Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Limits to Growth, Final Version

Increasing urban density is a false solution to human habitation and the resulting climate change we're experiencing. It's not just the traffic and crowding, it's the expanding footprint of human activity that is creating the heat, pollution and carbon buildup, as well as the consumption of resources beyond what this planet can provide. The destruction of common assets and planetary resources are driven by human population growth; there isn't another species on earth that consumes as much as humanity does.

"Solutions" that involve packing people together and reducing transit aren't addressing the real issue of resource depletion and carbonization of the biosphere, it's just ducking the problem and denying a decent future to our descendants. It's time to face the realities of slowing population growth by all intelligent means, before nature takes care of that situation in her own fashion. With global population expected to surpass 7 billion people this year, the staggering impact on an overtaxed planet is becoming more and more evident.

It's been a relief to see this population limit being discussed recently in the popular press, particularly since the climate change projection numbers are driven by expanding human population and its impacts. As we approach our limits, and the limits of life, food and water, we've got to understand our responsibilities with respect to natural systems. Our intelligence has allowed us to appear to escape the natural limits for awhile, but now it must be engaged in bringing our impact back in line with the resources that can sustain us. Surely we should be able to make those decisions in a way that pulls us back from the brink.

Limits to growth can be a creative challenge that sees opportunity in a problem that has not faced any other human generation in history.

Time to make it happen.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mindfulness

The act of paying attention to the patterns of things in calm concentration is an eastern meditation practice that makes the "self" aware of the unifying structure of life and its interconnected existence.

One lets go of the immediate physical needs and wants, moves into an awareness of existence and a quiet state of observation. Paying attention to the ebb and flow of living systems and natural processes becomes part of dealing with nature: its rhythms, relationships and power. We're beginning to get a sense of the way its scale is now changing along with its former predictability. People who rely on its cycles and patterns for their way of life have started to notice that the seasons and typical weather patterns are no longer reoccurring, thus endangering their food and water supplies as the climate becomes more extreme.

This connection of humanity to the natural world has been severed at a time when it's increasingly necessary to observe and be mindful of the changing phenomena and its impact on natural systems. The destabilization of the world's precipitation patterns and the intervening severe droughts are not conducive to food production or the maintenance of natural systems and its supported wildlife. People who have used science and analysis to see into the future of this are not optimistic about the scenarios that emerge. While there are many projections, they all point the same way into disrupted systems and a degraded biosphere that can't support human populations even as they exist now.

So whether one uses an experiential lens or a scientific lens, the impact of human activity remains apparent, and a rational approach to this would be a rapid change in behavior and human industry. There must be a fundamental change, not just some attempt to minimize damage and rope off some natural areas, systems don't work that way.

A proposed strategy for counteracting human activity in the biosphere as a comprehensive approach is called the Contraction and Convergence model. It sets up the framework whereby all countries accept a carbon budget that shrinks rapidly during the convergence phase between 2000 and 2030, resulting in a diminishment of carbon emissions to the levels seen in 1900 within 200 years. Will this be sufficient to preserve the planetary systems as we know them today? We may have a difficult time maintaining human life, not to mention the rest of the life systems that give us sustenance.

Mindfulness is concentration on the nature of life and all its parts. This way of seeing can allow us to act in effective ways that return our world to its natural balance and respect for life, rather than mindlessly burning resources into destruction. The science says that, and the experiential says that. Even simple logic says that.

So what are we waiting for?

Monday, July 18, 2011

How'd We Do?

GreenBiz reports out on a study that ranks 27 US and Canadian cities on a "green cities" evaluation matrix, and San Francisco, of course, came out on top. It has implemented a 2003 ordinance based upon the Precautionary Principle that guides its decision-making in planning, economics and transit. So it has been moving rapidly in the direction of "Green" for a long time, based upon the principles of science.

The rankings in the study were done using a scale of quantitative indicators for each city that measures different kinds of improvement in urban environmental qualities.

The cited study, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and commissioned by Siemens, is part of the Green Cities Index, an ongoing research project that looks at global regions and their major cities. The index, which covers Europe (where Copenhagen topped the list), Asia and Latin America, was expanded to North America and Germany this year. Los Angeles, surprisingly, ranked seventh out of the 27 cities examined in this study, partly due to its early partnership with the Better Buildings Challenge, and adopted Green LA in 2007.

The photo above is from the report, which is available directly online from Siemens.

What other innovative and effective conservation ideas can this region come up with? Planet Forward, partnering with PBS, has received a few ideas for Los Angeles, but there's way more that can be done to change the equation for carbon reduction and regeneration of natural resources and processes.

The Siemens report, which is an excellent discussion of how the ranked cities are scored in their efforts to improve their efforts at not only reducing pollution and conserving water, also notes the public policies that engage people in achieving sustainable lifestyles. This human social media is key towards connecting people to the solutions to changing the destructive practices formerly implemented in the name of profit.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Light Through the Cracks

Well, the cracks are starting to show. Rupert Murdoch is now all over the global news because of his shuttering of News of the World due to a phone hacking scandal that is mushrooming into a viral plague within his media empire, which includes the formerly venerable Wall Street Journal. This while heat wave after wave, drought and flood are climatological plagues in the midwestern and eastern United States. Positively biblical.

Where this truly comes to rest is highlighted in an article from Treehugger, which shows Murdoch giving his initial speech to the WSJ staff after acquiring this conservative news organization. While positioning himself as a green campaigner, he has done far more to place articles discrediting climate change in his media empire than to provide any science on global warming or reporting on the impact of the global climate summits. His global holdings are firmly positioned to serve as the corporate megaphone to protect polluting and extractive industries from any incentive to reduce their destructive impact on the planet. Everyone else can just pay for that and suffer the consequences.

With his control over conservative media now becoming discredited, proactive environmental organizations have begun to get the word out in a refreshingly informative way. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-based nonprofit, has partnered with Earthwatch Institute to put up an interactive Hot Map to get people involved with the realities of global warming and the implementation of solutions to it. They note that in particular, The National Academy of Sciences has released a series of reports (2010) emphasizing the urgency of climate change and why the U.S. should act now to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases. "The longer the nation waits to begin reducing emissions, the harder and more expensive it will likely be to reach any given emissions target." The deadline for these emission and carbon reduction goals is to meet the 2030 Challenge to go to zero.

Also ramping up their efforts to meet these critical action deadlines is a new public engagement effort from Al Gore, RePower America. Acting through the Climate Protection Action Fund, it is launching a new public action project called Climate Reality on Sept. 14th. This is another effort to start grassroots action in a direct, urgent change movement in the face of corporate profit protection.

This climate awareness is seeping into communities and companies all across our now global network, and the 2030 Challenge to reduce the impact of building industry practices has become its practical measure.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

In August of 2010, California legislature passed a bill establishing the most extensive carbon dioxide (CO2) emission controls yet in the United States. The law requires a 25 percent reduction in state CO2 emissions by 2020, with the first major controls taking effect in 2012. This action is the result of the widespread implementation of the LEED standards in the building industry, the largest single generator of Greenhouse Gasses by category. LEED categories and points are structured to account for the embodied energy in building materials and their transport.

What this requires is a means of benchmarking the energy content of materials and their supply chain, which can be a very complex calculation with many different approaches. The industry is beginning to use some standardized digital tools to compare the impact of different materials by computing the energy embodied in the material itself.

For example, concrete has the highest embodied energy of any traditional building material. While concrete itself has an inherently low embodied energy, it must be quarried, produced and transported. Additionally, it is the most widely-used material in existence, thus producing a high net effect of emissions. So widespread is the use of concrete, that nearly 2 tons is produced for every person on the planet. Famously in Italy, its vast use has become a source of toxic waste.

In the US, recycled concrete is becoming a very commonplace material now that codes and regulations are starting to require conservation of energy and resources, such as California has done. It's becoming standard practice to recycle concrete either in place or locally to reduce carbon fuel usage in its transport. The impact that this will have on our building and development practices will be profound. We'll be more like Europe in that buildings will be preserved and salvaged, rather than ripped down every 25 years for a new cheap structure. This affects the design approach for all facilities, which will emphasize long life, low energy and loose fit (flexibility).

This is a sea change in how we value our towns, cities and environments. If we see how buildings and structures actually subtract resources and processes from the ecosystem that sustains us, at the cost of depleting the energy sources we have left, we begin to understand the path we must take in recreating human habitation patterns and begin to change our culture.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Roundaboutaboutabout

In recognition of our Independence Day from the British Crown in 1776, I note that a new British invasion is occurring which could potentially tame our suburban traffic nightmares and cure the red light camera syndrome. Wouldn't it be terrific if this "walkability" theme included attractive intersections, much like the issue surrounding Prince Charles' famous "carbuncle" pronouncement to the RIBA in 1984? Which in fact generated a backlash to the imported American strip mall retro-experience (another exchange across the Pond?) and instigated a movement towards even more radical modernism that reflects the changing aesthetic towards creative, energy-conserving minimalism. The humble element in this case is the roundabout.

In this way, a humanized traffic experience as part of the urban fabric is becoming a popular adaptation here in the US, as is covered by an article from BBC news. Unlike the vast, complex autopian circles shown above, these are the small, single circle suburban street intersections that generally host a tree and shrubs that link the allees of street trees with a marker that indisputably creates a "stop!" point for pedestrians. This slows traffic because of the change of scale and the subtraction of the "highway" visuals from many of our suburban arterial streets.

However, to note the cultural differences cited in the BBC article, the Brits have famously learned to navigate these in a rather frightful fashion. I had "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride" on a visit to Southampton, with my cousin merrily ripping through the traffic circles as if they didn't exist on the way back from the local pub to the train station. Only in England.