Wednesday, October 26, 2011

V515x5 Transportation

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

After going over last week’s videos, clips and chapters on atmospheric change and air quality issues, it’s easy to see that transportation – be it personal, commercial, or public – plays a large role in our emissions quandary.  But our options for change seem fairly sparse, what with a national transportation infrastructure devoted to the automobile, a culture of personal space and privacy, and mighty political hand of the well-financed energy and industry giants…or do they?

As valid as these concerns may be, it is unwise to unduly limit ourselves by the bounds of traditional thinking or the self-oppression of social and political fear.  Innovative technologies, creative solutions, and a willingness to test our assumptions are already available and, by my estimate, growing in popularity and application.

Roseland captures some of these: the time-space shrinkage afforded by advanced information technologies (like the strange experience of giving a “webinar”); the tried, true, and bountiful benefits of the bicycle (easily my favorite activity, as a child); a host of tools for traffic and transportation-demand management; cost-centered incentives for parking deterrence and HOV encouragement; as well as positive marketing for tram, light-rail, and other public transportation systems.

Appreciative Inquiry

As I’m apt to push data and figures that paint less than a rosy picture of our collective fate, how we get around is subject to a repertoire of personal strategies that we can chose among, every day (often multiple times per day).  Sure the same could be said for energy management, recycling,  and water usage, but the time intervals we spend in transit are long in comparison to the miniscule moments it takes to chose the off-switch, the extra distance of the free-throw shot over the trashcan and into the recycling bin, or the pre-cycle quick-rinse. 

This may not seem like a big deal, and the argument could be made that the cumulative time spent, in those aggregated micro-moments, might be longer than our total time in transit.  However, I feel that there is a psychological component to those micro-moments, that plays on our biologically limited attention (Herbert Simon), our restricted ability to picture our future desires (Khanemen & Tversky), and our buggy algorithms for non-sequential addition (someone prolific I can’t remember).  It’s easy to undervalue the instantaneous decisions – either in terms of our real preferences, or in terms of their cumulative effects.  Leaving on the houselights, brushing with the water running, and being fine with the free-throw trashcan instead of the 3-pointer recycle-bin…these all seem inconsequential, in the discrete, disconnected moments in which they occur.

Travelling, on the other hand, you pick a mode and you’re in it for the long-haul…even if that haul is the 10 minute walk to the grocery, down the street.  Sure the average shower lasts longer than that (though, I’d argue, it shouldn’t), but I feel that – beyond the time-dedication necessary in the decision – there are, here too, psychological effects that increase our perceived duration of a travel-event.  With lights, water, and recycling, the choice is limited, if not in time, than in space.  Travelling, on the other hand, not only are you expending time but you’re crossing relatively substantial distance, too…at least in comparison to the average distance one crosses running the faucet, tossing the trash, or flicking the switch.  Since our brains have evolved to separate these otherwise entangled dimension(s), it’s plausible to suppose that we (internally) calculate them separately, such that there may be a subconscious tendency to sense them additively. 

Given our increasing proclivity for multi-tasking and just-in-time everything, it can be easy to consider different transportation modes in terms of marginal productivity – in this instance, time saved…yet as momentary as this decision might be, we end up being stuck with it for a while (and might perceive it as being an even longer while).  So transportation then becomes an event, not just a moment, and its criteria and consequences are, thus, subjected to calculations on continuous moments, making something for strategies, rather than tactics.

Somehow, all this is to say that the seemingly large, structural impediments to our choice of green transportation, might feasibly be counterbalanced by our enhanced appreciation of its consequences.  And this makes me hopeful.  As do the examples below.  Feast on some fun information!

Technology Buff or Retro-fit?

Believe me, I can completely understand why – though awesome in many, many ways – the Segue was doomed to social marginalization.  However, there are a number of other things that I still can’t quite figure out.  Of course, my natural intuition is that its political-economic, but, as with the segue there are cultural considerations as well.

Take, for instance, this article from the BBC News website on “…bicycles and cars in a war for American streets” (  Though a large part of the issue is in the realm industrial design and urban planning, it seems that such schemes could easily –  a long time ago – adapted to pedestrian and bicycle traffic; though I’m obviously not certified in planning, it would seem to me that a little bit of foresight – and certainly some calculations – would’ve revealed that cars in a densely-populated, urban area are a recipe for getting nowhere.  And, honestly – though I know many of you are eco-travelers that dare to hit the streets more often than I – every time I get on my bike the first thing that pops into my mind is a head-injury, which, for anyone, let alone a geeky academic, would be catastrophic [yes, I have a helmet, but it often feels constrictive, and still leaves open a host of other, equally debilitating injuries].  But, truly, if there were more bike lanes, I would surely be bolder. 

What’s more, it has always seemed incredible to me that the sprawling landmass of the US hasn’t been connected through a vast network of rail-lines.  I mean, I know that, to some extent, it is…but the fact that this technology was left for dead – even though we still saddle-up our coal-trains for long-distance resource transport and (limited) human travel – is somewhat disheartening…and worrisome.  Again, the infrastructural additions and retro-fitting needed to accomplish this might pose too high of barriers at the ballot box and bank account; but, I’m confident that the payoffs would be substantial…and much more sustainable.  Thankfully, another BBC News article has found a way to lend me more hope for this:

Constructing Communities

And last, but not least, in my outpouring of optimism, is the potential for designing truly livable cities.  A friend of mine is an architecture student at the University of Miami; and, ever since reading Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, he’s been really enthusiastic about the potential for community design.  What’s more, he got me reading some more clips off his syllabi, much of it being rooted in an architectural design philosophy of “New Urbanism.”

If you recall Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, you might remember the cheery, bright, incredibly neighborly village of “Seahaven,” where Carrey played out his microcosmic life, for all the world to see.  Though the implications of this were exaggerated for comedic effect, there is something to be said for such a close knit community.  And, in fact – ironically enough – this particular community is real.  Well, I don’t know how realistically it portrayed attributes – like that extremely queso-covered joy-joy – shared by community members, but I do know that the “set” was actually the town of Seaside, Florida.  Though not everyone would really be comfortable with the idea of living in a “master-planned community,” it at least serves as a prototype, displaying the potential for even sub-urban integration.

Of course, this is something that I’m still learning about, but Zach (my buddy) gave me a host of links to free lectures by the architecture faculty, which, unfortunately, I’ll have to post in a little while, because they’re in the bookmarks of my other computer.

BUT, what I can offer you is something similar and just as valuable…free lectures from M.I.T!!! (click “selected lecture notes” and feel free to browse the pdfs):

Urban Transportation Planning:

Urban Transportation, Land Use, and the Evnironment:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Personal Project Parade (Update 2)

Bloomington COOPerates

Farmer’s Market Booth:
A lot of action since the last report.  The info-booth had to undergo two rounds of modification: (1st) removal of the IYC logo from visibility, as there’s an online application to request public use of it, which has been submitted and we are awaiting response; (2nd) the windy-weather, blowing in the cold, is, predictably, devastating to a paper and foam-board based presentation, so I spent the first hour of last Saturday trying to find more aerodynamic arrangements for the distributional materials and display.  Though the final display is less visually captivating, the organizations we promote were all able to be visually represented (barring the credit unions, the rural energy co-op, and some that haven’t yet submitted any promotional materials).

The website has finally been upgraded to the point of legitimate functionality, with only a few details left to resolve (linking the co-ops’ calendars with the master calendar on the website and adding some of the co-ops only recently brought to attention).  You can find it by Googling “Bloomington COOperates” or by clicking on the link below:
This is also listed on the business card, along with a local phone number and email contact:

Hopefully, tonight, I’ll be able to load some pdfs into the “Resources” link and include some more links to the national and international IYC events and related organizations.

Official Status:
A friend has keyed me in to some resources that will help me get through 501c3 tax-status application as soon as possible, and I’ve by-use trademarked the brand and logo, with an application for that submitted, too
Registered for the Indiana Cooperative Summit and the NASCO conference in Michigan.  Very excited.  Great places to learn and network.

The rest of the business has been time-consuming to the extent that I’ve not yet been able to reach-out to potentially collaborative university staff; however, I’ve begun to circulate the idea, so maybe the ground will be fertile for planting a seed of suggestion by the time I have the time to do so.  Hopefully will pick up some tips-&-tricks for networking and collaboration from the conferences.

Co-op Fair:
The form and function of this aspect of the project is still being developed through a series of conversations with the relevant stakeholders, which is just, I believe, how it should be! Personal-investment in suggestions promotes buy-in, which we all know is critical.  If we can’t get it going by the end of November, we’ll at least have plans nearly finalized.

Compost Collaborative
This has been profoundly more difficult than anticipated.  I underestimated the resources and, more so, the time necessary to complete a personal pilot of the in-apartment composting unit.  Until I’m sure I have it down, it would feel irresponsible to request participation by my neighbors or the BCL.  On the bright side, I’ve collected a lot of good data on the project (mostly observational, of course) and have been trying to document this in pictures, along the way.  Irony of ironies, when I went to add the red-wigglers Laura was kind enough to donate, to my surprise, the organic materials and paper products added to the composting unit had already broken down!  It was going so slow, for so long, and generating no (or imperceptible amounts of) heat, so I was convinced something had gone wrong and that the worms were a necessary bail-out for the original model. 

Now that they’re in there, the composting does progress exponentially faster, to the point where I’m almost afraid that I don’t have enough organic material and paper products to add and keep them feasting and happy.  However, some unexpected developments have occurred, which I did not anticipate: (1) it looks as though some pumpkin seeds found their way into the mix and have decided that the box was a great place to make a living…they’re kindof fun to observe, but I’m betting they’re draining nutrients from the soil and may be threatening the health of the wiggly-jigglies; (2) it seems that some microscopic bugs have made a home there as well, prompting similar concerns.  Having emerged victorious from the prolonged fruit-fly insurgency, I’m wary of the new bugs and mean to consult with someone, with more expertise, about what they are, what they’ll do, and how to deal with them.  Still, there hasn’t been any spillover into my apartment so I am, certainly, happy for that.
Local Food
I’ve only been mildly successful in getting the bulk of my culinary supplies from local sources.  Sometimes I just can’t find an item I need or a reasonable substitute.  I suppose this means that I need to get a bit more creative in my purchasing.  HOWEVER, I’ve been brought-in to an awesome underground network of DIY food processing, specifically fermenting.  A friend has been nice enough to donate a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY), so that I can kick-start a home-brewing Kombucha project.  It’s awesome because I’ve heard a number of acquaintances mention their own excitement about being gifted a SCOBY by a friend, so I knew it existed and that it was a person-to-person affair.  What’s more, this is totally legal, as it is fermented but only contains a trace concentration of alcohol.

Kombucha is a drink created through a fermentation process, wherein the SCOBY is simply added to a large batch of previously brewed and cooled tea. More on the history and some instructions next time.

After my first batch exceeded my wildest expectations, I got really excited and invested in upgrading my production infrastructure, so that I can be working on new batches continuously and have enough of it to drink every day.  I’ve even acquired a couple of re-usable, flip-top bottles, so that I can refrigerate finished batches and bring a bottle to work or to class.   Right now I’m working on a batch of ginger kombucha and am tossing-in some Yaruba Mate for that energy kick.  Wildly exciting.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

V515x4 Energy Efficiency & Renewables

The Heart of the Matter

It would be hard to really estimate the total hours I've spent watching video lectures on sustainability concerns, at least a quarter of which revolve around the world's energy problems.  What's more, a large portion of my undergraduate research and conference presentation revolved around the so-called "resource curse," experienced by a number of developing-world mineral economies.  But, I gotta tell you, the variance among the ideas for resolving hydrocarbon problems is mind-boggling.  A great deal of this is probably owed to the fact that the list of problems is long and changes through time - as old problems are resolved by unanticipated developments and similar developments generate new ones.

What I am willing to say about the matter is that it is much more worrisome for fundamental reasons -- complex systems management,  path-dependency, and international political economy -- than for any of the specific problems that people have cataloged.  It's easier to be a critic than an innovator, but I don't mean to project that I grasp something unknown among the brilliant minds being applied to these problems, which I'll just refer to as "the energy problem."  For, indeed, these thought-leaders have proposed elegant solutions to seemingly intractable aspects of the energy problem.

Complexity and Comprehensivity

I'm especially a big fan of Amory Lovins.  This is his 2005 TED talk on the gist of his (co-authored) book Winning the Oil Endgame: Innovations for Profits, Jobs, and Security.  Its a bit lengthy, and a lot has happened since this book and lecture were published -- most notably the financial crisis -- however, the solutions he presents are impressively comprehensive -- everything from the energy markets, to vehicle production, to promoting sustainables, and more.
When discussing renewable energies and vehicle-advancement -- through the integration of cutting-edge materials science -- Lovins quickly passes-over a very critical assumption of his solution: a belief that this idea, these types of solutions, can help "create demand-pull and flip the market."  That raises a pretty sizable red-flag in my mind, as does any plan that relies on some sudden inflection in historically entrenched market and behavioral trends.

This passing comment is not enough to dismantle Lovins' argument, but it speaks to another point about comprehensive, optimistic solutions to durable problems:  the whole reason such solutions are designed to be comprehensive is, as I see it, owed to the fact that they deal with complex systems that are not amenable to predictable change in reaction to single policy instruments or linear plans of attack.  That being said, one of the oddities I find in contemporary sustainability science is an underappreciation of complexity.  Yes, complexity is duly noted in most work and there have been incredible advances in complex systems modelling that have yielded impressively accurate results.  But what worries me is the possibility of letting our analytical guard down, given the superficial assurance granted when new research or implementation ideas simply attempt to account for complexity.  Though this might warrant Captain Planet turning me into a tree, a friend and I have been debating the significance of some NASA data that was recently released, with accompanying analysis in the form of a research paper:

Though I find the authorship to be an absolute farce of respectable, objective journalism, my point in even bringing this up is that even our best models of complex systems -- in this instance, global climatological models -- can be derailed (or rendered in-need of recalibrating) by the revelation of new data or the obviation of previously unknown, critical feedback processes.

Path Dependence: Politics, Risk Aversion, & Tech "Lock-In" 

 Not all of the ingenious proposals for resolving the energy problem are as comprehensive and specific as Lovins', yet they are of comparable value.  Juan Enriquez makes the unique argument that a way to relieve some pressure from the energy problem is to apply to energy harvesting what we have already applied to agricultural harvesting:  citing the Green Revolution, Enriquez suggests that we "apply biological principles to avoid brute force."

Though I appreciate his emphasis on stepwise transition, Enriquez's proposal may be subject to some of the same problems affecting Lovins' argument.  Apart from the complexity critique, I feel like questions of political-economy are consistently ignored.  It is not enough for workable solutions to exist, not enough for them to be well-publicized, and not enough for them to be profitable.  Politics, human psychology, infrastructure, and political economy can have a robust tendency for generating lock-in: (Politics) how are agricultural and energy subsidies to be phased-out without causing deep political turmoil? (Psychology) how are legions of financiers and entrepreneurs to overcome a demonstrated tendency toward risk-aversion? If the status quo -- and the trajectory it projects -- are profitable enough, why take a large risk for somewhat larger returns? (Infrastructure) how do we counterbalance the huge capital investment costs of fixing energy grids? How do we usefully convert a motor-transport infrastructure? (Political economy) How are we to revolutionize production if current, international product cycles keep inefficient processes & products profitable?

Roseland's chapter provides a number of inspiring solutions to some of these problems, but not only do they focus on the infrastructural and the publicization of efficiency-->profit gains, they are, as in other chapters, spread over time and different states, with little study of the best, transferable practices that could be implemented across similar communities.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Personal Project Parade (Update 1)

Bloomington COOPerates 
It's been an interesting couple of weeks for the BCOOP project.  Step 8 was quickly rendered impossible and there was no time to develop an adequate website; however, the project seems to have been well received by the coop and the collective communities.  I've been happy to help and give what promo I can.  It'll be a blast to get to meet some of these folks that I didn't know before and it seems there are two co-op conferences coming up, so there are like-minds to be networked.
As for things to do:

(1) Get out the emails that I owe.

(2) Get the website (or, at least, a well-linked blog) to go live this week, if nothing else than to have something for the first listserv email launches to reference.

(3) Conversations! Lot's of great people to meet, who might be interested in the project.

(4) Conference registration, lots of phone calls, and begin the campus-oriented leg of the journey.  Hopefully these will all be mutually reinforcing. 

(5) Infrastructural improvement. The absurd struggle to make a workable booth is described below; and, though I'm happy with how it turned-out, a priority next-step is upgrading to a printed banner; getting a friend in graphic design to help draft a logo (pro bono); actually remember to put the email address, phone number, and web address on the main signs and/or banner; and, if I can afford it, one of those five-point box-tents that a number of the other booths and vendors have.

Launching at the Farmer's Market was, well, a learning experience.

BCOOP at the Farmer's Market

Though you might think I'm squinting from the force of my grin -- maybe at the thought of finally turning a pile of paper, styrofoam, duct-tape, and tacks into a respectable info-booth -- it was much more likely that I was taking a 30 millisecond micro-nap.  Work and life have both, in the best of ways, had the volume turned-up in the last 10 days, so to do all the things I needed and wanted to do -- with undivided attention, personal investment, and quality -- my Zzz's, once again, had to be voted off the island.  

The raffle / listserv sign-up was less popular than I would've hoped; still, I think a good deal of that can be improved for next week and, further, I had a lot of great conversations with interesting people in the community, which was a success in itself.   I fully understand how people fall in love with this town. 

I was happy to see a number of people from BCL stop by, but I gotta give credit to Melanie for coming-in at just the right time and really getting the board-presentation off the ground.  Gotta represent my roommate, too: even though I'm pretty sure I woke him up -- scrambling at 7:45am to get the sign ready and keep everything in order -- his first reaction was to offer his time and help, which was perfectly timed and absolutely necessary.  And, of course, I gotta thank our resident photographer  : )

Reels on Wheels: 

Status: Cancelled   (no time; at least not this time)

Compost Collaborative:  
Still wandering through phase one.  After putting down a violent, fruit-fly insurrection, I realized that something had to change (that, and I felt the need to once again feel comfortable having company over).  Thankfully, I'm getting the verms this week, so things could change quickly and in my favor.  Until then, that box is sitting outside and that floor is getting mopped.  Can't spread a model 'til I know that it works (and how to work it).