The Environment: Daring to Dream Costs Nothing

By John Jordan-Cascade of Eugene, Oregon who describes himself as "an armchair environmentalist, whose heart is uncomfortably wedged somewhere between Earth-Firsters and progressive Democrats."

The problem really is that all our economic calculus and public policy has, since the dawn of the industrial age, assumed that the raw materials we put into our equations to produce products and services are limitless and the sink into which we pour the waste products of civilization has a limitless capacity to absorb them.

Of course, both assumptions are patently false.

We've known for some time that we will eventually run out of oil, for example, and long before that--it will be too expensive and energy-intensive to make it worth extracting the last vestiges. On the waste end of things, it's pretty clear from rates of cancer and our myriad other chronic illnesses that modern civilization is paying an extremely high price for our overall comfort level.

But no one ever asked, is it worth it? What price "progress?"

Until, that is, the environmental movement of the 60s showed up and made a big splash. (Thank the Goddess!) Most people don't even know this, but modern civilization did not even have a term for the the planet's ecosphere before this movement made it's splash and coined the term, "environment." Better historians than I can say who exactly coined the term, but the point is, we had lost our connection so thoroughly that it took some group of visionaries to coin the term to bring the issues related to it's decline into focus.

Let's just take one simple environmental consideration: recycling.

Shouldn't everything we consume be recyclable, really? Why not? Sure we need time and resources to make the transition, but to me it's insanity that we're not even talking about whether to make that transition, let alone how to make it happen! If you extend the present course of our accumulating waste stream to its logical end, one comes to the conclusion that, eventually, we will transform every resource available into mounds of garbage. Of course, we'll be extinct from global warming or other means by then, but you get the idea. We should be asking, why not recycle everything dammit!? Dare to dream and dream BIG, people!

I loathe hearing from nattering naysayers and apologists for the short-sighted right-wing fanatics who complain, ". . .but we will lose jobs," (code words for the annoyance of public oversight!) or ". . .it will cost too much" (code words for the hassle of denting my bottom line). I have to ask, how much is too much to pay for the survival of our civilization or perhaps our species? It's an asinine response to hear about the costs. That's what government is for, folks! It is meant to be (and it still has the potential to be) the collective expression of what we, as a society, need for our common good. Most certainly, the common good has to be balanced with individual rights. That's what we have the constitution for. But seriously, how many trillions of dollars does every level of government collect from us every year? What can we accomplish with our collective will and our collective creativity and our collective resources? There really is no limit. The only obstacles are political.

Organize, organize, organize!


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    Unemployment rose to 12,6% in Germany as of the month of February yet they found the wherewithal to sign the Kyoto agreement.

    Our whining over 7% unemployment in Oregon (49th worst in the nation) shows that:

    A. Americans are out of touch with international reality. B. Americans are being selfish and want to scoop up jobs that Kyoto signers lose. C. Americans would rather make a quick buck destroying the environment than working to build sustainable industries. D. All the above.

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    The most forward-thinking industrial and commercial designers in the world are starting to think about the environmental impacts of products and buildings. One of these, Bill McDonough, actually echoes some your ideas, John, with his "cradle to cradle" philosophy. Basically, McDonough is calling for all designed & manufactured products to either be biodegradable (you consume them, throw them in your backyard or in your compost pile, and they become food for the ecosystem) or endlessly recycled in a closed loop.

    On that note, it was interesting to see in the Oregonian today that Nike has come out with a more eco-friendly line of shoes.

    Which leads me to my last point. The only way the revolution to a more sustainable future will happen is if consumers vote with their wallets. As long as we buy and consume products that are harmful to the environment AND insist on ever larger houses, cars and more and more stuff, businesses will keep on using up finite resources to supply our demand.

    The good news is that I can see change in the marketplace, at least in Portland where I live. Consumers are becoming more aware and more picky about the kinds of products they buy, and the kinds of companies they support with their dollars.

  • Nev (unverified)

    Leslie's comments have me thinking of a more about the criticism that progressives don't know what they stand for/are not living their values.

    How many of us that want a better future for our prodigy and the planet actually go to the trouble to get the info to vote with our wallets? When we're in the produce section, how many of us make a point to pick Washington apples over chinese apples? How many of us even know that apple imports from chinese are squeezing our Washington apple growers?

    And what about union labor. Those of us who support the right to organize, are we now boycotting Walmart because of their anti-union practices? What about those businesses that have off-shored those part of their operations which create poor working conditions, child labor, etc.?

    It seems like the left HAS become hypocritical. I agree; it's time for the left to put up or shut up. If those of us on the left caused Sinclair to lose advertising dollars (and valuation decline) in 10 days work, imagine our power if we actually made a sustained commitment to supporting companies which reflect our values?

    This is what conservatives in power really fear--because their pocketbook appears to be the only thing they care about. When we start impacting their bottom line, we take money out of their contributors' pockets, putting it in our contributors' pockets and start leveling the playing field.

    Here are some links to check out:

  • John Jordan-Cascade (unverified)

    Thanks, Leslie.

    I agree that there's LOTS of reasons for hope. On the recycling front, here's good news from yesterday's Register-Guard: Program adds plastics to list of recyclablesBy Bob Keefer, The Register-Guard

    Organizing for consumer awareness and offering and encouraging healthier choices for the environment in the marketplace is an exteremely important peice of the solution; one previously overlooked by traditional environmental activism.

    Another resource for interested folks: Co-op America's Green Pages Online They also publish a remarkable hardcopy version of the same name. Pick it up at your local bookstore or Whole Foods in Portland (I think).

    The really significant change will happen when a bigger majority of people in industrialized society begin to understand that we are an intregal part of Nature. The Gaia theory hints that we may be an extension of the Earth's living consciousness. A mind-bender, if you ask me, but if true, how long can we continue to trash it if "it" is us?

  • Eric Carlson (unverified)

    It is true that we need to make a difference, I am working on making it happen, I am starting a revolution, where we lead with actions rather than words, we need to do rather than complain, we need to go out and speak/write with/to our legislators, and get things done! It will take many of us to make a difference. It is time that we act!

    -eric: Revolutionary

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    I firmly believe that a truely sustainable economy would be cheaper and more efficent than the one we have now, where the most environmentally preferable products and practices were the cheapest and most efficent. No altruism required to "vote with your wallet."

    The reason why this often isn't the case now, or doesn't seem to be the case now, is because of the skewed tax system we have and the enormous subsidies we give out that make environmentally destructive practices seem cheaper.

    We subsidize and give huge tax breaks to oil production. This causes energy intensive activities and products to be cheaper than they should be and discourages the development of renewable energy.

    Modern industrial agriculture would be much more expensive without cheap fossil fuel energy and petroleum based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, making organic farming much more competitive by comparison.

    The US, Europe, and Japan all have insanely huge agricultural subsidies that depress world prices, distort world trade, and make it impossible for poor farmers in developing countries to make money selling their products.

    There are huge subsidies and tax incentives for nuclear power, which is actually the most expensive form of energy generation there is by far. Why some developing countries claim they need nuclear power plants for peaceful purposes is beyond me and makes no economic sense whatsoever.

    The home mortgage tax deduction is considered sacred here in the US, but doesn't exist in most other developed countries. Yet home ownership rates don't suffer in these countries. They just live in smaller, more environmentally friendly houses than we do.

    Subsidies just make things less expensive for everyone, regardless of need, and usually create a deceptive cost benefit for the environmentally worse alternative.

    We would be better off both environmentally and economically if we got rid of subsidies, lowered taxes, and give aid and incentives directly to the lower income and disadvantaged people who need it.

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    There are huge subsidies and tax incentives for nuclear power, which is actually the most expensive form of energy generation there is by far. Why some developing countries claim they need nuclear power plants for peaceful purposes is beyond me and makes no economic sense whatsoever.

    I'd have to agree with Adam there, especially as the U.S. government has said it wants to build more nuclear power plants here to meet energy the country's energy needs.

    As Bill McDonough said when he was in Portland last: "I'm for nuclear power, as long as we use the very efficient nuclear reactor located 93 million miles away from Earth--the one called the 'sun.'"

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    Leslie and Adam both make excellent points- but Adam, I don't see getting rid of the home mortgage tax deduction as inherently good for the environment. Homeownership itself is kind of eco-neutral: some homes are green, some (too many to be sure) are sprawlsville monstrosities.

    I think there are maybe more effective strategies for changing the way homes are built, and the amount of energy they require over their lifecyles. Portland's green building program is a pretty effective "carrot" approach to getting people to modernize home constrcution for the better. With home mortgage deductions, you may be aiming for developers, but homeowners- good and bad- would be the ones hit.

    Your larger point- that we subsidize inefficiency and create perverse incentives is totally on point.

    BTW, Adam is being pretty modest in this post- he's done a lot of good working with the private sector to improve the environmnetal performance of companies like Staples.

  • PanchoPdx (unverified)

    I agree with parts of Adam's post (the parts about government picking favorites in the energy market).

    But I have to ask the greenies here:

    How else are we going to efficiently generate sufficient amounts of hydrogen to power the fuel cells in the cars of the future, without employing thermonuclear heat?

  • John (unverified)

    Hydrogen as a fuel source is a techno-weenie's wet dream. Pleasant, but ultimately not as satisfying as the real deal. Solar is the real deal. Relatively cost-effective (esp. when you factor in the devastating costs of global warming) and operating technologies that are here TODAY!

    The only question for us is: would you like that centralized or decentralized. I'll take decentralized, thank you. . .well, ideally, anyway.

    We have to start thinking in simpler, lower-tech and "small is beautiful" ways for energy production. Uh, NO, not because of the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, but because it's more efficient and cost-effective. At some point in the future, we won't have to worry about giant corps (many miles away)buying and selling PGE and screwing ratepayers out of millions.

    Part of the tradegy of our society is that we have not yet recognized the wisdom of the WAY Mother Earth operates: smaller scale and slowly. That's not to say we can't do both to start. Case in point: I remember coming across a report from the Oregon Dept. of Energy WAAAY back in 1980 that found that there was extraordinary potential for "harvesting" wind energy from windy places in Oregon (particularly around the Columbia gorge). How much? The equivalent of 10 or 11 Trojan nuclear power plants(if memory serves)! I'm not advocating we have wind turbines on every windy patch of Oregon land, but the point is that there's fantastic potential NOW for developing all kinds of renewable energy sources right here in our own state.

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    Charlie, you are right that my main point is that some tax breaks and subsidies, like the home mortgage deduction, can have consequences that are often counter productive environmentally or make environmentally more destructive products seem cheaper than the environmental alternative.

    The home mortgage deduction in particular has mainly had the effect of encouraging bigger houses, that generally use more resources and energy than smaller houses. I don't think it has really increased the home ownership rate much. But you are right that homeownership per se is "eco neutral", and the green building movement has been great in introducing greener building practices, especially in the commercial sector.

    I'm all for encouraging home ownership, but I think there are better and more effective ways to encourage and subsidize this without also encouraging bigger and more expensive homes in the process. That being said, for the record, I would not be in favor of getting rid of the home mortgage deduction unless it was one part of a more comprehensive and progressive federal tax code reform proposal. After all, it is very engrained in our current tax system and in the grand scheme of things there are more important things to reform and take care of first.

    So have I just blown any chance I ever had of getting elected to anything?? I can see the negative attack mail flyers now! :)

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    Hydrogen is basically the ideal storage medium for renewable energy. You can create hydrogen using solar, wind, geothermal, or water power, and then store and transport it to when and where it is needed. What is really needed is a better storage medium for hydrogren besides compressed gas tanks. Maybe metal hydrides or something.

  • Edward (unverified)

    Dare to dream big? Here goes.

    I've read in a number of places that run counter to popular wisdom and state that New York City is actually the most environmentally friendly city in America. How is that possible? Anybody who has been there can tell you that NYC is a rotting stink pit of humanity. By having such an intensely saturated population density, NYC acheives an efficient economy of scale in the amount of resources used per person. They don't have very many autos per person, because it is far cheaper and more efficient to ride the subway. Similarly, per unit heating costs are a lot lower for apartment dwellers than for single stand alone houses. These cost savings add up. NYC actually uses less energy and resources per person than any of our NorthWest cities. Ouch.

    The lesson: density and mass transit add up to being environmentally friendly. Let's face it, automobiles are simply not sustainable no matter what they use as an energy source because they require pavement and encourage the evil we know as sprawl. The worse sprawl gets, the more it feeds on itself. When automobile density reaches a certain threshold, people move farther out from the urban core to get away from it and its perceived problems. The biggest problem those people perceive is density. After all, they are moving farther out to get away from density and its traffic jams and endlessly circling to find a place to park. The irony is that the more people move away from density, the worse the problem gets. We have to make wider roads to deal with the increased traffic, and pretty soon you have to cross six lanes of traffic to get to the other side of an intersection. Extremely inefficient.

    The worst part of sprawl is that most of those people find it simply incomprehensible that they could live without their autos. How would they get groceries from the store or get their kids back and forth to soccer practice? Ride the bus with a bunch of stinky homeless people? Yuck. Walk? The kids would have to cross six lanes of traffic where the SUVs are doing 45 + mph. No way. The fact is that each of those geographically located services (like the grocery store) are quickly accessible via their autos, but are just too far to walk or bike to.

    The other big irony about suburban sprawl is that this is precisely where a lot of enviro-friendly or enviro-sympathetic people live. They moved to the 'burbs to have gardens and big green spaces for their kids to run around and play in, which of course requires ... sprawl.

    So, here's my big dream: End the subsidies that make automobiles cheap. I mean, we know they aren't cheap, it's just that the end users and the manufacturers bear few of their true costs. Instead, we go back to subsidizing sustainable transit like trains and buses. We build liveable cities where people can comfortably walk or bike to all the services they need.

    Right now, I'm a big hypocrite. I drive a "light" truck. Why? Because I like to get out in the woods on the weekends.

    But in my dreams, it is cheaper and easier to take a train to go visit a national park than it is to drive my stupid truck. Heck, while we're at it, I wish there was decent and affordable train service back and forth between Salem and Portland.

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    So have I just blown any chance I ever had of getting elected to anything?? I can see the negative attack mail flyers now!

    You run, I'll get your back, brother. Plus, you haven't really taken on the motherhood and apple pie lobby yet.

    Charlie Burr, Founding Member, Swift Boat Vets for Zielinski!

  • John Jordan-Cascade (unverified)

    I'm sorry I didn't include any information about what you can do today to help make Oregon a cleaner, safer place to live when I first published the article, but here are a few resources to explore and take ACTION:

    SalemWatch: A Weekly Newsletter of the Oregon Conservation Network

    If you are jazzed about lobbying your state Rep. or Senator in Salem, here's where to go to look up who they are: Find your representatives in the OR state legislature

    ALSO, you can: Sign up for the Oregon League of Conservation Voters newsbriefs and Action Alerts: Just fill in your email address in the box to the right of the home page.


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    Hey, speaking of things you can do...on another thread there was some talk of coming up with and/or supporting a motherhood and apple pie environmental ballot measure. Anybody have any further ideas on that subject? And how can we in the blogosphere best help? With three kids and a job, I can't do a whole lot, but I can devote some time and energy to helping one pass.

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    Good action-oriented post John.

    Leslie, for right now, focussing on session is the most immediate need. I know there are conversations happening right now about 06, but it's pretty early. However, once the ball gets rolling, there's a lot you can do (even from blogoshere). Right now, just keep the ideas coming!

    Probably the most significant environmental init from 04 was Colorado's Amendment 37, which was a renewable energy measure. It had broad bipartisan support and was a good example of a proactive measure coasting to victory in a red state, despite energy company opposition.

    I think a good enviro measure should be 1) viable 2) meaningful 3) strategic. And again, the more ideas the better!

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