The environmentalist who likes nuclear power, megacities, and genetic engineering

You’ve got to love an environmentalist who isn’t an end of the world doomsayer.

Stewart Brand is a guy who breaks all the “rules” of environmentalism. Brand was one of the original Merry Pranksters in San Francisco, and is the guy who published the Whole Earth Catalog. He is featured in today’s NY Times.

He is now promoting environmental heresies, as he called them in Technology Review. He sees genetic engineering as a tool for environmental protection: crops designed to grow on less land with less pesticide; new microbes that protect ecosystems against invasive species, produce new fuels and maybe sequester carbon.

He thinks the fears of genetically engineered bugs causing disaster are as overstated as the counterculture’s fears of computers turning into Big Brother. “Starting in the 1960s, hackers turned computers from organizational control machines into individual freedom machines,” he told Conservation magazine last year. “Where are the green biotech hackers?”

He’s also looking for green nuclear engineers, and says he feels guilty that he and his fellow environmentalists created so much fear of nuclear power. Alternative energy and conservation are fine steps to reduce carbon emissions, he says, but now nuclear power is a proven technology working on a scale to make a serious difference.

“There were legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear power, but now that we know about the threat of climate change, we have to put the risks in perspective,” he says. “Sure, nuclear waste is a problem, but the great thing about it is you know where it is and you can guard it. The bad thing about coal waste is that you don’t know where it is and you don’t know what it’s doing. The carbon dioxide is in everybody’s atmosphere.”

Mr. Brand predicts that his heresies will become accepted in the next decade as the scientific minority in the environmental movement persuades the romantic majority. He still considers himself a member of both factions, just as in the days of the Merry Pranksters, but he’s been shifting toward the minority.

“My trend has been toward more rational and less romantic as the decades go by,” he says. “I keep seeing the harm done by religious romanticism, the terrible conservatism of romanticism, the ingrained pessimism of romanticism. It builds in a certain immunity to the scientific frame of mind.”

Albuquerque, New Mexico part of the 2030 Challenge


I recently moved back to my home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico and was pleased to learn that my humble little desert town (now quickly growing city) is part of the 2030 Challenge which includes the cities of Chicago, Miami, and Seattle. The Challenge:

“…calls for an immediate 50-percent reduction in fossil fuel energy consumption in new and renovated buildings, and it seeks to eliminate fossil fuels from new construction by the year 2030. In other words, within 25 years, cities that manage to meet the 2030 Challenge will not use oil.”

The specific goals in Albuquerque include:

1. First, all newly constructed City buildings should be designed to consume a maximum of one half of the average fossil fuel usage for that building category as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy.
2. Second, all renovated buildings should achieve the same 50-percent fossil fuel usage rate as new buildings.
3. Finally, all other municipal construction should employ green building practices to the greatest extent achievable.

The City of Albuquerque government website has lots more info on the program and other green programs in the city.

The 2030 Challenge website has all the goals of the program.

Colony Collapse Disorder devastates pollinating honeybees around the US

Today’s NY Times has a story that I had also heard recently on NPR, about giant numbers of pollinating honeybees inexplicably dying around the country. Beekeepers in Texas and on the east coast have experienced the biggest losses, although west coast beekeepers are also suffering. And no one knows exactly why.

Now, in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, bees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply never returning to their colonies. And nobody knows why. Researchers say the bees are presumably dying in the fields, perhaps becoming exhausted or simply disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold.

As researchers scramble to find answers to the syndrome they have decided to call “colony collapse disorder,” growers are becoming openly nervous about the capability of the commercial bee industry to meet the growing demand for bees to pollinate dozens of crops, from almonds to avocados to kiwis.

Along with recent stresses on the bees themselves, as well as on an industry increasingly under consolidation, some fear this disorder may force a breaking point for even large beekeepers.

A Cornell University study has estimated that honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts. “Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food,” said Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

The bee losses are ranging from 30 to 60 percent on the West Coast, with some beekeepers on the East Coast and in Texas reporting losses of more than 70 percent; beekeepers consider a loss of up to 20 percent in the offseason to be normal.

The 18Seconds Movement


In the last few weeks there have been some very interesting developments in regards to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs): California and Australia debating plans to phase out incandescent bulbs, Walmart offering the bulbs for cheaper than they have ever been sold for before, etc.

Now comes the launch of the website and campaign. This is a joint effort by and Walmart which serves to promote the use of CFLs. An AP article about states:

A coalition of private companies and government agencies is launching a grassroots marketing campaign to persuade more Americans to help combat global warming by using energy-efficient light bulbs.

The 18Seconds movement is aimed at getting Americans to replace electricity-wasting incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs that are up to five times more efficient and last several times longer.

The campaign — named for the average time it takes to change a light bulb — is scheduled to launch Thursday at the Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose.

The coalition includes Yahoo Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Environmental Defense, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, U.S. mayors, retailers, religious organizations and conservation groups.

You can read more from a blog post from Lawrence Bender.

The website is pretty cool as well. It is interactive, so you can see counters that show how many compact fluorescent bulbs are being sold in your area. There is also a link to a tool where you can install a counter on your own website. Plus, there’s lots of info on the benefits of CFLs. There are also ways to get your friends and neighbors involved in the movement.

While switching to compact fluorescent bulbs is a great start, there are lots of other simple and practical ways to help the environment. Read our list of environmental tips here.

Homeowners, builders start to see advantages of water efficiency

Today’s Wall Street Journal talks about the green trend in water conservation, where builders and homeowners are starting to design so that they waste less water. Utra low flow toilets, low water plants, and better faucets.

The EPA’s new WaterSense program aims to encourage water conservation among manufacturers, consumers and developers. The program, similar to the government’s energy-savings incentive program Energy Star, this year began offering certification for landscape and irrigation professionals that ensure they use water-efficient standards. According to the EPA, the average household uses as much as 30% of all water outdoors — and more in drier climates. Nearly half of that water can be wasted through runoff or evaporation.

The program is also encouraging development of water-friendly products. Several weeks ago, it finalized labeling specifications for super low-flow toilets — manufacturers can earn a WaterSense label if the toilet has a 1.28 gallon flush or less. The EPA says WaterSense certified toilets can save at least 4,000 gallons of water a year. Current low-flow toilets flush with 1.6 gallons and older toilets can use between four to six gallons of water per flush, the agency says.

While they have installed low-flow showerheads and toilets in most projects, developers say the real water-savings comes from curbing waste outdoors. Many feature high-tech irrigation systems in the common areas of their developments and offer them as upgrades to homeowners. For example, McStain Neighborhoods in Colorado will offer homeowners an upgrade to a “smart” system in its three new projects that senses rain and will cut back on water accordingly. They can also add a so-called weather station that will calculate local weather data for more precise watering. The systems run about $400 each.

I hadn’t heard about the new standard in ultra low flow toilets before. I have looked at the dual flush Toto toilet and considered buying it, but I heard bad reviews about it not staying clean.

Anyone ever used the Kohler Cimmaron 1.28 GPF ecosmart technology toilet that they talk about?