Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Start a community carpool club?

Last night I heard Wes Jackson, founder and current president of the Land Institute, speak at our local university. Jackson is renowned for his work in sustainable agriculture.
Like everyone else these days, he is very focused on the issue of global warming. Jackson said: “We hear unfathomable things from the climate scientists about global warming. What keeps us from emergency action?”

He compared our inertia with that of the Germans in the run-up to the Holocaust. Many people could see that something dire was coming, yet they did nothing. Jackson was very critical of those who think that by becoming more efficient in our use of energy, we will actually save energy. Technology and greater efficiency is not an answer, according to Jackson. Even though the efficiency of many systems has increased, our energy usage and consumption of natural resources still continues on its relentless upward climb. This conundrum is know as Jevon’s paradox.

The biggest return on investment will come from energy conservation, Jackson said. We also need to start measuring our progress by how resilient we can become, rather than how efficient we are in extraction.

Jackson’s talk came just before a trip that we have been planning for some time. This morning, I started to check into the long-term parking options at the Minneapolis airport, and found that the cheapest parking solution will cost us about $100. So, in addition to generating carbon by our trip to Minneapolis, and even more carbon on our airline trip, we have an additional $100 out of pocket for parking. If we could carpool to the airport with others, think of what we could save!

I have been a long-time advocate of carpooling, but have noticed that people seem reluctant to deal with the practicalities of hooking up with others on a drive. For those who are computer-friendly, however, there are wonderful systems available for putting like-minded people together. One of these is Google Groups. You can start a group of any kind, and set it up on any terms you want.

So, I decided to create a restricted community carpool club, with the idea that people could join on a completely voluntary basis, they could access the club messages via daily email digests or by visiting the website online, and they would register under their real names, with the idea that we were creating a network of trust. They would have to apply to the group manager (me), to get in. This morning I sent an invitation to join the club to 110 local people who are in my address book.

The way it will work is, if Susie Smith joins the group and offers a ride, and Laura Walker knows and trusts her, the carpooling match can be made with great confidence. However, if Laura Walker knows something about Susie that makes her reluctant to share car space, she can simply seek other transportation options. The idea is to make the group fully transparent and fully voluntary, and see if this helps overcome some of the reluctance to carpool.

People who join the group can be counted as visionary and courageous folks who are willing to join an experiment. The carpool club offers a way to start reducing carbon use, to help others, save money, make an impact on global warming, create community, and get to know others a little better. I am hoping this will appeal to everyone’s common sense and desire to make a difference.

If the people in this picture, likely from a Third World country, are willing to go to this extent to travel together, think of all we could do with our larger, more comfortable vehicles!

I have blogged on this before, but if you plan to travel by air, and would like to pay down your carbon usage, please visit Native Energy and consider paying an offset for your carbon usage. You make a contribution based on the amount of carbon generated by your activity, and Native Energy uses the funds to build wind farms in the Midwest. These carbon offsets are also known as Green tags. If you would like to learn more about carbon credits, there is a great article on the subject over at World Changing.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Suspending our point of view

Yesterday was a busy day, what with blogging, volunteering at our local film festival, and attending a legislative forum on environmental issues. When we arrived at our final destination, a folk concert, my mind was spinning, processing all that had happened during the day. This is what happens when an introvert has a day that looks like an extrovert’s.

A background issue that is always going through my mind lately is: how can we more effectively collaborate? Lots of good people are becoming attracted to the environmental movement. But when we get together in meetings to try to decide on a unified plan of action, conflict, inertia, anger, fussiness, and a whole range of unproductive human responses begin to intervene. In our individualist culture we are so used to being our own masters of the universe, that when we arrive at the group we feel a great sense of un-ease. What to do about this?

I am not entirely sure yet, but a new book is pointing me toward some new ways to look at the issue. Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, by Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, Betty Sue Flowers, and Joseph Jaworski, discusses how people can work together in organizations, comprehending the whole while they set aside their narrow point of view.

The book seems to offer some directions to expand on some of the things I learned on the tennis court recently. Namely, I have an intuition that my growth and development is linked with that of others, and that I can change how I think about things so that I am not the only one winning, but others win and progress as well. Thinking in this way requires us to suspend our normal point of view, to not only think about me me me me, but to think positively, and with some interest, about the experience of others in the room. It is not always easy to think in this way, but it is definitely an adventure.

Last night at the concert, I tried suspending my point of view in this way: I was finding it difficult to listen to the music because of the traffic going on in my own mind. I decided to try an experiment, projecting my mind into the minds of the 300 or so people who were also attending the concert. So I wasn’t thinking my thoughts, I was trying to be unified with all the other minds. This was a very interesting experience, in that it allowed me to actually begin listening to the music. The song listened to in that way was fantastic! My own mental traffic receded to a very minor position, and the beauty of the music rushed to the fore.

The concert setting is a pretty unthreatening place to experiment with tuning into the collective mind. I’ll report further on my future experiments in more challenging settings, like small groups where personalities and positions are well staked out. I believe that learning how to collaborate and work effectively together is a new frontier, especially for a person like me who has been an independent operator for most of my work life.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Will Steger and Global Warming 101

Last night Will Steger, famed explorer of the Arctic regions and Antarctica, and J. Drake Hamilton of Fresh Energy(a nonprofit organization interested in charting a new energy course) presented a talk/slide show on global warming to an audience of about 1000. They reported speaking to similar size crowds all over Minnesota in recent months.

A great awakening is occurring in the population around global warming. The pictures and likely reality of huge chunks of ice surging into the ocean, raising sea levels and changing the climate beyond recognition is starting to penetrate our consciousness. The central question posed by the audience to the speakers after the presentation was: what can we do? Scientist say we need to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by the year 2050. How will we ever do that?

Yesterday I reported on my efforts to save money and reduce my electricity use with a new light fixture. There are probably many other things I need to do to reduce my carbon use. The 310 pounds of CO2 saved over a four year period by my light fixture will be erased by the carbon generated by my next 600 mile car trip. We need lots of people regularly doing many small things to cut our energy use.

We have been reading the book The Low Carbon Diet: a 30 day program to lose 5,000 pounds, by David Gershon. This book outlines a number of steps readers can take to reduce their carbon footprint. We are already taking most of the actions outlined in the book. The next step is the more difficult one—working to enlist our neighbors in the effort. We’ve got to find a way to send the message beyond those who have already been convinced, to others who are living in the belief that the status quo is bound to continue. This will call on us to develop some expertise in the arts of persuasion and collaboration.

Last night’s audience was filled with believers, people ready to support alternative energy, buy CFL’s, and send postcards to legislators. The elephant in the room that was not mentioned, however, is our consumption habit. David Kostin, investment banker at Goldman Sachs, says that “Americans have shown a complete lack of self-control. The personal savings rate is at its lowest point ever, and has actually been negative since April 2005.” So, as is true with every issue intertwined with global warming, there are other ample reasons besides the climate to change our habits.

Amory Lovins, Co-CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and an energy activist, says that there are a lot of easy energy-efficiency solutions that businesses and individuals can implement. He admits, however, that “the last time the U.S. saved energy very quickly—expanding GDP 19% while shrinking energy us 6%, during 1979-86—the main motivator was costly energy.” In the absence of rising oil prices, it remains to be seen whether images of starving polar bears, and warnings about the other disastrous costs of business-as-usual, will penetrate the consumer’s brain, and actually inspire behavior change. Talk is cheap, but I look forward to seeing the evidence.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

How many environmentalists does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer, only one, but it takes her six hours to research all the consequences

Maybe I exaggerate, but this decision sure seemed complex. We needed to change the ceiling light in our kitchen. The original fixture was probably installed when the house was built in 1976. It featured 8, 40 watt bulbs. We probably would have kept the fixture, but one of the sockets went bad, so we were left with seven good bulbs and one burnt-out one.

We have all been learning that we should be replacing our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFL), which screw into regular light sockets and cost 70% less energy. Even Walmart has gotten on the band-wagon. It wants to persuade every household to buy at least one CFL. There’s no question that this campaign could have an enormously positive impact. General Electric, which built its business on the old incandescent bulbs, is participating in the revolution. "The real issue is, if we don't do it, someone else will," says GE's ecomagination vice president, Lorraine Bolsinger, of Wal-Mart's effort to push CFLs. "It's old thinking to imagine that you can hold on to a business model and outsmart the consumer. You can't." It is good to see evidence that some businesses are capable of abandoning the zero sum thinking that General Motors used to kill its electric cars.

My decision to install a new ceiling fixture should have been a simple one. However, I learned along the way that compact fluorescents are not designed to work with dimmer switches. I had installed a dimmer switch on the light earlier as an energy-saving measure, so I would have to remove that.

The second task was to find a fixture large enough to cover the space taken by the previous fixture, a square flush-mounted model. This is where a lot of the woman-hours were expended, mostly because we had a 14” square fixture that needed to be covered by a 20” diameter ceiling light. A lot of the energy-efficient ceiling models use circline bulbs, round fluorescent bulbs, and this is the kind of light I purchased. These bulbs are very efficient, and are now designed to put out a softer, higher quality light. My circline bulb is supposed to last 6 years, or 15,000 hours. The negative side of fluorescent and compact fluorescent lights is that they contain mercury. Therefore, when they burn out, they must be disposed of according to the instructions from your local hazardous waste authority.

A surprising number of fixtures are designed specifically to work with halogen bulbs. These bulbs are 10-20% more efficient than incandescent bulbs, and they may last longer. Halogens burn hotter than incandescents, so they must be enclosed in a suitable housing.

LED lights (light-emitting diodes) are not suitable for ceiling lights, but they are the most energy efficient lighting method. They have a very long life span, some up to 100,000 hours. Tree huggers who like Christmas lights should be purchasing LED lights.

Wikipedia has a great site where you can compare the efficiency of incandescent lights to CFL’s. Here is my assessment of the cost and environmental savings of the new ceiling fixture over the first 3000 hours of service:

Old light fixture: electricity cost of 320 watts (800 hours/year @ $.08 per KWh): $76.80 plus cost of replacing 8 bulbs twice, $27.04, for a total cost of $103.84. Total Kwh usage:256 Kwh. We generate 1.55 pounds of CO2 per Kwh, so I would generate 396.8 pounds of CO2.

New light fixture: electricity cost of 72 watts (800 hours/year): $17.28, plus cost of two circline bulbs: $20.04, for a total cost of $37.32. Total Kwh usage: 57.6. Using the same estimate, I generate 89.28 pounds of CO2.

My circline bulbs will have another 12000 hours of service remaining, so the cost and environmental savings will be adding up, year and after year. Thrifty old me loves this!


Some interesting factoids on lighting from Adam Siegel, Dailykos blogger:
  • Lighting, today, accounts for 22 percent of US electrical use.
  • Much of this lighting is inefficiently used.
  • And, much of the lighting is inefficient. Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs) use roughly 26% of the electricity of traditional incandescent light bulbs (that date from the days of Thomas Edison) while lasting roughly eight times longer.
  • Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs), which are penetrating into more lighting markets virtually every day, use roughly 20% of the electricity of CFLs for comparative lighting requirements. In other words, LEDs offer the potential for an over 90% reduction in electricity use from incandescent bulbs and will last almost over 50 times as long.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Affirmations in action

I've been using a book called The Life We are Given, by George Leonard and Michael Murphy, to direct my thinking over the past few months. Leonard and Murphy were early leaders in the Human Potential Movement, and wrote their book to provide people with ideas for daily spiritual, physical, and mental practices that could help us grow. One of their main suggestions is that individuals construct personal affirmations, visionary statements or mantras written in the present tense that direct the positive steps they would like to take.

I've been repeating one of my affirmations over and over on this blog, which is to bring a beginner's body, mind, enthusiasm and zest to my art, writing, community work and tennis. Now I'm here to report on the results of putting this affirmation in action on the tennis court.

I have been involved in some competitive tennis matches organized as a round-robin. Eight women are matched up with a different person in the group every two weeks, play a singles match, and report on their results. Wednesday night I showed up for my appointed match, with my positive and zestful affirmation in mind. Even so, I was nervous, I wanted to win, and I could feel my heart rate speeding up. I lost the first set, although I thought I was playing pretty well. On the break between the sets, my opponent told me that she thought she was playing better than she had ever played. This intrigued me. As I was about to begin the second set, this thought occurred to me: what if my good progress on the tennis court was actually connected to my opponent's progress? Was it a mistake to focus on winning, when instead I could focus on the win-win proposition that both of us would grow in our skill and enjoyment? I immediately could feel that this was an excellent affirmation, and that I felt pleased and excited about affirming tennis as an avenue for both our growth, rather than winning. I experienced a surge of positive energy.

I went on to win the next set and the match after a lengthy tie-breaker. The match lasted 2 hours and 15 minutes, an extraordinarily long period of time for a middle aged person to play singles tennis. We both played well. But my biggest excitement was not only the win, but the power of the new affirmation. Could this idea, that my growth and progress was enhanced by the growth and progress of others, be applied to other areas?

My insight was confirmed by another writer for whom I have great respect. Beatrice Bruteau, in her book Radical Optimism, suggests that the ideal for human life in community is "inter-independence, not the sharing of lacks but the sharing of abundance." She has been studying the evidence from science and mathematics that "cooperation is a natural feature of an interactive system and that under certain conditions it is more advantageous than exploitation. We have been used to thinking of life as a "zero-sum" game (what one wins the other loses: positive gain and negative losses sum to zero); most of life is actually not zero-sum, but a game in which either all parties gain or all parties lose."

The negative effects of our zero-sum thinking have been demonstrated in many areas. The other night we saw the film, Who Killed the Electric Car? a documentary which describes how General Motors created a well-designed, quiet, fast, exhaust-free electric car in response to California air quality regulations, and then proceeded to work hard to rescind the regulations, dampen demand for the car, and collude with other manufacturers to destroy the infrastructure for electric cars. Why did they do so? After they created the car, they concluded that such cars, which require far less maintenance than our traditional cars with internal combustion systems, would destroy economies of dealers, who depend on our expenditures for oil changes and repairs to stay afloat. General Motors eventually took back the leased cars from their customers, and destroyed every one.

Think of the progress that we could be making in so many fields, if we learned to see ourselves as living in an inter-connected system in which our progress is mutually inter-dependent! My personal hope is to see how this new affirmation, which was tested and lived on the tennis court could be applied and lived out in other areas of my life.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Films and support for your environmental passions

Lately I’ve noticed more people interested in global warming, sustainability issues and environmental issues. Numerous churches, including my own, showed the movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” Without any prompting on my part, the Christian education director asked for advice on environmental films that could be shared with students. Then I ran into someone who was concerned about the number of people driving single occupancy vehicles into our city to work. “What could be done about it?” she wondered aloud. Yet another friend told me of the heroic efforts he had been making to bicycle to work. These are all anecdotes, yet they give me the feeling that something is stirring in this land.

I think a lot of us have had the illusion for a long time that we are the only ones who care about the environment. If you go to any earth day celebration, you’ll clear up that misconception. But I think the sense of isolation speaks to the absence of any sane or supportive rhetoric coming out of our state, regional and local political leaders for a long time.

Four years ago I told a candidate for the Minnesota House that I hoped he would speak out about environmental issues. In the course of the campaign, he did not do so. (He lost, probably for different reasons). All the stinking consultants were advising candidates to lay low on environmental issues. No one wanted to sound like an extremist. The right wing noise machine did a great job of marrying the word environmental to extremist. As a result, those of us who cared about the environment did our bit, got our recycling together, engaged in small-scale guerrilla warfare whenever a particularly noxious proposal gathered steam. But we felt we were alone. And now, in 2007, the times have changed, and we realize we aren’t alone. There probably was a huge silent majority who was similarly cowed.

It is impossible to underestimate the contribution Al Gore has made with his advocacy and especially An Inconvenient Truth. He is giving cover to people who care about the environment. It’s not an interest that is reserved for the paid environmentalists. A great number of people, artists, Sunday school teachers, farmers, hunters and business people care deeply about the environment.

For all who hope to educate themselves and others, a couple of films are highly recommended and can be affordably viewed by individuals and groups:

An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Available from any DVD store

The True Cost of Food. A 15 minute funny and educational film prepared by the Sierra Club. Available free or as a download.

Thirst. A documentary about the rush to privatize water around the world. 62 minutes. Can be purchased by an individual for $37.

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006) A documentary about a futuristic car that threatened the business model of those who created it. Available at any DVD outlet. 91 minutes.

End of Suburbia (2005). Introduces the topic of peak oil, and how oil depletion will cause the collapse of the American Dream. 77 minutes. Available from its producer for $26.

The Great Warming. A Canadian documentary on global warming. Premiered on PBS. Check out availability on their website. 90 minutes.

Further film viewing ideas can be explored at the Grinning Planet website. Or, if you are going to be near southeastern Minnesota, check out the multiple movie and speaker opportunities at the Frozen River Film Festival, January 25-28.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Values of the next generation

Yesterday I listened to Midday on Minnesota Public Radio, and the featured speaker was Judy Woodruff, who recently interviewed people aged 16-25 to learn more about their values. Woodruff, a journalist who has worked at CNN, NBC, and PBS, was surprised by some of the things she learned in her interviews, which were apparently corroborated by a larger study sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust.

She reported that people in this age group, which she calls "the Generation Next" are more liberal than their parents, but 81 percent say that "getting rich" is their main goal, while 51% want to be famous. These are mind-boggling figures that reflect either incredible optimism or incredible naivete. The only way we can make sense of these changing values is to realize that human consciousness itself is in a continual process of flux, so that our value orientations are not those of our parents or our children. Value orientations evolve based on a complex series of life changes, variations in world conditions, and new sources of information that form each generation.

I've blogged before about Spiral Dynamics, the developmental theory that says that human consciousness evolves, so that as a baby we are focused on survival, as a child we want to exert our power, then gradually we learn to follow rules, and later we become focused on personal fulfillment in a rather calculated way. This latter stage of development is called the Orange Meme. In the book Spiral Dynamics, the orange meme is described as follows:
  • Strive for autonomy and independence
  • Seek out 'the good life' and material abundance
  • Progress through searching out the best solution
  • Enhance living for many through science and technology
  • Play to win and enjoy competition
  • Learn through tried and true experience.

The Orange Meme is non-dogmatic, achievement-oriented, image-conscious, competitive, calculating and strategic. According Ken Wilber, the Orange Meme is seen in "The Enlightenment, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged , Wall Street, emerging middle classes around the world, cosmetics industry, trophy hunting, colonialism, the Cold War, fashion industry, materialism, secular humanism, liberal self-interest." He adds that Orange Meme individuals represent " 30% of the population, 50% of the power."

I had to laugh when I saw the cartoon at the top of this blog, which was originally published in the New Yorker. It's a cartoon that expresses the value chasm between people who are in the Orange Meme, and other value orientations like my own that are more focused on collective challenges. The Generation Next probably is proceeding with a high degree of optimism, determination, and pragmatism, which are not bad qualities. We need to have some of these qualities if we are to have any hope of attacking issues like global warming, avian flu, or peak oil. I would be unable to labor away on the various sustainability projects that I enjoy without a certain amount of optimism about the ability of people to make change, either individually or in groups. But my will to work is motivated by pessimism about the environment and long-term economic trends. So I suspect that "Generation Next" will be in for a rude awakening.

Many of the people who deny global warming is happening, or would rather close their eyes to the phenomenon, have an Orange Meme value orientation. On the other hand, some may be hoping to make a profit from the challenges posed by these "end of the world scenarios." Regardless of your orientation, I just discovered a new site that features actual scientists discussing climate change issues. Check out Real Climate for yourself. I'll put the listing up on my blogroll of honor.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Getting organized

On Sunday a group of people met at our church to watch "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary on global warming. About 70 people showed up for the movie, and 40 stayed afterwards to discuss their reactions to the fil and possible local responses.

The solutions that were offered to cut our carbon emissions varied widely. One person wanted to leave notes on the windshields of cars left idling outside filling stations (suggesting they turn the car off!). Another wanted to question state subsidies for corn ethanol plants. A third wanted people to participate more thoughtfully in recycling programs. Every time people meet around a table to discuss solutions to global warming, there are many ideas and little consensus.

We invited people to come to at least one more meeting to dicuss how our congregation could craft responses to the implications of global warming. At least 20 indicated a willingness to do so. What is the best way to make use of this willingness? I've been reading about how to be an effective organizer and have yet to come to a good conclusion.

Here are some issues that affect the organizing task:

1. How do you find enough people who are willing to spend time to learn about the topic of global warming? What is the best vehicle and strategy for learning?

2. Is it best to keep working with people who already believe global warming is a serious problem, or is it important to start arousing the consciousness of those who are unaware of this issue?

3. How do you reach young people, who are so plugged into their Ipods and other forms of electronic communication that they are already overwhelmed and over-dosed on information?

4. What arouses people's self-interest around activism on global warming? It's all very well to say that we should worry about the polar bears, but most people need a more direct connection to the issue to understand why they should care.

5. Is the best strategy to find a worthwhile project combatting global warming, say planting trees, that allows people to create a connection to the topic through action?

I am going to be researching answers to these questions. In the meantime, I started re-reading a classic book from the 1970's, Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky. It is amazing how fresh and topical this work sounds 35 years after it was written. What I appreciate about Alinsky is how he manages to be pragmatic and optimistic at the same time. He regards organizing as a creative process, which is certainly part of its attraction for me.

Here are some of the quotes that seemed so fresh and prescient to me:
" As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be."
"Dostoevski said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the masses of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future."
" a political relativist. He accepts the late Justice Learned Hand's statement that "the mark of a free man is that ever-gnawing inner uncertainty as to where or not he is right."

According to Alinsky, the world is divided into 3 types of people: the Haves, who are dedicated to maintaining the status quo; the Have Nots, who are resigned and fatalistic, but have glowing embers of hope inside, and the Have-a-Little-Want Mores (i.e., the middle class), who are tepid and rooted in inertia, but nonetheless have been the source of the great change leaders of the past centuries. Alinsky cites Gandhi, Lenin, and Thomas Jefferson as some of the many change agents from this group.

The Haves are doing their best to ignore global warming. The Have Nots are too preoccupied with survival to pay much attention to it, but they will suffer the most when gas prices start to rise again, when electricity costs rise because of the need for more air conditioning, and when social systems of support get overwhelmed by the rising costs of obesity, and the health care impacts of global warming.

I will pass along two websites that seem to provide a good introductory overview to community organizing. The First is the Neighborhood Funders Group Toolbox on Organizing. The second that is particularly germaine to organizing around global warming, is the Citizen's Handbook, a community-building resource from Vancouver, British Colombia. An excellent resource for congregations interested in organizing around global warming is the Minnesota-based Congregations Caring for Creation, which has lots of excellent ideas and resources.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

What does sustainability mean?

When I was planning a week-long public relations campaign to persuade people to walk, carpool, bike, and take the bus, I was going to call it, "Sustainable Transportation Week." A PR consultant told me that I should change the name, because no one understands what sustainable means.

Since this blog purports to be about sustainability, I thought it would be worth something to try to understand the word and idea with more depth and clarity. In the process, I discovered a fun new website on the origin of words. I looked up the word "sustain" and found that it comes from old French-sustenir: "hold up, endure," and also is related to sustenance, the "action of sustaining life by food." The term sustainable growth dates from 1965. This is a fairly recent use of the term and may account for why it is still confusing to some people.

The term "sustainable" in general usage often refers to the preservation of natural resources. This morning I got going on this train of thought for a simple reason: I was thinking about serving refreshments at the upcoming showing on "An Inconvenient Truth," and wondered what kind of liquid refreshments to provide. Pop cans and plastic pop bottles aren't sustainable and don't preserve natural resources. Moreover, the demand for Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew and other kinds of carbonated beverages is an artifact of our poorly-designed, consumer-oriented society. It just takes a small amount of extra labor to substitute for the enormous waste of buying and disposing of commercial pop bottles. (I found a lovely recipe here for Southern Tea that I will make available for those at our movie showing who want a sweet drink with caffeine).

Does the goal of creating a sustainable world seem simple or arduous? I think it only seems arduous because we have become accustomed to both convenience and poor design. Every day I am reminded about the effects of poor design. I formerly worked as a city planner, "designing" neighborhoods like ours that are totally dependent on the car to provide access to grocery stores and other vital services. It is extremely difficult now that the neighborhood is built up to factor in such services. We love our house, which was built in 1976, but think that it was poorly designed from a sustainability perspective. For example, cathedral ceilings and an open floor plan make it easy for hot air to rise-so the inhabitant of the upstairs roasts while the downstairs occupant shivers. These are just two examples of the way poor designs make us use too many resources. A sustainable lifestyle is not wasteful of natural resources. More positively, living in a sustainable way contributes in a positive fashion, to helping life hold up and endure.

Living sustainably brings me back to my intention of bringing a beginner's body, mind, enthusiasm and zest to all that I do. It makes me think I can use this intention to discern the sustainability of my actions. Does this action add to my own sense of agency, enthusiasm and zest? Does it provide a similar opportunity for others?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Solar energy: attractive but not practical yet

Last year we decided to do some research on solar energy for our home. We happen to have a roof that is nicely oriented to the south, and doesn’t have any leafy trees obscuring the rays of the sun.

Minnesota’s solar resource is said to be as good as Austin, Texas or Jacksonville, Florida. According to this map (, that is true. But sunshine states like Arizona, California, and Nevada, are clearly the prime locations, with larger numbers of predictably sunny days.

We asked a solar contractor to come to our home and evaluate it for solar panels. Here is all the practical stuff we found out: a grid-connected 2 KW solar array would take care of approximately ½ the electrical energy needs of our household. Our household consumes 6,800 kilowatt hours (kwh) per year, somewhat below the national average in the U.S. of 10,654 kwh.

The cost of a 2 KW solar array would be $18,000. Minnesota provides tax credits of $2,000 per KW, so that would reduce our cost to $14,000. This is assuming we could get the tax credits. The State Department of Commerce’s website says that they have a backlog of applications waiting for the funds available. The federal government would provide an additional credit of $2,000. That would reduce our cost to $12,000 upfront.

Electrical energy costs an average of $.077 per kwh. This means our annual electrical expenses are $525. An investment of $12,000 would cut that cost in half, to $262.50. Even if electrical costs continue to increase by about 7% a year, as they have over the past 6 years, it would take a long time to pay off our investment.

The biggest cost is constructing solar arrays is the cost of silicon, a mineral found in sand. According to, solar-grade silicon is expensive to make, and prices pf silicon have increased from “$25/kilogram in 2004 to around $200/kilogram in 2006.” This is having a negative impact on the growth of solar power.

A friend of mine has a house that is completely off the electrical grid. Between Christmas and the New Year, we had a string of extremely cloudy days. His batteries got very low because he was unable to produce any solar power. He cheerfully got by with candles, but admitted that his wife was not as good-humored about the inconvenience. This same friend informed me of a new technology that hasn’t reached the commercial level. A company called Prism Solar Technologies in New York has apparently developed a method to concentrate the rays of the sun using holograms. This could cut the cost of solar modules by as much as 75%. Expect investor frenzies to follow any new technologies that can bring down the price of solar.

Until these new technologies become practical, solar energy is only a solution for the most environmentally motivated and well-heeled homeowner. This is one reason why those of us who want to cut our contributions to global warming must find other ways to do so. I’ll have more to say about this in the days ahead.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Subjecting a decision to the sniff test

Yesterday I spent five hours designing a submission to a community art project. The project involves the manufacture of 30 large great blue herons, which will be decorated by artists and financed by local sponsors. The aim of the project developers is “to support the development and promotion of arts projects with community longevity such as a community art center, a sculpture park, fine and performing arts projects or experiential community arts events.”

After my submission was complete, I started submitting it to the sniff test. My current sniff test relates to manifesting my intention, which is to “bring a beginner’s body, mind, enthusiasm and zest to my art, writing, community work, and tennis.” Did I bring enthusiasm and zest to the design project, and would I bring enthusiasm and zest to other aspects of the creation, which could include working to raise funds from sponsors, in addition to spending long hours executing my design on a 7 foot tall heron?

I am sorry to say, the project didn’t meet my sniff test. I think I came up with a fairly innovative scheme for the heron, but execution of the scheme did not generate enthusiasm or zest, and I felt even less enthused by the prospect of laboriously painting tiny fish, frogs and aquatic beetles on the heron, should my submission be accepted by the jurors. So why did I spend so much time on the submission? Because the project met my need to be identified in the community as an artist. I have mentioned my current difficulties in explaining myself, here and here, in previous blogs.

One insightful commenter responded to my conundrum, asking; “What if re-instating the ego consistently at dinner parties and such had the effect of making us less alive? What if all the talk of self actually concretized the self, solidified the structures, making it harder to be free to become a fluid alive being?”

I am currently reading the book Radical Optimism, by scientist/theologian Beatrice Bruteau. It’s a lovely, lovely book. Bruteau says “we have developed a cult of the descriptive self.” We become so identified with our descriptions, with the image we have of ourselves, that we lose contact with the real person who exists beyond the descriptive self. The real person is that aspect of the self that is not defined by comparing and contrasting ourselves to others. When we identify with our image, we separate ourselves from others; when we lose our identity, we can remain connected. We also experience more freedom. Bruteau says: “we no longer experience ourselves as a being of fixed nature, of static reality. We have more of a sense of ourselves as the process-of-being, as an ever-renewed act, a continuous motion of living, which is God’s ever-present act of creating us. Looking toward other persons, we sense them also as creative acts of God, being made fresh from moment to moment, not limited to the descriptions of their past qualities or acts.” The challenge of living the beginner's body and mind includes acting from the real self, as opposed to the descriptive self. The result will be more freedom and more connection to others.

I guess the idea of working on a project so that I can maintain my descriptive identity doesn’t meet the sniff test. As an observer of this project from its inception, I feel compassion and appreciation for the organizers. How difficult it is to design a community project that will meet the sniff test of the community as well as the participants! I think there is an art to designing such projects. This seems like a fruitful subject for future blogging. Welcome to 2007!