to save energy — too bad Consumer Reports is arguing that one Tink/DOE recommendation, Energy Star, “saves energy but hasn’t kept up with the times.”

Now, when you Google “sustainability tip,” the advice comes from schools, magazines, newspapers, the American Association of Pediatrics, conservation nonprofits, the city of Canterbury in New Zealand, and even the San Diego International Airport.

This last one a delightful bit of dark irony. Why? Though the airport lists 30 sustainability baby-step tips (“Save old tattered towels and t-shirts for cleaning. Cut them into squares to replace store-bought rags and paper towels.”), they omit the elephant in the room that applies directly to them: flying.

How bad is flying? One transatlantic flight for a family of four creates more CO2 than that family generates in an entire year.

So it’s all well and good that the airport is telling me to save my t-shirts. But it’s also good to get your sustainability tips from places a little more credible than Tinkerbell and the airport.

The Five Stages of Grief in Environmental Comments

A few of the blogs I follow had environmentally themed posts lately (here’s one about drive-throughs at Starbucks), and I’ve begun to see the same types of comments crop up. They’re tracking along the Kübler-Ross model, a.k.a. the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance).


In the comments on another blog post (about green “noise”), someone complained about “Giving credibility to faulty and refutable science.”

Let’s pick that apart. First, all science it refutable. That’s what makes it science, and not Intelligent Design. Second, to call it faulty is a stretch. Grist did an excellent piece on How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic, that parses out stages of denial, scientific topics, types of argument, and their levels of sophistication. And offers evidence to address each and every one.

My sense is that people who espouse this stuff are believing what they want to believe, and voicing the opinion that best fits, without reading the science. (Hardly the first time that’s happened.) I also suspect that this churlishness stems from a more fundamental urge, which is an outright rejection to have anyone tell them what to do.

Third, it’s an attempt to reduce all our problems to something really complex, like climate modeling. But what’s impossible to deny, without sticking your head in the sand, is the overwhelming evidence of loss of biodiversity, habitat loss, air pollution, water pollution, and the depletion of natural resources. It isn’t just carbon. It’s all the other ways our lifestyle is running roughshod over the earth. I blogged earlier about Mark Bittman’s excellent talk at the TED conference. Watching that is a good place to start.


Other people are “irked with the hypocrisy exhibited by celebrities.” True, Paul McCartney had his hybrid limo flown to London from Japan, and Al Gore travels in a private jet. But they’re celebrities, and everyone always watches them through lenses tinted green with envy.

Does it really matter if they’re saints? Or are you using their all-too-human behavior as an excuse not to do what you know is right?

Besides, someone like Ed Begley, whom no one could call a hypocrite, gets a ton of flak, because no one likes anyone who’s pious, even if they’re right. (As someone rightly noted, “A zealot is a zealot, regardless of the cause.”)

I was telling someone about the sustainability tip I write, and trying to educate people about sustainability, and how many little, easy lifestyle changes it entails. And he said, “The thing is, you mustn’t preach.” And that may be true, because of the resistance you’ll get from people who reject everything you say just because you’re not perfect.

Plus, anger goes both ways. If you’re going to drive a huge SUV and leave it idling while getting a hamburger at the drivethrough, you’re going to piss people off. And rightly so.


This should actually be characterized as “bad rationalizations for bad behavior.” For example: “I suppose we should all stop reading books. I just read in Business Week that the production of one book results in 8.85 pounds of carbon emissions.”

Depression, Acceptance

We’ve spent our lifetime ingraining bad habits. Gas was cheap and US cities are optimized for cars, not people, so we drove everywhere. Then we believed we weren’t safe unless we drove around in behemoths. And because it’s tasty and convenient, we ate fast food, just like corporations wanted us to.

Problem is, all at once we’re starting to realize how ruinous many of these habits are. Which has sparked a dialogue about how we should live. And that means change, which makes people uncomfortable. On top of that, the changes are coming from everywhere, and the information is often conflicting, so people are reacting against changing too fast.

Or that it’s being touted as a “lifestyle,” that green is the new black.

So it’s a mess. But just because there are mixed messages and people in denial, it still bothers me when people think it isn’t their problem too … unless, they think they’re going to stop eating, drinking water, or breathing. Or they’re indifferent to the world their children will inherit.