Category Archives: lifestyle

A city of the future, but not OUR future

Delightful as this place looks, I suspect Popular Science will drag it out of the archives as a subject for mirth in 50 years, like the pieces on how we’d be taking vacations in orbit by 2000.

Speaking of unhelpful turns of phrase

I’m not going to paint Bono of U2 as an expert, exactly, but he’s a smart guy who pays attention and has done the reading. He must know that jokes like this at the Davos World Economic Forum …

Acknowledging that a career in rock music was not always conducive to a green lifestyle, Bono compared a conversation with Gore to an act of religious contrition.

“It’s like being with an Irish priest. You start to confess your sins,” he said. “Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter, I am a noise-polluting, diesel-soaking, gulfstream-flying rock star.

“I’m going to kick the habit. I’m trying father Al, but oil has been very good for me — those convoys of articulated lorries, petrochemical products, hair gel.”

… don’t help. What he’s obviously trying to do is acknowledge how difficult it is to live the lifestyle he preaches, and that’s reasonably noble, but he’s still playing directly into the hands of people who really want to see environmentalism as cultishly irrational. It shouldn’t be this way, but it is, and Bono should know better.

This’ll be popping up in place of reasonable discussion, here and there, for years.

Green wired teens

I share Anastasia Goodstein’s puzzlement over this survey by the generally reputable (or at least often-cited) Jupiter Research firm showing that teens who self-identify as green are also more likely than average to have bought stuff thanks to online marketing efforts:

“As a result of online advertising, 29 percent of green teens report having made a purchase in a traditional store during the past 12 months and 19 percent have made a purchase online. This compares favorably with online teens overall, of which 22 percent have made an in-store purchase and 13 percent online as a result of online marketing efforts.”

It seems ironic to me that “green teens” who are concerned about the environment are actually more rabid consumers than teens who don’t identify as “green.” Are they buying environmentally conscious stuff like hemp lip balm or just buying more stuff?

The benign explanation is that greener teens are more wired even than other online teens — and so it’s not that they’ve bought more stuff, just that they’re more likely to have been influenced by online marketing.

One less benign explanation is that a good chunk of green teens are just conspicuous consumers, and because green is the colour of the moment, they’re buying organic Fair Trade stuff to be seen with it. Next year it’ll be Hello Kitty again, and then after that, clothes made of beef.

Probably a bit of both.

A Hummer poser

The ritual denunciations of the vandalism of a Hummer in Washington D.C. are already well underway, but because it’s a ritual, I must briefly add my own.

I will confess to a moment’s satisfaction at the mutilation of a gross SUV. But then my brain kicked in and I got over it.

This is bad. Nobody has the right to destroy another person’s stuff, even if it’s “FOR THE ENVIRON” (they probably stopped at “N” because they ran out of room, but reading the story, I wonder whether actually it was just affronted locals acting in the interests of the neighbourhood’s image, not of the environment per se). It’s a bad image-maker for the green movement, and at best it’s just likely to lead to more painting and the flattened tires being replaced, and then where are we?

What really caught my attention in the Washington Post‘s story was this paragraph:

[Owner Gareth] Groves, who grew up in the District and works in marketing for a local radio station, said he wanted the car in part because he is starting a company, Washington Sports Marketing, that is “image-based.”

The scare-quotes are apt here, I think, because I can’t figure out what he means except in the most general terms. What image, precisely, does he intend to project? Conspicuously consuming, I guess, although I’m not sure I’d hire a marketing company whose first asset was a Hummer — before, in fact, a functioning website. Sometimes I see Hummers painted up as advertising vehicles driving around town, and those mystify me a bit, too.

Some mornings on my way to work I pass a streetful of red Volkswagen Beetles all painted up with a name like “Nerd Squad,” parked outside a local greasy spoon. I guess the mobile tech-support guys (and a couple of girls) sometimes get together for a breakfast meeting. This message, I get. Besides acting as billboards for the name of the company, the fact they’re all Beetles implies the people driving them are modern, hip without being ostentatious, and zippy. There’s an element of cool without its being overpowering, and it plays directly against the stereotype of tech-support workers as anti-social know-it-all geeks.

I assume the message of a Hummer is “We’re so successful we can afford this car,” but what does that tell me as a potential customer of your sporting-goods store or listener of your radio station? What is, as the marketers ask, the story they’re telling?

Personally, I suspect it’s just “Our marketing director, who’s kind of an ass, wanted to drive a Hummer on somebody else’s dime.”

When you ride alone, you ride with 30 million flooded-out Bangladeshis

Via Andrew Sullivan and Bradford Plumer I find this great essay in the Sierra Club’s magazine by Mike Davis, on how the United States adapted to a war-production economy in the 1940s. A taste:

The war also temporarily dethroned the automobile as the icon of the American standard of living. Detroit assembly lines were retooled to build Sherman tanks and B-24 Liberators. Gasoline was rationed and, following the Japanese conquest of Malaya, so was rubber. (The U.S. Office of the Rubber Director was charged with getting used tires to factories, where they became parts for tanks and trucks.) When shortages and congestion brought streetcar and bus systems across the country near the breaking point, it became critical to induce workers to share rides or adopt alternative means of transportation. While overcrowded defense hubs like Detroit, San Diego, and Washington, D.C., never achieved the national goal of 3.5 riders per car, they did double their average occupancy through extensive networks of neighborhood, factory, and office carpools. Car sharing was reinforced by gas-ration incentives, stiff fines for solo recreational driving, and stark slogans: “When you ride ALONE,” warned one poster, “you ride with Hitler!”


Even hitchhiking became an officially sanctioned form of ride sharing. Drivers were encouraged to pick up war workers stranded at bus stops and soldiers heading home for furloughs. In Colorado, the Republican Party vowed to save rubber by having all of its candidates in the 1944 elections hitchhike to campaign rallies.

America did this before, Sullivan and Plumer both say — so why not again?


Jimmy Carter called for “the moral equivalent of war” on energy waste back in 1977, in a speech he could pretty much give today. The U.S.’s national security was threatened by its energy insecurity, and things went on to get worse, not better. Yes, fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles got better, but the country was just as much a hostage to unfriendly Persian Gulf states’ oil production when Carter lost his job in 1980 as it was during the first OPEC crisis in 1973. Carter was an ineffectual president in other areas, but he and his message of personal austerity didn’t stand a chance against a genial actor who promised a country sick of national malaise that he’d make it “morning in America.”

The point: to make people act as though they’re at war, they have to be at war.

America does not believe it’s a war. Today the HSBC bank released the results of surveys it conducted in nine countries on attitudes toward climate change (HSBC is billing itself as a green champion). Here’s the PDF of the United States’s country profile. The gist is this:

  • Americans are less concerned about climate change than average;
  • They are less confident than average that enough is being done about the problem;
  • They are much less personally committed than average to making a significant effort to reduce climate change themselves;
  • They are less optimistic than average that climate change can be averted (though given the inevitability of some change, that could theoretically be explained by greater awareness of the issue).

These are not people prepared to accept the rationing of gasoline and requisitioning of metal and rubber that made possible the dramatic change in attitudes toward the automobile Davis describes. (Nor, for that matter, was the car remotely as closely entwined with the average person’s lifestyle in 1942 as it is today.) People did it during the Second World War because London was being bombed by Nazi fanatics and half the Pacific Fleet had been sunk at Pearl Harbor; they did it because they had sons and husbands risking their lives abroad and one more spare jeep tire or plane ready for a bombing run might make the difference.

Today, a call for energy independence is just about as likely to result in calls for greenhouse-gas-billowing liquid-coal technology as it is for carpooling.

Besides, although I’m supportive of the goal of having people plant victory gardens and stop driving everywhere all the time, I’m not sure even a problem as significant as climate change justifies measures as intrusive as rationing — certainly not of rationing supply. You can justify that in a free country when the country faces an existential threat, a literal war, and the goods being rationed are critical to the effort to win that war. You don’t do it because you think the ends would be desirable. That’s not up to you, or to me, or to the government.

What about carbon-emissions caps? you ask. Sure, they seem like rationing, but in fact it’s just an acknowledgment that there’s a resource that’s scarce already: the capacity of the earth and its atmosphere to absorb and re-fix greenhouse gases in any given year. It’s not obviously visibly limited in the same way a bushel of apples or the quantity of gasoline in a refinery tank is, but it’s limited all the same, and emissions caps just acknowledge that fact and provide a distribution mechanism. The distinction is fine, but I think it’s important.

Putting real numbers on greeny goodness

Seth Godin examines greeniness as a marketing problem, and finds the environmental movement’s advocacy of living with less to be at odds with humanity’s age-old impulse to pursue More.

It’s a campaign about less, not more. Even worse, there’s no orthodoxy. There’s argument about whether x or y is a better approach. Argument about how much is enough. As long as there’s wiggle room, our desire for more will trump peer pressure to do less. “Fight global warming” is a fine slogan, except it’s meaningless. That’s like dieters everywhere shouting, “eat less” while they stand in line to get bleu cheese dressing from the salad bar.

His proposal: find ways of measuring Less in such a way that it comes across as More. Godin likes real-time mileage measurements in cars, for example, such as the one in the Prius’s dashboard showing you just how much distance you’re getting for a litre or a gallon of gasoline. “And put the same number on an LCD display on the rear bumper,” he says.

There’s already a community of radical-mileage hacker types who try to outdo each other with their Toyotas, which got a bit of attention a month or so ago. From Bloomberg News:

Toya, a 56-year-old manager for a tofumaker in central Japan, puts special tires on his Prius, tapes plastic and cardboard over the engine, and blocks the grill with foam rubber. He drives without shoes and hacks into his car’s computer — all in the pursuit of maximum distance with minimum gasoline.

Toya is one of about 100 nenpimania, Japanese for “mileage maniacs,” or hybrid owners who compete against each other to squeeze as much as 115 miles per gallon out of their cars. In a country where gasoline costs more than $4 a gallon, at least $1 more than the U.S. price, enthusiasts tweak their cars and hone driving techniques to cut fuel bills and gain bragging rights.

These people’s test-drives would seem to burn a lot of fuel rather gratuitously, but they do prove Godin’s point.

The same basic idea underlies Toronto’s Zerofootprint experiment (getting people to compare their environmental efforts and get competitive about it) and many others. It turns environmentalism into a measurable positional good — something you want because you can lord it over other people in some way, even if only in your own secret heart — not just an abstract one.

Positional goods, the apex of consumerism, ultimately make the world go ’round. The efficiency argument for environmentalism — that you’ll have more cash in your bank account if you waste less — will go a long way, but social position is an even stronger motivator. Godin’s right that we’d be much better off if we could turn the pursuit of positional goods into something positive, rather than pure wastefulness.

What to look for in the Tories’ climate-change announcement

John Baird headshotThe release of the full Conservative environment plan is taking on the look of something thrown together in a hurry, despite the months of anticipation. As of this afternoon, Environment Canada knows that’s it’s having a lock-up for reporters in downtown Toronto on Thursday (presumably to play more directly to the business press, rather than the horse-race-with-a-side-of-policy specialists of the Ottawa press corps), but isn’t yet in a position to say where it might be. Environment Minister John Baird publishes the text of a speech with this passage:

When fully mature, by 2020, total costs will be in the range of $XX per Canadian in today’s dollars. This could include price increases for consumer products like vehicles, natural gas, electricity, household appliances and even groceries. We need to be prepared for this extra responsibility if we are going to get the job done.

“$XX,” eh?

It’s usual, when ministers’ speeches are released, to indicate what occasion the speech was written for — Rona Ambrose’s last couple as environment minister were “Speech for the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister of the Environment on Renewable Fuels. Innovation Place, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on December 20, 2006″ and “Address delivered by the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister of the Environment of Canada to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, Kenya on November 15, 2006.”

Baird’s latest was merely “Remarks.” His department issued no notice that the minister would be giving a major speech. Baird was to join Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn for an announcement on banning incandescent lightbulbs, but that was at 9:30 a.m. and Baird’s “remarks” begin “Good afternoon.” They also refer to the Lunn announcement as having happened “yesterday.”

Perhaps he took his notes to a cocktail party.

Anyway, the details are due Thursday at 4 p.m. Here’s what I’ll be looking for.

Projections of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020. Andrew Coyne has closely parsed the text of Baird’s remarks, which you have to, and found an apple and an orange sitting next to each other in a way that invites comparison.

Once greenhouse gases have stopped rising, we will begin to reduce them, so that by 2020, Canada will have cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 150 million tonnes. This is 20% of our total emissions today.

The question is, 150 million tonnes compared to what? Compared to our emissions in 2007? Compared to their expected peak in three to five years? Compared to where we project we’d be in 2020 if we did nothing?

Our annual emissions right now are about 756 million tonnes. Our Kyoto target is about 563 million tonnes. How many actual tonnes of carbon dioxide do the Conservatives expect their plan will see Canada emitting in 2020?

The price of carbon offsets. If these are set too cheaply, it’ll make more sense to buy offsets — investments in carbon-fixing activities like mass tree-planting — than to reduce emissions. These aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re unproven and possibly ineffective if, say, the trees don’t take or get eaten by pine beetles. If a company can spend $1 on an iffy offset and get credit as though it had cut a megatonne of CO2, that’s a sign of an ineffective plan.

The price of investing in a technology fund. This is hazardous for the same reason as offsets can be. The Liberals propose a rising scale of payments into a technology fund for excessive CO2 emitters that starts at $20 per excess tonne as of 2008. How does the Tory plan compare?

Anything resembling a carbon tax. Offsets and technology funds are for major emitters — the smelters and oilsands upgraders and provincial coal-fired generating plants. They’re a big part of the problem, but so are individuals. Baird’s remarks mention making household appliances more efficient, but is there anything else that hits the consumer where he or she lives, encouraging us to make personal lifestyle changes for the better?

What’s this thing supposed to cost? Is this plan designed to be approved and chart a real course for the future, or is it designed to be shot down by an angry public, neutralizing the green scare as an election issue without requiring anything of the government? Nasty surprises other than cost could serve this function, though the unveiling of a shockingly high number would explain the mysterious “$XX.”