June 9, 2008

Hello Curious Readers,

Can you believe it? A blog on politics taking a break during one of the most exciting months in election history. A month-long hiatus out of nowhere. Couldn’t have been planned worse.

It’s the personal projects that take up all my free time. Pending their completion, I’ll be back in full force. Until then, swing by www.SustainabilityIsSexy.com for the latest and greatest.

I’ll leave with some words of wisdom …

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s just not”

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Two summers ago, I made a step toward the dark side by trading in my bicycle for a shiny new SUV. I couldn’t have timed the switch more poorly. This was the first summer of record setting gas prices, when the pump price first climbed over $3.00 a gallon. Fair weather activists went to work that summer, sending out chain letters over email and myspace demanding a boycott of gasoline. Let’s boycott all gas stations for a day! Or better yet, let’s just boycott Exxon! That’ll show ’em!

After reading these, I (and anyone who had taken Econ 101) immediately were hit with terrible headaches. Why? These consumer gas schemes pandered more toward emotions than to any rational economics theory.

Now two years later, a similar situation is occurring. However, this headache isn’t being spread by zealous internet users. This fire is being fanned by two of our own presidential candidates. Their idea is not a boycott, but rather a “gas holiday” where the federal gas tax is erased for the summer driving months.

But wouldn’t lowering the gas price increase demand? And when demand increases, won’t the prices go back up? The short answer is Yes. Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network describes this as the true American energy policy: “Maximize demand, minimize supply and buy the rest from the people who hate us the most.”

Under such a scheme, consumers would see little change in gas prices this summer. Without taxes of course, our own Federal government’s revenue would shrink. And the real winners in the game would be….you guessed it….the big oil companies.

According to this article by Thomas Friedman of the NYT, “This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.”

Paul Krugman, another NYT columnist points out in a post that any attempt to quell gas prices for the summer driving season is too little, too late. The petro we’ll use this summer has already been extracted and refined. No matter what politicians will promise for the summer, there’s simply not much to be done.

Photo found at Huffington Post

My car gets 14 mpg on a good day and public transit isn’t an option for my commute. I’m sitting front and center in the cross hairs of high gas prices, and I would be ecstatic if there were a plan that could help me out. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much of a rationale consensus from our leaders. Of the three candidates, only Obama has voiced his disapproval of a gas holiday. Both McCain and Clinton have publicly favored this gas-tax holiday.

It’s time for our politicians to take a proactive and logical approach to our energy policy. All the research, rationale, and logic point to the same conclusion. It’s been close to 30 years since President Jimmy Carter proclaimed we would stop being dependent on foreign oil and that we would develop oil alternatives. Perhaps its time we began working toward this long-time goal.

Dear Pennsylvania Governor Rendell,

I’m a 20-something year old who loves politics. Even more than usual, I can’t seem to escape the excitement of the current campaign season. It’s been a long, long time since so many people have become civically engaged with our political system. This is a time we should celebrate; which is why I was so surprised to hear some comments from you which belittled young voters. In a recent forum, you seemed to infer that young voters weren’t informed about the upcoming presidential candidates. That we “drink the Kool-Aid of [Obama’s] wonderful speeches” resonates the sentiment that 18-29 year olds are being suckered in by a slick campaign message and a charismatic orator. With this in mind, I have to share a story with you.

I spent four years at a state university, during which I was accosted daily by students, flyers, posters, and emails telling me to “be informed and get involved”. I sat in classes where students absorbed books and articles written by the world’s top experts. I watched as kids debated the intricacies of tax policy in lecture halls that sat 300 people- where so many young voters attended that it was “standing room only”. I’ve witnessed 20 year olds show up late for work or class because learning and being informed was more precious than a few hours of sleep. To be truthful, this describes me and most of my peers.

Governor Rendell, your opinion of my demographic is grossly incorrect. We may be young; but we are not ill-informed nor are we uneducated. In fact, I would argue that the majority of young voters have a much stronger grasp of campaign issues than most demographics. Take a glance at any college or university in the country, and chances are you’ll find less apathy than in any other demographic. Look at any of the political campaigns today, and you’ll see young volunteers pounding the pavement and knocking on doors, ready to speak to anyone and everyone about the issues. Find a political website, and you’re bound to see young voters go toe-to-toe in educated political debate with much older people. To be blunt, you have misjudged many of us.

We aren’t professional politicians, so it should come as no surprise that some young people can’t rattle off which legislation a candidate has sponsored. But don’t be fooled – when we come home from a campaign event, chances are you’ll find us scanning the paper and the internet for information on the candidate. We do the homework because we know what’s at stake. We’re the ones fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re the one’s who can’t find jobs because of our current economic state. We’re the ones fighting to afford health care, and we’re the ones who will be dealing with climate change long after you’re gone.

Of course, I would never expect anyone to accept my thoughts without first doing their own homework. Student organizations, universities, and communities are always looking for speakers to participate in meetings and town halls. Please consider an appearance at any of these so you can see for yourself just how engaged students can be. Attending just one student debate may completely change your opinion of this promising demographic.

Today, young people are standing up and participating in our democratic political process. Help celebrate this by engaging our young demographic!

See the video that started it all here

Found at www.Filterwaterdirect.com

Today, you can own almost anything. Anything. You can own it. If you or I were to talk with our great-great grandparents, they wouldn’t believe just how much someone in today’s world can own.

I’m not speaking so much about material goods; so much as I’m speaking to the wide breadth of ownership we experience every day. It’s not just land and goods anymore. You can own ideas, pictures, slogans, and even living organisms.

This ability to own things is known as privatization. Privatization is the tool which makes capitalism work. It brought us out of the dark ages, and produced our world today. But is making things “ownable” always good for society?

Many people think so. Members of the Fraser Institute, are some of them. In the documentary “The Corporation”, the president of the free-market powerhouse tells us that if we could find a way to privatize our air, we wouldn’t have any more pollution. Just like when someone owns a house or a car, the air would become the owner’s responsibility. They would care for it, and see that it isn’t polluted. Seems like a good idea, right?

There’s another part of privatization that needs to be talked about. Owning a house for instance means I can put up a fence. I can keep people out. If I wanted to, I could even keep you out!


Image from the India Resource Center

Over the weekend, I caught a story about a company who put up a big fence. The story is about a village in India. The village’s water wells have been privatized, and are now owned by Coca Cola. Coca Cola uses the wells to supply water for its Dasani bottled water product, which is enjoyed by thirsty people all over the world. That is, it’s enjoyed by thirsty people who can afford to buy it.

It seems that no matter how thirsty the local villagers become, Coca Cola’s financial fence keeps them out. Can’t afford this water? Too bad! Villagers have taken up strong protests against the bottling company. Rioters broke down a police blockade and protested the factory in the hope of soon quenching their thirst.


This picture can be found at City of Tulsa Water ServicesA similar story took place in Bolivia back in 2001. Like many countries during that time, Bolivia was struggling to develop its economy. Just like anyone who’s starting to develop a business, Bolivia needed a loan. And so just like a businessman, Bolivia went to the bank….the World Bank. The World Bank agreed to loan Bolivia money, but there were a few conditions. These conditions were called “Structural Adjustment Policies”. The World Bank wanted to make sure it would get repaid, so it required Bolivia to privatize many of its state-run services. All of a sudden, everything in Bolivia was for sale! Roads, hospitals, energy…… and water.

Bechtel, a US company, was awarded the contract to manage the water in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s third largest city. As part of the contract, Bechtel was promised a certain return on its investment. That money had to come from somewhere, and so Bechtel raised the rates. Copies of water bills show that household water bills increased by 60%! Almost instantly, water began to cost a lot than most could afford. The strain was too much, the people rioted, and one boy was killed and hundreds others wounded.


Stories like these lead me to believe that privatization may not be the golden answer to all our problems. There are some basic necessities to human life that we simply cannot fence. What if being poor meant you couldn’t breathe because you couldn’t afford air? What if it meant you couldn’t drink because water was too expensive? And when it comes to health care, food, basic shelter…well the answer is hard to say. Privatization may have brought us out of the dark ages, but can it also put us back in?

Where do we draw the line?

We’re about to say “goodbye” to the tumblin’ urban tumbleweed. A Wednesday article in the Seattle Times highlighted Mayor Greg Nickels newest plan to help keep Seattle green. If approved by the City Council, Seattle grocery shoppers will be charged a 20 cents/bag “green fee” on every paper or plastic bag used at the grocery store. The fee would go into effect on January 1st. Judging from comments in the Times, no one seems to have seen this coming. So where did this crazy idea come from?

It boils down to two issues: the environment and money. Most people will nod their heads in agreement that plastic shopping bags and our planet’s well being don’t mingle. According to the EPA, the US alone consumes 380 billion plastic bags in a year. Even if only a fraction of these are thrown away, the environmental impact is still costly. After all, plastic never degrades – instead it breaks down into smaller and smaller toxic pieces. Those small plastic toxins can wreak havoc on wildlife and eco-systems.

www.fremantle.wa.gov.au

As always, the bottom-line is affected too. The Wall Street Journal estimates plastic bags cost the retail industry $4 billion a year (not counting environmental clean-up costs and other expenses). With food and energy (and most everything else) jumping in price, money spent on disposable bags is money being thrown away.

Although according to the Film and Bag Federation, plastic bags are saintly when compared against paper. Plastic grocery bags consume 40 percent less energy, generate 80 percent less solid waste, produce 70 percent fewer atmospheric emissions, and release up to 94 percent fewer waterborne wastes, according to the federation.

So what’s the right answer, paper or plastic? According to Nickels, “the answer… should be neither. Both harm the environment. Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us in the environment, and the best way to handle waste is not to create it in the first place.”

Although I’d love to claim Seattle blazed this trail of logic against waste, it wouldn’t be quite true. The paper/plastic bag fee idea is a pretty new idea in the US, but it is not the first of its kind. Back in 2002, Ireland established what it called a “plastax”; its own fee for plastic bags. Customers who wanted plastic bags were originally charged 15 cents per bag. Two months after the tax was put into place, the BBC reported that plastic bag use in Ireland had dropped 90%. Observers found a decrease in garbage, street litter, and drainage problems caused by plastic bags. The fee is still in place today, and plastic bag use continues to be minimal.

….. By the way, San Francisco placed a ban on plastic bags in 2007, but have yet to take a stance on paper bags.

For all the critics of this new plan, I have little sympathy. Changing a wasteful behavior on a city-wide scale is never completely painless…. but the “green-fee” is pretty close. Unlike gas taxes or carbon credit schemes, this idea is cheap. Reusable bags are easy to find and easier to use. My advice for those determined not to use a canvas bag – stock up now! If you save every paper and plastic bag from now until when this bill goes into effect, you’ll have more than enough bags to carry your groceries for years to come.

Shameless Plug:

Want to get a jump start on Seattle’s efforts to ditch paper and plastic bags? Why not start saving the planet today with your own Sustainability Is Sexy canvas tote! Impress your friends and family with this one-of-a-kind statement about the environment. It’s eco-friendly and sexy! Find your Sustainability Is Sexy shopping bag at www.SustainabilityIsSexy.com!

Plastic Bag Facts

(Poached from Reusablebags.com)

  • Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.
  • According to the EPA, over 380 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps are consumed in the U.S. each year.
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually. (Estimated cost to retailers is $4 billion)
  • According to the industry publication Modern Plastics, Taiwan consumes 20 billion bags a year—900 per person.
  • According to Australia’s Department of Environment, Australians consume 6.9 billion plastic bags each year—326 per person. An estimated .7% or 49,600,000 end up as litter each year.
  • Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, whales and other marine mammals die every year from eating discarded plastic bags mistaken for food.
  • Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest.
  • As part of Clean Up Australia Day, in one day nearly 500,000 plastic bags were collected.
  • Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC, one group harvests 30,000 per month.
  • According to David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, plastic bags have gone “from being rare in the late 80s and early 90s to being almost everywhere.
  • Plastic bags are among the 12 items of debris most often found in coastal cleanups, according to the nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation.
  • In 2001, Ireland consumed 1.2 billion plastic bags, or 316 per person. An extremely successful plastic bag consumption tax, or PlasTax, introduced in 2002 reduced consumption by 90%.
  • Approximately 18,000,000 liters of oil have been saved due to this reduced production. Governments around the world are considering implementing similar measures.
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Credit: Timothy Fessier & the Santa Barbara Independent

Like many political science and international studies students, I was first introduced to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz while discussing globalization. His 2002 book “Globalisation and its Discontents” was the tastiest of textbooks for the aspiring politico and undeclared academic. The critical assessment of globalization Stiglitz put forth cost him a job at the World Bank, but helped stimulate the minds of many who grew up in the midst of the internet and NAFTA.

Now, Stiglitz has struck again. His new book, “The Three Trillion Dollar War”, is an in-depth look at the dollar cost of the Iraq war, and the subsequent consequences (dollar or otherwise) of all the money spent. In an interview given to the Guardian, Stiglitz reveals some shocking conclusions his research uncovered:

money.jpgIn 2005, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost of the Iraq war at $500bn. Stiglitz and the book’s co-author, Linda Bilmes, found this number to be surprisingly low. Discrepancies began to unveil themselves. For instance, the listed cost of the 2007 troop surge only accounted for combat troops. No funds were budgeted for the additional support troops needed as well. After years of data mining and number crunching, they’ve found the cost to be between 2 and 3 trillion dollars.

What’s more surprising than an unannounced 3 trillion dollar bill? Stiglitz links the cost of the war to US credit woes, economic recession, dependency on foreign nations, and even the failure of foreign aid in Africa. The war cost has been paid for not by raising taxes, but primarily through borrowed money. This has hidden the true cost of the war from Americans – most of whom have been spending their savings as if they were lottery winnings. We were, as NYT columnist Paul Krugman calls it, “partying like it was 1929”.

Once the lights came back on and the party ended, an economic recession hit. Banks called for a bailout. Problem was, the US didn’t have the money to bail out everyone. Many bailouts are being financed not by the US, but by countries in the Middle East and Asia. Other nations rescued Citibank and Meryl Lynch when they called for help. These companies now depend – as does our economy – on forces other than our own.

Outside of the actual cost, even the war itself has had economic effects. The instability in the Iraq region has sent oil prices souring to new heights. At the start of the war, oil was $25 a barrel. Now it’s over $100. Developing nations are feeling these price hikes like never before. African nations have been amongst the more dire strugglers. Stiglitz estimates that years of foreign aid have been virtually erased simply due to high oil prices.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

The amount spent on the war so far could have paid for 8 million housing units, 15 million public school teachers, health care for 530 million children for a year, or collage scholarships for 43 million students. Three trillion could have fixed America’s social security problem for half a century. America, says Stiglitz, is currently spending $5bn a year in Africa, and worrying about being outflanked by China there: “Five billion is roughly 10 days’ fighting, so you get a new metric of thinking about everything.”

It appears it is our economy – and not the terrorists – that now sit in the cross hairs.

In figures:

  • $16bn
    The amount the US spends on the monthly running costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – on top of regular defense spending
  • $138
    The amount paid by every US household every month towards the current operating costs of the war
  • $19.3bn
    The amount Halliburton has received in single-source contracts for work in Iraq
  • $25bn
    The annual cost to the US of the rising price of oil, itself a consequence of the war
  • $3 trillion
    A conservative estimate of the true cost – to America alone – of Bush’s Iraq adventure. The rest of the world, including Britain, will shoulder about the same amount again
  • $5bn
    Cost of 10 days’ fighting in Iraq
  • $1 trillion
    The interest America will have paid by 2017 on the money borrowed to finance the war
  • 3%
    The average drop in income of 13 African countries – a direct result of the rise in oil prices. This drop has more than offset the recent increase in foreign aid to Africa

(Figures and other quotes heisted from the Guardian; read the full article here)

An important piece of Northwest culture may have a bleak looking future. Both the New York Times and NPR reported today on the potential collapse of the salmon fishing industry along the west coast. Phil Anderson with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told NPR the current level of salmon is the worst he’s seen in 35 years. Scientists are blaming lower salmon counts on dead zones throughout the ocean which have been deprived of nutrients. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time history has seen an ocean species struggle…..

atlantic_cod_catch.jpg

Before supermarket salmon fillets and sushi crazes, most of the world’s seafood came from the Atlantic cod. And it was everywhere. The fish in “fish ‘n chips”. Salted snacks on long sea voyages. Cod was responsible for the frozen fish stick craze of the 50’s and 60’s. The fish was even the inspiration for nations to expand their borders into the ocean to protect fishing rights.

Cod has been the central part of a lot of cultures – but don’t bother trying to find it in your supermarket today. Atlantic cod was fished nearly to extinction years ago, and it has yet to make any comeback. Current counts show the Atlantic cod population is 1% of what it was in 1977.

Blaming fingers point the cod’s near-extinction in many different directions, but there’s one that most seem to agree upon. The modern fishing trawler.

trawler.jpg

For a moment, imagine raking your front yard in the fall. Your rake picks up most of the leaves, but also grabs pinecones, seeds, and any toys not already chopped up by the lawnmower. If you rake hard enough, you may even pull up some live grass, leaving a thin patch in the yard. The same happens in the ocean with large fishing trawlers. Fish are picked up in trawler nets, but so is the rest of the ecosystem. After years and years trawling, we begin to see dead-zones in the ocean…just like we see dead patches in our front lawn.

Fishing with trawlers yields high amounts of fish, but also leads to overfishing. If nothing stops the ocean trawling, the fish become near-extinct. For now, the Federal government has decided to limit the amount of trawlers fishing for salmon this season. But a one season limit is just a drop in a very big, empty bucket. If the Northwest truly wants to keep salmon from disappearing, fisherman are going to have to change their open water habits.

Images from: http://www.mongabay.com & http://www.greenpeace.org

I just caught an article from the Seattle Times titled “City of Seattle Won’t Buy Bottled Water“. The article states that Mayor Nickels approved the order because of the positive environmental impact, as well as the financial savings the city will experience. By cutting out bottled water expenses at various city events, Seattle could save close to $60k a year.

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Besides costing more than tap water, bottled water has an array of negative environmental effects. Bottling water uses oil, energy, and natural resources. America’s water bottling industry burned 1.5 million barrels of oil last year. In addition, most empty bottles find their way into landfills.

“This is a matter of leading by example,” Nickels said. “The people of Seattle own one of the best water supplies in the country, every bit as good as bottled water and available at a fraction of the price. When you add up the tremendous environmental costs of disposable plastic bottles clogging our landfills, the better choice is crystal clear.”

I recently stumbled upon a website gathering pledges from people to stop using bottled water. I can’t find the blog that first posted the pledge (sorry unknown blogger), but if your a progressive individual who wants to fall in love with his or her tap water, sign up for the pledge! There’s also a quick collection of facts, some of which I poached for this posting. Check it out!

The public’s somewhat negative perception of bottled water is nothing new. Over the past year or so, it was revealed that several bottled water companies use tap water in their products. Many restaurants made headlines several months ago by taking bottled water off their menus in favor of tap water.

In my opinion, Mayor Nickels is doing one helluva job maintaining our lead as an environmentally progressive city. Better watch out San Francisco.  You may be one step ahead of us for now, but give it time…

If you’re like me, it takes a good cup of coffee to get your morning started off right. And if you’re even more like me, you might think about the impact your coffee habit may have. By now, a lot of us coffee drinkers have heard about things like Fair Trade, organic, and shade grown coffee. Good news! Corporate and local coffee houses are offering these environmentally sound choices to us more frequently. Chances are, if coffee that’s environmentally friendly is offered, you’ll take it.

There’s another part of your coffee addiction that has a global impact. Your coffee cup. We see them everywhere but almost never give ’em a second thought. But those lattes and americanos that keep us working hard have a bitter environmental impact. In 2006, Americans added an estimated 16 billion coffee cups to our landfills! Think about it – how many cups have you thrown away this month? This week? The waste starts to add up fast, and in more places than just landfills. The entire process is incredibly resource intensive.

Here’s where it gets worse. Disposable paper cups are made almost exclusively from fresh wood from our forests. Once the lumber is transformed into paper, it’s coated with thin plastic and pressed into a cup. That plastic helps protect your hands from hot coffee – but it also condemns your cup to a landfill. Recycling can’t be done effectively on either end of a cup’s life cycle.

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The real tragedy is that alternatives are easy and accessible. All of us have a reusable coffee mug stashed away in our kitchen, it’s just a matter of remembering to grab it on the way to work or school.

Now I’ll be honest. I’m one of those “latte-drinking, Prius-driving, Birkenstock-wearing” types of people. But using your own reusable coffee cup has more than just an environmental appeal. Those smart enough to remember a cup are often treated to a discount at coffee houses. Considering that most reusable coffee cups have life expectancies of 5 to 10 years, those discounts can add up. As an additional bonus, bringing your own cup helps out your favorite coffee house. Disposable cups are one of the largest costs to local shops, and most places would love to cut down on their expensive overhead.

suscup.pngUsing your cup has more personal benefits as well. Reusable cups tend to keep your hot coffee hot and your cold drinks cold. If you’ve ever experienced a winter in Seattle, you know a mocha can go from hot to luke-warm in just a few minutes. Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy your drink leisurely instead of chugging it down or throwing away the last few sips?

The next time you’re getting ready to leave the house, think about drinking responsibly and bringing a reusable coffee cup. It’s quick and convenient, easy and painless. Not only will you be saving yourself money, you’ll be doing something good for the planet too.

For more in-depth information regarding sustainable coffee cups and disposable cups, please visit www.SustainabilityIsSexy.com

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I just stumbled upon a carbon footprint calculator, courtesy of the US EPA. I’ve seen a lot of these floating around the internet, but I particularly like this one. All the info needed is probably stored in your brain (as opposed to others, which ask for specific electricity measurements). If you haven’t done this before, take a second to find out where you stand. You might be surprised. (Calculator can be found here).

So where does the writer of Smart Sense stand? Luckily, my environmental side didn’t take too hard a hit. For my household of 2; 8,900 lbs of carbon a year are produced. That’s well under half of an average household.

Where do you stand?