Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ain't no power like the power of the people

Often in the past when people learn that I'm an environmentalist, they ask me which I think is a better approach to environmental solutions: NGOs or the government?

In college I struggled with this question because I didn't like either option., Instead I would introduce a third: individuals. The entire major I created in college was founded on the idea that individuals are more empowered than they realize to have an affect on the environment, for better or worse. As consumers, I would argue, we are capable of "voting with our dollars" for the kind of world we want to live in-- a sustainable one, or one full of waste, pollution, and toxic chemicals. So instead of counting on the government or on environmental nonprofits to solve all of our problems, I concluded, the most important approach to addressing environmental problems is to convince individual people to make the right choice, in support of a sustainable economy that doesn't degrade the earth. I was confident that this could be done if only people are taught to care about the environment, to link their purchases and other actions to environmental harm, and to believe in the true power of collective action.

Then I graduated from college. I was still passionate about the power of collective action affecting change through many small, individual actions, but I began working for a nonprofit and saw how much could be done by this sector to protect land, water, and resources. Plus, I no longer felt I could go on my "individual action" rant when I wasn't dedicating my day to addressing individual action any more- so more and more, I would answer "NGOs, of course," whenever the question arose- NGO or government?

Then I started graduate school. I'm still working for a nonprofit, mind you, but I'm also taking environmental policy courses in the evenings. At first the effect these classes were having on me was a new answer to the proverbial "what's the solution?" question, and if asked, I would have said, "the government, of course." Because ultimately, the infrastructure of our society, and the regulations that control our economy and so much of our daily lives, from how automobiles are subsidized to how water quality must be reported to consumers, is up to the discretion of our government. These decisions are hugely important, and I began to see that even nonprofits dedicate much of their time and energy trying to convince governmental bodies to act one way or another. Even the organizations that have historically not been very politically involved are growing their advocacy efforts today.

As the semester continued on in my first environmental policy class over the summer, however, my professors began to really emphasize the intentional limitations of the U.S. government's effectiveness -- checks and balances make our government more balanced, yes, but with that balance comes a whole lot of inaction, by design. And so, the cheery optimism I felt for the government's effectiveness at the beginning of the semester began to wear off.

But a new realization arose out of the ashes of my defeated optimism. Part of the reason politics can be so ineffective is because the election cycle can take higher precedence than issues. But where does power lie in elections? You wouldn't always know it, but ultimately it lies with individuals. And even when not concerned with getting re-elected, politicians are faced every day with the mandate to represent their constituents. So if their constituents started demanding new priorities, like the environment, then government actions, in theory, should start mirroring what the public demands.

I know that corporate lobbyists and other influential advocacy groups complicate this situation, but part of the reason that lobbyists are so powerful today is because individuals have largely volunteered to take a backseat in politics in the past, happy to let someone else drive. But that's changing. With the new administration and important legislative decisions being made like health care and climate change, people are beginning stand up a bit more and demand their voices be heard too. Normally it's hard to get a majority in what the public wants, much less a consensus, of course, but involvement is an excellent first step. I think last year's election shows that individuals can certainly prove their effectiveness through collective action, and I'm inspired to believe that collectively we can demand even more change of our government.

So now, if asked the question again, which approach is more effective in producing environmental solutions, I will be returning to the original answer I used to give in college. Yes, the government has an impressive amount of control over how our society is structured, and nonprofits are capable of influencing those decisions, and acting outside of the government to protect natural resources, but ultimately, the government is looking to please its constituents, and nonprofits are looking to gain the support of its members and donors. That means that individual action is the most effective solution, whether it's responsible consumption, support of NGOs, or voting for and lobbying politicians to act in our best interest.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Smart Growth

I have a new environmental interest: Smart Growth. It's partially an academic interest, and partially a personal one. Over the summer I read some things for an environmental policy class about making urban areas walkable and sustainable so that the infrastructure itself is green (LEED certified, and the like) and so that the people who live there are encouraged (or in some cases, forced) to live in more green ways. This really struck a cord with me because, as my earlier post mentions, we recently moved to the 'burbs, and let me tell you-- this area could really use some smart growth concepts implemented. I also just love the idea of encouraging green lifestyle choices by making them easier. In my neighborhood, people wouldn't drive quite so much if there were safer crosswalks and sidewalks for pedestrians, and if there were more little grocery stores or convenience stores interspersed amongst homes. (In smart growth terms, that's called mixed-use development).

This semester I'm taking an entire class about transportation and smart growth, so I get to read a lot more about it, which is great. There is a fair share of support for the concept, but there is also quite a bit of anti-smart growth sentiment out there. Some argue that a more accurate term would be "restricted growth" but from what I've read about and learned in class, I really don't think there's anything limiting about smart growth. The point of smart growth is not to restrict or stop growth, it's to accommodate growth in such a way that takes the long-term sustainability of the community and the environment into account. Still, not everyone sees this or agrees with it. And even those who do agree with it don't all necessarily find it attractive. My class, which is full of environmental science and policy graduate students, has a lot of comments from students saying they understand the benefits of smart growth, but at the end of the day, they want their single-family home, their backyard, their car, and their parking spot more than they want to live in a smart growth community. I know they're not alone, and that this is how most Americans think, but it's especially discouraging to hear it from a group of people who are clearly concerned about the environment. The idea that living in a smart growth community is a sacrifice is a huge hurdle that the smart growth movement must overcome. I don't have the answers for this (yet) but as with all things in life, the first step to overcoming the problem is to acknowledge it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

When Green Sprawls

For the last year and a half, Mike and I have lived in the upper northeast corner of Dupont Circle, a wonderful part of Washington DC, which has all the conveniences you can imagine in city living: a grocery store three blocks away, at least three dry cleaners within four blocks, three ice cream shops down the street I live on (this is crucial in the DC summertime), bars and restaurants galore starting a block away and continuing for many blocks in every direction around our apartment building, even a dog park across the street. We don't own a dog, mind you, but there's something so wonderfully cheerful about dog parks. All these happy dogs running in circles around each other, or free to dig in the dirt if they so choose. And the dog owners, standing around together, watching their dogs, making small talk, creating a sense of community without having to even try very hard.

I love the location we live in, but so does everyone else and thus it comes at a decent premium. Now that Mike and I are both in school, we've stopped going out as much as we used to, primarily due to the lack of time between work and school. I find myself barely leaving the apartment for entire weekends now, and yet we're still paying the premium for our location. So, we've decided that we'd like to stretch our legs a little and find a new place that will accommodate the professional student lifestyle a little better. You know: slightly bigger, perhaps with room for a desk or two, and not necessarily in the center of the city since we're not using that anymore. After the last month of apartment hunting, we've finally just chosen a place this weekend. It's definitely big enough for two desks, and it is definitely outside of the city center-- but it's still very accessible to the city because it's right next to a metro stop, and actually sits on two different metro lines, so we'll have options in terms of mass transit.

But why am I blogging about this and what does it have to do with sincere green?

Well first of all, the apartment we're moving into is both bigger and has central AC, a dishwasher and a washer and dryer. You can bet that the nineteenth-century building we live in now has none of these things. The prospect of having them soon is both exciting for the modern conveniences, and terrifying because I can feel my carbon footprint doubling just thinking about it. So it will be interesting to see if I can still manage to justify calling my lifestyle green after the simple move of changing apartments.

Secondly, the idea of urban sprawl is readily on my mind as I make the move from a high-compact city to a far less dense suburban area. We don't have a car and will still rely on the metro to get from place to place, but suddenly we'll rely on the metro a lot more than we do now, because everything I walk to now will soon be a few metro stops away at its closest. Mass transit is good, but walking is better, so I'm increasing my carbon footprint there too. We're certainly hoping, of course, to explore our new highly-residential neighborhood and find the staples we need so that we will be able to buy milk without relying on the metro, but at this point I'm not sure what we'll find.

And so, I'm looking at this move as a case study on being green in the suburbs. Wish me luck.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Strange Bedfellows

I'm afraid the anti-consumerism movement has a new enemy. 
Bed bugs.  

For the first time since World War II, bed bugs are making a comeback around the world with a vengeance.  In the US, the problem has become so bad that earlier this week, the EPA held a two-day summit on the pervasive problem of bed bugs.  Not only are the tiny blood-sucking insects showing up in powerful numbers, but they're also appearing in unexpected places. Cell phones.  Computer keyboards.  Clock radios.  Commonly thought of us a problem only in impoverished or badly maintained areas, the pests are now equal opportunity invaders.   Complaints are pouring in from people and businesses of all economic statuses, including 5-star hotels. 

One article I read speculated that an increase in world travel is helping to spread bed bugs, which makes sense.  Mike also pointed out to me that Craigslist might be another culprit.  People are trading furniture a whole lot more these days, and with bed bugs being so difficult to detect, it can be impossible to know if you're passing along a colony of vampires along with that charming used love seat.  And with that point, I panicked.  All of our furniture, even our mattress, were acquired used.  The majority of my clothes were second-hand purchases from thrift stores.  I'm a likely victim of bed bugs.  For the first time in my life, I found myself wanting to throw away my belongings and buy everything brand new in sterile plastic wrap, just to make sure I'm not bringing bed bugs home.  

Mind you, I'm not a very squeamish person, and I've never thought twice about picking up a bookshelf from the side of a dumpster and bringing it home.  If bed bugs are now making me rethink having used furniture, imagine how hard it's going to be to get squeamish people to be comfortable bringing used items into their home?  Anyone who ever previously hesitated buying used items is definitely going to avoid them now.  And with that realization, I panicked even more.  Bed bugs are terrible for the environment!  They could single handedly wipe out the growing trend toward exchanging used goods, and make the concept of landfill diversion just a myth from the past.  Because bed bugs are so hard to get rid of, if someone suspects a piece for furniture (or a cell phone, apparently) might be infested, their best bet is to just throw it away.  So not only are people not seeking used goods, but they are also more likely to get rid of things they would otherwise keep.  

Bed bugs are my new environmental nemesis.   We need to get rid of them to keep the loop of used goods in cycle.  I'm finding myself weighing the virtues of DDT.  There is apparently a natural powder that is harmless to mammals and the environment but kills bed bugs.  Maybe I'll buy stock in that company. 

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Gleefully Frugal

There's a great article in the New York Times today about people embracing frugal lifestyles in today's tough economy.  More than just a practical (or necessary) budgetary act, frugality is being given much broader consideration lately; it's what the article refers to as "the emergence of thrift as a value."  I'm thrilled to see society progressing this way.  

The article primarily focuses on the economic and social sides of the trend towards thrift, but it's not shy about also linking the environmental benefits of embracing thrift.  Regardless of whether you're giving up paper napkins because you've realized they were an unnecessary expense or because they are a waste of paper, you are benefiting the planet with your conscious decision to live with less.

On the economic side, the article also addresses the "paradox of thrift," the concern that when  the economy is already struggling, it is dangerous (even "catastrophic" as the article mentions) for people to react by saving instead of shopping.  However, the argument I'd make is that our economy has reached a tipping point and we can no longer be as focused on material consumerism if we want to be even remotely sustainable.  And I'm not even talking environmental sustainability here, I'm talking the survival of civilization.  I think that the only economic solution that will get us out of this mess is the one that recognizes "gleefully frugal" anti-consumerism as the way of the future, and manages to build an economy from the ground up accordingly.  Exactly what that economy looks like, I'm not quite sure, but I'm certain that with some creativity, that economy is possible.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sincerely blogging better

I'm a neglectful blogger, and I apologize for that.  It's been brought to my attention that my blog on sustainability didn't turn out to be very sustainable itself. Oh, the ironies.  I'm going to try to fix this.  In the coming weeks, you will hopefully see some changes to Sincere Green.

These changes will partially be in the look and layout of the blog, in order to support the changes in content that I also hope to make.  The intention of the blog was to be all green all the time, but it turns out I have a lot of loosely related interests I want to talk about too.  I often find myself wanting to talk about materialism and the economy and notions of success or status, but I haven't blogged about these things in the past if I couldn't make a clear connection to the environment with the topic.  Realizing this, I thought about starting a brand new blog with a broader frame to give myself the freedom to write about all of these different topics, including but not limited to the green ones. 

My sister just called me to advocate for keeping the Sincere Green title of my blog and allowing myself more freedom within this existing blog- and I think she's right.  She pointed out to me that all issues relating to the economy and our consumer society do impact the environment eventually, and one of the biggest problems we have today is that people don't readily see that.  So, she argued, whether the point I am writing about at any given time has direct links to environmental issues or not, it's important to keep the distant correlations in mind, and to talk about non-environmental topics in the context of the environment too.  So I'm going to give myself the freedom to go outside the green box-- to see what I'm inspired to write about when I am not limiting myself to green-only topics, and we'll see if I become a better blogger for it.  

Here's to hoping!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Change to get excited about

The election of President Barack Obama will mean a lot of great changes for the environment, I believe, and today we're seeing the first few examples of the changes to come.  US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she is appointing a special envoy to lead US efforts to fight Global Warming.  I am so thrilled that the global issue of Climate Change is going to be addressed holistically, not just by the department of energy or department of transportation as a domestic or industrial issue, but also addressed by the department of the state as an international and diplomatic issue.  

I don't know a lot about Todd Stern, who is expected to lead the envoy, but he worked in the Clinton administration and was involved in the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in the 90s.  Hopefully not signing the Protocol wasn't his idea, and we'll see more progress on that front in this administration.  From the looks of some of his articles online, I'm thinking we can expect to see great progress. 

The White House blog also announced that President Obama signed a two memos today that deal with energy independence and climate change.  The first directs the department of transportation to raise CAFE standards (fuel efficiency standards) for 2011 model cars.  The second memo will allow California and 12 other states to raise their emissions standards higher than the national standard.  I applaud this decision, and am curious to see how it plays out- what kind of challenges still lay ahead of states trying to lead the way for energy efficiency, and how much will the oil and auto industries fight back?  We'll have to wait and see- but I've never been more hopeful in my life that progress is upon us. 

Sunday, January 18, 2009

There's "green" and then there's green

I just wanted to share an interesting and slightly depressing NY Times article about two very different "green" inauguration galas going on in DC this weekend- one much more sincere than the other, in my opinion.