Archive for February, 2008

Getting past ideology to action on global warming

A fascinating article in The New Yorker examines the complex interplay of science, politics, market economics and morality in the global efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Definitely worth the time to read.

In one section that speaks to the emotions running through the debate of how best to dramatically lower CO2 emissions, reporter Michael Specter discusses a proposal by environmental group Carbon Conservation to pay tropical forest landowners not to cut down their trees. The proposal would rely on market-based carbon-trading allowances to make the needed payments, a solution rejected by other environmental organizations.

Environmental organizations like Carbon Trade Watch say that reducing our carbon footprint will require restructuring our lives, and that before we in the West start urging the developing world to do that we ought to make some sacrifices; anything else would be the modern equivalent of the medieval practice of buying indulgences as a way of expiating one’s sins. “You have to realize that, in the end, people are trying to buy their way out of bad behavior,” Tony Juniper, the director of Friends of the Earth, told me. “Are we really a society that wants to pay rich people not to fly on private jets or countries not to cut down their trees? Is that what, ultimately, is morally right and equitable?”

Specter refers this argument back to Richard Sandor, chairman and CEO of the Chicago Climate Exchange, whose members buy and sell the right to pollute.

“Frankly, this debate just makes me want to scream,” he told me. “The clock is moving. They are slashing and burning and cutting the forests of the world. It may be a quarter of global warming and we can get the rate to two per cent simply by inventing a preservation credit and making that forest have value in other ways. Who loses when we do that?

“People tell me, well, these are bad guys, and corporate guys who just want to buy the right to pollute are bad, too, and we should not be giving them incentives to stop. But we need to address the problems that exist, not drown in fear or lose ourselves in morality. Behavior changes when you offer incentives. If you want to punish people for being bad corporate citizens, you should go to your local church or synagogue and tell God to punish them. Because that is not our problem. Our problem is global warming, and my job is to reduce greenhouse gases at the lowest possible cost. I say solve the problem and deal with the bad guys somewhere else.”

Remember, all of these people agree that we need to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions as much as we possibly can. I suppose it’s a sign of progress that the raging debate now is how — not whether — to do that. Unfortunately, the window of time for debate is rapidly closing and decisions need to be made by government, business and activist leaders on how to proceed. Mistakes are likely to be made, but the greatest mistake of all is allowing our ideological differences — such as social justice vs. capital market efficiencies — to stand in the way of action.


The price of our Google addiction

Head out east from Portland about 80 miles on I-84 along the Columbia River and you’ll come to The Dalles. Otherwise known as the secretive home of two Google computing centers, each the size of a football field. Google is on my mind today because of a feature piece in the local newspaper yesterday on Google’s green energy initiatives. It is said Google is investing tens of millions of dollars to promote renewable energy development and other earth-saving programs. Why is that, the article asks:

Along with being a big investor in energy research, Google is a very big user of energy. Its massive data centers, which in the United States alone stretch from Atlanta to The Dalles in Oregon, suck up enough power each year to keep the lights on in a small country. “It’s in our best interest to find cheap electricity to use,” said Robyn Beavers, Google’s director of green business operations.

And cheaper energy is what’s generally available near the Columbia River, courtesy of its hydroelectric dams. One Google watcher speculates that the firm’s founders are motivated in part by guilt. Whatever works, I guess. Companies like Google need to do all they can to stem the non-renewable energy demands of their data centers. A study released last year said “energy consumed by data center servers and related infrastructure equipment in the United States and worldwide doubled between 2000 and 2005.”

What’s driving this consumption? From users, it’s their hunger for everything Web, from video on demand and music downloads to Internet telephony and more…The spike in power consumption was also caused by a number of other trends, especially the proliferation of “lower-end servers” costing less than $25,000 in the United States and worldwide…A jump in the volume of servers in data centers is accountable for 90% of the growth in power consumption.

According to a new article in Harper’s Magazine, no one outside of Google knows how many servers are housed in The Dalles and fed by cheap hydroelectric power. Worldwide, Google may own as many one million servers. Harper’s says by 2011 The Dalles plant (known in the tech industry as server farms) “can be expected to demand about 103 megawatts of electricity—enough to power 82,000 homes, or a city the size of Tacoma.”

That’s just Google’s server farm in The Dalles. It has at least 25 data centers around the world, according to the New York Times. On top of that you have Microsoft and Yahoo trying to play catch-up to Google with giant data centers of their own, including near The Dalles. And mega-corporations, governments and higher ed the world over with ever-growing data centers that store and process enormous amounts of information. I saw this digital transformation up close and personal in my 20 years in high tech.

The energy source for most computing continues to be fossil fuels; Google’s hydropower in The Dalles is an exception to the rule. Of course, fueling the demand for more computing power and energy consumption are people like me. Here I sit with my laptop connected to the Internet. All my sources for this post courtesy of Google searches. Millions like me everywhere are virtually addicted to the convenience of information at our fingertips. And as I type this sentence, I’m thinking of the price in greenhouse gas emissions this convenience is costing Earth and those who live here. Like Google, we computer users also have an obligation to do our part.


Consuming our way out of poverty?

An economist and writer at the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas tell us household consumption — not income — is the best measurement of “financial well-being.” The incomes of the top 20 percent of US households may be 15 times greater than the bottom 20 percent, but the top group’s consumer spending is only four times greater than the bottom group’s. And on a per person basis, the richest household only outspends the poorest by 2.1. to 1 (because richer households are larger on average). Writing in the Sunday New York Times, the bankers explain:

To understand why consumption is a better guideline of economic prosperity than income, it helps to consider how our lives have changed. Nearly all American families now have refrigerators, stoves, color TVs, telephones and radios. Air-conditioners, cars, VCRs or DVD players, microwave ovens, washing machines, clothes dryers and cellphones have reached more than 80 percent of households.

So there you have it. Because nearly all of the poorest households have all or most of the “conveniences we take for granted,” they really aren’t that poor. In fact, the bankers tell us, “the abstract, income-based way in which we measure the so-called poverty rate no longer applies to our society.” By their definition, the truly poor are those who don’t have the modern conveniences nearly everyone else has. In which case, that odd millionaire couple that opts out of a consumerist lifestyle would be poor. They say no to the so-called conveniences because they don’t want to add to the human and ecological toll our consumer economy extracts.

The bankers praise “a capitalist system that has for generations been lifting American living standards.” Yes, if you define standard of living by material things. We certainly do have more material things in the average rich and poor households. And I suppose that means all of us — rich and poor — are happier than generations before us? And Earth has infinite capacity to lift the world’s material living standards for generations to come? Just wondering.


Congress stokes religious flames of consumerism

In the wake of passage by Congress of a $152 billion economic stimulus plan, a guest columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer asks:

Is it too much to suggest that consumerism has become a kind of alternative faith, a religion of sorts? Religions are characterized by some vision of a good life, by their rituals and by a particular language. Consumerism seems to be developing all three apace.

Writer Anthony B. Robinson will hear no objection from me. As he observes, Americans have gone from using citizen as our default designation to consumer. And we are taking on our consumer role with religious-like fervor, aided and abetted by a Congress and president that understand the very basis for our economy is consumerism.

So now, because mortgage and finance companies succeeded in gaining more consumers with loans they could neither afford nor sustain, creating the subprime crisis, we have a stimulus package, a kind of consumer Viagra, to get us up and buying again. Is something wrong with this picture?

Yes, Anthony, there is.

Saturday, February 9th, 2008
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Green innovations offer hope in an e-wasted world

I maintain an ongoing love-hate relationship with consumer electronics. I hate the constant promotional bombardment by electronics manufacturers for cellphones, flat-panel TVs, mp3 players, games and countless other digital distractions. I also hate the waste stream produced by household electronics. Last month, the New York Times Magazine published an excellent piece on this, “The Afterlife of Cellphones.”

While many of us try to recycle our phones, the reality is they too often eventually end up randomly disposed of in developing countries, exposing human and other life to dangerous materials. According to the Times:

In a study published last year, 34 recent-model cellphones were put through a standard E.P.A. test, simulating conditions inside a landfill. All of them leached hazardous amounts of lead — on average, more than 17 times the federal threshold for what constitutes hazardous waste. Under a stricter state of California test, they also leached four other metals above hazardous levels.

The E.P.A. says modern American landfills are designed to keep toxics stewing inside from leaking out, so they don’t contaminate surrounding soil or drinking water. But landfills do fail, says Oladele A. Ogunseitan, an environmental-health scientist at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of last year’s study. More important, he notes, such landfills don’t exist in the developing world. In many places, garbage is tossed into informal dumps or bodies of water or burned in the open air — all dangerous ways of liberating and spreading toxics.

The article doesn’t paint a completely hopeless picture. Industries are developing to reclaim precious metals from e-waste and to refurbish used cellphones and resell them to those who can’t afford new ones. The latter, in theory, reduces the need to make new phones and the energy and materials consumed to produce them.

Which brings me to what I love (I use the term very loosely) about consumer electronics: the innovation harnessed and applied in their design. The innovation I care about most is reducing the environmental impact of electronics. CNET gives coverage today to the Green Gadgets conference in New York. Check out some of the product innovations that promise to do less harm and in some cases improve the quality of life for some of the world’s poor.

My favorite is SunNight Solar’s solar flashlight. The company is also focusing on social issues by encouraging their customers to buy and give one of the flashlights to a person in a developing country for every one they buy for personal use. According to CNET, “The goal is to reduce the use of kerosene lamps, which are unhealthy and dangerous.”

Technical and social innovations like these from SunNight Solar are what give me hope.


Oregon media fails in covering economic development

State government officials across the US love to publicize their aggressive efforts to draw outside businesses to their states. And the news media rarely fails to serve up the publicity the government desires. Case in point, The Oregonian’s headline on the front of the business section yesterday: “Governor will woo Europe for eco-friendly industry.”

Being the green guy that I am, I suppose I should be at the airport on March 29 to shout my approval to the governor before he boards the plane to Amsterdam. Sorry, no can do. I long ago reached the fed-up point with economic development strategies that favor recruitment of out-of-state businesses over cultivation of in-state entrepreneurs and businesses.

My philosophy is let’s first take care of those already here. Only after public officials and programs have exhausted efforts to help our existing firms succeed should they turn their attention to business recruitment. Research I did a year ago for an Oregon economic development organization made clear to me that the state has only scratched the surface of what it could do for existing Oregon businesses and the Oregonians who want to start companies.

Author Michael Shuman says the reason for the government bias toward recruiting big investments from outside companies has much more to do with politics than economics:

Presenting the public with one deal providing one thousand jobs seems to have greater payoffs than presenting one hundred deals with ten jobs each. Politicians would rather be photographed cutting a ribbon on page A-1 than having to schlep around to a hundred places, on a hundred different days, always for page D-6 announcements in the business section.

Of course, if the media didn’t fawn all over these large recruitment coups, our politicians might change their behavior. Reporters tend to favor one factor above all when weighing the significance of business news: what’s the impact on jobs created or lost locally or statewide. Let’s say a local firm promises to add 10 jobs this year — without public subsidy. Now along comes an out-of-state corporation that is promising 500 jobs — with public subsidy. Which announcement do you think the media will pay more attention to?

The media rarely scrutinizes the ROI of public subsidies for the recruitment of out-of-state firms to Oregon. It’s considered the cost of competing in a global economy, as if there is no alternative. Instead, when an outsider chooses Oregon over other states (or countries) the media celebrates it as affirmation of Oregon’s quality of workforce and life. The promise of hundreds of jobs is all that matters; not whether those jobs actually are produced and at what cost to the taxpayer.

When Dell Computer without warning closed its call center in Roseburg (Douglas County) last August and laid off 220 employees, The Oregonian reported:

Douglas County’s economy went into steep decline along with the timber industry in the 1990s, so Dell’s call center was especially welcome when it opened in 2002. Economic development officials helped lure the computer retailer with state tax breaks worth $250,000, and with $2 million worth of employee training funds largely from private organizations.

Dell’s departure presented a perfect opportunity for the paper to investigate the wisdom of showering tax breaks on outside firms, especially mega-corporations like Dell. But no such report followed.

The media is failing the citizenry and the businesses that were started and grown in Oregon. At the very least, reporters need to examine closely what public officials are doing on behalf of Oregon-based businesses and entrepreneurs and weigh that against the investments in external recruitment. In other words, stop the puff pieces on the governor’s overseas junkets and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. And start asking whether any of it really makes a difference.

If not, we have thousands of homegrown businesses in Oregon that could use the governor’s attention and support. You know, the ones that don’t demand tax breaks to do business here.