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Linking taxes to empathy

I look at how logical Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands are [because they enacted a carbon tax] and wonder how we in the US are still so positively stupid.

(I’m not alone in thinking so.)

It’s the one tax that both conservative and liberal economists agree on. You tax the amount of gasoline you use, the amount of garbage you don’t recycle (since it releases greenhouse gases once it’s sitting in a landfill), and the amount of energy you use to heat your home. The result: more money for the government (which wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess otherwise), and less pollution. If you design it so that lower-income households are subsidized, it doesn’t lower consumption or increase inequality.

You can’t blame Obama entirely because any environmentally-progressive thing he might want to do would be vetoed by the Republican-controlled House (though it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t try). And you can’t blame Republicans in the House entirely because someone elected them. Could you blame the people that elected the Republicans?

I used to think that people who were homophobic, conservative, and tax-evading didn’t have the same access to good education. But then I remembered Alex. He and I went to the same public middle school and high school, and by his senior year, most of his opinions were already formed. He was smart and capable–he just didn’t care about most other people. And there’s the problem: no public school curriculum in the US teaches empathy.

Are all environmentalists good people? Probably not. Are all environmentally apathetic people “bad?” Certainly not. But for every person who opposes having taxes, I must ask: will they still refuse to pay taxes once they need the services of a fireman, policeman, public school teacher, or even sanitation engineer (garbage collector)? Once they or their children somehow end up needing social services support? Why should it be different for our shared environment and climate? Why do we need gigantic natural disasters to foster any significant action?

The Innards of Waste Dumps

Ever wondered where your aluminum Pepsi can goes after you throw it out? Or your blue pen and old notebooks? Yesterday I visited the PSSI (the Peninsula Sanitary Service, Inc.), which handles Stanford’s recycling and waste management, to get a better idea of where our waste goes. Sure, it smelled like rotting spaghetti sauce at some points, but I found glimpses of beauty there too. (Side note: this is probably not representative of all sanitation/collection facilities; I think the images would vary hugely if I were to be in another country, and even a different part of the U.S.).

Shooting into the sun, dumpster-diving style.

It could almost pass for a rose.

Apparently Sierra Nevada is very popular on campus.

Close-up of a dumpster; it made me think of Chinese characters.

Tin cans and a stray campaign poster.

This bunch will thankfully be recycled, or “diverted from landfill,” as some would say.

A PSSI employee; he seemed simultaneously noble and humble.

The current “divergence” rate, or amount of waste that isn’t going straight into the landfill, is currently 65% or so at PSSI–pretty decent, especially when compared to Houston, Texas (3% !!! = actively opposed to recycling anything). Nonetheless, there is still progress to be made.

One promising corner of the industry is the increasing use of biogas from landfills being used to generate electricity (where it is naturally emitted from the decomposition of our apple cores, banana peels, and cotton gym socks). Half of Sweden’s natural gas vehicles are now fueled by biogas, but the U.S. lags worse than a snail in taking advantage of this resource. Capturing biogas from landfills seems especially promising for inland states, like Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska, who cannot simply ship their waste to China or to Eastern Europe the way that coastal cities do.

Other interesting tidbits: the funding for California’s waste management agency comes from taxes for filling landfills. But as waste management facilities like PSSI become more efficient, less money goes to the agency, and there is less funding for investing in projects to further improve the waste stream. It seems like it ought to be an important consideration when designing policy that you shouldn’t create perverse incentives. Hopefully this would be taken into consideration for biogas projects (which also presumable depend on the filling of landfills to be functioning and profitable.)

The Cars Are Submarines

I can’t help thinking that in all the years I’d spent in New York City, I’d never experienced a hurricane or a tornado. But over the past few years, New York has seen tornados, hurricanes, record-breaking blizzards–in short, some of the most severe weather in centuries. All the houses in my neighborhood, and many others, lost power, and didn’t regain it for days, if not weeks. My parents’ car, and every other car in a 5-block radius? Submerged like submarines and completely useless. If you want to see climate refugees, look no further than Brooklyn, NY.

A view of lower Manhattan during Superstorm Sandy. Source: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

I’m thankful for the early warning system and the efforts that went into informing people ahead of the storm. But it was not nearly enough. Several hospitals lost power after the generators were flooded; some, like Coney Island Hospital, which caters largely to South Brooklyn’s low-income, immigrant, and elderly populations, won’t be open until at least January. What’s worse, most patients–as well as nearby residents–weren’t ordered to evacuate. After the over-precaution for Hurricane Irene, people were hesitant to leave their homes for another merely heavy storm. Now, they have left their homes, but mostly because they don’t have a home left to stay in.

I can’t begin to imagine how much worse it must be to live in the Caribbean or Southeast Asia, where intense hurricanes, cyclones, and monsoons are an annual occurrence. I would think that communities would become more resilient and neighborly over time, the way that New York has become after Sandy, but there’s evidence to the contrary. Ether Duflo and Abijit Banerjee, two economists at MIT, found that many people are less likely to help in times of need because they don’t want to start a cycle of reliance. This point (mentioned in their wonderfully insightful book Poor Economics) about avoiding taking on other people’s financial burdens–even when they’re your parents or siblings–jars with my upbringing. Nonetheless, these findings have significant consequences for economic development. Perhaps storms in the developing world have costs like these that we can’t see or measure, but that may be harder to overcome than the mess that we in New York are continuing to face.

Capturing Africa, by Africans

I thought this was a great first start by two African photographers based in Ghana (Nyani Quarmyne and Nii Obodai) trying to portray Africans, and climate change in Africa, as they are rarely portrayed: through the eyes of Africans.

I say “great start” not because the photos aren’t beautiful or interesting–they definitely are, especially the second, of an amazingly well-framed young boy standing among the remaining walls of his house near the sea–but because I think that there is still more that could be done to get away from portraying the stereotypes and conventional stories, as well as portraying more diverse facets of the effects of climate change.

Also came upon this photo on Quarmyne’s website:

As Obodai said,

“I can see that there’s a mentality of confusion at play, but it’s not a poor place. Africans are not poor people. We might be making wrong choices, but we’re not poor people. I refuse to play that poverty game. That’s a choice we’re making.”

Looking forward to seeing more work from both of these two that validates Obodai’s conclusion.

Bamboo: the next revolution?

In Africa’s Vanishing Forests, the Benefits of Bamboo

In Africa you want everything. You want firewood, you want to reduce erosion, to maintain the water supply, generate cash and employment. Bamboo comes the closest — it gives you the most things.

The need for firewood is now critical in Ethiopia; trees covered 35 percent of the country a century ago; by 2000 they covered just 3 percent.

Paradoxically, harvesting bamboo to make durable goods is greener than not harvesting bamboo.

While Rosenburg, who wrote the above New York Times blogpost, makes some interesting points, she misses one huge, gaping hole of an argument: planting bamboo plantations will overpower and undermine whatever remaining biodiversity persists in these growing semi-deserts. The same process already occurred with eucalyptus, but given the even more extensive root networks of bamboo, native tree species may be completely outcompeted, leaving a vast, bamboo-only landscape rather than the extremely diverse forests that Africa used to be known for (along with the associated ecosystem services that all those different species provided.)

Raising the IQs of “Dumb” Cities

After spending hours searching for books on green architecture (or even sustainability) in Paris at the Bibliothèque de la Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine yesterday (which, by the way, has an amazing view of the Eiffel Tower and Trocadero), and giving up largely in vain [because Paris just isn’t sustainable], I was happy to come across this gem of a project in the US.

CITE, or the Center for Innovation, Testing and Evaluation, will be a small town built near Hobbs, New Mexico for research companies to test out green energy technologies, intelligent transport systems, first responder (homeland security) technology, and high-tech wireless infrastructure in real-life settings–just without having people to account for. As the article puts it, the developer (Pegasus) will stop just “shy of interior decorating.” Sounds to me like it could have the potential to become a new Silicon Valley hotbed of creativity!

Hobbs, NM in context (Courtesy of Google Maps)

That said…

CITE will intentionally be an imperfect place… “We’re a dumb city,” Brumley says, “and we bring smart technology to the dumb city, or the ‘legacy’ city, to see how its IQ can be elevated. If you think of it that way, 99.9 percent of all American cities are dumb–they’re all legacy.”

While I (and apparently many others) would have wanted to see a prototype for a smarter city rather than another “legacy” city modeled on Rock Hill, South Carolina, complete with suburbs, exurbs, and other forms of sprawl (which then perpetuates the existence of these “dumb” cities), CITE is still a start in the right direction (both in terms of economic development for the NM-Texas border region, and for the many technologies that are approaching or are stuck in the infamous “valley of death” before commercialization and larger-scale use by the public).

Closed-Loop Industrial-Scale Composting Coming to a City Near You!

While not exactly a new concept, using earthworms to process food waste quickly and efficiently was taken to the next level by an Arizona-based start-up:

I have a few doubts about generating $1 million in annual profits, but if that’s really the case, VermiSoks is doing something right. I especially like their business approach of employing beneficiaries of food banks and homeless shelters and partnering with large hotels in the area. However, one of the unique points with VermiSoks’s method is using their fermented “worm wine” in combination with their earthworm-filled soil packets (the Soks), which may be an obstacle for people trying to do this in apartments and small houses (or in developing countries, for that matter), who don’t necessarily have the resources to pay for repeated shipments of the “wine,” which seems to act like a growth catalyst by supplying nutrients. (Though this would explain high profits from partnering with hotels and large grocery stores like Whole Foods, which can afford to pay for the “wine.”) At any rate, it’s a promising start, and a company (and business model) to watch out for.

Africa’s Largest Carbon Market & Other Superlatives

After an audit of its first six months of operation, Vestergaard-Frandsen earned 1.4 Million CDM Gold Standard credits (equivalent to 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions averted) for its LifeStraw Carbon for Water Program. The project is expected to average 2.5m tonnes annually over its 10-year duration. This is a big deal because:

  • It’s the largest carbon project of any type in Africa thus far
  • It’s the first ever safe drinking water project to be financed using carbon credits (drinking water is usually purified by boiling the water over a fire with non-renewable wood)
  • It’s the first carbon project to monitor, report and verify actual health impacts of a technology (mostly reduced recorded instances of diarrhea in this case)
  • It’s financially sustainable: the LifeStraws are distributed [and repaired and replaced] for free (the program distributed 877,505 Family water filters so far, in Kenya’s Western Province) and are financed through the sale of carbon credits
  • In addition to providing safe drinking water, the project has other benefits. It aims to reduce extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education (since young girls are often tasked with finding fuelwood and must therefore miss school), empower women and girls, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases (as HIV/AIDS patients are more susceptible to illness from unsafe drinking water).

My only apprehension is the problem of uptake: many interventions like this have failed in the past because not enough people changed their behaviors to make using such interventions routine. If it’s too time-consuming, a hassle, changes social norms (for example, no longer having the opportunity to talk with friends at the neighborhood well), or expensive (in this case that’s not an issue), then the technology likely won’t be taken up, regardless of its effectiveness. Here’s to hoping that this project has a [positive] lasting impact.

Lunch with… the CEO of the World Wildlife Fund

Being absolutely lucky as we were, our program director arranged to have us meet with Carter Roberts, now the president and CEO of the WWF for lunch today. We (the students) were all in slight awe of his humble attire, his sense of humor, and his relatively realistic view of conservation (thanks largely to his business background, I think). Looking back, though, many of the answers to our questions were carefully crafted–which, unfortunately, seems very common for someone based in Washington, DC, as we have now learned. Nonetheless, he made some interesting points worth sharing:

When asked how to measure success: “Only count those things [results] that will influence your decisions.”

Markets aren’t a captivating topic–but animals are.

“If you avoid [working with] government, you do so at your own peril.”

Organic farming is the least efficient method possible. It takes more water, land, and other inputs. The only things you don’t use any of are pesticides and herbicides.

Echoing the words of an employee and another CEO: “Corporate social responsibility” is dead. Sustainability as a business approach is now increasingly seen as a competitive advantage rather than a burden.

Roberts also spoke of a different model for business called “benefit corporations,” where the goal is not to maximize profits–but to increase benefits to your employees and to society. It’s essentially what I look for in a great company (and one of my first arguments for why classical economics needs to be updated to account for these kinds of businesses.) He pointed to Patagonia and their recent “Common Threads” campaign as an example; the campaign tries to stop overconsumption by teaming with Ebay to sell used clothes. However… it’s not at all the most visible aspect of their website, and a person wouldn’t be aware of it unless they specifically searched for the link. I like the idea, but I’m not very convinced yet that it’s their main goal, or even a priority.

This is actually a great search engine for all kinds of benefit corporations–I never realized there were now so many, but it’s a promising trend if it’s not abused. B-corps, as the lingo goes, have been written into law in Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Vermont, New York, California, and Hawaii, and are pending in three other states and DC. The legislation requires certification by an independent certifier, but it lets b-corps get away with not maximizing profits–which shareholders can sue a corporation for in normal instances.