Friday, January 28, 2011

Green fading to black

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, environmentalism

You buy E-15 Regular at the gasoline station, and wonder if you ought to get a flex-fuel vehicle that'll take E-85, assuming you can find any. You've put CFL's in most of the fixtures of your home, and wonder if it would still be worthwhile to purchase carbon offset credits. You go to the farmer's market for certified Organic groceries, whenever you can afford it, and wonder if buying "Beyond Organic" produce would be worth it.

In an ideal world, the answer to all three questions would be an unqualified "Yes!" In today's world, don't waste any more time; the answer is nearly always "No!!" That is, unless Heather Rogers is wrong on all counts. In her book Green Gone Wrong: How Our Economy is Undermining the Environmental Revolution, she went around the world to record and report just how three huge areas of popular environmental activism have worked out: Food, Shelter, and Transportation. The six chapters of the book are organized into these three areas.

Beginning in a farmer's market in New York City, and visiting a few of the farmers that sell there, she finds that none of the producers can afford to farm sustainably; all either have outside jobs to support their farm, or inherited the land so they have no mortgage to pay, yet they are still barely eking out a living. There is huge pressure to either "go conventional" or to get out of farming. And their customer base is small because their products cost so much more than factory-farmed, "conventional" produce. Many cannot be certified as Organic, because the paperwork and filing fees would swallow up all their available time and money.

In South America she finds that "Organic" is largely an illusion. Monocrops prevail, and the certifying bodies won't blow the whistle because they'll just be ignored anyway. Many fields are fertilized with chicken dung and waste from chicken farmers that fatten up their birds using definitely non-organic means, but this slips through a loophole in the Federal definition of Organic. And let's not even begin to discuss what happens to the indigenous people who inhabited the (former) forests—and managed them sustainably for centuries.

Amid multiple nations full of failed "green housing" projects, the author found a bright spot or two. One was in Freiburg, Germany, where the Vauban housing units demonstrate that green apartments can be very pleasant, comfortable, and economical. Startup costs are high, but the energy savings makes up for this in relatively few years. Rogers makes clear that it took a concerted effort by quite a number of social organizations, government and NGO groups, and citizen activism to create a social climate that was amenable. Freiburg is one of a few places where a Vauban could work.

Side note: Twenty-five years ago I had the opportunity to purchase a new SIPS home (Super Insulated Passive Solar), which included an air-to-air heat exchanger to allow good ventilation without losing heated or cooled air. Had the development been located convenient to anything, I'd have done it, but we decided location meant more. I wish I'd done it now, so I'd know more about living in such a home, because I want to have such a home built for us the next time we move.

Fully half the book is taken up with the three chapters regarding transportation. This is a big bugaboo of mine: E-15 or E-whatever is made from food, and in a world with one billion hungry people, we ought not be burning food to get around!!! Then we read of the author's visit to an oil palm plantation. The company's web site promises all kinds of good things, but the reality is a brutal rape of the Borneo rain forest to monocrop oil palms and the subjugation of the Dayak people. She could have titled this chapter "Every Promise Broken". It gets worse.

Back in Detroit, we find that our Big Three automakers can successfully market autos in Europe that get as much as 80 mpg, but claim that the U.S. market won't support them. Knowing how little such a car costs "over there", I can only answer, "Try me, dammit!" I once figured out that the fuel savings from a Prius (at 50mpg) didn't balance out the extra cost over a Corolla (at 32mpg), so we got the Corolla. It was a close thing. We're about to trade in a Camry, and the newer Prius is a very tempting alternative, as relative costs have come down. One of GM's Eurocar alternatives would be an even more tempting alternative, if importing one didn't almost double the cost of the car…and I might still do just that. My dad has railed for years about the engineered "failure" of GM's EV-1 electric. And if the author has it right, the automakers conspired over decades to dismantle the public transportation systems in all major U.S. cities to increase the market for autos. Once the trolleys are gone and the tracks paved over, it is hard to bring them back.

Finally, consider the "economics" of buying a carbon offset, where the organization promises to plant so many trees per ton of carbon you pay for. Will they really plant the trees? Maybe, if you're really lucky. Where? Oh, in the middle of somewhere that gets no rainfall, like central India. And, that promise to water and tend the saplings? Don't make me laugh! The author had a dangerously creepy moment in India, trying to get truthful answers about these things. I reckon she's lucky to have gotten away with her skin. Then think of this. Trees take twenty years to hit their stride and start absorbing lots of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But the carbon we've "offset" is going to be released right now, or it has been already. Then in fifty years the trees will die and their carbon will go back to the atmosphere. Will the atmosphere be ready for that in 2061?

In two closing chapters the author sums up the situation (bad and getting worse) and offers some slightly hopeful comments titled "Notes on the Possible". It is going to take a massive citizen effort, sustained over a couple-to-several decades, to straighten out these things. It is going to take a disaster to get people's attention, but will it be by then too late?

This book made my blood boil. Not at the author, I really appreciate what she has done. But at the venality of banal people who can find a way to subvert anything to their own benefit. A family proverb of mine, and perhaps one you've known: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." The primary reason that is so true is that you are not in total charge of what happens to any of your well-intended efforts. Do not trust others, particularly when they are a world away, to ease your conscience. Do things where you control the outcome. As Mark Twain wrote, "Go ahead. Put all your eggs in one basket. Then watch that basket!"

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