Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sustainable Healthcare

In the early 1990s, while we were traveling back to the family farm in southern Illinois, our middle son got an ear infection. I took him to see the local doctor, an elderly Marcus Welby MD-type who had treated my husband when he was a boy and had treated his father before him. He was kind and unhurried. His office was decorated in a retro-50s motif, complete with hospital green cabinets and vintage medical devices.

It wasn’t until the doctor picked up one of the otoscopes and began looking into my son’s ear that I realized these were not part of a period office decor but were, in fact, what he used on a daily basis. They were probably the same medical devices he had bought when he started his practice.
Long story short, the doctor was quickly able to confirm that my son had an ear infection and then to prescribe a standard dose of penicillin, which his nurse gave us at the front desk when we checked out. The final bill for both the visit and the meds: $20. Not a $20 co-pay. Just $20.

Fast forward ten years. We returned to the same country community in the early 2000s. The old doctor had retired, and there weren’t too many new physicians to take his place. Word was that most of the doctors had fled after a spate of malpractice suits had made the cost of insurance for medical practitioners all but impossible to afford. We spent two months looking for a doctor who would take new patients in Madison County, IL, a place that had earned the dubious title of “judicial hellhole” for the sheer number of lawsuits that had been filed within its borders.

When we did finally find a family doctor, he used the most modern equipment and ran every test necessary to confirm his diagnoses. We paid accordingly. So much for Marcus Welby. Medicine had become progressive and defensive…and expensive.

Virtually everyone agrees that our current healthcare system is not sustainable. The U.S. spends over 15 percent of its GDP on healthcare, far more than other developed countries.
Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas estimates that the national average emergency room visit costs about $400 while the national average doctor’s visit costs $60. Medications can also be cost prohibitive. One name brand prescription drug cost $71 for a 30-day supply ($22 for the generic equivalent). Others can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, making health insurance a necessity not a luxury.

However, good insurance coverage doesn’t come cheap.
American Medical News , an online publication of the American Medical Association, recently estimated the average cost for family coverage to be $13,375, up 5 percent from last year. Even those whose employers pay part of their healthcare premiums are finding they must pay higher deductibles and higher co-pays for doctors’ visits and prescriptions.

To complicate matters even more, insurance companies can deny coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions , which means that if you are self-employed or get laid off from your company and you have a pre-existing health condition such as diabetes, hypertension, or cancer then you could be forced to pay for your medical costs out of pocket or just go without. COBRA coverage may help, but not everyone is eligible and many of those who are can’t afford the premiums.

So how can we make our healthcare more affordable…and more sustainable? Obviously, there are many possible solutions or combination of solutions. In a system where the end consumer (the patient) is not necessarily the purchaser of the services being performed (insurance companies pay for those services), there is bound to be confusion.
But there are, I think, a few basics that might be helpful:

(1) Reduce waste.

In July 2009, the Healthcare Administrative Simplification Coalition (HASC) came out with a report identifying billions of dollars in healthcare waste and recommending changes to reduce that waste and the costs associated with it. HASC found that executing streamlined procedures such as utilizing standardized, machine-readable health identification cards and implementing standardized prior-authorization processes as well as reducing other unnecessary administrative practices by just 10 percent could save as much as $500 billion over 10 years.

(2) Increase the size of the risk pool.

Currently, residents in each state can only purchase insurance from carriers within their state, who are regulated by that state’s insurance commission. In other words, if I live in California, I can only buy insurance from a California insurance company. This limits the size of the risk pool—that group of individuals who are purchasing health insurance—which in turn drives costs up.

Insurance companies are for profit. It’s not in their best interest to insure someone with heart problems who might end up costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, if the risk pool is large enough, insurance companies can afford to cover everyone because they have enough people paying in to cover their losses on any one individual.

One of the provisions being discussed is that of a public health insurance option, offered by the federal government, which would be open to anyone, living anywhere in the United States. But is there any reason why such plan would have to be run by our government? Why not simply allow consumers to buy from privately run insurance carriers across state lines?

(3) Practice medicine…not defensive medicine.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has estimated that liability concerns in the medical sector increase annual health care spending by $124 million (2006 dollars). American Medical Association President J. James Rohack reportedly told a group of Harvard business school alumni that trial lawyers are one reason health-care costs are up. His assertion was that doctors are more inclined to order tests, even unnecessary tests, for their patients in order to avoid lawsuits. An AP poll conducted this year found that 54 percent of Americans favor making it harder to sue doctors and hospitals for mistakes while taking care of patients.

However, not everyone thinks that tort reform would lower costs. Tom Baker , a professor of law and health sciences at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law and author of “The Medical Malpractice Myth,” reportedly remarked that litigation costs and malpractice insurance only account for an insignificant 1 to 1.5 percent of total medical costs. Baker attributed the trend in defensive medicine less to frivolous lawsuits and more to the human tendency for doctors to “go along with the prevailing standard of care in their region.”

Regardless, the medical malpractice tort costs have risen dramatically over a 30 year period, causing many to hold tort reform as a key component to healthcare reform.

This week, the Senate will begin debate on what is arguably one of the most far-reaching bills in the history of this country: Healthcare reform.

In listening to the various arguments for and against this legislation, I am reminded of a phrase in the Hippocratic Oath : “I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.” In other words, in curing what is wrong with a patient, a physician must avoid both extremes; s/he must avoid drastic measures as well as doing nothing.

If only our Congress could keep that in mind.

There is little doubt that we need some type of reform, but I think we would do well to first do no harm when restructuring a system that has such a universal impact on our day-to-day lives.

In evaluating the sustainability of any organization, it is important to implement those strategies that most reasonably and thoroughly address all three aspects of the triple bottom line—profits, people, and planet. Given this scenario, healthcare reform is one of the most important sustainability issues of our time since it affects virtually every person in our country.

Access to reasonable healthcare may be a right, but that doesn’t mean everyone is going to get every treatment they want or even need. It is simply not possible given the finite nature of our circumstances, both in terms of medical know-how and in terms of society’s ability to pay for increasingly more complex and involved medical procedures.

To be truly sustainable, our healthcare system is going to have to reasonably address the healthcare needs of the majority of people in a fundamental way. Physicians, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, insurance carriers, and attorneys are going to have to come up with a course of action that is both affordable and sustainable. But, at the end of the day, it is us (the patients) who have to make the final decision…or allow someone else to make it for us.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bright Lights, Small Homes

It's been a little over two years, now, since I first began re- searching renewable energies and sustainable businesses on a full-time basis for my university thesis; and it's been a little over six months since my book, Global Warming I$ Good for Business, was published. So this fall I took some time for introspection and re-evaluation to appreciate how far I've come in those two years and to see where I might best continue to shed light on the subject of sustainability.

Without a doubt, one of the most significant events for me during the past two years has been the 2007 Solar Decathlon. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Solar Decathlon is a bi-annual event, sponsored by the Department of Energy, in which universities from all over the world come together in the spirit of friendly competition to build some of the most innovative zero-energy homes on the planet.

This event takes place on the Mall in Washington D.C., less than 20 miles from where, as a teenager, I used to spend a great deal of time hiking in the woods behind my house, not far from the Potomac River. Once, while hiking, I came upon a small, log cabin, long crumbled and decayed. I began to daydream of one day having a home in the woods, similar to the little log cabin in that it would be totally self-sufficient and yet would offer all the comforts of a modern-day abode. I wanted a home that would be small but elegant, able to sustain all the latest appliances with its own energy systems. I wanted a home that would complement the natural environment and yet offer its own contemporary climate of abundance and innovation.

When I first arrived at the Solar Decathlon, I had no idea what to expect. I had heard that some of the most cutting-edge technologies would be on display. But what I found was my simple dream home. Each of these 800 square-foot homes embodied the ideals I had envisioned back in the 1970s, long before I even knew what a zero-energy home was.

The competition was intense. Points were given in ten areas: architecture, engineering, market viability, lighting design, interior comfort, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, net metering, and communications (i.e. each team's ability to communicate the technical aspects of their home to a general audience).

As I described the Solar Decathlon in my book:

There was a carnival-like atmos- phere at the decathlon during that sunny week. Total strangers talked together like old friends, exchanging ideas and information about various technologies. They learned about passive, photovoltaic (PV) and thermal solar systems (and combinations of systems), about battery storage types and capacities, and about basic building structure and design. It was an amazing experience--alternately astonishing, confusing, exhilarating, and exhausting.

Each house was unique in design, function, and use of renewable building materials. Some looked like they came from a futuristic movie set. Others looked downright homey. But all of them were more than just houses--they were a glimpse into what the future might look like. And it was pretty darn good!

From every thing I have heard, this year's Solar Decathlon was every bit as amazing as its predecessors. The coming together of different viewpoints and different technologies was just as enlightening.

For me, seeing these new designs and listening to these students talk about their experiences is a reaffirmation of my own studied interest in and passion for sustainable living and working. It is, again, a glimpse into what the future might look like. And it's pretty darn good!

Please enjoy this year's 1st and 2nd place winners:

TEAM GERMANY -- 1st Place Winner


Tuesday, September 1, 2009

When less is more

We never know how our words or actions might rub off on our kids. I have been spouting the financial benefits of "going green" ad nauseam for some time now. Recently, I got a glimmer of hope when my son came up to me and announced that he had just figured out a great way for his favorite gaming company to save some money: just get rid of all that packaging they're using to sell their pre-paid game cards.

It's true, companies spend a lot of money to encase their products in cardboard boxes, plastic clamshells, and shrink wraps. In some cases, perhaps, this type of packaging might be justifiable. But in many, it's just plain wasteful.

In 2007, Walmart committed to reducing packaging by five percent across its supply chain by 2013. Doing only that, says the company, will have a similar effect to taking 200,000 trucks off the road each year or not burning 60 million gallons of diesel fuel. Walmart estimates that it will save approximately $3.4 billion from that reduction.

In April of this year, Walmart hosted the 4th annual Sustainable Packaging Expo for its suppliers. Other groups, such as the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, offer information and training as well. And the Sustainable Packaging Forum will be held on September 22-24, 2009 in Atlanta.

In these days, when retailers have to look at every penny, it still surprises me that so many of them have not opted to, in my son's words, "just get rid of all that packaging." They could save money, save energy AND save the planet.

It's so easy, even a child can figure it out.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Trade Offs

Like so many people, I have been pondering the pros and the cons of the current cap-and-trade legislation. My instinct is to jump on board with anything that will benefit both the environment and the economy; however, I have this niggling doubt that the current bill up for consideration may fail on both counts.

This morning, I came upon an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal that I think bears repeating. Wisely, the authors of this piece did not get mired in the scientific debate over whether or not Global Warming is "real." Instead, they looked at whether or not this bill will actually solve our environmental dilemma in an economically sound manner.

At the end of the day, capping our carbon emissions and cutting back on our energy consumption may buy us time to come up with a new carbon-free energy technology; but it is not the answer. Breaking the link between our productivity and our carbon emissions is.

For most environmentalists (and I include myself in this category), the elephant in the room is that, of all the technologies we currently have available to us, nuclear is the clear winner in terms of being able to provide baseload power with virtually no carbon emissions. If dramatically reducing carbon emissions as soon as possible while still maintaining our economic productivity is our real goal, then we have to at least consider this alternative.

France figured this out in the 1970's; and as a result, currently 75% of its electricity comes from nuclear energy. According to the World Nuclear Association, France is the largest exporter of nuclear energy in the world, earning EUR 3 billion from those exports. France also recycles or "reprocesses" used fuel, utilizing 30% more energy from the original plutonium. And only about 3% of the used fuel is considered "high-level wastes" which require special storage and disposal.

Every problem has multiple solutions, most of which involve trade offs between what we want and what we don't. The key, I think, is to first be clear about our intentions and then be open to a variety of solutions to achieve our goals. Whether the current cap-and-trade proposal will help or hinder us in the process of reducing carbon emissions and boosting our economy remains to be seen.

I do, however, wonder: If our government's intention is to slash carbon emissions and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (both of which are laudable goals), then why is it not developing strong incentives for the development of nuclear power and the recycling of nuclear waste?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Creating [green] jobs

A few weeks ago, I asked my colleagues on LinkedIn the question: What is the best way to create [green] jobs?

I got 20 very interesting and insightful responses. Not statistically significant, I’m the first to admit, but still intriguing. Although there was some overlap, the arguments essentially boiled down to the following:

Nine people felt some sort of government involvement was necessary to get the ball rolling, either in the form of government incentives and tax breaks (2), government investment in infrastructure/"green" industries with “green” funds or bonds (4), or government mandates such as Feed-in Tariffs and Renewable Portfolio Standards (3).

Three felt a hybrid approach—government incentives, government investments and/or mandates—combined with a strong commitment from the private sector was the best approach.

Five suggested market solutions and a strong business commitment to create jobs. And one felt that businesses should focus on “greening” existing jobs.

One person felt that health care/workman’s comp reform would allow small businesses to survive/thrive…and, ostensibly, to go on to create green jobs.

And one said regardless what we did, there were not going to be any “green” jobs for a long time, if ever “…and we have the government and entrenched not-for-profit interests to thank.” (by this person’s own admission, he was having a bad day).

So my question is: What do YOU think is the best way to create [green] jobs?
Or, perhaps more to the point, what ARE you doing to create [green] jobs?

I look forward to hearing your responses.

In the meantime
Stay cool…go green!

Saturday, July 25, 2009


I recently saw a documentary trailer about young farmers who are making a go of it, growing organic produce for people, planet and profit. Besides being a delightful way to start my weekend, it also brought to mind how, in a very real sense, we're all Greenhorns when it comes to sustainable business development. From clean tech to community supported agriculture, we're all looking for new and innovative ways to make money and make a difference.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Summertime, and the grillin' is easy

I love my neighbors, but I'm not crazy about their barbeque. The smoke from the grill inevitably wafts into our upstairs window, making our mouths and eyes water. I can’t complain though; my teenager plays the drums, so what’s a little smoke among friends? Apparently, more than meets the eye…

Charcoal is a carbon-based fuel made up of charred wood or sawdust and other additives. Those ubiquitous briquettes that have become synonymous with summertime release air pollutants such as particulate matter, carbon monoxide, and soot as well as greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide.

According to an article in the July/August 2005 edition of Sierra magazine: "Nationwide, the estimated 60 million barbecues held on the Fourth of July alone consume enough energy—in the form of charcoal, lighter fluid, gas, and electricity—to power 20,000 households for a year. That one day of fun, food, and celebration, says Tristram West, a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy, burns the equivalent of 2,300 acres of forest and releases 225,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide."

Although there are all-natural briquettes, the most popular alternative, propane gas, emits a fraction of the CO2 that charcoal does. Still, it has its own problems. For starters, it is also a fossil fuel. In addition, purists claim gas-grilled hamburgers do not taste as good as their charbroiled counterparts; you might as well cook ‘em indoors.

One entrepreneur, who saw the demand for a more environmentally-friendly grill fuel, came up with the ultimate eco-grilling alternative—the uGO FlameDisk. The FlameDisk consists of solidified ethanol packaged in a 9 inch pie-shaped disk made of recyclable aluminum and paperboard.

When I met Chad Sorenson, co-founder, president, and company cook of SoloGear LLC, at the New York Go Green Expo, he assured me the FlameDisk produced the same delicious burgers and brats that charcoal produces with minimal effort and maximum portability. Although I'm cooking impaired, this seems to be something even I can use; just peel, light, and grill almost anywhere you want (except indoors) for up to 40 minutes.

In addition, because it is a biofuel rather than a fossil fuel, the ethanol in the FlameDisk purportedly only creates water and a negligible amount of carbon dioxide as byproducts. In a comparison between charcoal versus FlameDisk, Sorenson’s website claims particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and total hydrocarbon emissions were reduced by over 90 percent. And that, as they say, is nothing to sneeze at.

So I’ve gone ahead and put in my order. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, stay cool…be green.

Friday, July 3, 2009


On a Midwestern farm, spring and summer are times of heightened activity and companionship. People come out of their winter “hibernation” and work and play together while the weather permits. This is when animals give birth and crops are planted. Fall is a time of gathering together the fruits of our labor and, literally, harvesting our crops. Winter is a time of renewal. When the weather is such that nothing else can be done, we finally have a chance to reflect; to repair our worn-out farm equipment and mend our worn-out clothes.

In California, we work all the time, irrespective of the seasons, which is fine as long as we remember that reflection and re-creation are a necessary part of life. If we don’t take the time to recreate, we will cease to function at our maximum potential and may even break down for lack of repair.

Southern Californians border on being workaholics. Maybe it’s because our cost of living is so high. Maybe it’s because there is so much competition here that we have to be at the top of our game all of the time. Regardless, especially in this economy, it’s easy for small business owners to believe that we can’t afford to recreate; but the truth is we can’t afford not to.

Summer time has become the main vacation time since that’s when kids are out of school (used to be so they could help their parents work the fields). But this year, a lot of people are opting for a series of long-weekends rather than the traditional two week vacations. Still others are opting for “staycations,” where they stay at home during their time off to save money or just to relax without the hassle of traveling.

Due to time and conflicting work schedules, my family recently decided to forgo our annual trek to the farm and to take a series of local, mini breaks over the next few weeks. Here are some of the ingredients I’ve found to re-creating at home:

1. Discover new places . My husband and I recently decided to eat at a nearby Taqueria, which we would normally have been too busy to try. The place was run by a husband and wife who spoke virtually no English and served one of the best burritos I’ve ever tasted…for about $4.00. The restaurant has been there for over a year, but we’ve never taken the time to discover it before. It was wonderful!

2. Unplug electronics. This was a hard one for me because, in my business, communication is key. But I started thinking about it and realized that a real vacation means taking a break from what I normally do (whether at home or in the office) and doing something else, such as taking a bike ride to the mountains or kayaking along the beach. I find this impossible to do if I’m plugged in to my cell phone or to my computer. It’s just too tempting to make one more call or check one last email.

3. Be sociable. In the Midwest, it’s not uncommon for friends to just drop by for a visit. Here in California, things are a bit different. Everyone makes plans in California, often months in advance. But on staycation, I make an effort to unplan and call some of our friends at the last minute to see if they want to get together. The last time I did this, I ended up in my friend’s kitchen, enjoying homemade grits with cheese and salsa (I brought the coffee). It was a great way to start the day!

4. Enjoy family time. As the kids get older, I find we all tend to go our own separate ways. But staycations are a great time to make a conscious decision to do things together…even if you’re just playing a board game. Some of the most memorable times of my childhood revolve around simple trips that we took as a family; the things I remember most about those trips are the actual time we spent together, playing games, swimming, listening to the adults talk, and even being bored. This summer, we’re making a conscious effort to get together more as a family, to play games, swim, talk, maybe even be bored…and, ultimately, to recreate.

Like sleep, re-creation mysteriously opens us up to larger-than-life creative forces that enable us to function in the moment and to become more creative and innovative ourselves. In many ways, re-creation is the foundation upon which our work rests. It is part of the sustainable process that we call life.

So, how will you be re-creating this year?

Friday, June 26, 2009

How clean is your technology?

Many are confused by the number of terms being slung around in the Green Arena today. One of the most common is “Clean Tech.”

Clean Tech, which is short for clean technology, is often used interchangeably with the term green technology. However, clean tech is broader in scope and is driven by market economics (versus regulations). Clean tech covers several industry sectors, including: energy generation, storage and efficiency, transportation, building, manufacturing, recycling and waste management, and agriculture.

Essentially, though, the term cleantech refers to products or services that reduce or eliminate our negative environmental impact while improving the sustainable use of our natural resources. Cleantech products or services not only provide better performance, they often do so at lower costs.

According to the Cleantech Group, LLC, clean tech venture investments in North America, Europe, China and India totaled $8.4 billion in 2008, up almost 40% from 2007; however those figures dropped sharply in the first quarter of 2009 as cleantech investments underwent a “period of transition.”

Nonetheless, based on a 2009 survey of venture capitalists around the world, the National Venture Capital Association predicted “The cleantech sector is poised to become the leading investment category….” And the London-based New Energy World Network has reported: “More substantial funding is coming with the US American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), which contains over $100bn of dollars in direct spending, loan guarantees and incentives to promote the development of cleantech in energy, water and environment.”

Monday, June 22, 2009

Reduce, reuse...or compost?

On a recent trip to San Francisco, I noticed waste containers labeled: “recycle,” “compost,” and “landfill.” Okay, I was familiar with “recycle” (plastic, paper, or cans) and with “landfill” (we call that trash, here in L.A.); but what on earth was supposed to go in “compost”?

The EPA defines compost as “organic material that can be used as a soil amendment or as a medium to grow plants.”

On our family farm in southern Illinois, we did not have a garbage disposal. Instead, we disposed of all food waste by simply tossing it out in one of the fields around our home. That which was not eaten outright by the critters fertilized the soil to help our crops grow. It was what we would call a win-win-win in the business world.

However, I’d never seen an official “compost” can in a public venue before. What was that about?

Apparently, composting is big business. Norcal Waste Systems, Inc. offers curbside pick-up of food scraps and other compostable materials, which comprise about a third of all residential garbage. Over 300 tons of food scraps and yard waste are collected each day and then processed by large-scale composting facilities outside of the city.

Participating customers can throw everything from food scraps and tree trimmings to paper take-out boxes (you know, those oil-stained pizza boxes that regular recyclers won’t accept) and even cutlery labeled “compostable” into green compost carts. The waste is then processed and turned into a rich, organic material which can be used to fertilize local vineyards and farms as well as for landscape supply yards.

In addition to providing a quality product for local businesses, Norcal Waste Systems and its subsidiaries are helping to meet San Francisco’s mandated goal of diverting 75% of garbage to recycling by 2010, surpassing California’s 50% recycling law (AB939). Currently, food waste in most cities goes directly to landfills where it decomposes and creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of trapping heat in the atmosphere.

Reducing the amount of food waste we dump into our landfills could have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions as well as on the cost to those businesses who receive discounts off their garbage bills. According to Norcal Waste Systems, “Many restaurants are composting over 75% of their waste! With up to 75% discounts off your garbage bill for recycling and composting, you WILL lower your garbage costs by recycling and composting more.”

And that’s food for thought.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What are YOU doing to be more Sustainable?

Several people have asked me to define some of the “green” business terms that are in use today, so I thought I would include one definition a week (some of these are also listed in the glossary of my book). This week, I’d like to address the question: What is sustainable?

On January 26, 2007, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13423, which stated: …“sustainable” means to create and maintain conditions, under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans…

Long before that, though, many businesses and individuals understood the importance of working and living in such a manner that the capital they used would not take away from the capital of future generations.

Recently, the word “green” has been used interchangeably with “sustainable” when it comes to describing business practices. However, sustainable business practices often include several characteristics including economic viability, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility—both in terms of how a business contributes to society and how a business treats its employees and its suppliers.

Many businesses today are trying hard to meet their “triple bottom line” – profit, planet, and people – and most are finding that these three are complementary facets of the same big picture. In fact, in order to sustain or stay in existence, many businesses are falling back on time-honored practices of reducing their waste (i.e. “going green”) and of reaching out to their communities for mutual support and potential sales.

So my question is: What are you doing to be more sustainable? Please let me know!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A song for your thoughts

Sometimes a picture or, in this case, a song really is worth a thousand words.

I recently came upon a truly inspirational TV ad for Optus that was technologically amazing as well as effective in terms of business branding. Optus, in case you've never heard of it, is one of the largest telecommunications companies in Australia.

According to its website, "Optus believes that its responsibility as a leading corporate is more than just solid financial performance.... We consider that community, environment and workplace are important pillars of our corporate social responsibility."

In its 2008 Corporate Responsibility Report, Optus addressed how, using the Global Reporting Initiatives "G3" sustainability reporting guidelines and guided by the principles of the AA1000 Assurance Standard, the company self-declared its performance in terms of economic, environment, community, people and marketplace.

Such reporting goes way beyond vague and generic discussions of what is the triple bottom line (profits, planet, and people) and takes the talk straight to the heart of the issue: What does it really mean to be sustainable in a global market? And what are the quantifiable standards for being "green" in an era when greenwashing is running rampant?

Right now, most industries are searching for answers to those questions. Doubtless, they will develop commonly accepted standards for sustainability, which can then be verified by independent third parties. For now, though, many businesses are navigating through uncharted waters as they "progress along [their] reporting journey..."

Enjoy the Optus "Whalesong"

Monday, June 1, 2009

Reinventing General Motors

General Motors filed for Chapter 11 today, which wasn’t a big surprise. According to GM's Reinvention website, their decision to declare bankruptcy is not “the end of the American car” but “the rebirth of the American car,” which led me to wonder: What was the first American car?

The Library of Congress lists several “Automobile Firsts” on its Everyday Mysteries website. Americans, it seems, were somewhat late getting into the internal combustion engine game, coming in after Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler in the late 1800’s. But even before the Germans came up with their elegant internal combustion engine, a Scotsman by the name of Robert Anderson invented the “electric carriage” in the 1830’s.

By the turn of the 20th century, electric vehicles outsold all other types of vehicles in the United States. Then crude oil was discovered in Texas, which drastically reduced the price of gas in this country; and Henry Ford came up with an assembly line process that could produce an internal combustion vehicle for less than half the price of an electric car.

Now, we seem to have come full-circle. GM is putting a lot of emphasis on paring down the number of its lines and focusing on core products such as the Chevy Volt, an electric car that is due to launch in 2010. According to the GM-Volt website, “The near death of the auto industry is bringing with it the slow death of the combustion engine.” Out of the ashes, apparently, will come the E-REV or Extended-Range Electric Vehicle, able to travel up to 40 miles using a lithium ion battery and then to use a gas-powered engine that drives a generator to provide electric power beyond that 40 mile range.

Blamed by some for being complicit in killing the electric car in the late 1990’s, GM is apparently making a conscious decision to reinvent itself and its product line. “This is not about going out of business,” says the voiceover on GM Reinvention, “this is about getting down to business.”

Ultimately, though, the real test for an automobile manufacturer is whether or not anybody will buy their vehicles. So my question is: Would you buy an electric car?

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Low Down on (Green) Air Travel

It's no secret that air travel is hard on the environment; but it's also one of the key ingredients to a robust global economy.

The World Intellectual Property Organization says that air travel accounts for 35 percent of goods traded internationally (by value) and over 40 percent of international tourism. On the upside, aviation generates 5.5 million jobs and contributes over $400 billion to global GDP. On the downside, aviation also accounts for roughly 13 percent of global transport emissions and 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

So, what's a business traveler to do?

For starters, if you don’t have to fly, then stay at the home office and teleconference. You’ll save time and money as well as the planet. If you absolutely have to be there, though, then there are a couple of options:

(1) Take the trip but buy carbon offsets from one of several organizations, such as:

Note: ClimateBiz recently published an excellent article about carbon offsets. Long story short, they “represent the act of reducing, avoiding, destroying or sequestering the equivalent of a ton of greenhouse gas (GHG) in one place to ‘offset’ an emission taking place somewhere else.” Not everyone is convinced this is the best way to go, however, which brings us to the next option.

(2) You can opt to take the mode of transport which emits the least. According to Planet Green, busses emitted the least amount of carbon dioxide on long-distance trips, followed by trains, cars, and airplanes (trains emitted less CO2 than busses on shorter trips). In other words, virtually any mode of transportation beats airplanes, which emit carbon dioxide, water vapor, nitrogen oxides, and methane at higher altitudes, contributing to what is known as radiative forcing.

(3) Last but not least, you can try to find the commercial airline that has done the most to create the smallest environmental footprint. Greenopia recently came out with a ranking of the 10 greenest commercial airlines, which included:

1. Virgin
2. Continental
3. Horizon
4. Jet Blue
5. Southwest
6. Northwest
7. Delta
8. American
9. United
10. US Airways

Currently, there are several ideas on the drawing board for making air travel more eco-friendly, including newer, more fuel efficient airplane designs; the use of bio-fuels, fuel cells, and even solar power for air travel; and more efficient air traffic controlling practices to reduce time circling in the air or idling on the ground. Airbus recently announced five finalists in its “Fly Your Ideas” contest, whose concepts ranged from utilizing a more eco-efficient cabin design to flying in V formation to reduce energy consumption.

Whether or not any of these ideas fly, they are fuel for thought. So, which one do you like the best?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What's all this about cap-and-trade?

This past week the House Energy and Commerce Committee passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, commonly known as the Waxman-Markey bill. At the core of this legislation is a cap-and-trade program, designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 83 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2050.

Proponents claim that the legislation will create millions of clean-energy jobs, at the same time reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming. However, opponents say that it will drastically increase the cost of energy and actually cause the loss of millions of jobs in this country. As one opponent reportedly summed it up, “This bill is the biggest energy tax in the history of the United States.”

If you don’t understand the intricacies of this 900+ page bill, count yourself in good company. According to Rasmussen Reports, only 24 percent of Americans understand that the cap-and-trade proposal currently winding its way through Congress has to do with environmental issues. Others incorrectly guessed that it had to do either with regulating Wall Street or reforming our health care system.

So, what is cap-and-trade?

The Environmental Defense Fund explains that a “well-designed” cap-and-trade program consists of the following elements:

(1) The government must place a mandatory emissions cap—in this case a limit on carbon dioxide emissions—on the total tons of emissions that may be emitted by all polluting entities in a given compliance period.
(2) The government must allocate—either by giving away or at auction—a fixed number of allowances for each polluting entity. Each allowance gives the holder the right to emit one ton of pollution.
(3) Companies that emit less than they are allowed may either bank their unused allowances for future use or trade them to those companies which are emitting more than they are allowed.
(4) At the end of the compliance period, each company must meet clear performance criteria and prove that their tons of emissions have not exceeded their allowances.
(5) Throughout this process, companies have the flexibility to choose when and how they will reduce their emissions. They do not have to reduce emissions right away; they can do it on their own timeline. If it is more cost-effective for them to buy allowances from another company than to install the technologies necessary to reduce their own emissions, they may do so. As long as their emissions do not exceed their allowances, whether those allowances were allocated by the government or bought from another polluting source, they will not be penalized.

Proponents say the cap-and-trade system was a huge success in this country during the 1990’s when it was used to reduce the sulfur dioxide emissions which caused acid rain. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “the U.S. acid rain cap and trade program achieved 100 percent compliance in reducing sulfur dioxide emissions.”

However, opponents such as the American Legislative Exchange Council say carbon dioxide is far more ubiquitous than sulfur dioxide. In addition, while the technologies necessary to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions were widely available in the 1990’s, the technologies for reducing carbon dioxide emissions are currently still in the research and development stage, with no clear timeline for when they will become commercially viable.

There are, of course, a number of other details that have become sticking points for both sides in this legislation and a number of larger issues being considered; and doubtless there will be hours of heated debate about those in the coming months. But even if a cap-and-trade bill does finally pass through Congress, it will do little to eliminate the link between our productivity and our carbon emissions. And, ultimately, if we are to succeed, we must innovate clean technologies that will do just that.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Walking-the-Walk, Week 4

Friends ask me if I’m still doing “that walking thing.” The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is a bit more complicated. I started walking-the-walk as a kind of experiment, a game, a challenge to be met or not, and it wasn’t that important either way; after all, if it didn’t work out, I could always drive. It’s not like I invested thousands of dollars in some new technology.

Since I started this adventure, though, I have learned that I am an addict. I never thought of myself as one, but I am addicted to my automobile. During the past three weeks, I have gone the gamut of emotions: From decision to dedication to doubt to the vehicular version of delirium tremens (this when the bus I was waiting an hour-and-a-half for never came) and finally onto a determination to just do it.

I haven’t always succeeded. Yesterday, I had to jump in my car and rush to a last-minute appointment that I simply could not miss; there was no way the bus would have gotten me there on time. And, twice, I had to accept a ride to the airport when there was no means of mass transit available. Then there were the judgment calls: Does carpooling my son to school with his friends count? What about asking my husband to pick up a gallon of milk while he was out? I’ve tried to be as honest with myself as possible; if it wasn’t at least close to being on someone else’s way, then I haven’t ridden with them or asked them to run a quick errand for me. But automobiles are such a pervasive part of our lives that it is difficult to steer clear of them completely.

Oh, how I have yearned for my car! Just to get a loaf of bread. Just a short little trip to the corner store. Just a quickie to the dry cleaners or the bank or the post office. Who would that hurt, really? Who would even need to know? But I have resisted. And, over time, I have come to realize I didn’t really need to get that loaf of bread. Or, if I did, I could just as easily walk over to the store and back. Same thing with the dry cleaners. Not so much with the bank or the post office; they’re too far away to walk. But I could ride a bike. Or I could bundle my errands into one trip rather than two or four or more. With a little planning, I could, in a word, be more efficient. The truth is: most of the trips we take are not necessary and those that are would be much more enjoyable if taken in the company of our fellow human beings.

So now I’m going on week 4. But, really, I don’t think this will end next week. I’ve broken my addiction…at least as much as possible, given my physical environment. Tonight, I am going to University of California, Irvine for CalIT2's Clean Energy Challenge; and it seems only natural that I should take the bus there and get a ride back with my son, who has music practice nearby. This coming week will be a bit more problematic because I will be up at University of Southern California for their News Entrepreneur Boot Camp and there is no way to go there 100% via public transportation. I can take the Metrolink or Amtrak up to LA, and I can take the shuttle to-and-from Union Station; but there simply are no busses running from my house to the Irvine train depot at the times I need to go.

I’ve had people tell me, “I can’t possibly walk-the-walk because I have small children.” Or “I work sales; I live in my car.” Or “I live out in the boonies where there is no public transit.” However, there is always a “but.” “…but I carpool with other moms.” “…but I have a hybrid, so at least I get good gas mileage.” “…but I drive into the city with my husband, and we run all our errands on the way back home.” And, as far as I’m concerned, these people are all walking-the-walk. They are not just getting in their cars and driving as a knee jerk reaction to life. They are giving it some thought. And, yes, they may be making some compromises. But, until we have better infrastructure or more efficient technologies, that may be the best they can do. At the end of the day, we’re all taking baby steps.

Friday, May 8, 2009


It's been two weeks, and I'm still walking the walk. Today, I'm visiting my friend Sonia's blog at
gutsywriter.blogspot.com to tell her all about time in San Francisco. Sonia is a good friend and writer with a background in environmental science who left the fast lane in the OC and moved her family to a hut in Belize for a year. So please come visit me at Sonia's place. I'll be back here on Monday.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Death by Suburbs

I have developed a love-hate relationship with the suburbs. On the one hand, I enjoy the tree-lined walkways and greenbelts. On the other, I yearn for stores and offices within reasonable walking distance. There’s no getting around it: If you live in the ‘burbs, you’re going to have to drive your car. Driving is simply the most practical (sometimes only) way to get from Point A to Point B.

Once considered the ideal nesting ground for the all-American family, suburban communities that sprawl out from urban epicenters to the countryside beyond are now blamed for a variety of societal ills from the destruction of farmland to traffic congestion and air pollution and even, peripherally, to obesity in a society that has become almost slavishly dependent upon the automobile. However, that may be changing.

Currently, there are individuals, businesses, and community leaders who are developing alternatives that will revitalize urban centers and create a healthy, affordable space for people to live and work more productively. The Congress for the New Urbanism is one such group. A non-profit organization that promotes “walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl,” the CNU is currently working with the U.S. Green Business Council to draft a LEED rating system for neighborhood development, called LEED-ND.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ is an internationally-recognized certification program that has been around for 10 years. Builders cannot just claim to be green; they have to have an independent, third party verify that their projects have met consensus-based criteria. More and more builders and project managers are recognizing the benefits of building to LEED standards, not just from a sales and marketing perspective but from a bottom-line perspective. Though the up-front costs may be more expensive, proponents claim the costs of operation are considerably less, leading to significant overall savings. In addition, many cities are now providing incentives; Austin, Texas' Green Building Program and Portland, Oregon’s proposed “feebates” for green builders are two examples. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) has information about rebates, permit waivers, and other incentive programs within the U.S. and its territories.

While building individual homes and office buildings to green standards is a laudable goal, unless there is a bigger sustainable picture, sprawl is still an issue. The Form-Based Codes Institute consists of city planners, urban designers, architects, policy experts and others who are interested in developing alternatives to conventional or land-use zoning policies, which tend to ignore the overall form of development within a given area and focus instead on the individual use of land on a given parcel. The FBCI recommends the use of form-based codes that “address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.”

Other groups, such as the Smart Growth Network, formed in 1996 by the EPA and other government and non-profit organizations, offer tips to those communities which want to—among other things—preserve open spaces and farmland, create walkable neighborhoods, and provide a variety of transportation choices. According to the SGN, the top walking cities in the United States are San Francisco, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago; however, any community can implement the basic principles of smart growth. Last year, downtown Silver Spring, Maryland won the EPA’s National Award for Smart Growth Achievement award for Overall Excellence in Smart Growth. Like so many downtown centers, Silver Spring was once a vital hub but, over the years, lost many of its businesses to enclosed malls in surrounding areas. Today, the city center is once again a hub of activity, with a wide variety of offices, residences, retail outlets, and even a refurbished 1937 theater along pedestrian-friendly streetscapes that connect to public transportation facilities.

All of this gives me great hope, as I trod along my suburban streets. With more and more communities beginning to embrace the concept of…well…community, maybe walking-the-walk will no longer be any big deal and urban sprawl—death by suburbs—will be a thing of the past.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Walking-the-Walk, Day 2

I started to walk-the-walk at noon yesterday, which meant that last night, instead of driving to my son’s high school orientation, we walked.

I’ve been getting various responses to my announcement that I am giving my car a break for one month and taking public transportation, carpooling, walking or riding my bike. Several have said something to the effect of, “Cute idea, but you’re not really going to follow through with it are you?” One of my friends actually burst out laughing when I told her, then caught herself and said, “No! Really?!”

In many cities around the world, walking or riding the bus does not have any social stigma. Using public transportation is not indicative of a drunk driving conviction or of a lost job or of a decrepit car that simply can’t make it out of the driveway anymore; it is simply a means to get to-and-from work. Respectable people do it all the time. Not here though. I’m already getting funny looks from people, and that’s before I’ve even embarked on my little journey.

Which is probably why my son flat out refused to walk to school last night. He didn’t want to be seen walking…and with his parents, no less. He doesn’t care about the environment. He doesn’t care about getting fit. He just doesn’t want people to think he’s a loser. Eventually, he went, though he made it a point to walk far ahead of my husband and me, as we strolled the 1.3 miles to school.

It was a pleasant evening, so the walk was very nice. It’s been a while since I held my husband’s hand. We got there in about 15 minutes or so and found a line of cars waiting to get into an impossibly crowded parking lot. There was a surge of people in the lot itself, with kids frantically darting from idling cars in an effort to get a seat at the orientation while their parents made a futile effort to find a space. Those who were not yet committed were trying to back out and go someplace else; and, in the end, many of them were forced to park around the corner and walk…just as we did but with a lot more headaches. I noticed none of them were holding hands.

Of course it was the same scene in reverse when the orientation was over and everyone ran to their cars only to sit in a stagnant sea of chrome and steel. Interestingly enough, my son was willing to be seen walking back home with us; so we got a chance to chat and laugh and just be together on the stroll home. It was, as the commercial says, PRICELESS.

This morning, I spent most of my time going through the Orange County Transit Authority's website, a hideously complex and user-unfriendly site, trying to find routes to and from my various appointments this coming week. I ended up calling one of their customer service reps, who proceeded to give me the longest possible bus route, involving three transfers and a thirty minute (uphill) walk to get to one destination. After looking at the online bus routes again and then comparing them with the streets on Mapquest, I realized I could get there with one bus, though I would still need to walk uphill at the end of the line. Even so, an hour bus ride is better than an hour-and-a half bus ride (though neither compares with the 15 minutes it would take me to drive my car).

The rep also told me to be sure to be at the bus stop 10 minutes ahead of time because, if I miss the bus, there won’t be another along that route until the next hour. As I listened to her, I thought of walking onto the subway station in New York, knowing I’d catch the next train within 15 minutes. I could go virtually anywhere I wanted to go in the city, day or night, as long as the subway was running (and, as far as I know, it never stops).

Not every place in Orange County has bus service; and those that do are often two or three transfers from the route that runs by my house, which means that what would ordinarily be a 15 to 30 minute journey will take anywhere from an hour to two hours to get there by bus and by foot. Not only that; but, if I want to go someplace late at night, I’m out of luck. The busses stop running after 10:00 pm in my town.

After pouring over maps and routes and schedules, I have come to the conclusion that, if I live within 10 miles of my destination, I’m better off riding a bike than trying to take the bus, though that is certainly not an option after dark. I know there are people who ride their bikes after dark around here, but I've seen too many near misses between cars and bikes to be one of them.

So now I’m looking at my calendar again and re-evaluating whether or not I really need to go to all of the events I have penciled in. I’m certainly not going to be able to attend back-to-back meetings in different cities via bus or bike. One thing is for sure: I’m going to have to re-evaluate my business as usual routine and find another way of doing things.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Going Green in Print

Today my good friend Small Footprints of Reduce Footprints has offered to share some thoughts about green printing with us. I suggest you check her blog out as she offers some great tips for everyday people like you and me to reduce our footprints and tread lightly on our planet.

“Going Green” is big business these days. It’s politically correct and, with our current economic crisis, it’s a popular course of action. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes easier said than done. For example, many authors, hoping to publish their “best seller,” find it difficult to find a publisher with environmentally friendly practices. This is a big issue because books use paper … lots of paper. And why is paper use a big deal? Here are some interesting facts:
  • A million copies of an average 250-page book takes approximately 12,000 trees to produce the paper required for this single title.

  • Trees pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. They are a terrestrial source of air, taking in vast quantities of carbon dioxide and, through the process of photosynthesis, converting it into clean, breathable air. This helps prevent global warming. There have been recent studies that indicate that trees have the ability to change weather patterns and create wind.

  • 42% of the global industrial wood harvest is used to make paper. Many of the worlds most endangered forests, including those in Northern Canada, the southeast United States, Indonesia, and South America, are feeling severe impacts associated with book and newspaper publishing. Forests are being either cleared or altered, many times illegally, with devastating effects on the people and wildlife that depend on them.

  • Paper production requires large quantities of energy. The paper industry is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among United States manufacturing industries.

  • Paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste (and one third of municipal landfill waste).

But paper isn’t the only factor involved. Publishing a book includes other things … there’s the amount and type of ink used, the material used for the book cover as well as the type of binding glue used and the number of copies produced versus the number actually required for sale. And what about getting those books to the consumer … are they being shipped in an environmentally friendly way?

So, you see, going green in print isn’t simple! It is, however, possible. Here are some ideas:
  • Check out The Green Press Initiative. It is a valuable resource to authors. In addition to form letters, encouraging your current publisher to adopt sustainable practices, it includes a list of publishers who have either signed a Book Industry Treatise, or have strong environmental policies.

  • Consider an e-book. Here’s what award-winning author David Pereda has to say about e-books:

“With Amazon's Kindle (and a host of imitators) leading the way, and the dismal economic situation of the country wreaking havoc on family and business budgets alike, the publishing landscape is changing rapidly. On the one hand, readers are more reluctant than ever to spend $30 buying a hard bound book. On the other hand, traditional publishers are more concerned than ever with cutting expenses and making money, to avoid -- or at least delay -- going out of business.What's the alternative? E-publishing.

E-publishing makes sense because it's cheaper, it's accessible online, and it's green. I see the e-publishing phenomenon much like TV was in its inception, when it blasted onto the scene and started competing with the powerful radio broadcasting companies...Kids nowadays feel much more comfortable with technology than we do, regardless of our computer savvy. Later generations will not know any better. For them -- excuse me, for those of them lucky enough to develop a taste for literature -- the latest version of Kindle will be infinitely more attractive, cleaner, more transportable, cheaper, and less damaging to the ecology than a dirty old book.

My suggestion to your writer friends wanting to go green is to research e-publishers as a viable option for their manuscripts.”

  • Search the internet with the terms “sustainable publishers”, “sustainable publishing” or “sustainable book publishers”.

  • Take a look at environmental books and contact the author (they usually have a website with contact information). Ask them if their book was sustainably published and, if so, by whom.

  • Contact publishers and ask them about their environmental policies … I’m a firm believer that if we all ask, companies will be motivated to accommodate us.

Don’t forget about advertising … if you’ll be promoting your book, do so in environmentally friendly ways (use recycled paper for printed advertisements, consider social media websites and other internet forms of communication).

As an author, one has a real opportunity to impact the world … in an environmentally friendly, positive way.

Small Footprints is the author of Reduce Footprints, a blog about easy ways to walk a little gentler on the earth. She has been passionate about environmental issues for most of her life and in July, 2008, took that passion to the "blogosphere", sharing tips and ideas on "green living."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New York, New York

The Go Green Expo is in New York this weekend, and I have been in the Big Apple meeting entrepreneurs and others who are coming up with some fun innovations. I'll blog more about that when I get home. In the meantime, please visit me as I guest blog for my good friend Small Footprints this Monday (April 20th).

Friday, April 10, 2009

Walking the Walk

Within the next month, I will be flying to New York and then to San Francisco in order to promote my new book, Global Warming is Good for Business. This is more traveling than I did all last year; and, according to Terrapass.com, I will be emitting over two thousand pounds of carbon dioxide to make those trips.

The irony of emitting excess carbon dioxide in order to promote a book about environmental and economic sustainability is not lost on me. Of course, I could always opt to buy a carbon offset to make up the difference for my own emissions; but, frankly, that seems a bit like cheating. So I’ve decided to try to walk-the-walk, so to speak, and offset my own carbon emissions by giving up my car for one month, starting on Earth Day (April 22nd).

Terrapass calculates that my car emits over eleven thousand pounds of CO2 each year. I’m not sure if that’s bad or not, but I am intrigued by the question: Can a professional living in the greater Los Angeles area get by without a car?

Frankly, I don’t know the answer. I live in the OC. I’m not sure how many personal cars there are in this area, but I know that traffic is horrendous and the smog is even worse. Why? Because you can’t get around here without your own personal carbon-emitting, air-polluting, traffic-clogging machine. Or can you?

My goal is to see if I can get by on foot, by bike, via public transportation, or carpool. Barring emergency, I will be as carbon neutral as I can be, at least from a transportation point-of-view.

Some may say the whole point of clean tech innovations is to make this kind of self-sacrificing conservationist mumbo jumbo a moot point. After all, if we continue to develop non-fossil fuel technologies we will be able to drive anywhere we need to go without ruining the environment. I couldn’t agree more. Progress means taking a step forward, not backward. But I think, before we can move forward, sometimes we just have to move, to try something different, maybe even a little crazy, to see the world from a different perspective. In business, we call this “thinking outside of the box.”

So, I’m going to walk outside of the box. Between going to work, meeting with friends and business associates, getting the kids to-and-from school, shopping for groceries, and who knows what else, I may not get very far; but I’m going to see how far I can get. Maybe I will surprise myself.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Do you believe in global warming?

Invariably, when I talk about my book, people ask if I believe global warming is as serious as some make it out to be. Truth is, I don’t know; and even the experts don’t agree.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global warming is not only a serious problem, it is much more serious than scientists had previously thought. However, there are some scientists—many of them well-regarded in their respective fields—who contend that global warming is not a serious problem at all; it is just one of many theories.

Still, according to a recent Gallup poll, the majority of Americans believe that global warming is serious (though a growing number of people think the threat is exaggerated). And the EPA has reportedly sent the White House a proposed finding that greenhouse gases pose a danger to the public, a finding that could open the door for environmental regulations and/or cap-and-trade legislation to curb the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in this country.

Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to set standards for those air pollutants that are deemed harmful to public health or welfare. The six major air pollutants for which national ambient air quality standards have been set are carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide. However, in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases—including carbon dioxide, which accounts for over 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions—are also air pollutants and that the EPA has both the authority and the obligation to regulate those emissions should they endanger public health or welfare.

The Obama administration has made it clear that it believes climate change to be a serious problem. The Democratic majority in Congress has also made it clear that it is willing to enact legislation to cap or tax carbon dioxide emissions in order to reduce the anthropogenic (i.e. human caused) greenhouse gases that are responsible for trapping heat from the sun on the earth’s surface.

But for those who believe global warming to be an exaggeration at best and a hoax at worst, any kind of emissions regulation or legislation could have disastrous effects on our economy with no real benefit to the earth’s natural ecosystems. Earlier this month, at the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change, 80 experts presented arguments that demonstrated “the breadth and high quality of support that the skeptical perspective on climate change enjoys.”

It’s easy, when faced with dramatically opposing viewpoints, to adopt a wait-and-see attitude until all of the scientific experts finally agree; unfortunately, our political climate is such that we need to come up with our best guess answers now.

So, for lack of a better answer, the next time someone asks me, “Do you believe in global warming?” I will tell them that I believe it is in our best interest to live and work sustainably, to eliminate our dependence on foreign energy, to develop alternatives to fossil fuels, to reduce our waste (and increase profits), and to create “green” jobs. And if we can stop arguing long enough to really focus on accomplishing those things, then maybe there won't be an issue to discuss after all.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Water, water everywhere???

Ironically, it rained in Southern California yesterday, on World Water Awareness Day. But, even though this year seems to be wetter than usual in my area, I know we are currently experiencing a potentially devastating statewide drought. After all, we get much of our drinking water from Northern California, which has suffered from lower-than-average rainfall in the past few years.

It is easy to take water for granted. All we have to do is open up our tap and let it out. Water does not cost much in So Cal; our family’s base rate is $1.07 per ccf or $1.07 per 748 gallons. Considering that the average family of four uses about 400 gallons of water each day, that is only about fifty cents per day. Plus, we all know that we will never run out of water; we could let the tap run all day long, and it would still be running by nightfall (though we would most likely be charged a waste water rate for that kind of usage!).

Things are a bit different on the farm, though. Farms run on wells and cisterns. Wells are dug by farmers or by those they hire to do the digging for them, which takes time and money. And it is not out of the realm of possibility for them to have to dig more than one well before they finally hit water. A farm that does not have good drinking water is essentially uninhabitable; the cost of hauling water in from an outside source is too prohibitive. Most farms also have a cistern, which collects rainwater and stores it underground for use in washing clothes or taking baths. If water is wasted or if it is a dry year, then the cistern will run dry; and water will have to be transported in by truck from the nearest water tower, a process that takes time, energy, and money.

Every farmer I know has a rain gauge, and it is not at all unusual to go to the local tavern on a Friday night and hear the men earnestly comparing rainfall statistics with one another. No amount of rainfall is too small to notice; even a mere sixteenth of an inch—hardly a spit in the eye as one friend put it—is worthy of attention. After his ground, water is a farmer’s most precious resource. Wars have been fought over water in this country. And, according to the United Nations, wars may again be fought over water in drought-ravaged areas around the world.

With the earth’s population projected to grow from 6.3 billion to close to 10 billion by 2050, energy, water, and food have now become the top three of “humanity’s top ten problems for the next 50 years.” Which leads us all to try to think a bit differently about how we use one of our most precious resources. The simple fact of the matter is that the more we can conserve, the longer we will have water reserves available to us. Reserves which, according to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, are becoming depleted to the point where they may no longer be adequate to sustain our population. So, then, what can we do?

The EPA has some interesting tips for reducing water usage, which includes buying WaterSense labeled products. WaterSense products are for water what EnergyStar products are for electricity, and they are available for businesses as well as end-consumers. They range from toilets/urinals, faucets and showerheads to landscape irrigation services and sensor-based irrigation control technologies, which can save up 24 billion gallons of water nationwide in a year.

The Metropolitan Water District’s BeWaterWise website also offers several water saving tips for residential and commercial consumers. The important thing is to first find out where the water is going.

For example, over 50% of water usage goes towards landscaping. Residents and businesses, alike, can make a big difference if they choose native plants, cover soil with water absorbing mulch and then follow local water utility guidelines for watering times (most of us water more than we need to).

In addition, watering plants before 8am reduces evaporation (saving as much as 25 gallons), and fixing leaks and replacing broken sprinkler heads can save up to 500 gallons per month. For those who are ready to upgrade their sprinkler systems, weather-based irrigation controllers can save up to 40 gallons per day.

Be Water Wise Tips for residents include:

-- Turning off the faucet when you brush your teeth – saves approximately 3 gallons

-- Fixing a leaking faucet – saves up to 20 gallons a day

-- Using a broom instead of a hose to clean off your driveway and sidewalk – saves about 150 gallons each time you clean

For businesses, the fundamentals still apply. First, they must assess where their water is going. Then, they must develop a plan for reduction.

Be Water Wise Tips for businesses include:

-- Installing high-efficiency, pre-rinse spray heads in restaurants – saves 3.4 gallons per minute

-- Installing a Bulk Steam Sterilizer tempering device on medical facility autoclaves - saves 50 gallons per unit per hour

-- Retrofitting an X-ray film processor with a re-circulation device - cuts water usage by 99%

-- Installing a new Cooling Tower Conductivity Controller – saves 800,000 gallons or $4,000 in water and sewage costs per tower per year.

In addition to the water and price savings, many water agencies offer rebates on newer more water-efficient systems. For example, pressurized waterbrooms for cleaning sidewalks use as little as 2.8 gallons of water per minute (versus 8 to 18 gallons for standard hose and nozzle). They are also eligible for rebates starting at $150. Zero water urinals may be eligible for $400 per fixture. And pH conductivity controllers may be eligible for $1,900 rebates or more per device.

Regardless of the savings or the rebates, it is important for all of us to start thinking like farmers when it comes to water because, at the end of the season, if we run out, there is no water tower in town that we can drive to for a refill…at any price.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Scent of a Book

My book came out this week; and, like an expectant parent, I held it in my hands for the first time with a mixture of elation and trepidation. Elation that all of my hard work and effort had finally come to fruition. Trepidation that I might not meet its needs and it might not meet my expectations.

I have often dreamed of what it must feel like to hold my own book in my hand, to run my fingers along a spine that has my name on it. In fact, the reality is somewhat anti-climactic. It is like the day after you bring your first child home from the hospital, when it begins dawns on you that you have got at least 18 years of dealing with this person and now what are you going to do?

And yet there is something about our babies and our dreams that keeps us going. Maybe it is the smell. Babies have their own unique smell—that rich, sweet, milky smell that somehow transports us to our own sense of wonder at seeing the world for the first time. Books, too, have their own clean, crisp smell of black ink poised on white pages, waiting to transport us to places we might never be able to visit otherwise.

My book reminded me of when I was a girl. I know I am dating myself here, but our quizzes used to be mimeographed onto paper and then passed out to the class. There is nothing quite like the smell of a mimeograph; “pleasingly antiseptic” are words that come to mind. Of course, the first thing all of us did was hold the paper to our noses and inhale that tangy (most likely toxic) aroma of purple ink on paper. And in that moment, no matter who we were, whether we were an “A” student or an “F” student, there was always the possibility of doing well and of making the grade. It was with that same sense of possibility that I fanned the pages of my book and inhaled the tart fragrance of fresh ink on paper.

One of the shocking things for most authors—and most parents, for that matter—is the amount of control we have over our little creations once they reach maturity. We conceive of them, labor over them, give birth to them...and then they take on a life of their own and become their own creations. From that point on, all we can do is watch and hope.

As the author of a “green” book, I had hoped that my publisher would print sustainably; but I had no say in whether or not he actually would. After all, the guy has got to make payroll; and it is not like the publishing industry is dealing with huge profit margins (although their margins are slightly better than most authors I know).

At any rate, my publisher apparently found it fiscally sound to print this book on FSC certified paper, which means that it comes “from well-managed forests, controlled sources and recycled wood or fiber.” Doesn’t sound very sexy, I know. But, if one can judge a book by its cover, then this book is very green indeed. And that’s a good thing.

The Forest Stewardship Council is a non-profit organization, formed in 1993 by a diverse group, consisting of loggers and foresters on the one hand and environmentalists and sociologists on the other, all of whom wanted to establish a worldwide standard for sustainable forestry. Today, the FSC has offices in more than 40 countries and offers independent, third-party accreditation services that allow consumers like you and me to make sure the products we are buying come from forests “that are managed to meet the social, economic and ecological needs of present and future generations.”

The fact that I have devoted so much time and energy to researching and then writing about businesses and organizations that have met their “triple bottom line” of profitability, social responsibility, and environmental sustainability does not lessen the thrill I get when I consider that my product could also meet those criteria. After all, it is one thing to know something in theory and another to put it into practice.

I suppose if I were truly green I would eschew paper altogether; and, given my own children’s propensity to read books (not!), I suppose that is where we are headed. Amazon’s Kindle may well be a precursor of things to come. And, if it is, I am sure there will be benefits to that change of venue; but I will still crave the scent of a book.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

30 Years of Nuclear Power

Thirty years ago this month an incident occurred near Middletown, Pennsylvania which has changed the landscape of energy production in America. At four o’clock in the morning, the main feedwater pumps at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant stopped running, causing a series of automatic systems shut-downs which ultimately led to a “loss of coolant accident.” No deaths or injuries occurred to any personnel or to residents of the surrounding area; but nuclear power production in the United States suffered a crippling blow. Not a single nuclear power plant has been licensed in the USA since that year.

Even before climate change became a concern, many experts warned that we needed to build nuclear power plants to meet the growing demand for electricity in the United States. Today, as concerns about carbon emissions increase, so too do the chances for nuclear power. Like it or not, nuclear power is one of the few technologies available for base load power generation. Base load power plants are designed to provide power 24/7. Most of us could care less about base load versus peak load power generation…until we experience an outage of some sort.

Compared to the greenhouse gases and other air pollutants emitted by coal power plants—another sources of base load power—nuclear power plants are one of the cleanest sources of energy. In fact, if it weren’t for the radiation—or, more to the point, the fear of radiation—nuclear power would be the ideal source of base load power in the United States today.

For the most part, we seem to have developed an unspoken “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy towards those nuclear power stations currently in operation in this country. Most of my neighbors, for example, have no idea that we live within 20 miles of a nuclear power facility or that we get approximately 20 percent of our electricity from that facility.

Most Americans don’t know that current advances in technology could render the type of accident that happened at Three Mile Island virtually obsolete. Nor do they know that over 95 percent of spent fuel can be recycled (though not in the United States due to political concerns). They don’t know that spent fuel is currently being stored on-site at many nuclear facilities around the United States or that the debate over the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which has spanned two decades and reportedly cost Americans $13.5 billion, is now officially over.

Polls show that the average American is not averse to nuclear energy, as long as we don’t have a nuclear power plant in our backyard. In other words, as long as we don’t see it, we can pretend it’s not really there and that the electricity we use in our homes and businesses just magically appears.

But those things are changing. Soon, we are going to have to get off the fence and take a stand on hard issues like how much we’re really willing to pay for the increase in our utilities if they are powered by “clean” coal and whether or not we are willing to recycle or store nuclear waste in order to continue to run our air conditioners.

As of 2006, one nuclear reactor is still in operation at Three Mile Island, though it only accounts for 9 percent of the state’s total nuclear generation. In the United States, Pennsylvania ranks 2nd in total nuclear capacity. The state is also one of the top coal producers in the country and ranks 4th highest in the United States for carbon dioxide emission—the most common greenhouse gas—2nd highest for sulfur dioxide emissions and 5th highest for nitrogen oxide, both major air pollutants emitted by coal power plants.

All of which leads me to wonder: If I had to choose between living next to a coal power plant or living next to a nuclear power facility, where would I rather be? At the end of the day, I guess I’m not that uncomfortable living where I do.

Note: Please feel free to contact me for a list of resources used in this article. Also, for more interesting facts about nuclear power, read Jessica A. Knoblauch’s commentary online at E/The Environmental Magazine.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Green Jobs for Tough Times

The Obama Administration is currently seeking suggestions for its Middle Class Task Force, and the topic of the first official meeting on February 27th will be "Green Jobs: A Pathway to a Strong Middle Class."

While I agree that we need a strong middle class in this country and applaud any effort to create new jobs in our current economy—especially sustainable jobs which will benefit both the environmental and the free market ecosystems—I am dubious about the government’s ability to create jobs, green or otherwise.

The creation of jobs takes capital as in wealth as in money. The government is not in the business of making money; it is in the business of providing services which are necessary for the public good but are not necessarily profitable. It provides these services by imposing taxes on people like you and me.

While government can and should provide incentives to the green sector to create jobs, ultimately, it is the end-consumer who will create new jobs by demanding new products and services. If we, as consumers, are willing to pay for green products and services, then businesses will find a way to deliver them…and create jobs in the process.

The best thing our government can do is to reduce spending, reduce debt (which will in turn strengthen the dollar), and reduce taxes. That way, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and, yes, even corporations will have more capital to invest in and develop clean technologies that will take us into a new age where environmental waste is not built into our business models but rather is seen for what it truly is: unprofitable.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Greenpeace -- Clean power

Thursday, Greenpeace is throwing Clean Power to the People parties across the country. These parties, whose goal is to get people together on a grass-roots, community level to “end coal’s stranglehold over Washington,” are a precursor to the March 2nd Capitol Climate Action—“the largest mass civil disobedience for climate in U.S. history,” which will be held at the Capitol Power Plant in Washington D.C.

According to The Washington Post, the Capitol Power Plant produces steam and chilled water which are used to heat and cool many of the most prominent government buildings on Capitol Hill, including the Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, it also produces sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, fine particulates, and other pollutants, including greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide. Located a few blocks from the Capitol building, the Capitol Power Plant has come to epitomize everything about old government thinking that activists want to change.

The fact that the plant is still in operation, even as today’s government leaders are espousing the benefits of greening our public buildings, is symbolic to many of the hold that big coal has over our decision makers. But I think it is also indicative of the conundrum that many of us are facing as we get down to actually making substantive changes to our business-as-usual routines.

The United States has been called the Saudi Arabia of coal. We have more coal reserves than any other country in the world. About half of all electricity generated in this country comes from coal-fired power plants; and, in some areas, such as West Virginia and Kentucky, over 90 percent of the electricity generated comes from coal. Is it any wonder, then, that efforts to eliminate coal from the Capitol Power Plant have reportedly been “thwarted” by Senators from those states?

It’s easy for me to say we should eliminate coal from our power mix. I live in a state which generates only a meager one percent of its electricity from coal. On the other hand, asking those states which are in the 90th percentile to eliminate coal from their power mix at this point in time is tantamount to asking them to go back to the Stone Age. Sorry Greenpeace. Not to be a party pooper, but that’s not going to happen.

So, what is the answer?

For some, the answer lies in utilizing Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology to produce “clean” coal. With IGCC technology, coal is converted into a gas, from which pollutants are removed before it is burned in the turbines that drive the electric generators. The heat produced by those turbines is then recovered and used to produce steam, which is also used to generate electricity. Proponents claim this technology dramatically reduces emissions while producing more power. Opponents claim the whole idea of clean coal is an oxymoron. For them, the money needed to construct so-called clean coal power plants would be better spent on developing truly renewable technologies such as geothermal, solar or wind power.

But are we really prepared to walk away from one of this country’s biggest sources of energy?

That’s the million dollar question and one which the people of Austin, Texas answered when they were faced with the prospect of having to build a power plant to generate additional electricity. They opted, instead, to implement city-wide energy efficiency and green building programs, which reduced the need for energy to such an extent that the power plant never had to be constructed. Austin Energy, which was one of the EPA’s 2008 Climate Award Winners, is currently on track to offset the need for another 700 megawatt power plant and to provide 30 percent of its power mix with renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and even land fill gas, by 2020. Even so, Austin still gets about a third of its power from coal. And, while the city has shown that it has tremendous resolve to act sustainably, it takes time to change from one power source to another.

In the meantime, the question isn’t so much how we can get our representatives in Washington to make that change. The real question is to what extent each of us is willing to alter our lives in order to make pulverized coal-fired power plants a thing of the past. Are we willing to conserve energy or to be more energy efficient? Are we willing to make the infrastructural changes to our own homes—install energy efficient roofs, windows, heating and air conditioning systems, etc.? Are we willing to pay a little extra to buy green power from our energy providers or perhaps even install onsite power systems ourselves? Because, bottom line, if we don’t buy it, energy providers will stop selling it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But some day.

Don’t get me wrong, I think marching on Washington is a great way to make a statement about the importance of using clean power. But if that’s all we do, then we’ve wasted our time…and energy. At the end of the day, it’s not what Washington decides that will make the difference; it’s the actions we take (or don’t take) in our own homes and businesses that will change our world. So party hard this Thursday. Just make sure to turn the lights off when you leave.