Thursday, February 19, 2009

Some Hard Questions

There's a fascinating conversation going on as to whether or not cheap energy is a fool's paradise that is destined to fail? It is really worth checking out over at DotEarth

In the comment section I entered the debate with a challenge to my dear friend Kelpie's views about how a population policy might solve the problem.

Here is Kelpie's comment:

Thus far in human history, an increase in available energy has always led to an increase in population growth. There are a few instances where civilized societies have maintained a steady state - these are all island nations. Some were found in Polynesia. Edo Japan is the best example.

So-that means that tackling population growth head on is an absolute necessity, whether we can increase the energy available to us or not, ultimately it makes no difference. Let us heed the words of Engles on this. Engles hated Malthus and thought the idea of population outstripping resources was ludicrous, but still said this:

"There is, of course, the abstract possibility that the number of people will become so great that limits will have to be set to their increase. But if at some stage communist society finds itself obliged to regulate the producion of human beings, just as it has already come to regulate the production of things, it will be precisely this society, and this society alone, which can carry this out without difficulty. It does not seem to me that it would be at all difficult in such a society to achieve by planning a result which has already been produced spontaneously, without planning in France and Lower Austria. At any rate, it is for the people in the communist society themselves to decide whether, when and how this is to be done, and what means they wish to employ to the purpose. I do not feel called upon to make proposals for giving them advice about it. These people, in any case, will surely not be any less intelligent than we are."

Engels' abstract possibility is very real to most of us today. Some still can't see it, but as food prices climb ever higher, the mismatch of population and resources on our planet will soon be undeniable. We are those people who must decide how to deal with overpopulation. Fortunately, the solution is not that hard. Just give women the choice and the means to prevent or end pregnancies that they do not want. Accompany that with education about ecology and economic alternatives to motherhood and the problem is solved. Unfortunately, regressive patriarchal forces are incapable of conceding reproductive control to women. Maybe that's the best argument there is for "communism" or some similar economic revolution. It may be the only thing that can topple the patriarchs from power and start the flow of funds to women's health and welfare.

Even our beloved Obama administration allowed funds for women's reproductive healthcare to be stripped from the stimulus package. Women's health is not a side issue. It is THE issue of our time.

More at greenyourhead

And here's my response:

I'd like to challenge the view presented by my old colleague Kelpie Wilson (who does much great work for the earth) as it seems representative of much that is presented as a simple population solution.

In post #109 Kelpie says, "Fortunately, the solution is not that hard. Just give women the choice and the means to prevent or end pregnancies that they do not want. Accompany that with education about ecology and economic alternatives to motherhood and the problem is solved."

The problem is that there is no analysis of how the "economic alternatives to motherhood" will be created for poorer and "less developed" peoples. My understanding is that reductions of family size naturally arrive with women's rights, urbanization, education, economic development, etc. But the development package also includes increased per capita consumption and more energy intensive technologies.

Can anyone provide a study showing that modern woman-liberating and opportunity-creating economic development results in lowering the cumulative impact on the earth? If not, then I've got to think that it's not so simple. Surely, women must have full rights of choice and opportunity but it it is because they are human beings and not necessarily as a solution for the problem over over-consumption of the earth's natural resources.

Truly, the contradictions of development are immense and they arrive as a package. As one who is steeped in the ideologies of deep ecology and wilderness preservation I've been trying to confront these issues as an American tree-hugger now living in Brazil. Here are a few of the posts:

Chico Mendes, Capixaba and Change

Soy in the Amazon


All around me, here in Acre, Brazil, I see that the younger newer middle-class families are smaller, better educated and more urban. I also see that as cheap energy appears (rural electrification is a recent arrival here) there is an explosion of home appliance buying -- TVs, PCs, air conditioners, toasters, home entertainment centers, etc. BUT, it's important to note that these people are only now acquiring what an average entry-level environmental studies teacher or employee of an environment organization in the US already has and has known all of his or her life.

Brazil tends to take an indirect approach to the population issue, defining it instead as a series of health issues ranging from controlling sexually transmitted diseases to reducing the number of butchered abortions. They give away 100s of millions of condoms, even in high schools and even creating special rain forest brands made of natural latex -- yes, Chico Mendes Condoms (see: Condoms for Conservation ) But it's economic development that actually reduces the birthrate.

Yes, womens' rights are essential. And, yes, cheaper or more available energy increases consumption and triggers lots of economic activity. Development, consumption, cheap energy and reduced population travel together.

Recently the World Social Forum met in Amazônia, in Belem where 100,000 people from all over the world gathered as a counter-event to the World Economic Forum at Davos. One of the main poster issues there was the preservation of the Amazon forest and its indigenous people.

Brazil's President Lula also appeared and declared that the Amazon does not exist as a sanctuary for the world and he noted that the 20 million people who live here want material development like everyone else.

Can the developed world pay a price that can actually dissuade countries like Brazil to NOT follow the pattern well-established in the developed economies of cutting down the forest and exhausting nature's resources? Brazil has half of it's forests intact and another 30% in a fragmented state. The US has less than 10% of its primary forests standing and almost all of it is fragments.

Everywhere I go in Brazil people ask why the US and foreigners are so concerned about preserving the Amazon forest? The motives are definitely distrusted.

How would you have me answer their questions? Yes, womens' rights is not a side issue but sustainability is THE issue.

Monday, February 02, 2009


[Editor's Note: Yep, I'm getting younger but I'm not yet into bike-riding. For sure, I'm always fishing for stories, especially ones that convey the flavor of Acre This one was written last December by Foster Brown who conducts research and teaches about sustainability issues at the Federal University of Acre. He graciously contributed this story and accompanying photos for publication in VisionShare.]

Getting younger, riding a bicycle

17 December 2008
by Foster Brown

José Cruz Neto is a 86-year old former rubber tapper from Brasiléia, Acre who gets on his bike and travels 120 km (72 miles) round trip to visit friends for lunch. During our last visit he mentioned that his goal in August 2008 was to go to Ibéria, Peru, 60 km beyond Assis Brasil, which in itself would be a 110 km jaunt, one-way.

These last few months, I hadn't been able to stop by Seu José's general store, so only on 17 December 2008 was I able to catch up on his travels.


As usual, I had set out with a simple goal in mind – hearing the story about his trip - and learned more than I imagined.

On a hot, bright 17 December in Brasileia, the cool and relatively dark Neto Cruz Store provided shade and balm for the eyes. In the back of the store sat Seu José, writing his accounts long-hand in ink. He recognized me immediately, and we began chatting about the current financial crisis ("I never believed using credit, so I have no debts; other shop-owners, however, are having serious problems”).

Seu José's general store

Before supermarkets and shopping centers became the temples of modern consumerism, there existed general stores where it was possible to buy just about anything, as long as you weren't too specific. Seu José has just a store - one room where it is possible to find propellers for a boat, pans for the kitchen, cloth for sewing, and literature suspended by a string.

The story of the Cruz Neto Store begins in the early 1940s. I had a chance to videotape his story and the following is a synopsis of what Seu José told me.

During World War II, Seu José was drafted from his home town in Ceará, a state in Brazil's impoverished northeast and given a choice: go to Europe or to become a rubber soldier in the Amazon. He chose the latter and ended up in Acre in 1943. He tapped rubber for two years until the end of the war and then had the choice during demobilization to return to Ceará or to stay in Acre. Seu José wanted to see more of Acre and became a policeman. Two years later he had an altercation with a colleague and was discharged from the police force. He noted that the colleague was later thrown out of the police and the captain asked Seu José to come back, but he refused.

Seu José began working for local commercial sellers, most of whom were either Sirio-Lebanese or Japanese. These local businessmen liked Seu José and would ask him to take care of their shops when they travelled. They encouraged him to become a shop-owner, but Seu José didn't have the capital at that time, so he started working on a boat, selling food-stuffs and buying rubber and animal pelts. After about two years he had had enough of being a river man and decided to run a store, something that he has been doing now for about 60 years.

A bookstore within a general store

What I noticed first in Seu José's store was the Cordel Literature, appropriately stretched out along a string. These booklets have a long history, originating in Brazil's northeast and treat a variety of topics; typically they have a woodcut design for the title page.
The first title exhibits the phonetic spelling of someone hearing, rather than reading about the Iraq War: "War Debates between Buxe and Sadam Russem."


And then comes a common theme in Brazilian culture: sex, particularly adulterous sex. In Brazil and apparently in other countries, a cuckolded husband is said to be 'wearing a horn or horns'. The titles sound like a cross between self-help and true confessions: "The Cuckolding That Made Me Better"; "The Cuckold That Married the Other Man."


Seu José was a little nonplussed by the titles, but gave a shrug and said, well, that's Cordel Literature.

The general in general store

Two women entered the store, looking for a special type of kerosene lamp. Seu José lamented that he didn't have any left and added that they were probably not being manufactured anymore; the rural electrification program was making such lamps superfluous.

I asked Seu José if I could take a set of pictures of his store. He concurred and proceeded to tell me about his stocks. We were interrupted by two boys who entered looking for a pandeiro, a Brazilian tambourine typically used for Carnival music. Seu José had two types in stock, but the boys decided that they wanted a different style and left without buying.

Seu José continued with his tour. Besides the pandeiros, he sells guitars, propellers, and fuel containers. For those needing a drum, he has those for sale, too.


Along a central table he has pots, pans, water filters, as well as a squeezer for sugar cane. Crow bars, chains, and a vice complement the kitchenware.


Finally, along the east wall, Seu José keeps his bolts of fabric, next to the brooms


After the tour, we continued our discussion about the financial crisis. Seu Jose was sure that it will impact Brazil and affect his business, he didn't believe the pundits who considered that Brazil would be relatively immune.

Biking as medicine

My wife, Vera, had taken up bicycling recently, something that she had longed to do since her childhood. She knew of Seu José from the previous Innocence and wanted to meet him. I called her on my cell phone; she and Seu José then spoke about their passion for bicycling. For Seu José, bicycling is his health and the reason why he takes no medication, even at 86 years-old.

The trip to Ibéria

I then remembered why I had come to visit: to find out about his trip to Ibéria, Peru. Well, he admitted, he didn't make it to Ibéria. In previous trips to Assis Brasil, Seu José had made covered the 110 km in 6 to 6.5 hours. This time he took 7 hours, but he had a half-hour break for water. The hills to Assis Brasil are notorious, yet he went up them using a single-gear Caloi bicycle. He said he would stop going if he needed to walk his bike up the hills.

So why, then, didn't he go on to Ibéria, a mere 60 km away? Well, it had to do with the hassle of changing money. He had heard that in Iberia, Peruvians don't accept reals, the Brazilian currency, and he would have to buy some Peruvian soles beforehand. He wasn't sure how many soles he would need, and if he had extra then he would have to change them back into reals. All that effort didn't seem to be worth the trip to Iberia, so he and his partner decided to stop in Assis Brasil.

So, as usual, I went to talk with Seu José about one topic and left enriched with other perspectives. While general stores may be a vanishing breed, at least one is still in fine shape on the Brazilian-Bolivian border; now I know how to do one-stop shopping for a boat propeller and a guitar. Cordel literature stretched out on a string provides information in the western Amazon about the sexual adventures of British royalty. Medical prescriptions can be substituted with long-distance biking.

I didn't ask Seu José about his next trip, that will be the topic of another visit, but I'm sure that I will learn most about what I least expect, such as the debate between Bush and Hussein.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Utilities Turn Their Customers Green, With Envy

A desire to keep up with neighbors is spurring conservation. (Photo: Max Whittaker for The New York Times)

YES, indeed! The way to change behavior is to work with folks as they are and not as an idealized consciousness-changed human. I liked this one a lot, so here it is lifted directly from the NY TIMES

A frowny face is not what most electric customers expect to see on their utility statements, but Greg Dyer got one.

He earned it, the utility said, by using a lot more energy than his neighbors.

“I have four daughters; none of my neighbors has that many children,” said Mr. Dyer, 49, a lawyer who lives in Sacramento. He wrote back to the utility and gave it his own rating: four frowny faces.

Two other Sacramento residents, however, Paul Geisert and his wife, Mynga Futrell, were feeling good. They got one smiley face on their statement for energy efficiency and saw the promise of getting another.

“Our report card will quickly get better,” Mr. Geisert wrote in an e-mail message to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.

The district had been trying for years to prod customers into using less energy with tactics like rebates for energy-saving appliances. But the traditional approaches were not meeting the energy reduction goals set by the nonprofit utility’s board.

So, in a move that has proved surprisingly effective, the district decided to tap into a time-honored American passion: keeping up with the neighbors.

Last April, it began sending out statements to 35,000 randomly selected customers, rating them on their energy use compared with that of neighbors in 100 homes of similar size that used the same heating fuel. The customers were also compared with the 20 neighbors who were especially efficient in saving energy.

Customers who scored high earned two smiley faces on their statements. “Good” conservation got a single smiley face. Customers like Mr. Dyer, whose energy use put him in the “below average” category, got frowns, but the utility stopped using them after a few customers got upset.

When the Sacramento utility conducted its first assessment of the program after six months, it found that customers who received the personalized report reduced energy use by 2 percent more than those who got standard statements — an improvement that Alexandra Crawford, a spokeswoman for the utility, said was very encouraging.

The approach has now been picked up by utilities in 10 major metropolitan areas eager to reap rewards through increased efficiencies, including Chicago and Seattle, according to Positive Energy, the software company that conceived of the reports and contracts to produce them. Following Sacramento’s lead, they award smiley faces only.

“This is the next wave,” said Todd Starnes, a residential energy efficiency manager with Puget Sound Energy, which started a pilot program in suburban Seattle with 40,000 customers in September.

The utility thinks behavior modification could be as effective in promoting conservation as trying to get customers to install new appliances is, Mr. Starnes said, and maybe more so.

Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist at Arizona State University, studies how to get Americans — even those who did not care about the environment — to lower energy consumption. And while there are many ways, Dr. Cialdini said, few are as effective as comparing people with their peers.

In a 2004 experiment, he and a colleague left different messages on doorknobs in a middle-class neighborhood north of San Diego. One type urged the residents to conserve energy to save the earth for future generations; another emphasized financial savings. But the only kind of message to have any significant effect, Dr. Cialdini said, was one that said neighbors had already taken steps to curb their energy use.

“It is fundamental and primitive,” said Dr. Cialdini, who owns a stake in Positive Energy. “The mere perception of the normal behavior of those around us is very powerful.”

Ms. Crawford, of the Sacramento district, said that many customers expressed gratitude for the feedback. For example, Tamara Kaestner, 36, who lives with her husband in nearby Folsom, Calif., said that since receiving her first personalized statement, she had bought a new energy-efficient washer and dryer, put her lights on timers and unplugged her kegerator — a cooler for draft beer. Her monthly electricity consumption is now on a par with that of her neighbors, Ms. Kaestner said.

Colleges have been using rivalry between themselves and even between dormitories to reduce energy use for over a decade, and they are refining their techniques.

At Central College in Pella, Iowa, students in a new green dorm can go to the school’s Web site to find out how much power their suite is using and compare it with that of other suites.

“It gets pretty intense,” said Michael Lubberden, director of facilities planning and management for the college. “The students even go off campus to charge their cellphones.”

Competition among homeowners is still rare, but is becoming more widespread. In Massachusetts, the BrainShift Foundation, a nonprofit that uses games to raise environmental awareness, recruited towns to compete in a reality series, called “Energy Smackdown,” which is shown on a local cable station.

At the start of this year’s season, 10 families from Cambridge, Medford and Arlington formed teams and competed against one another in conservation categories that included waste, heating fuel, electricity and food. Patty Nolan, 51, who lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children, agreed to participate because, she said, although family members thought of themselves as “environmentally conscious,” they knew they could be doing more.

But her motives shifted after eight months of trash weigh-ins and comparative meter readings.

“At the beginning, the competition wasn’t what interested me,” Ms. Nolan said, “but then when we lost a challenge to Arlington by one pound of carbon, I realized I really wanted to win.”

Though keeping two cars, Ms. Nolan said, the family is now much more conscious about everyday choices. They use bicycles more often, they have cut down on eating beef (raising cows requires more energy than raising vegetables), and they argue about whether airplane travel is really necessary.

“It really blows your monthly carbon budget,” Ms. Nolan explained.

Donald Kelley, executive director of the BrainShift Foundation, said the conservation outcomes of the competition had been far greater than he had predicted, with households reducing consumption up to 66 percent.

“As Americans, we are good at entertainment and competition,” Mr. Kelley said. “It’s why on ‘American Idol’ they get 40 million voters. It’s the part of this culture that people really understand, and we should be harnessing it.”