Carbon theater

Borrowing Bruce Schneier’s wonderful term security theater, Rohit Khare has written about privacy theater. Not to be outdone, here’s a letter to my local newspaper about carbon theater.


To: Editors
Re: Carbon challenge in home stretch

We love our sports rivalries, and the classic contest between Keene and Portsmouth has riveted me to my sofa. Let’s recap. Back in April, seacoastonline.com (http://www.seacoastonline.com/articles/20090423-NEWS-904230413) reported:

Municipal employees in Portsmouth and Keene, the state’s two predominant ‘green’ cities, slugged it out over the course of three weeks and, in the end, Keene delivered the knockout punch.

This week, the Sentinel and the Portsmouth Herald advanced the story of this “carbon-busting throwdown” in a joint communique (http://keenesentinel.com/articles/2009/12/29/news/local/free/id_384393.txt):

Garry Dow of Clean Air-Cool Planet, which manages the carbon challenge, said the scales are tipped in Portsmouth’s favor in the second phase, which involves the number of residents in each city to sign up for the challenge.

The challenge? Check it out at http://necarbonchallenge.org/calculator.jsp. There you will find an online form that reminds you to tighten up your house, use compact fluorescent lights, air-dry your dishes, and recycle.

Back in April, more of Keene’s city employees took the survey than Portsmouth’s. But now, in phase two of the carbon-busting throwdown, Portsmouthians are taking the survey at a higher rate than Keeners.

Across New England, according to the Carbon Challenge website, this slugfest has reduced C02 emissions by over 17 million pounds. That’s nothing to sneeze at. It’s two thirds of New York City’s daily waste stream, a third of the mass of the Titanic, a fifth of the C02 produced by the recent Copenhagen conference.

Except, of course, none of the combatants has actually reduced their C02 emissions. They’ve only take an online survey, and pledged to do all sorts of things that might or might not get done.

I’d like to propose a different challenge. Let’s focus on one thing and really get it done. For example, what if every leaky window in Keene were equipped with an interior storm? John Leeke, who runs Historic HomeWorks in Portland, invented this cheap, appropriate, and effective technology. On his website (http://www.historichomeworks.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=193) he shows how to build interior storms.

I’ve done this, and it’s a vast improvement over the stick-on window kits I’ve used in previous years. Interior storms are just cheap wooden frames with gaskets around the outside and shrink-wrap plastic facing. They press-fit into your window frames from the inside. You get all the benefits of the stick-on kits: zero air infiltration, a second layer of dead air. And there are none of the drawbacks: awkward yearly installation, destructive yearly removal.

“Keene’s down in the standings,” the Sentinel/Herald article says, “but there’s still plenty of time for residents to take the online survey and boost the city’s chance to take home the green prize.”

Well, OK, but I’d like to see Keene define — and then win — a different prize. What if we become the first city to outfit every leaky window in town with an interior storm? And what if we create jobs while doing so? That would be something worth shouting about.

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline

I’ve deeply enjoyed every one of the Long Now seminars, but it wasn’t until this one by Stewart Brand in October that I really got what he’s up to as the convener of this remarkable series of talks. In October he appeared as speaker rather than host/interviewer, and he summarized his new book Whole Earth Discipline. Kevin Kelly calls the book “a short course on how to change your mind intelligently” — in this case, about cities, nuclear power, and genetic and planetary engineering. These are all things that Steward Brand once regarded with suspicion but now sees as crucial tools for a sustainable world.

The book weaves together insights from many of my favorite Long Now talks, including:

I guess the Long Now seminars is the long version of a course on changing your mind. I was already on board with genetic and planetary engineering, but now I think very differently about cities and nuclear power. The book joins these to a common principle: concentrate the harmful stuff. High-density populations and casks of nuclear waste do less harm than scattered populations and dispersed coal residue.

Don’t miss the annotations — a website that reproduces every paragraph that includes citations, links to their sources, and adds updates.

Kill-A-Watt, WolframAlpha, and the itemized electric bill

I’ve always imagined getting an itemized electric bill. We’re not there yet, but when I saw a Kill-A-Watt at Radio Shack last night I remembered the discussion thread at this 2007 blog post and impulsively bought it.

In a way I’m glad I waited until 2009 because a companion tool is available now that wasn’t then: WolframAlpha. Its fluency with units, conversions, and comparisons is really helpful if, like me, you can’t do that stuff quickly and easily in your head.

So, for example, I’m sitting at my desk with the Kill-A-Watt watching my main power strip. I have a mixer here that I use about an hour a week for podcast recording. There’s no power switch because, well, why bother, just leave it on, it’s a tiny draw. Negligible.

I reach over and unplug it. Now I’m drawing 9 fewer watts. But what does that mean? I consult Wolfram Alpha:

Q: 9 W

A: About half the power expended by the human brain.

On a monthly basis?

Q: 9 W * (30 * 24 hours)

A: About half the energy released by combustion of one kilogram of gasoline.

In gallons?

Q: ( 1 kilogram / density of gasoline ) / 2

A: Less than a fifth of a gallon.

Relative to my electric usage, which was 1291 kWh last month?

Q: 9 W / (1291kwh / ( 30 * 24 hours)) * 100

A: Half a percent.

In dollars?

Q: 9 W / (1291kwh / ( 30 * 24 hours)) * $205.60

A: One dollar.

I find these comparisons really helpful. A dollar a month is a rounding error. But if I think of it as the energy equivalent of driving my car 7.2 miles, that makes me want to reach over and unplug the mixer for the 715 hours per month I’m not using it.

Saul Griffith has internalized these calculations, but most of us need help. A next-gen Kill-A-Watt that did these sorts of conversions and comparisons could be a real behavior changer.