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act April 23, 2008

Posted by KG in design, econ, environment, food, health, news, science, tech.
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“act” – from the nytimes magazine green issue:

WALK THE WALK: In many parts of the country, walking has become as quaint a pastime as spinning yarn or playing the bagpipes. Between 1977 and 1995, the number of daily walking trips taken by adults declined by 40 percent — while more than a quarter of all car trips are now shorter than a mile. Those under-a-mile journeys fall into the zone that new urbanists call “walkshed”: the area a person can reasonably cover on foot. People whose walksheds teem with shops and restaurants have more reason to walk than those whose don’t, so it was only a matter of time before someone tried to quantify a neighborhood’s pedestrian-friendliness. Last summer, a trio of Seattle software developers started walkscore.com, which calculates the number of potential destinations within walking distance of any given address and then produces a rating. If your neighborhood scores 90 or above, you can easily live there without a car; if it scores under 25, you’ll be driving to the backyard. More than a million addresses were searched in the site’s first month. Matt Lerner, one of the site’s developers, knew the concept had arrived when a condo in Seattle hung out a gigantic banner that said “Walk Score 100.” “People react really negatively to phrases like ‘density,’ ” he says, “but they react really positively to phrases like ‘walkability.’ ”Walk Score’s popularity may be a sign that walking is making a comeback, fueled by both rising gas prices and widening waistlines.

BEYOND WASTE: Zero waste, a state of eco-utopia far beyond ordinary sustainability, raises the notion of planetary stewardship to a sweeping level: instead of using, we should reuse; instead of dumping, we should compost. A number of municipalities, including Seattle and Boulder, Colo., have made zero waste a guiding ambition. The daunting challenge is that so many consumer products are neither recyclable nor compostable. Worse, they’re made with highly toxic chemicals. Reducing the impact of these products may depend less on finding better ways to dispose of them and more on discovering how to remake them — or on no longer making them at all. A number of green certifications exist for “healthier” consumer products, but for the past three years, a small firm in Virginia known as MBDC has been awarding a “Cradle to Cradle” certification, or “C2C,” to certain items that satisfy a rigorous philosophy espoused by its founders, the green architect William McDonough and the environmental chemist Michael Braungart. The duo have long held that, as McDonough recently put it, “waste is basically stupid.” Theirs is a business-friendly credo. Corporate growth isn’t in itself problematic; nor should sustainability mean getting by with less. Rather, the firm endorses rethinking the way products are designed and manufactured. To get a C2C seal of approval, a product needs to be made from components that are either “technical nutrients” (which can be recycled or repurposed) or biological nutrients (which can degrade naturally, like compost). “Instead of saying zero waste, we say let’s just eliminate the concept of waste,” says Jay Bolus, an environmental engineer who is in charge of the MBDC certification process. C2C has mainly been a business-to-business endeavor, and only a few of the 100 products that have won MBDC certification — Herman Miller chairs, United States Postal Service envelopes — are familiar to consumers. But C2C is expanding, and next year, according to Bolus, there should be 400 or 500 products with the logo. To McDonough, his certification is a point of entry into the world that he’s imagining. “It honors intention,” he says. “And I think that’s really important, given that we have to redesign nearly everything.”

RETURNS ACCEPTED: With little fanfare, the New York City Council recently passed legislation that holds computer, TV and MP3-player manufacturers responsible for collecting and recycling their products once consumers discard them. This new system is expected to divert millions of tons of toxic materials from landfills and incinerators, and it may lead people to consider garbage in a whole new way. According to the United Nations, 95 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined before purchase — in the harvesting of resources and the processes of manufacturing, packaging and shipping. “Every step in the supply chain involves some kind of carbon impact,” Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says. Forcing companies to think about their products after they’re sold is likely to spur them to make things in a gentler, more ready-to-recycle way in the first place. Hershkowitz first called for radically reconsidering garbage responsibility 15 years ago in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly. He proposed that companies collect and manage the eventual waste from their products. This is already the law for electronic waste in the European Union. A weary veteran of environmental battles, Hershkowitz says he isn’t sure the United States is determined enough to catch up. Could New York City be the pioneer? Hershkowitz says, “In the realm of electronic waste, I think the answer is yes.”

But Werbach counters that when the environmental movement defines sustainability myopically (by focusing on ecology to the exclusion of social, cultural and economic health) and relies on scare tactics to change behavior, it accomplishes little more than choir preaching. “I was the captain of the ship driving straight into the iceberg,” he says of his tenure as an activist. Now, he suggests, it’s time for a change. “We’ve spent too much time saying, ‘Do this because the polar bears are dying,’ ” he says. “Instead, we need to say, ‘Do this because it brings about success and happiness in our businesses and families.’ ”

GREEN-COLLAR WORK FORCE: During the presidential campaign last winter, the Democratic candidates were in accord on at least one subject: the United States economy needs a big, bold green-jobs program — perhaps even what Hillary Clinton was calling a “green collar” revolution. The phrase has become highly contagious. Its appeal lies in its symmetry: by investing billions of dollars in renewable energy technologies, the United States government would accelerate the country’s transition to an environmentally sustainable energy system while creating millions of new jobs (estimates vary from two million to five million over the next 5 to 10 years). Green-collar jobs wouldn’t only be for engineers or Ph.D.’s; they would also include organic-food-industry workers, solar-panel installers, wind-turbine repairmen and green-home retrofitters. “This isn’t just the most important environmental question facing the country, it’s the most important economic question facing the country,” says John Podesta, the former chief of staff to Bill Clinton whose Center for American Progress has been churning out policy papers outlining how a green-collar economy would work. “Rather than make this just an environmental issue, arguing that this is central to the U.S. economy is a very compelling message.” While Beltway wonks have been planning political strategies, a number of nonprofits and big-city mayors (Cory Booker in Newark, Adrian Fenty in Washington) have been trying to initiate green-collar jobs programs. The movement’s unofficial spokesman is probably Van Jones, whose work with disadvantaged youth in Oakland led him to help found Green for All, which seeks $1 billion to create 250,000 new green jobs by 2012. There is a danger, Jones says, that the rewards of a green revolution could be confined to an “eco-elite” of people building solar homes and driving hybrids. That, he says, would be a hollow victory. “Here’s how you know you’re winning against global warming,” he says: “Do you see millions of people working on the problem? If you’re serious about this crisis, you should be able to look out the window and see that.” The new green icon shouldn’t be the polar bear, or the hybrid, he says: “It should be the guy with the green hard hat on, and a tool belt, fixing America.”



1. jeremy - April 23, 2008


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