Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Earth Day, Hump Day Hmm

Today's Hump Day Hmm asks for our thoughts on Earth Day. I remember the first time I saw an "Earth Day" celebration. I was in Washington, DC, and there were people giving away things and selling things promoting the use of marijuana-made paper. Somehow, it made me wonder about whether the "green" movement was an extension of the hippy movement of "free love and rock and roll." The people giving away the information certainly would have looked right at home at Woodstock.

I am not, by nature, a person who intentionally pollutes. I don't throw trash out of the window of my car or into storm drains as I walk along. I don't smoke. I even do my best not to run water unnecessarily when I brush my teeth. I do flush more than once quite regularly, but trust me, that's for the best. I try not to waste paper. I do as much e-billing as I can without making my wife uncomfortable. I even read e-books sometimes. It is rare that I print something off a computer to read it, in fact.

All that said, I am not a big recycler. For one, it is not well supported in this area. I have also read a great deal on how inefficient recycling is compared to new production. I am not opposed to recycling. I used to save newspapers and magazines for months to recycle as a child. I just don't have that available to me anymore, and I rarely take newspapers or magazines that I don't want to keep now. I prefer to reduce my consumption of items as opposed to recycling what I have used. I gladly buy recycled items when I find them to be good quality, but I don't find them very often in general. I am also not someone who drives a tiny car to save gas mileage. For one, I tell my wife "I don't want to feel like I am putting my car on when I get in it." That's how cars like a Miata make me feel. For another, I prefer safety over mileage any day, and the two don't seem to regularly coincide. I am a safe driver, so I am not paranoid that I will cause a lot of accidents, but there are a lot of unsafe drivers out there who just might slam into me at any given moment.

I have encouraged truck drivers I work with to research the use of cooking oils in their trucks to save money on fuel. Unfortunately, it's not a practical alternative for the economy to expect more than a small number of drivers to use those sorts of fuels. Ethanol takes so much gasoline to actually produce (I have heard estimates of 2/3 to more than one gallon of gasoline used per gallon of ethanol produce) that it is not really a marketable, usable alternative. We need a lot more research into legitimate fuel alternatives instead of pumping subsidies and marketing dollars into phony ones. I am fascinated by the idea of hydrogen powered cars, cars that run on heavy water, nuclear energy use, and other solutions that might actually be cleaner and renewable long term. I love the research going into solar energy, but it seems to still be a long way from being a real alternative for most users.

All in all, when it comes to the environment, I am probably more of a user than a conserver. I think a lot of people have misguided perceptions about the need to save plants and animals. For instance, there are more trees in the United States today than there were in 1900. A huge number more. When someone protects a habitat of a wild animal that may or may not actually live in a forest, they are doing harm to the loggers who work in that area. I say that as a person who is not terribly fond of log trucks. I just prefer to protect human beings and their welfare over animals and plants. I would also be a lot happier of the people doing the protecting did so where they live. Too many city dwellers like to tell the rural parts of the country what needs to be conserved while they drive their hybrids on busy streets surrounded by skyscrapers. Why don't they demand their apartment building be torn down to transplant a forest? It's so much easier to tell someone else to do what they are unwilling to do.

Could we do a better job of working with the environment instead of simply using it? Probably. Mostly, though, I think we have a fairly arrogant perspective when it comes to our impact on the planet. The planet has gone through many cycles climatically and ecologically, and it has "harmed" itself in many ways that humans cannot even imagine emulating or recreating. More air pollution comes out of a single volcanic eruption than the entire effect of humans in history. No, I tend to thing we're along for the ride a lot more than we'd ever want to admit or accept.

What would I like to see in the future? Tall buildings that are covered with solar panels that can supply most of their energy (if not the energy of the surrounding smaller buildings as well). More use of nuclear power plants. Improved public transportation in large cities. Automobiles powered by renewable fuels with healthier emissions. What a bright new day, right? So long as we get there in logical fashion. The way green laws are heading, we may all become more green simply because people are forced to quit driving altogether and grow their own food. Present legislation on green laws is driving rampant inflation with no logical reasoning behind these laws. The apparent hope is to inflate the economy so much that expensive fuel alternatives suddenly become reasonable. So much ignorance pervades this line of thinking that I cannot begin to explain it. Thankfully, the economy is a fairly resilient system, and so is the environment. Maybe by the time we actually figure out how to accomplish some of what we dream of, both of them will be functioning in a way to help each other.

-- Robert


Melissa said...

I agree with you on a lot of points here. I'm increasingly of the opinion that what we're seeing now is a natural cycle exacerbated by human activity. In other words, we're speeding it up. So we need to do our part to take care of things better.

That said, you are totally correct in the subsidies and money being poured into some of the alternatives. It's all a knee jerk reaction and it won't solve any problems long term. It might be a better to offer a prize like they did for Charles Lindbergh and the X Prize for low level space flight. Say 100MM for whoever comes up with the best alternative fuel. I"d donate to that cause.

Robert said...

I'd be fine with giving a $10M prize to a company that developed a legitimate, usable, renewable, clean alternative fuel and a workable method to use it. They could fund that entirely out of the ridiculous subsidies being given.

I left out some of my thoughts on hybrids. They cost a lot more to buy, their batteries cannot be disposed of when they cease working, and those batteries cost $5,000 to replace, so even if they burn a lot less fuel, the actual cost of operating one is significantly higher than if a person just used the standard car. There has to be a better way.

Electric cars are not a solution, either. My brother-in-law's roommate wrote a paper on it ten years ago called "Zero Emissions, or Remote Emissions" explaining how incredibly inefficient the fuel use was on those cars (since there is power loss over the lines from the power plant to the home using it) and therefore how much more power plants would be pumping into the air to use such cars. People talk about the electric car being swept under the rug by oil companies, but the fact was that they were simply not viable alternatives.

le35 said...

I'm all about getting gas companies to come up with the prize for alternative fuels. Then they could buy those fuels and make BOTH? Why not? Well, Rob, as usual, you know where I stand on this. I am all for green,(Heck, I use cloth diapers part time and green diapers all the time.)but I want Green to work with me not against me.

Robert said...

Green has to mean "kind to my green as well as yours" at our house, obviously. :) Seriously, though, I am glad to do my part to help the environment, but I can't afford to spend a fortune carrying recyclables to the nearest place that does it or anything like that. We'll be happy to separate it if the local trash place every offered to pick them all up. Unfortunately, a lot of those services throw it all into the same place even after sorting. I'm no environmentalist, but I'm also not one to intentionally pollute when the eco-friendly alternative is available.

jeanie said...

You touched on a lot of my thoughts in this - working for solutions rather than reacting to stimuli is the way for our saving the planet to move forward, I think.

Julie Pippert said...

What we still need to overcome is a mistaken mindset, mostly misdirected by too much information and "marketing."

It's true that reducing consumption is as important as recycling, more so, probably. In other words, it's just as important that I use reusable containers in my kids lunches instead of bags and take my own to-go containers instead of getting styrofoam ones form the restaurant.

It's also important to not just assume that anything labeled by the current trend is good, such as "hybrid" must be a good car. Not necessarily.

The bottom line is self-education. Motivation.

We didn't have good recycling in the area either, but a group of people worked out a deal with a recycling company and the local elementary school. Now we all go and take our recyclables to the school and the company picks up there, and the school gets money for it.

Win win win.

Polluting is a box we have to think our way out of.

Robert said...

Our town here is small, and a lot of the government thinking is fairly backward, in my opinion and observation. I'd be happy to take recyclables to a central location. I certainly did plenty of that in my teenage years with newspapers and magazines. I just don't see any of the Florida recycling companies crossing the border for us, and the next closest one would be an hour away or more.

Mindset definitely has a lot to do with. Misleading advertising has people spinning around so much a lot of them have simply given up listening. It also helps when recylcing is made as easy as possible. I am definitely more of a "reduced consumer" than a recycler by nature. I reuse plastic cups from restaurants a lot, and we use plastic tubs and jars from food we buy as storage for leftovers.

Welcome to the blog, too, Jeanie. Glad to have a new reader.

Alan & Kim said...

Hey, I thought I should chime in on this topic since I work in the renewable energy sector now.

You talked mostly about alternative fuel sources, but one of the cleanest, cheapest, and widely available renewable energy sources is wind power. Unfortunately, you won't see many wind turbines in the SE, since there is relatively no wind here. But elsewhere in the US and the world, wind power is the fastest growing energy source (30% growth in 2007 alone). It is not a replacement, but a complement to our current energy sources. In fact, wind makes up something like 70% of all renewable energy sources right now. Mostly, because it is clean energy AND cost competitive with oil and natural gas. You can also thank the many state renewable portfolio standards (such as California's 20 by '20, saying 20% of energy must come from renewable sources by 2020) for making wind power more widely utilized.

It's exciting for me to work on the forefront of improving and developing new wind technologies and doing my part to help create a sustainable energy source. I love it when the wind blows. It's my daily green reminder!

Robert said...


Thanks for weighing in. I agree, wind is a great renewable source of energy when it can be used. It was featured on Numb3rs Friday, which is one of my favorite shows. Is there any chance that windmills could be mounted on the tops of skyscrapers in a city to harness some wind energy? How safe are they in the midst of a hurricane or a tornado? It seems like there would be some wind, especially a few hundred feet up, to be harnessed and immediately used by the building in question. Maybe my understanding of the technology is wrong, though.