The Nuke Dilemma

I have gone back and forth between polar extremes on this question over the past decade. On the one hand, nuclear accidents and waste disposal problems pose risks so great we shouldn’t even contemplate them, not even for a moment. On the other hand, continuing to burn fossils sets us on a course toward continued environmental destruction and unchecked climate change.

Recently a group of environmental scientists delivered a public letter encouraging environmentalists to start taking nuclear seriously.


The reality is that renewables (wind and solar) can’t begin to scale to match the amount of energy we are using / will need in the future. And:

“Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.”

Fukushima freaks us out, as it should. But Fukushima also represents a completely antiquated mode of nuke plant construction. Future plants will operate very differently, with a native tendency to shut down, not melt down.

Damned if we do, damned if we don’t?

Live Power Community Farm

So Miles just spent four days with his class at Live Power Community Farm in Covelo – camping out in 30-degree weather (at night), milking cows at the break of dawn, shoveling poop and plowing the earth and sorting vegetables. No electronics, no toys, no media – just kids experiencing life at its messy, organic best. During the breaks, they swam in the river and put on talent shows for each other. The kids worked hard but had a great time – all returned exhausted but recharged.


The farm gets its name from the fact they try, where possible, not to use powered machinery – everything is powered by animal and human effort. Blood, sweat and tears… and the rewards that come from that. Of course, everyone jokes about how it’s powered by child labor, but that’s not fair – the kids are there not as indentured servants but because their grownups see the work done on the farm as character building and healthy — everyone needs to spend time in and around real live dirt, and everyone needs to have milked a real live cow at least once in their lives.

Miles drives a plow

I often lament that it seems to be so hard to provide kids with anything like the environment I (we) grew up in. The combination of our technology-heavy environment and the fact that kids don’t just “go play outside” anymore means something crucial is being lost. I do my best to get him out into nature as often as possible, but big picture, it’s a drop in the bucket. So grateful he was able to get a real taste of dirt this week.

He took a ton of photos on the trip, and I helped him to select a few of the best and create his first web slideshow – check it out.

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 –
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 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).


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.


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).