Friday, August 30, 2013

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats, pt.2 In-building Resilience

One of the benefits of embracing ecological realities in business, are the opportunities presented by the new perspectives required. One such example is anaerobic digestion as a power generation strategy. I have toured two different facilities, with two different approaches, and utilize different waste streams. Capitalizing on waste is not a new concept, heap leach mining for example is used to reprocess discarded tailings in order to extract more gold ore.

Unlike extractive efforts, the processes involved with anaerobic digestion solves more problems than it creates. AD focuses on either food and other organic wastes (Dry) or house hold waste water (Wet). The Dry AD facility was located on a household waste management transfer site, where it generated ten percent of the facilities total power consumption needs while diverting less then 1% of available appropriate waste. (lots of room for expansion). The wet system I toured was located at a waste water treatment center, and wasn't generating at the time, but once repaired, could significantly reduce the facilities total power consumption.

Using a process not dissimilar to traditional organic composting, Dry AD harvests the gases produced through normal decomposition. Some technological solutions are used to create an air tight vessel and to distribute dairy farm waste over the top of the heap to facilitate more complete bacterial saturation. But for the most part, mother nature has already done billions of years worth of research and development to optimize the system. Best of all, after processing the spent raw stock is often safe enough to reintroduce to the agricultural industry as a soil amendment.

Wet AD systems require integration with municipal waste treatment systems, and as such might be better handled by local governments. But the concept is simple, basically cap a cistern with a floating lid, and harvest the gasses as the water is allowed to settle. While designing entire systems to optimize integration would produce the highest returns, the argument that undertakings of this kind would reduce the amount of other much more potent green house gasses that would ordinarily be vented by open topped settling ponds might make energy generation a happy byproduct of environmental protection.

From a larger perspective, AD (wet or dry) as a lot of potential in the future of the green grid. The raw material is produced in houses, commercial kitchens and grocery stores by the ton every day. This raw stock is currently incurring a second big slice on an industrial nations carbon budget as major cities consume tens of thousands of barrels of oil every day shipping household waste away from city centers. Much of the weight they are moving is ideal for Dry AD and with only a slight change in habit for the "producers" could be diverted using existing infrastructure.

Solar power's daily cycle of production and wind power's occasional unpredictability are ideally matched to the low but constant output available through AD. AD bio-gas could also compete directly for market with CNG the compressed natural gas produced through hydro-fracturing or fracking. Other benefits would include the local jobs that would be created, as bio-gas or co-gen plants pop up in neighborhoods. These system are easily replicated and can be scaled to meet the needs of growing or mature communities alike.

It is hard not to see a win here.,

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: pt1 "No Man is an Island".

The messaging streaming from the political right centers on the concept of the self made man. That in isolation some people have intrinsic capabilities that have allowed them to become the most financially successful in our society. This narrative implies that modern captains of industry would have inevitably achieved greatness regardless of what country they were born in or what advantages they garner through birthright. This also implies that those less advantaged in the world lack some innate drive or capability.

I like paying taxes. I like paying taxes because I like having roads and bridges, civil services and the myriad of other benefits that can only come from collective action. These very same accomplishments of previous generations, are often discounted in the conservative philosophy, yet without these shared resources the success of the wealthy would have been impossible.

To prove this point I ask, "why are there no Fortune 500 companies founded and based in central Africa?" There is no significant biological or cognitive differences between people in the developing world and industrialized nations. Entrepreneurial spirit, artistic ability, effort and drive are all equally distributed through-out humanity. So it must be a lack of resources and opportunity that accounts for the vastly different outcomes between those born in industrialized nations and the developing world.

So if life outcomes are determined more by having access to publicly funded systems and infrastructure, then a gaping hole is exposed in the very foundation of the "self made man" argument. This even has a parallel in American society. Access to higher education and other necessary ingredients for success are not evenly distributed domestically. While it is possible for anyone with the GPA and the drive to get an ivy league education, other social factors like showing up to elementary school with a empty stomach has proven to be the barrier for the less advantaged early on.

It is no secret that our collective social systems work better for some than others. Often trends upward or downward for a community are self perpetuating. Less education leads to less opportunities and people have to resort to activities that are again detrimental to the community as a whole. Today, a child born into a poverty level household is much more likely wind up incarcerated than attend college.

I contend that by focusing on increasing educational opportunities universally, the social benefits will be felt by all. For one thing, education leads to community investment on the part of the individual. If someone has developed a skill set that they can capitalize on, they are much less likely to engage in illegal activities (the financial sector excluded) to make ends meet. Reduced crime rates benefit us all, not only because we are less likely to be a victim of crime, but because less of our tax dollars have to be spent on the justice system.

This pattern is clearly defined by: housing prices, incarceration rates, health outcomes, and access to healthy foods. The deeply flawed philosophy at the core of conservative thinking often fails to account for this phenomena to the point where it must be either cognitive dissonance or sociopathy. My personal view is toward the later as the tendency to blame the victim of unequal opportunity distribution is often present in conservative argumentation.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Eastern Islanders of Today

I recently re-read Jared Diamond's Collapse, and a passage towards the end struck me. "[T]he apparently simple question that most puzzled my students was one whose actual complexity hadn't sunk into me before: how on earth could a society make such obviously disastrous decision as to cut down all the trees on which it depended?" Jared Diamond 'Collapse' pg. 419

At first I thought it would be similar to the modern attitude of "well if I don't buy it, someone else will" only adapted to cutting down trees. But this steeply discounts the influence of the isolated society over individual decision making. I am sure it was much more along the lines of, "we have been doing things this way for many generations and it must be the only way to appease the gods".

This last modality of thinking also has a strong parallel in modern day decision making. The often touted "economic consequences" of changing from a carbon based to a post-carbon economy are as hyperbolic as they are inconsequential compared to the potential economic costs of inaction. Yet like the Eastern Islanders we ignore the clearly defined trend towards collapse. We are simultaneously, exceeding and shrinking the carrying capacity of the ecosystem we depend on for food and water.

There is a limit to the carrying capacity (the ultimate number of organisms that can be supported sustainability in an ecosystem) of the Earth. Food might not be a problem for most Americans (yet), but water is starting to grow traction as an issue. Desalination and other treatment systems will never be capable of providing the volume of clean water that we are currently provided by natural processes. As the Earth warms, this problem will be accentuated and compounded, as the interdependent systems that formed the aquifers we rely on will be effected.

If we as a species cannot learn to live within the carrying capacity of our ecosystem, and end activities that threaten our life support system, we will surely pay a much higher price than the short term economic disruptions that accompany change. Dime now or dollar later, we will end up paying for the mistakes of generations past. Like any failure the sooner it is addressed the less expensive it is likely to be.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Personal Responsibility

I was talking yesterday to a friend about the challenges facing our society in transitioning from a fossil fuel economy to a post carbon economy, and something they said struck me. They intimated that there was very little they could do and the contribution of an individual is so small as to not make much difference either way. There is a very fundamental flaw with this line of reasoning, and it steeply discounts intrinsic human characteristics. 

Nobody buys a Cadillac Esclade because it is a practical vehicle that meets the needs of the family. It is a status symbol. Unless you and four other members of your immediate family are morbidly obese, and have to commute together on a daily basis, you are kidding your self. I get the guy who drives a beat up pick-up truck to the job site everyday, he might have to haul a ladder or plywood on a weekly basis. But when I see a lifted V8 truck with chrome in the suspension and off road tires that have never seen a mud puddle, there is no justification for that decision besides ego.

There are social norms that become self perpetuating in a society. Often being influenced by marketing and other indirect corporate interests. Often some myth is associated with them like the myth that a larger car is somehow safer. (Anyone with an understanding of physics can explain how a 2500lb car is much safer than a 7500lb SUV). Furthermore, despite fossil fuel industry efforts at discrediting, more and more Americans are becoming aware of climate change and the contributions of the individual.

Buying a status symbol car that is inefficient not only inflates the individual's carbon footprint, but also contributes to the social norm that such a choice is still acceptable. For every single person that buys a gas guzzler this year, they are partly responsible for every gas guzzler bought in their neighborhood next year by sanctioning the social norm. People are social creatures and subject to non-rational drives to conform. If the community they belong to (or strive to belong) sanctions wanton consumption intrinsically, if not explicitly, then they will harbor a strong desire to consume at a level considered normal. 

In short, no man is an island. The decisions you make, especially for something as visible as your choice of transportation, has direct effects on the community around you. If you choose the path of wanton consumption over careful consumption of non-renewable resources, not only are you responsible for your own contributions to the global carbon budget, but also for influencing trends in your community. We can no longer afford to cling to the childish fantasy of insulation from our subtle; yet striking in aggregate, influence of our community and environment.

The "if I don't buy it someone else will" justification is a form of cognitive dissonance that is dangerous as a long term trend. If grossly wasteful products sit on the shelves un-purchased, the result will be a clear market trend that the manufacture has to listen to. This is a bottom up change that we collectively have complete control over. Careful resource consumption as a criteria for purchasing decisions is no longer the luxury of elite "environmentalists" but essential for all consumers if we are going to transition our economy to one with longer term goals.