September 17, 2013
As my fellow “work-sharers” and I fulfill our weekly 3-hour stints at a community-supported farm, someone brings up the topic of sustainability. (This tends to happen during this type of social gardening.) While digging up garlic, I trialed: “Sustainability is the evolution of environmentalism.” Although this explanation seemed to satisfy my garlic partner, as I further considered the distinction between sustainability and environmentalism, I recognized both a key difference and a synergy between the movements.
A key distinction is that environmentalism came of age years before society conceived that business could be anything but the enemy to a clean planet. Sustainable business, on the other hand, is now a recognized field and, at its best, aims for exactly that. Sustainability has the potential to breathe new life into some core tenets of environmentalism, which are critical even though they seem to have been forgotten. There are no serious barriers to realizing that potential, other than that changing of a mindset - or actually bringing it back to where it once was.
It is very possible to make the connection between early environmentalism and sustainability. A benefit to doing so would be the possibility of redirecting some of the citizen energy applied at the local level (perhaps still latent and untapped) and aiming it globally.
The famous statement in the environmental field, “Think Globally; Act Locally” has inspired many positive actions, and is consistent with the “Subsidiarity Principle.” This public policy concept states the logical-sounding idea that policy actions should be restricted to that scale where the effect occurs. By this measure, local actions would address problems classified as local, and global actions would be taken by global players to deal with worldwide problems. However, both of these viewpoints can be limiting in their scope. They can clash with the core “interdependence” theme of the original Earth Day, spurred as it was by that famous first picture of the Earth from space. The “We Are All Connected” banner on posters back then has become no less true.
August 27, 2013
Exploring Yellowstone National Park last week, we were awestruck by marvels such as Old Faithful, the Lower Falls and Sulphur Cauldron - phenomenal displays of nature’s power to generate energy. Hiking with the family, our conversation turned to the practicality of renewable energy applications for American consumers.
“Everyone who lives in a sunny climate should have solar panels on their roof,” my mother-in-law said. I agreed and asked what is still holding her back from having a solar array installed on her Texas hill country home. “Expense,” she replied. “I don’t know much about the incentives available. There’s also the matter of the minerals the Chinese are extracting from the earth to make the panels.”
July 25, 2013
Cities are heating up at double the rate of global climate change, with major implications for human health. Managing urban heat is just as important a response to climate change as reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and the benefits will be felt much sooner. Cities should prioritize strategies that reduce both heat and GHG emissions, and trees are at the top of that priority list.
Those are some of the key messages in The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live (Cambridge University Press, 2012) by Brian Stone, Jr. Stone is an Associate Professor in the City and Regional Planning Program of the Georgia Institute of Technology and an expert in the urban heat island effect: land-use changes that are producing higher temperatures in cities than in the surrounding countryside.
July 16, 2013
On July 11, 2013, the AIA Dallas Committee on the Environment, USGBC North Texas and the CSI Dallas chapter joined forces to host the North Texas Sustainable Showcase at the Dallas Arboretum. The event focused on healthy building materials for commercial and residential use. Architects, engineers, manufacturers, building managers, contractors and other professionals attended the presentations from a panel of national experts who shared various perspectives on chemicals in the building industry.
Necessary and sometimes benign, chemicals are in everything we touch, smell, inhale and ingest. They exist naturally in the environment and human beings have discovered how to harvest them and create synthetic chemical compounds for a myriad of uses. We know there are thousands of natural chemical compounds that exist in the biosphere, still undiscovered. We also know that for human beings chemicals can have healing properties. But they can also be toxic or hazardous. Whether chemicals are toxic has to do with stability and concentration, how they migrate from one place to another and/or how they are emitted by industrial processes or solids. There is a common assumption, sometimes true, but more often shown to be false in the last 20 years, that when a chemical is used in a building product it is permanently “encapsulated”, and is therefore benign. Yet, research has shown that numerous products “off-gas” after they are installed or create dusts that migrate into living spaces or air-conditioning systems.
Unknown to us, chemical compounds are entering our bodies through the skin and the lungs and the effects may not be understood. Determining the toxicity of a chemical compound in a building product can be complex because the effects can take years to manifest and other variables can come into play. But one thing is certain: evidence is mounting from the science of toxicology that the effects can be very damaging on a short-term and a long-term basis. When studies find that there can be more than 300 synthetic chemicals in the cord blood of infants (many of them bio-accumulative), it is time to take action.
June 25, 2013
Thinking of scrap as a product can bring a new level of professionalism to a plant manager’s sustainability quest. Plant managers know the value of the scrap they produce, and typically dedicate one or more service providers to keeping plants clear of waste. An efficient, well-run production team follows strict procedures for capturing, segregating, consolidating and queuing scrap. Yet, many of today’s plant managers following the best of best practices still tend to manage scrap materials as a waste stream.
Fortunately, the new breed of forward-looking plant managers have stopped regarding scrap as mere waste and begun considering its full market potential instead. This turnaround in thinking benefits the environment as well as the bottom line because it can raise the pricing floor compared to strict commodity trading. Converting the scrap disposal management task into a product management mission is necessary if scrap is to evolve in value to both its generator and its buyer.
Scrap has been considered waste with residual value since the dawn of industry, and its potential as its own legitimate product line is ripe for exploitation. In traditional manufacturing, the main product is usually managed and marketed by someone else who is even located someplace else. On the other hand, the “waste-as-product” is produced and managed directly from the plant. Therefore, the plant manager that wants to “close the loop” must become a de facto product manager.
June 06, 2013
Mark Tercek of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has written a new book with Jonathan Adams, Nature's Fortune: How Business & Society Thrive by Investing in Nature. A video interview
of him at an Aspen Institute forum last month at Hunter College, “The
Case for a Profit Motive in Conserving the Environment,” with New York
Times science writer Andrew Revkin showed that his theme and approach
have a lot going for them. He covers more of the right bases than when I
heard him years ago at Stern Business School, but he’s still too
selective about which dots get connected.
Some of the other comments on this video on Revkin’s Dot Blog site
to the contrary, Tercek’s main points are probably quite correct.
Going forward, conserving natural capital can be more cost-effective or
profitable than traditional regulatory and adversarial approaches to
environmental protection, and it may be helpful to see them as
“investment opportunities” -- at least to a point. For instance,
protecting dunes versus building sea walls is better economically, and
has collateral environmental gains. And an environmental group like TNC
can help business figure these out.
May 17, 2013
Today is Endangered Species Day, and animal advocates around the nation are ratcheting up the fight to save their favorite species. Here in Texas, the battle is on to save the shark. According to the latest research, 100 million sharks are disappearing from our oceans each year, primarily driven by the lucrative trade in shark fins, the main ingredient in shark fin soup. Once a dish for emperors, shark fin soup is now served at banquets and in restaurants to satisfy the appetites of Asia’s upwardly mobile society.
The Chinese consumers who are bent on showing off their new money through the consumption of this tasteless delicacy may not fully comprehend the consequences. As apex predators, sharks are the regulators of the sea. Their presence is critical for maintaining a balanced ecology on which fisherman and tourists rely, as well as the two billion of the world’s poor who depend on the ocean for their main source of protein.
To counter this devastating trend that is driving some shark species toward extinction, states are passing legislation to ban the sale and consumption of shark fins. Already Hawaii, Washington, California, Oregon, Illinois, and Maryland have passed laws. Three other bills from East Coast states now await their governors’ signatures to become laws. State by state, Americans are working diligently to close down the market for shark fins. Texans have a historic opportunity to join them.
May 08, 2013
By Matt Polsky and Pooja Aravkar
None of the world’s leading companies pursuing sustainability are U.S.-based, reports Oekom Research, a German company in its annual Corporate Responsibility Review. What could we do about this in New Jersey? Researchers from the Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) Institute for Sustainable Enterprise (ISE) can offer some ideas. The mission of ISE is to “bring people together to learn how to live and manage sustainably by solving problems and capitalizing on opportunities in ways that simultaneously enhance economic, social, and environmental vitality.” It is the intellectual hub of sustainable business thinking in New Jersey.
ISE’s 2010 report Developing and Implementing a Sustainable Growth Strategy for New Jersey provided several guidelines for developing a “Green Economy” – an economy that includes and extends beyond clean energy, potentially penetrating all business sectors to protect and restore the environment while creating economic growth. The report, which urges all sectors to practice corporate social responsibility and aim towards greater levels of sustainability, concludes that “New Jersey has a unique opportunity to play a leadership role.”
April 25, 2013
Sea level rise is a hot topic in the Sunshine State. As hundreds of miles of beaches in Florida are threatened, organizations are springing up to save their local coastlines and local economies. Beaches and
coastlines in Florida are tied into property values, taxes, ecosystems, business, tourism, and economy. For Florida residents, beaches are not only critical parts of the state’s natural and financial capital, they are also an integral part of their lifestyle.
Protect Our Beaches
(POB), a West Palm Beach, Florida based non-profit group, is one organization that is leading the charge against
beach erosion. The group held its first public meeting in Palm Beach County, Florida in early April 2013. This coalition to save local beaches from erosion due to storm surge and sea level rise is projecting a singular and powerful voice to the State and Federal governments.
March 22, 2013
Situated among the trees and mountains along the scenic Hudson River, Kingston, New York seems far away from the salty blue waves of the Atlantic. Yet, just 100 miles inland from the World Trade Center, at the southern tip of Manhattan where New York meets the Atlantic, the Tidal Waterfront Flooding Task Force of the Kingston Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) has begun to plan a strategy to manage the inevitable effects of a rising sea. This volunteer advisory board, residents, community advocates, city officials, grassroots organizations, and State experts met with Catalysis Adaptation Partners to determine the impacts of storm surges and Sea Level Rise (SRL) on this historic town, the former capital of New York State.
The group first met with Mayor Shayne Gallo and the community at City Hall on December 6, 2012 to discuss the challenges the city faces from waterfront flooding and sea level rise in the Rondout, a historic downtown district. After Hurricane Sandy, it became evident that it was time to proactively address flooding challenges, including those related to SLR.
February 26, 2013
Watching customers coming in and out of a coffee shop recently, I saw a variety of door etiquette behaviors. Some people held the door open for the person behind them while others chatted or texted obliviously on their phones. Some kicked or nudged the door open with their hands full. A few walked on through, letting the door slam in the face of the person right behind them. Rudeness was the exception, however. Most people politely held the door open for the person behind them. This had me wondering why exactly it is that we extend this courtesy to others. Is it because we feel responsible to do so? Do we consider it moral or ethical? Are we being conscientious, or do we happen to care more about people than those who fail to hold the door? Regardless of the reason, it is clear that holding the door is culturally accepted as the right thing to do in a civilized society.
The next person through the door of coffee shop was John Englander, author of High Tide on Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis. Our meeting gave me occasion to draw a connection between door-holding action and our individual action regarding climate change. Do we adjust our behavior to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because we feel responsible, conscientious or caring, or because it is moral or ethical? I parked my thoughts in order to listen to John as he explained how, compared to most disasters that provide little or no warning, rising sea level allows us time to plan for “intelligent adaptation.”
February 15, 2013
Dallas ranks 6th and Fort Worth 7th among the utility-supported solar cities in Texas, according to a recent report from Environment Texas Research and Policy Center. The report, “Reaching for the Sun: How San Antonio and Austin are showing that solar is a powerful energy option for Texas” finds the Metroplex in the shadow of solar leaders San Antonio and Austin.
The report finds there are 972 kilowatts (KW) of solar energy that have been installed in Fort Worth and 1,243 KW in Dallas, in part from incentives from the local utility Oncor. While Oncor ranked a distant 3rd among utilities in Texas, the entire deregulated area of the state fared poorly. The report from Environment Texas finds that the municipally-owned utilities in San Antonio and Austin installed four times more solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity than the rest of Texas combined - or 85 percent of the state total. The report credits the cities’ strong policies encouraging solar power on residences and businesses, and in utility-scale installations.
“DFW is a world leader in energy, but when it comes to solar power, we’re being eclipsed by other cities,” said Jennifer Rubiello, Dallas/Fort Worth organizer for Environment Texas. “It’s time we reach for the sun and bring clean solar energy to the rooftops of our homes, schools and businesses.”
“For the past three years, Texas has faced a looming energy shortfall based on rapid demand growth,” said Principal Solar executive Michael Martin, “but solar can fulfill this shortfall well, demonstrating excellent daily and seasonal correlation to peak demand.”
“Of the various abundant natural resources that Texas is blessed with, solar offers the greatest underutilized potential for us to tap into a clean source of power,” said Anna Clark, founder of EarthPeople, a sustainability communications firm and co-founder of the Dallas chapter of Interfaith Power & Light.
Click here to read the full press release.
February 04, 2013
Snark has its good points. In fact, a student once asked me to show more videos of comedians specializing in political and social snark. Using this sarcastic tone can be funny, a way to stand out, to make a point, to seem cool and current, and even to show that your side can laugh at itself. And, as others have stated before (Christine Whitman, most recently), “Politics ain’t beanbag.” But we might ask ourselves, what are we trying to accomplish with snarky communication? Could it be time to step back and take an honest look at the ensuing costs to individuals and society for such widespread maltreatment?
Consider Al Gore. In a span of two weeks, I counted four articles in The New York Times criticizing him. When it comes to Gore, any acknowledgments of the character of the man and what he has accomplished are frequently and conspicuously absent. (Brian Stelter, for example, painted a very unfavorable, one-sided portrait of him in “Gore Went to Bat for Al Jazeera, and Himself.”) While no one is above criticism and some legitimate points were introduced, there has to be some balance, especially considering his achievements.
December 30, 2012
Do we really need to use the “S-word” – sustainability -- in order to talk about sustainability? Joel Makower originally posed this question (and answered with a “no”). This strikes me as one of the classic questions for our still-young field, one that goes to its core, and which will be raised again and again.
The polar extremes of response to the question are: “Sustainability just doesn’t resonate with my audiences, I can make changes in my organization without it, so who needs it?” versus “How can you possibly talk about a subject without mentioning the main way you refer to that subject?” I aim to speak both to the critics at the first pole, as well as those who want to take the sustainability term further.
December 17, 2012
I teach two courses in Environmental Sustainability at SMU and I have been involved with energy efficiency and sustainability for more than 20 years. From the teaching standpoint, Environmental Sustainability is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry which examines the relation between energy and economy in human social evolution. If there's one thing you can count on in the current debates about climate science, energy resources, and environmental impact, it is that few people understand the controlling points of the science of energetics, the branch of physics which examines energy transformations.
Economics, a convention of human beings for the production and distribution of goods and services, says nothing about energy or specifically the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI), a key concept in understanding the long-term functionality of any biological system. Unfortunately, political viewpoints and wishful thinking appear to rule the discussion rather than the laws of physics.
November 26, 2012
Andrew Zolli, in his op-ed in The New York Times called “Learning to Bounce Back,” says that it's time to talk about resiliency. He’s right, but unfortunately he uses sustainability as a straw man to get there. He makes a number of unnecessary criticisms of the term “sustainability,” reminding me how many people have yet to appreciate its purpose and benefits.
In his article, Zolli defines resilience as “how to help vulnerable people, organizations, and systems persist, perhaps even thrive, amid unforeseeable disruptions.” I see resilience as a part of the much larger field of sustainability. Jonathan Cloud, in a forthcoming article called “The Wake-up Call,” calls it “an aspect of sustainability.” If we can agree that sustainability and resiliency actually fulfill different, and in some cases the very same, aspects of a solution, then why disown the term?
November 17, 2012
New Jersey communities are living a new reality following Frankenstorm Sandy. For those of us that reside on the Shore or grew up vacationing and summering there, it is more than a place. It’s an icon, a culture, and a state of mind - a destination for generations. For us, there is life before Sandy and now, there’s life after Sandy. As with the aftermath of 9/11, things will never be the same.
Local government leaders can expect push back from a variety of stakeholders over whether and how to rebuild on the Jersey Shore. Residents and visitors want to keep their boardwalk memories alive, unaffected by new infrastructure, necessary though it may be. But as Albert Einstein used to say, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We cannot afford to ignore the message within this disaster. Today is our opportunity to reduce tomorrow’s risks by building resilience.
November 01, 2012
Since 1950, humans have manufactured more goods than have ever existed in history. Our consumption of those goods – a highly inefficient use of our natural capital – has wrought a long list of environmental consequences. Staggering deforestation, check. Increasing greenhouse gas emission, check. Rising heat, sea level, and incidence of extreme weather events – check, check and check.
We all talk about the changes, but when it comes to the issue of climate change, the conversation goes in different directions - or ceases altogether. According to the latest study from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the American public's concern about global warming can be sorted into six categories, ranging from alarmed (13%) and concerned (26%), to cautious, disengaged, doubtful and dismissive (that's the other 61% of us). With so much evidence, why are Americans so disengaged from climate change – arguably, one of the most critical problems of our time?
To continue reading my article "America's miasma of misinformation on climate change" in The Guardian, click here.
October 07, 2012
The second-annual SXSW ECO conference just wrapped up, and I am beyond excited about the people I encountered there. (A tremendous thank you to EARTH-NT for connecting environmental and clean tech advocates in Dallas to this event.) Something remarkable happens when you convene an international group of professionals and activists to brainstorm solutions. Trying to break through inertia can feel like solitary work, so I’m thankful for the chance to “recharge” along with other green-minded social innovators and thought leaders.
In the coming weeks, I will be writing on several of the many groundbreaking ideas and technologies from the conference, including:
- GIVE ETF: Philippe Cousteau’s new sustainable investment fund
- Global Water Games, a joint project of UVA, Azure Worldwide, and The Nature Conservancy
- OgilvyEarth’s Mainstream Green report on how marketers can close the green gap
- AMD’s Tim Mohin’s book, Changing Business from the Inside Out: A Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations
- Dell’s Planet group, a global green team
- Washington Post environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin’s book Demon Fish
- Sustainable seafood solutions from Fish Revolution and I Love Blue Sea
- Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff videos, viewed over 20 million times by people in every country in the world
August 18, 2012
I like paradoxes, so I'm glad Anna Clark mentioned one in her commentary for The Christian Science Monitor, “This Shark Week, Let’s Love an Animal that Scares Us.” Actually, I see a number of paradoxes there, as well as a lot of complexity (another favorite word). As Anna points out, approximately 73 million sharks die each year due to overfishing and finning, while sharks are responsible for less than 12 reported human deaths per year. Anna calls for action at three levels of government to fight shark destruction: federal, state and international. Besides multilevel government actions, Anna also calls for "moral ignition" and efforts to overcome some of our personal revulsion towards sharks.
She’s right that "we need cultural fixes,too" - particularly to challenge dubious traditions that kill sharks en masse. I’ve been informed at many lectures I’ve attended never to criticize other cultures. as that would be anthropocentric and insensitive. This thinking presents quite a barrier to improving the situation we face in conserving sharks. The answer to addressing cultural barriers, as I see it, is to begin to distinguish between relativistic values (like different styles of dancing) for which it's different strokes for different folks; versus areas where values are universal (say, no selling of preteen girls for marriage and torture to older men they don't know, anywhere, for any reason).
Anna correctly identifies major causes in shark destruction, including the "lucrative trade" of sharks and "turning nature into a commodity." But in devising a solution, there's also the counter-argument that successful conservation has to give poor people an economic stake in the resource, to prevent their depleting it through desperation and lack of alternatives. This is quite a paradox I haven’t figured out.