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The quiet work of restoring balance in our world

As most Portlanders know, our city has earned a reputation as a leader in green building design and development. Two great examples are the Oregon Health & Science University Center for Health & Healing along Portland’s South Waterfront and Portland Center Stage’s Gerding Theater at the Armory. Both were among the first buildings in the country to earn a platinum LEED certification from the US Green Building Council.

And now there is an emerging effort to expand LEED certification beyond building structures to also include the building site and surrounding landscape. I was alerted to this effort by Stacey Triplett at Metro in Portland. A national group called The Sustainable Sites Initiative is in the process of developing guidelines that ultimately would be incorporated into future LEED certification standards by the USGBC. According to the Initiative group:

Landscapes provide valuable services such as climate regulation, clean air and water, and improved quality of life. However, conventional land practices often limit, rather than enhance, the ability of landscapes to provide these important services. The Sustainable Sites Initiative was founded to address this concern and investigate and define sustainability in land development and management practices.

If this effort interests you, check out the preliminary report issued by the Initiative group to collect public comment.

Closer to home, Nature in Neighborhoods at Metro has a design competition, called Integrating Habitats, that’s attracting worldwide interest and hopefully worldwide entries. The aim of the competition is to generate innovative ideas and site designs that protect and enhance water quality, as well as fish and wildlife habitats.

Thanks to Stacey for giving me the heads up on these two programs. It’s a hopeful reminder that many smart people in Portland and elsewhere are quietly, creatively and urgently working to restore a sustainable balance between our manufactured and natural environments.

Saturday, November 17th, 2007
Posted in Climate Change, Oregon, Sustainability | No Comments »

Public radio examines consumerism

Kudos to Marketplace and American Public Media for its public radio series “Consumed: Is Our Consumer Society Sustainable?” Marketplace has long been reporting business news and trends. But you don’t often see mainstream business programs or publications willing to question the very foundation of our economy: the selling and buying of consumer goods. I welcome Marketplace adding validity to those, mainly on the social and economic fringe, who’ve been saying for years that our consumer culture is unsustainable. Hopefully, the series will inspire its listeners in business and elsewhere to more deeply consider the question at the heart of its reporting. It even has an accompanying game to play to find out whether you are living a sustainable life. I haven’t played it yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m among the guilty parties.

Monday, November 12th, 2007
Posted in Business & Economics, Consumerism, Sustainability | No Comments »

Only the color of money is green in Las Vegas

My wife and I had the pleasure of leaving Las Vegas last night. We were in the city for the weekend to visit friends who moved there from Portland earlier this year. We love our friends, but our next get-together is going to have to be in Portland or some neutral location.

This was my first trip to Vegas for something other than to attend a conference. Since my last visit almost 10 years ago, it’s fair to say my environmental consciousness has been raised. So when I looked upon the huge glimmering casinos on The Strip this time, I couldn’t help but shudder at the unsustainability of it all. And surrounding the city core are vast grids of slapped-together strip malls and subdivisions entirely dependent upon the automobile for their existence.

Yes, we saw the occasional Prius and solar panel array. And we visited the outstanding Spring Preserve, a 180-acre venue within city limits meant to “provide a vision for a sustainable future.” I also understand many casino hotels are doing more to conserve energy and the city is trying to encourage more dense “non-gaming” residential development. But the sheer enormity of the casino industry in Las Vegas makes the thought of sustainability almost absurd. I can’t imagine how much energy is consumed and CO2 emitted each hour as the casinos suck in electrons for their humongous neon signs, ubiquitous slot machines and the computing farms that keep all the gaming operations running. And with each new casino hotel complex, the ante gets raised in size and sizzle.

The greening of Las Vegas remains strictly of the monetary variety. SustainLane ranked Las Vegas the 27th most sustainable city in its 2006 ranking of the 50 largest US cities. (That seems very generous.) The organization placed Portland at the top. I was no doubt experiencing this chasm between the two cities this weekend. An environmentally green Las Vegas seems far-fetched as long as casinos dominate its economy and suburban-style development continues unabated. Still, I’m confident things can change there. And they must, if we are to stop gambling away our energy future.


How about consumer confidence to buy less?

Good news! Consumer confidence drops in October.

Where’s the good news there, you ask? Doesn’t this portend a slowing economy, perhaps a recession? After all, our economy lives and dies on consumer spending. If we consumers aren’t optimistic about the future, we’re going to reel in our spending. And that will bring businesses to their knees and cost us our jobs.

Or at least that’s what we have been led to believe for years and years.

No, I don’t yet see the good news in the fall in consumer confidence. But I do look forward to the day when consumers are actually confident enough to spend less — not more. I mean, look at what we’re being told by those guiding our economy: We are to be afraid, very afraid, when surveys tell us that collectively we may spend less in the months ahead. We have learned to use that fear of spending less as a motivation to spend more so we protect our economy, jobs and way of life.

Americans are conditioned to believe it’s consume or bust. But I’m pretty sure we have things turned upside down here. We’re in an age of rapidly disappearing natural resources, a warming atmosphere and exploding consumer economies in China, India and elsewhere. Never has it been more evident that too much consumption — not too little — is the thing we ought to be concerned about most.

In other words, strong consumer confidence, as it’s defined today, is as much a negative social and environmental indicator as a positive economic indicator. If we could somehow find ourselves in an economy built on limited consumption of material goods, we would track our collective confidence in buying less. Meaning, we are optimistic that if we save our money or spend it on non-material stuff, the economy will prosper, and so will we.

I recognize I’m dreaming here. But look where our existing American Dream has taken us.


Adding cement to the climate change mix

Portland’s downtown is practically ripped to shreds by an unprecedented building and redevelopment spurt. Doesn’t make for happy motorists, bicyclists or pedestrians. But navigating through the city’s maze of construction zones, as frustrating as it is, may not be the worst of it. Until this week, I thought I understood the primary sources of CO2 emissions. However, I’ve managed to overlook a big one: cement, the basic ingredient in concrete.

In my last post, I referred to a BusinessWeek’s latest cover story, “Little Green Lies.” One of the companies the magazine mentions is Lafarge, a giant cement manufacturer based in Paris. Despite praise from the World Wildlife Fund as a “climate saver,” Lafarge’s CO2 emissions have actually risen by “11% over two years,” the article states. The company alone generates more greenhouse gases than Portugal!

And today, the New York Times has a feature article, “Cement Industry Is at Center of Climate Change Debate.” According to the Times,

Cement plants account for 5 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. Cement has no viable recycling potential; each new road, each new building needs new cement…Cement poses a basic problem: the chemical reaction that creates it releases large amounts of carbon dioxide. Sixty percent of emissions caused by making cement are from this chemical process alone, Mr. (Olivier) Luneau of Lafarge said. The remainder is produced from the fuels used in production, although those emissions may be mitigated with the use of greener technology. “Demand is growing so fast and continues to grow, and you can’t cap that,” Mr. Luneau said. “Our core business is cement, so there is a limit to what we can change.”

So therein lies the rub. Despite successes by cement producers to reduce the amount of CO2 emissions for each ton of cement, the worldwide demand for cement is skyrocketing. Especially in China, which “alone makes and uses 45 percent of worldwide output.”

But we can’t make China the scapegoat here. There are countless cities like Portland across the globe where cranes dot the skies and trucks form block-long queues to pour concrete for underground parking garages and condominium and office structures. Construction folks, like my brother, sing the praises of concrete for its strength and versatility in conforming to just about any desired shape. It’s a nearly perfect building material — if you overlook the CO2 part. Cement making’s contribution of 5 percent of global CO2 emissions exceeds that of the world’s airline industry.

So are there any cement alternatives? I’m no expert here, but a quick Google scan indicates alternatives are starting to emerge but their widespread adoption remains on the distant horizon. If you’re into this sort of thing, check out this piece that explores ways to reduce cement’s CO2 emissions and several cement alternatives.

Friday, October 26th, 2007
Posted in Climate Change, Oregon, Sustainability | No Comments »

‘Business as usual’ in Corporate America

This week’s cover story of BusinessWeek, “Little Green Lies,” tells the tale of a corporate sustainability director who dares to tell it like is. Let’s see if this admirable character, Auden Schendler, now manages to keep his job at Aspen Skiing Co. He gives voice to the statement BW reporter Ben Elgin really wants to make: “Much corporate environmentalism boils down to misleading statements and hype.”

While that is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, Elgin has done his homework to prove his point. The greenwashing of Big Business is rampant, just as many of us suspected. In an accompanying podcast to the article, Elgin said he interviewed a couple dozen corporate sustainability types and read a bunch of sustainability reports issued by large businesses and other public carbon emission disclosures by these companies. His conclusion? “When you really sift through it, it’s a lot of business as usual.” Again, no real surprise, but it’s good to see a reporter with such a prominent business publication assemble the facts to prove what many of us believe to be true.

What Schendler told Elgin and Elgin corroborated in his research was:

“Companies continue to assess most green initiatives with the same return-on-investment analysis they would with any other capital project. And while some environmental advances pay for themselves in time, returns often aren’t as swift or large as competing uses for corporate cash. That leads to green projects quietly withering on the vine.”

Elgin reports Schendler now believes “companies won’t make serious progress without regulation of carbon emissions.” Elgin might also add that his BusinessWeek boss John Byrne, who interviewed him for the accompanying podcast on his reporting of the story, is also representative of the problem. Toward the end of the recording, there was this exchange between the two:

Byrne: “I tell you, when I buy a bottle of wine on the basis of green farming, I’ll need my head examined. And when I buy a car that reduces carbon emissions but costs me a lot more money than another car, I’ll need my head examined, too.”
Elgin: “No Prius in your garage?”
Byrne: “No! Because those are just not economical.”
Elgin: “They are pricey.”
Byrne: “And not only are they pricey and not only do you not get the payback on them, but more importantly how much waste, how much toxic chemicals are going to be released into the environment because you are replacing those damn fuel cells, and maybe you are going to someone who’s not going to properly dispose of them.”

This is the executive editor of BusinessWeek speaking. And yes, he did say fuel cells (not batteries) in reference to hybrid cars. Like the corporate executives Elgin interviewed for his piece, Byrne is telling the world he’ll go green when the payback (ROI) is right. It’s a small wonder Elgin’s piece made the cover of the magazine.