Living with Nest

There’s one element of the home over which even the most design-minded homeowner has traditionally had  little control – the ugly beige  thermostat that comes bundled  with most heating/air-conditioning systems. There it is, plunked in the middle of an otherwise beautiful wall – a nondescript blob of plastic with a crummy little LCD display and Shinola for brains. But this is 2012, the age of the iPhone. We can do better!

A month ago, I was invited to become a beta tester for the amazing Nest Learning Thermostat (would love to share the access, but don’t ask – I can’t get you in :). The premise is so simple you have to wonder why no other company has tackled this niche: Make a thermostat that’s as gorgeous and intuitive to use as a smartphone, tie into the sensor revolution, build in WiFi so you can control it remotely, give it the intelligence to learn your schedule so it can optimize your energy consumption, and treat it more like a small computer (with remotely update-able software) than a piece of uninteresting functional hardware .

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Is the electric car really so green?

Fascinating: Is the electric car really so green? Maybe not – there’s a lot more to the story:

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Tesla SUV with wings or not, we should kill the electric car – CSMonitor.com
Environmental groups are cheering: Tesla unveiled its newest fleet of electric vehicles this weekend, and California recently tightened its emissions standards. I was once enthusiastic about electric …

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How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative

Excellent piece at commutebybike.com: How to Talk About Cycling to a Conservative, making the case that it’s actually quite easy to make the case for bicycle commuting to a conservative, if you frame it right. What conservatives don’t want to hear: Knee-jerk blanket statements like “Oil corporations are evil” and “Cars are stupid.” Points to make instead: “Bicycling reduces dependence on foreign oil” and “Bicycling builds self-reliance” and “Bicycling reduces traffic congestion.” Worth a read. xxx

This response at the LinkedIn bicycle commuters’ group by Joshua Putnam sums it up well:

The conservative arguments for cycling are really quite strong — it’s an exercise in self-reliance, it builds character and physical fitness in a society where a majority of young adults are unfit for military service, it reduces consumption of foreign oil, it reduces public expense for roads and health care, it extends the productive working lives of bicycle commuters, and it increases the workplace productivity of bicycle commuters while reducing absenteeism. Those are all valid, documented benefits that make bicycle commuting beneficial to the health of the republic, as well as to individual cyclists.

DC’s Plastic Bag Tax

great_pacific_garbage_patch.jpg Residents of Washington D.C. started the new year with a shiny — albeit tiny — new tax. Shoppers who show up at stores without their own bags or boxes will need to start paying 5 cents each for them. In my view, this is an excellent idea, and long overdue. I’d love to see a tax like this applied nationally (even globally, if such a thing were possible).

We’ve known about the massive environmental problems caused by an excess of plastic in general, and of plastic bags in particular, for decades. See Salon’s excellent Plastic bags are killing us for details. We know that only a small fraction of plastic bags get recycled, and that the vast majority end up in landfills or in the ocean. As of 1992, 14 billion pounds of trash were dumped into ocean annually around the world. The world’s largest landfill is now officially the Pacific Ocean — as of a few years ago, 100 million tons of plastic were swirling in the Pacific Gyre.

The way I see it, anyone who had been watching this news would have started refusing to accept plastic bags (or any bags, ideally) from stores years ago. But for whatever reason, people haven’t. Stand in line at virtually any grocery store and count the percentage of patrons bringing their own bags. To me, the DC tax seems like too little too late, if anything.

The lack of willingness on the part of consumers to give up the smallest conveniences for the sake of the environment is a tragic reminder of our collective complacency. Since people won’t voluntarily step up and do the right thing without a carrot or a stick to guide them, DC has decided to use a stick (taxes).

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I recently got into a discussion on Twitter with @vmarks and @russnelson about whether the tax was a reasonable response to the crisis. Apparently libertarians, their opinion is that taxes represent “force,” and that some form of reward system would be more effective than a tax. Stores should incentivize canvas bags by giving discounts to those who bring their own. I have a couple of responses to that line of reasoning.

First, many stores already do this. That’s excellent, but it puts the cost burden on the store, rather than on the consumer, where it belongs. And it effectively means that stores that don’t reward personal bags are financially disadvantaged compared to stores that don’t. That, in turn, means the overall financial incentive is to NOT reward use of personal bags.

Second, voluntary participation rates are pretty low. Go to a store where personal bags are incentivized and count the number of consumers who do bring their own. There are still tons of new paper and plastic bags walking out the door every day. Unfortunately, we’re not in a position where we can afford to leave this up to personal choice. Too many people will put the small convenience of not keeping a personal bag or two in the car above the massive environmental destruction that results from them not making that choice.

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Third, let’s take it as a given that the crisis must be addressed effectively, and that urgent global solutions are required. If you want to use a carrot-based system rather than stick-based, you might be tempted to say “Just require stores to use an incentive program.” I’m sure the numbers would look better if incentives were required, but do you see the irony here? You would have traded the stick of taxes (force) with the stick of requiring stores to participate (force). You would not have escaped the fact that the direness of the situation, combined with the complacency of both stores and consumers, requires a force-based approach.

The tax is minor, and it’s not a blanket tax. No one who does what they should be doing anyway (bringing personal bags) will ever have to pay it. The tax is present because we can’t wait for carrots and volunteerism to do the job.

I find it unfortunate that certain cross-sections of the population have such a knee-jerk reaction to taxation in general that taxes are always seen as problematic, even when they’re inexpensive and sensible.

The free market is responsible for this problem to begin with. Free markets, left to their own devices, will seldom take care of their own side effects. The right thing to do would be for the U.S. to stand up and be a world leader on this, to simply make plastic bags at grocery stores illegal. It should not be a matter of “personal choice” to use products that hurt us all so profoundly (i.e. it’s not like the choice of whether to wear a motorcycle helmet – a purely personal choice). But that’s not going to happen. The very least we can do is to financially punish those who make choices that hurt us all.

Agree/disagree? Leave a comment, and vote in the poll.

Is a bag tax a sensible way to curb plastic bag use?

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Update 01/10: China leapfrogs enviromental policy of other countries by banning plastic bags outright. The country expects to save 37 million barrels of oil annually (on top of the immense environmental benefit).

Back to the Land

From the New York Times blog And the Pursuit of Happiness, Maira Kalman explores the relationship between agrarian societies, fast food culture, and how “the fabric of our lives is bound in the food we eat.”

Back to the Land – Do the affluent have access to the really healthy food while the less affluent do not?

Nothing earth-shattering in what she’s saying – it’s the way she’s assembling her ideas that I love – the unusual, homespun visual presentation supports the spirit of what she’s communicating.

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A labor-intensive way to way to blog, but that’s exactly perfect when what you’re writing about is the importance of slowing down the cultural experience, and the significance of real work by real people.

Beautiful stuff. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Waste Stats

Some really amazing figures on solid waste, via the Clean Air Council, including:

Only about one-tenth of all solid garbage in the United States gets recycled.

In the U.S., 4.39 pounds of trash per day and up to 56 tons of trash per year are created by the average person. [Since this is garbage night and this stat got me curious, I actually weighed our garbage tonight before taking it to the curb – a total of 2.5 lbs for a family of 3 – the rest was recycled or composted.]

Diapers: An average child will use between 8,000 -10,000 disposable diapers ($2,000 worth) before being potty trained. Each year, parents and babysitters dispose of about 18 billion of these items. In the United States alone these single-use items consume nearly 100,000 tons of plastic and 800,000 tons of tree pulp. We will pay an average of $350 million annually to deal with their disposal and, to top it off, these diapers will still be in the landfill 300 years from now. Americans throw away 570 diapers per second. That’s 49 million diapers per day.

Throwing away one aluminum can wastes as much energy as if that can were 1/2 full of gasoline.

Americans receive almost 4 million tons of junk mail every year. Most of it winds up in landfills.

As of 1992, 14 billion pounds of trash were dumped into ocean annually around the world.

Forty-three thousand tons of food is thrown out in the United States each day.

Each American exerts three times as much pressure on the natural environment as the global average.

People who change their own oil improperly dump the equivalent of 16 Exxon Valdez spills into the nation’s sewers and landfills every year.

… more at the site.

Whale Wars

shepherd It’s been a long time since I’ve been as inspired by a TV show as I am by Animal Planet’s Whale Wars. Of the n billion people on earth, only a few dozen are prepared to actually put their lives on the line to help prevent extinction of whales.

While international law is clear on the illegality of modern whaling, “research” loopholes allow for a certain number of whales to be taken annually for research purposes. Japanese fishermen exploit the loophole to carry on with commercial whaling under the guise of research. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society exists to prevent specious whaling by interfering with whaling directly. The society was created in 1977 by Paul Watson, who co-founded Greenpeace. But Greenpeace didn’t go far enough for Watson – he accuses the organization of refusing to directly engage whalers, going instead for high-profile photo ops.

Every winter, a group of volunteer sailors head for Antarctica with a ship, a helicopter, and a couple of high-speed delta boats. When they find Japanese fishing boats and evidence of whaling, they engage by throwing stink bombs on board, buzzing the deck, taking close-up photographs of the action, and generally making whaling impossible.

It’s a classic David/Goliath story. Sea Shepherd feels that the work they do should be government work. But governments won’t step up to enforce existing laws, so they take matters into their own hands. The crews are poorly trained, and it’s sometimes funny to see environmentalists organized in a semi-military structure, but they do have some effect, and it’s a fantastic watch. This is reality TV.

Got into an interesting debate tonight on Twitter on the question of whether efforts to save a single species are worthwhile. That’s a slippery slope – we might well survive after a species or two disappears. But how long can we continue to say that? How many extinctions can our species endure before we are affected? And is it really all about us? Even if we’re not affected, are whales worth saving just because they’re awesome? I believe they are.