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Bathroom Talk November 21, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in environment, water efficiency.
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In Bluejay mansion, bathroom talk is only allowed when one is actually in the bathroom. And so I am typing this post while on the can. As far as you know. Happy belated toilet day, everyone! Friday was world toilet day! You missed it? Wasn’t this all over facebook, twitter, foursquare, or whatever this months’s thing is? Weren’t people foursquaring where they just popped a squat? Tweeting every turd? Digging every dingleberry? How many downloads of SitOrSquat were there?

WTD is actually serious business, The World Toilet Organization originated it to draw attention to the fact that most people in the world live without proper sanitation—think toilet scene from Slumdog Millionaire—and face unnecessary health risks as a result. The WTO is often confused with its better known sister organization with the same acronym, and this confusion is understandable given their missions. WTO the lesser aims to allow non-Western countries to shit as cleanly and efficiently as Western countries. WTO the greater aims to allow Western countries to cleanly and efficiently shit on non-Western countries. But I digress. The reason I brought up WTD and WTO is because I think that their charter is too narrow. Yes, there are serious sanitation problems in many parts of the world. And yes, these need to be addressed. But Western countries have sanitation problems as well and the WTO needs to draw attention to those as well.

What’s the problem with Western sanitation? It wastes too much water, uses too many chemicals, requires too much expensive infrastructure, and generates too much pollution. Of these, water usage is by far the biggest problem. The world will run out of fresh water way before it runs out of oil. Many places already have. In the US, large rivers like the Missouri and Colorado are already completely dry in stretches because all the upstream water is channeled away for agricultural, commercial, and personal uses. The Ogallala aquifer which sits under Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma has only about 30-40 years worth of water left in it. Attention, great plains farmers, now is the time to cash out! If only there was somewhere to cash out to! And as with everything else, things are only getting worse.

As much as the US needs to get off of carbon, we need to get off of fresh water. A human being needs 6 gallons of fresh water a day to satisfy basic drinking, cooking, and washing needs. The average American uses 80 gallons of water a day. A 5 minute shower is 20 gallons. Each flush of a standard toilet is 3.5. Then there’s the dishwasher. The clotheswasher. The flowerbed. The carwash. The grapes at the supermarket—growing grapes uses a ridiculous amount of water as you can imagine. Meat—animals drink water in addition to eating grain grown using water. And pretty much everything else that we buy—water is used extensively in manufacturing.

What to do? Well, use less water obviously. Take shorter showers. Eat less meat and fruits and vegetables that take a lot of water to grow—rice, berries, nuts. Buy less cotton—cotton is another incredible water hog. Take it easy on the carwashes. Use local plants in your garden that don’t need a lot of water. Don’t water your lawn. Install low-flow shower heads and toilets. Even better, install a composting toilet. Of all the things to use water for, flushing your shit to a treatment plant en route to a river seems the most asinine—ha! The next toilet I buy will be composting. I shit you not—double ha! I know what your first reaction must be—ugh! But you’re wrong. I’m not going to install a port-a-john in my house. A port-a-john is an open unflushed bowl in which water-soaked turd undergoes methane-producing anaerobic digestion. A composting toilet separates urine from feces and uses bacteria to digest excrement aerobically. Aerobic digestion produces less odor—not no odor, but a lot less—breaks down pathogens, and reduces volume by up to 90%. A composting toilet has to be emptied only once every three months, not every three days. And the sludge is black, mostly odorless, and can be dumped directly in the garden. Using a composting toilet is cleaner and more convenient than cleaning up after a cat, much less a dog. It’s really no different than using a conventional toilet.

If sanitation is developing countries is going to improve, composting toilets will have to be the way. There is no water-based sewage infrastructure—in many places there is no running water of anykind—no money to build infrastructure, and not enough water anyways. Just like the developing world skipped past landlines and went straight to cellular, here’s betting and hoping that they skip past centralized sewage and right to composting toilets. And as our own sewage infrastructure starts to break down, why pump billions of dollars into repairs? Why not move to composting toilets and spend public money elsewhere—education, healthcare, paying down the debt, or invading countries that have oil. The debt commission—is there a goofier combination of name and face than Erskine Bowles? Not even John Boehner—recommended a $0.15 a gallon gas tax. Hey Erskine, how about a $0.15 a gallon toilet tax? $3,000 tax credit for a hybrid car? Why not a $500 tax credit for a composting toilet? A little of this and a bit of that, I smell a toilet compost collection cottage industry—triple ha! And think of all that free, non-oil-based fertilizer!

The Philadelphia Eagles have announced plans to make Lincoln Financial Field “net-zero energy” . The Linc will produce more energy than it consumes using a combination of solar panels and Michael Vick powered wind turbines. Jeff Lurie, if you really want to go green, install composting toilets and waterless urinals also! And replace the water in the players’ squeeze bottles with beer. For the visiting team.

P.S. In his recent memoir, King George XLIII’s refers to himself as “The Decider.” Which I suppose is accurate since deciding doesn’t imply knowing or thinking. Anyways, when I first heard that I had faint echo of someone else calling themselves by the same moniker. But I couldn’t remember who. Then I saw it while reading Little Miss. Bluejay her bedtime book—Skippyjon Jones! The delusional Siamese cat who fancies himself the great Chihuahua sword-fighter El Skippito Friskito! SNL were ahead of their time with that 2000 skit of Bush playing with a ball of yarn.

P.P.S. Donovan McNabb’s contract. Funny.

The Five Stages of Climate Change Grief June 3, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Africa, books, China, clean energy, climate, economy, energy efficiency, environment, society, sustainability, transportation, water efficiency.
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I just finished Bill McKibben’s Eaarth. It’s an account of what we’ve already managed to do to the planet (just frightening when you stop and take stock), what changes we are already locked into (nauseating), and how we can cope with this new planet (alternatingly depressing and ispirational). It’s called “Eaarth” because it describes a planet substantially different than Earth. Personally, I would have named the book “Eartch”. First, it’s Earth + c. Get it? If not, never mind. Second, Eartch sounds like vomit whereas Eaarth just sounds—or at least looks—Dutch. Then again, if anyone knows something about living with climate change and dealing with a rising sea, it’s the Dutch. I still prefer Eartch, though. If there is one talent I have it’s naming things. Whether it’s giving people nicknames. Putting a name on a project. You name it. Actually, I name it. Bill, you should have consulted me!

A few things about McKibben. First, he looks remarkably like someone I used to know—Boyd Multerer, who’s now the GM of Xbox Live. Second, he—is—almost—as—fond—of—m-dashes—as—I—am. —. Third, he uses colloquial phraseology like “Whatever, dude!” and “get real.” Fourth, he pokes fun of Tom Friedman in a loving kind of way. Which is great. Famous people need to rib each other more in print in this way. Just so they don’t start taking themselves too seriously. One of my fears is that I will not be famous enough for someone to rib me in print. That’s actually my third biggest fear—right behind climate change and alligators. The really great thing about McKibben poking fun at Friedman is that he is a lot like Friedman. Except that he is primarily an environmentalist rather than foreign affairs journalist. And he lives in a small town in Vermont rather than in an 11,000 sq. ft. house in Washington, DC. And he doesn’t have an awesome moustache. Now that the NFL draft is over, McKibben may take a spot on Mt. Crushmore, alongside Gregg Easterbrook, my mother, and POTUS BO. Tom Friedman can be Crazy Horse.

Onto Eartch. Do yourself and the rest of us a favor and read it. There is no excuse not to. It’s not very long, you’ll finish it in a few days. If you don’t have a copy and don’t want to buy one—good for you for repressing your consumerist instincts—I will lend you mine. If you don’t know how to read, have someone who does read it to you. Don’t get me wrong, you won’t like what this book has to say. But it will change the way you think. And maybe the way you live too.

So what is it that makes this book different than other climate change books? Basically, it has a different—and sadly much more realistic and grounded—arc. It doesn’t paint some speculative dystopian future, and then turn around and say “if we all stop driving right now, we can stop short of the cliff.” The basic message is that there is literally no way to avoid going off the cliff at this point. Society as a whole—and Western society specifically—is going to end up in a lower place than it was. What we do from here on and how quickly we do it will determine how low we go and how gentle the decline. It’s a bitter message, but it’s strangely reassuring. It feels like the fifth stage of grief.

Let’s start with denial. Americans tend to discount climate change because few of the extreme weather events that are its supposed signatures have happened in the U.S. And if it doesn’t happen in the U.S., it doesn’t actually happen. But stuff like this does happen. On a fairly regular basis these days. Eartch doesn’t prognosticate or speculate. It mostly talks about things that have already happened or are currently happening. There is no need to extrapolate or at least not to extrapolate very far. What’s currently happening is bad enough. And the worst thing about it is its unpredictability. Society is largely built on predictability. No predictability, no society as we currently know it.

If there is something to be angry about right now it’s that we’ve wasted the last 30 years. 31 years ago, POTUS Jimmy Carter delivered his famous “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he laid out his vision for America’s—and the world’s—energy and environment future. No more dependence on foreign oil. Alternative fuels. Conservation. Personal responsibility. Coal. The speech was delivered from the Oval Office, a few dozen feet underneath the White House solar panels. We should’ve listened then. We didn’t want to hear any of it. 18 months later it was “Morning in America.” The solar panels came down. Everything was de-regulated and we started off on a 30 year oil-fueled growth bubble that only exploded 18 months ago. Our last good chance to avoid the cliff was 1980. There is no avoiding it now.

Bargaining. Good luck with this one. To quote Leonard Nimoy on “Fringe”: “physics is a bitch.” And it’s not the only one. Chemistry and biology are too. For a long time, the accepted “safe” level for atmospheric CO2—”safe” meaning supporting stable hydrological cycles that bear some resemblance to the current cycles—was 450ppm. Guess what? That number is actually closer to 350ppm. And guess what else? The current concentration is over 390ppm and even stopping it at 450ppm is going to be extremely. On second thought, I think we are going to have to skip this stage and go right to depression.

There is a lot to be depressed about. Climate change means the end of stability and the likely end of meaningful economic growth as we’ve known it. The social pyramid scheme which is economic growth has gotten too top heavy and the earth is collapsing under its weight. The end of economic growth means a reduced aggregate standard of living as we have come to define it. Fewer choices. Fewer material possessions. Less mobility. If there is any justice in the world—and that’s a big if—Western standards for these will need to drop substantially if those for developing countries are to rise to humane levels. We need to accept this.

Acceptance is a strangely liberating thing. Would a society in which we consume fewer resources and have fewer material possessions as a result be a bad society? Would a society in which we traveled less, lived a more local life, be a bad society? Would a society in which some aspects of globalization were reversed and some of our choices were limited by our geographical location be a bad society? Would a society without substantial economic growth, half of which benefits the top 1% anyways, be a bad society? To para-quote Po Bronson, “Freedom is not having unlimited means. Freedom is the knowledge that you can live whatever your means.” We need to re-calibrate our mindset. To redefine success—you know what they say, “If at first you don’t succeed.” We need to redefine prosperity and progress as something other than economic growth. If we do that, it will be easier, mentally, to buckle down and get to the enormous task at hand. And maybe if we do that, we will have Eaarth rather than Eartch.

Thanks Bill.

P.S. How stupid do you have to be to take out a loan at an 85% annual interest rate? Full credit if you answered Eddy Curry. Partial credit if you answered Antoine Walker.

P.P.S. Another Bluejay sighting. But this one wasn’t in Philly. It was in Columbus Circle in DC.