I wrote this article for the Huffington Post. Click here to see it in its original context.
Last week I visited Rhode Island’s central landfill to do some research on recycling and composting. As I sat in an office overlooking the dump, I couldn’t help but marvel at the endless stream of trucks filling the valley with what I like to call the by-products of bad design and carelessness. Bad design because almost nothing we buy is designed to be re-used at the end of its life, and carelessness because so much of what we discard could be re-used or recycled if only the items were placed in the proper bin. All this got me thinking about the ethics of consumption, and what it would mean to eliminate the concept of waste.
Being Less Bad is No Good
Under the current model of consumption it is very difficult to be an ethical consumer. One can essentially choose between “bad” and “less bad” products; organic and free trade labels help, but greenwashing has become an insidious problem, making it difficult to distinguish truly green advances from baseless claims. But even more importantly, for the conscious consumer consumption is a necessary evil at best, and a scourge on the Earth at worst. What we forget is that all living things consume, the only difference is that humans are the only life forms that actually deplete, destroy and pollute natural resources. That doesn’t have to be the case. It’s possible to manufacture products that are healthy for ecosystems, human society and the corporate bottom line.
I wrote this article for the Huffington Post. The article can be seen in its original context here
Last Thursday Al Gore gave a speech, the full text of which can be read here, that challenged America to “to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.” It was a speech that should have inspired and excited Americans of all walks of life at least as much as, if not more than, President Kennedy’s famous speech calling on America to put a man on the moon within a decade. Instead, Mr. Gore’s idea has been met with a chorus of criticism, with the naysayers claiming that it would be too costly, too impractical, and too risky to attempt to meet such a goal.
Apollo and Gore’s “Moon Shot"--A Flawed Comparison
The comparisons between America’s mission to the moon and Gore’s “moon shot” proposal, while useful, are flawed. Both represent great challenges, yet it must be remembered that in 1961 we did not possess the technology to get to the moon; we do, however, have the technology to achieve 100% renewable energy. But perhaps more importantly, although the Apollo program was great for national pride and beating the Soviet Union, it was by no means essential to our nation. Switching to renewable energy, on the other hand, can not only dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, it can also help us regain our stature in the world, create jobs, rein in unpredictable energy costs, lower health care costs, get us off foreign oil (provided we also electrify our transportation system) and force American companies to innovate in ways that will be good for them and good for America.
Gore Gives an Electrifying Speech
Yesterday Al Gore gave an electrifying speech (the full text of which can be read here) that challenged America “to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.” That’s right: no “reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050” or “generate 10% of electricity from renewables by 2020.” Rather, Gore issued a challenge that both captures the enormity of the challenges we face and forces us--all Americans--to devote our passion, creativity and genius toward creating a healthy, clean, and just America. Of course, meeting the challenge will require not only that the government provide strong incentives for renewable energy, it will also entail getting all sectors of the economy to radically change how they think about, procure and use energy. And while we already have all the technology we need to produce 100% of our electricity from renewable energy, we lack the transmission lines, control systems and policies that will be needed to make that a reality. Old jobs will be lost, and hundreds of thousands of new ones will be created. Where once rooftops contributed to the urban heat island effect and nothing else, solar panels will silently, poetically convert solar energy into electricity; off-shore and on-shore wind turbines will sprout up to harvest the breeze and, in the process, protect land by making it more valuable; in short, the impacts of shifting to 100% renewable electricity in a decade will be far-reaching, all-encompassing and deeply transformative.
Can Americans still think big?
The only question now is, have Americans lost their ability to think big and boldly? Have 8 years of the Bush Administration made us so complacent that we no longer believe in our ability to meet great challenges? I for one can say that as a young American, I am extremely excited and inspired by Gore’s challenge. I want to devote my energy to renewable energy, peace and prosperity. Just as Obama’s campaign has made so many Americans--young and old--feel hopeful about the country, Gore’s speech makes me feel hopeful and excited about the future of the world. There are simply too many exciting trends going on for us to sit back and feel there is nothing to be done about climate change, poverty and pollution.
Note: I write four articles a week for TreeHugger.com. I will occasionally post them here. You can read this article in its original context here
Caught at a Red Light
Last night I was biking home from the movie theater when I got caught at one of those red lights that cyclists dread. If you are a cyclist, you know the situation: you’re on a small road and need to turn onto a larger road. Unfortunately, the light only changes if a car trips a sensor under the road. Your options now are limited: you can either run the light, wait for a car to trip the sensor, or climb off your bike and push the cross-walk signal (if there is one.) Well, at first I waited for a car to come, to no avail. Nor did the street have a cross-walk signal. My only option was to run the light, but as a law abiding cyclist, I wasn’t terribly excited about the idea. One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing cyclists running lights and stop signs, riding on the wrong side of the road, etc. After all, while motorists often don’t seem to know how to share the road and put others in danger, cyclists greatly damage their image by not obeying the laws of the road.
A Bicycle is Not A Car
I ended up running the light after making sure there were no cars in the vicinity, but that’s not the point. I tell this story because it got me thinking about the fact that while cyclists have the same rights--and responsibilities--as motorists, a bicycle is NOT a car, and perhaps shouldn’t be treated as such. (Of course, I believe a bicycle can do everything a car can!) Conversely, if we are to really view bicycles in the same way as cars, at a a minimum from a legal perspective, then we have done a pitiful job of providing the requisite education and infrastructure to make that a reality.
Among my numerous ongoing projects (which include my masters thesis and starting a company) I’m also working with several Brown students to create a student-run micro-credit program in Providence, Rhode Island. Initially, I had the idea to do something like this around 5 months ago when I read Muhammad Yunus’ autobiography Banker to the Poor. Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh 30 years ago, and bringing micro-credit to the fore as a means of addressing poverty. After I read his book, I began researching the possibility of starting a similar initiative locally.
Micro-Credit Serves a Need
Basically, the idea behind micro-credit is that the world’s poorest individuals are often, by necessity, also the world’s most entrepreneurial people. In order to survive they have to find creative ways to create and sell goods or services. What they lack, then, is not energy or ideas, but rather access to capital. As a result, they are forced to rely on loan sharks who charge them exorbitant interest rates, keeping them in perpetual poverty no matter how successful their business is. And of course traditional banks don’t bother providing loans to the poor, both because they view them as an unacceptable credit risk and because the transaction costs of dealing with loans as small as $10 USD are too high for them.
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Click here to download a PDF of my complete thesis. Questions and comments are much appreciated!
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