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Author Jonathan Franzen Says Saving Birds Trumps Climate Change

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 7, 2015 9:19:57 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By: Carol Pierson-Holding

The California drought caused hydropower production to plummet by 46 percent. The silver lining?  Solar power increased, making up for 83 percent of the hydropower decline.

Dead Bird-Climate

I’m a huge supporter of solar energy, which appears to be an inexhaustible and “free” source of energy. But an article in this week’s New Yorker by National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen points out that solar panels, when not installed in rooftops but laid out in “horizon-reaching solar farms,” can be just as bad, as can all forms of renewable energy. In Franzen’s words:  “We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming.”

Franzen dissing renewable energy? He is a thought-leader in environmentalism. His 2010 novel Freedom features environmentalist Walter Berglund as protagonist, fighting the immoral forces behind strip mining. In 2011, Franzen was included in The Guardian’s top 20 Green Giants for setting the global environmental agenda. He is also a birder and Audubon Society fan. So it’s disturbing that he spends seven pages of beautifully written prose trying to convince us that we can’t do a thing about climate change and shouldn’t ruin our comfortable lives trying.

Franzen’s article bemoans the Audubon Society’s web site and its new focus on climate change, “the greatest threat” to American birds. Franzen references a writer at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jim Williams, who blogged that fighting a local stadium project whose glass walls would kill thousands of birds is insignificant in the context of climate change, which could wipe out nearly half of North American bird species by 2080. Franzen’s counter is chilling: “…can we settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe? One advantage of the latter approach is that, if a miracle cure like fusion energy should come along, there might still be some intact ecosystems for it to save.”

In other words, save the birds and forget taking action to mitigate climate change because “… it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike. …if I calculate the average annual quota required to limit global warming to two degrees, I find that simply maintaining a typical American single-family home exceeds it in two weeks.”

Instead, Franzen advocates for conservation projects in Peru’s Manu National Park and Coast Rica’s Guanacaste, smaller, local efforts conducted by natives who safeguard biodiversity, while failing to note that the preservation of forests — and in the case of Costa Rica, tree planting as well — also serves to combat climate change and is, in fact, what some believe is the most practical place to start.

I hope there aren’t a lot of smart, talented people like Franzen who think like he does. Especially in California, where Governor Jerry Brown is asking for citizens to combat the drought by voluntarily cut their water consumption by 25%. He’s not asking farmers yet, but counting on citizens to pitch in first. Of course we’ll need a monumental breakthrough on the scale of Franzen’s “cold-fusion” to save ourselves from extinction, but if (or when) that happens, we’ll all have to be living dramatically altered lives with less water and a smaller carbon footprint.

Whether we’re tree-planting conservationists like those Franzen visited in Costa Rica or climate change activists riding bikes to work, we’re all engaged in activism for both at the same time. Our whole way of living has to change, to both honor species and at the same time, reduce our energy consumption. So Mr. Franzen, put your considerable talent to work again and this time, persuade your readers to think of both species conservation and climate change with every action. Changing human behavior has worked in the past and can work now. As for Mr. Franzen? Who’s to say he won’t love riding his bike to work. He’ll certainly be fitter. And possibly happier too.

Photo courtesy of Joel Kramer via Flickr CC


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 14,400+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 14,400+ companies from 135 industries in 127 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in Audubon Society, Coast Rica’s Guanacaste, Environmentalism, Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, Uncategorized, Peru’s Manu National Park, Jerry Brown, solar power, California drought, Carol Pierson Holding, conservation, global environmental agenda, hydropower, Joe Williams, renewable energy

Capitalism to the Rescue?

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 5, 2013 9:32:58 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Like many people, my faith in capitalism was badly shaken by the crash of 2008 and its caraftermath. I sat by, appalled as some capitalists denied climate change and used the economy as an excuse to continue their planet-destroying practices.

I rooted for regulation, until Obama, who once seemed to be the environmentalist’s last great hope, declared his second term energy policy would be “all of the above.”

Given this lack of resolve, I was surprised to read in last week’s environmental website Sightline’s that US oil consumption is actually falling:

US Energy Information Administration suggests that total oil consumption in the United States fell by about 1.5 percent last year — meaning that the country as a whole used about as much oil in 2012 as it did in 1994… (even as) population grew 19%.

How can this be?  Since the comparison goes back to 1994, we can’t credit the recession. The large bulk of oil consumption is from transportation, and as laid out in painful detail in SmartPlanet, the drop is not due to greater vehicle efficiency. So what is driving this drop?

The timing suggests the drop is price-related: per capita oil consumption has fallen most dramatically since 2004, when oil prices started rising sharply.

To the planet’s everlasting gratitude, higher oil prices lasted long enough this time to launch a revolution in transportation. Think about what’s happened just over the last few months:

  • Car-sharing moved into the mainstream. Avis, which leads the industry in CSRHub’s social responsibility ratings, paid $500 million for the largest car-sharing company, Zipcar.
  • United Airlines completed its first all biofuel jet flight. The company subsequently placed an order large enough for biofuel companies to scale to cost effective levels.
  • The Department of Defense, the world’s largest consumer of energy consuming $17 billion of fuel in 2011, is courting Cleantech venture capitalists. Washington’s Clean Technology Alliance hosted a conference last week in Seattle that featured Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense and Sharon Burke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy. Why are these heavyweights giving their time to a Cleantech meeting? Price instability puts its budget at risk; far worse, having to move oil in battle zones creates human risk. Solar-powered mortar pits were Burke’s exemplar, formerly fueled by highly dangerous helicopter missions.
  • Most exciting, the driverless car is road-ready. As described in Chunka Mui’s outstanding series for Forbes Magazine, this innovation could save 1.9 billion gallons of gas/year and their resulting emissions in the US alone, at a cost to consumers that is somewhat less on average than owning and operating a car. The technology has been road tested by Google for 300,000 miles as well as several car manufacturers and is looking for a market.

And U.S. consumer acceptance is “closer than you think,” according to Mui, who sites the younger generation’s comfort with technology and population segments such as the elderly and the disabled who are unable to drive themselves. The early forces that held back air travel – fear of crashes – are also selling points for the driverless car, which promises to reduce accidents by 90%.

These examples are democratic capitalism at its finest. After 50 years back-and-forth on conservation and environmentalism, gas prices creep out of America’s comfort zone and national public opinion shifts. Over the next few years, investors get serious. Bedrocks of conservatism like the DOD, the airline industry and car-makers find the will to act.

Climate change has found a potentially scenario-changing champion in capitalism.

Am I just the relentless optimist to think that capitalism can save us? I’m all for increased regulation of the capitalist money machine to control unfettered greed. But here is the free market system at its best. Makes you want to believe again, doesn’t it?

Photo is courtesy of griffithchris via Flickr CC


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on nearly 7,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.



CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 7,000 companies from 135 industries in 82 countries. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Avis, capitalism, car sharing, cleantech, climate change, Environmentalism, Forbes, Google car, Sharon Burke, US Energy Information, vehicle efficiency, Uncategorized, Obama, oil consumption, Robert Gates, solar, United, Biofuel, Carol Pierson Holding, Chunka Mui, CSRHub, driverless car

Passing the Baton on Environmentalism

[fa icon="calendar'] Sep 6, 2012 3:18:10 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

In his keynote to the Democratic National Convention, Julian Castro likened progress notiPhone to a sprint or a marathon, but a relay race going from one generation to the next.  As seen through environmentalist eyes, you can’t help but feel saddened. Future generations will be the ones to suffer for our failure to address climate change. Surely upcoming cohorts will be even more motivated than older generations to act.

But as a reader pointed out to me and as study after study has shown, the reality is that the current generation refuses to have much to do with “climate change.” The latest research from Jon Miller of University of Michigan shows that fewer than one-quarter of his GenX participants – young adults aged 37-40 — said they were “very concerned” about climate change.

And their interest in environmentalism is dropping: in 2009, only 22 percent of those GenX adults said they followed climate change very or moderately closely. In 2011, the number dropped to 16 percent.

Why should they care about climate change? They didn’t create the problem, their predecessors did. They have to deal with issues that are shorter-term and more immediate, like jobs and children.

Professor Miller also blames the arcane science behind climate change — it’s just too complicated.

But GenX has not been silent. They understand consumer power writ large by brands. They know how to force companies to be socially responsible by threatening their positive image, their brand power, and push the responsibility on those benefitting from consumerism. To preserve their goodwill with GenX, big companies like WalMart have to be green, and then coerce their suppliers to be green as well.

GenX discovered how to advance environmentalism in its own way, while shopping for the family.

Now the next generation, known as GenY or The Millennials, is taking up the baton. And GenY is also changing behavior in ways previous generations never dreamed.

Priscilla Long, author of the “Science Friction” blog for The American Scholar, calls reducing emissions from cars “the most effective single action we can take.” She gives prescriptions for doing so: buy a more fuel-efficient car. Drive less. Keep your tires inflated.

Older generations will take this advice, as much to save money as to save the environment. But guess what’s happening with GenY? They’re doing us one better: they’re not buying cars at all. They’re eliminating emissions.

A new J.D. Power report confirms it: teens and twenty-somethings no longer want to own a car.

Technology had the unintended consequence of causing behaviors that are more environmentally friendly. Apple may get mediocre ratings from CSRHub for its environmental performance. But its iPhone enables more virtual social interaction without the need for travel. Or cars.

[csrhubwidget company="Apple-Inc" size="650x100" hash="c9c0f7"]

Detroit is at its wit’s end, hiring social media wizards and youth marketing specialists to figure out how to turn the tide. But according to the Atlantic,  “The Cheapest Generation” turns to Facebook and Twitter for their identity, not their automobiles.

This may be more than just an issue of self-image. GenY is facing high unemployment and a mountain of student loans, so they’re broke too. But for whatever combination of factors, new data from the Federal Highway Administration suggests that total vehicle travel in the US has fallen back to where it was in mid-2004.

Lower car ownership is driving other less-expected results as well. Condos in downtown Portland are being built with fewer parking spaces – or none at all – reducing building costs and lowering the price of apartment rentals.  Bike lanes are popping up all over the country, even New York City. Downtown streets are being closed to cars.

And GenY s‘ experience with car sharing has led to a change in preferences from ownership to collaboration. Enthusiasm for sharing everything from cars to couches to clothes is not what the green movement envisioned. But it achieves the same end.

This is not old style environmentalism, where consumers change their behavior to be morally correct while denying themselves basic comforts. And it’s certainly not capitalism as we know it. It’s adaptation, where environment and capitalism come together.

Corporations and their brands are adapting to this new reality, morphing into what they should be, servants of consumers, rather than drivers of behavior. When an iPhone reduces demand for cars, business calls it disruptive innovation. At heart, it’s all adaptation. Who can guess what the next generation will come up with!

Photo courtesy of Ed Yourdon on Flickr (cc).


Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Apple, climate change, Democratic National Convention, emissions, Environmentalism, Uncategorized, Carol Pierson Holding, environment, WalMart

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