Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Can we ferment our waste and save the climate?

LanzaTech thinks so. They are working on a process using microorganisms similar to those at the bottom of the sea to convert waste and CO2 into fuels, potentially creating a Circular Economy for products as diverse as airplane fuel, tires and yoga pants.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book Review: Doughnut Economics


Raworth, Kate (2017) Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

It’s not often anymore that I read a book and start immediately taking notes because the ideas are so helpful. But Kate Raworth has dissected what’s wrong with our old economic theory and proposes an alternative, in language you don't have to be an economist to understand. 

The Doughnut refers to an image she’s created with Planetary Boundaries around the outside (showing the environmental systems upon which we depend and our degree of overshoot for each) and inside, a similar set of societal needs, along with our under-shoot of each. The idea is to pull people who don't have enough from the no-man's-land in the center of the doughnut while staying within the outer boundary of the limits of nature. The space between the inner and outer ring is what she calls "the safe and just space for humanity."

This image is brilliant, but basing the future on an image of junk food is perhaps not the best way to title her book. A round life-preserver would have been a better metaphor. I would have titled the book How Wrong-headed Economic Theory Has Convinced Us All to Destroy Life on Earth and What to do Instead.

Here's the conundrum she tries to solve: 
“We have an economy that needs to grow, whether or not it makes us thrive. 
We need an economy that makes us thrive, whether or not it grows.” p. 227

A couple concepts, along with the Doughnut, are key. One is the power of images. She warns we should all be careful not to internalize a lot of economic images we’ve been fed. Not just economists have done this; these old models are entrenched in politics, international aid, and our view of what it is to be human. 

For example, the Kuznets Curve that seems to imply that emerging economies have to become more unequal for a time as they get richer, is not true but has influenced politics and international relief efforts. Same problem with supply and demand curves, the exponential GDP curve (that no economist wants to finish drawing beyond the point it goes almost verticle...what happens next?).

Worst of all is the stick-figure view of human nature referred to as Homo Economicus. We have been taught that we are selfish, wanting more and more stuff, with perfectly rational decision-making based on perfect information. NOT! Even the inventors of that caricature knew it was flawed and incomplete. 

I remember recently having a conversation with a doctor who told me profit was his main motivation; that universal healthcare would lower his ability to make more and more money; his motivation would stop. I thought he had a cynical and narrow view of human nature. Yes, money drives us, but so do a lot of other things: compassion, love, a desire to make a difference, beauty, spiritual healing. Wouldn't we all be better off if we shared an image of human nature that nurtured our better angels rather than our worst?

Another theme is that entrenched economic thinking and the schools teaching it are stuck in the old way of thinking, and the more prestigious the university, the more resistant to change. She encourages us to be agnostic about whether growth must continue or not and instead focus on redesigning our economy around getting everyone into the circumference of the doughnut.

Tesla building virtual power plant in Australia

In the old, dirty 20th century, power plants were set far away from population centers since they were dangerous and polluting. The process involved digging up mountains to get coal (or drilled for gas), burning it, wasting lots and lots of heat. Then they ran the electricity a long distance into towns, losing up to 10% more of the electricity along the way. And with 9-11 in mind, they sat there with a big terrorist target on their back.

Nature knows better, preferring distributed systems that are loosely coupled, so if a bad thing happens over there, it stays there.

Tesla is helping Australia move into the 21st century with a distributed power system.

The state of South Australia has announced plans to equip at least 50,000 homes with solar panels and Tesla (TSLA) battery storage units, connecting them all to the electricity grid to form the world's largest "virtual power plant."

Systems thinking quiz: How is AirBnB driving up rents?

Sustainability is ultimately about seeing systems. Traditionally we have thought about cause—>effect. But the real world swirls in cycles and eddies. This article is an interesting case in point. What has the impact of AirBnB been? It had bee presumed it could decimate the hotel industry but it has not. But perhaps it’s hurt a more vulnerable population.

Airbnb and the Unintended Consequences of Disruption - The Atlantic

Friday, February 16, 2018

B-corporations legal in Arizona

For those businesses wanting to go beyond our Sustainable Business Certification, consider becoming a B-Corp. B stands for Benefit and the idea is you write into your bylaws and practices that you'll keep in mind all relevant stakeholder needs, not just owners/shareholders, as you make decisions. It's a way to get around the common misperception that corporate boards have to make decisions in the short-term interests of their stockholders. That's never been true. But a B-Corp certification requires that they consider other stakeholders like employees, the communities in which the company operates, the environment, etc.

When I was in business, we became an early B-Corp. Back then, it took a couple days to finish the process. You fill out an assessment, upload relevant documents and then get audited (for us, it was over the phone.) There's also a fairly hefty fee and you have to get recertified.

The advantages is that some governmental agencies or other organizations may specify giving preference to hiring B-Corps in the same way they might earmark some projects for minority or women-owned businesses. This certification is recognized (but maybe not well known) across the country. In comparison, the Alliance certification is regional, fast, easy and free; and ours has levels of performance up to full sustainability which B Corp does not.

Here's an AZ website to provide more info:

Here's a link to B-Lab, the organization that administers the B-Corp certification:

Sustainable investment funds outperformed during the correction

Decades ago, people thought you’d have to give up returns to buy responsible companies. But study after study is showing that sustainable investing typically does as well or better. If you are trying to make the world better, why would you invest in companies making the world worse? Here’s a report about how sustainable funds performed in the recent correction.

In the first nine days of the month—a period over which the S&P fell 7.2%—two-thirds of all sustainable funds available in the U.S. finished in the top half of their respective categories. For equity funds, “65% outperformed their peers, with more than twice as many finishing in their category’s top quartile than in the bottom quartile,” wrote Jon Hale, head of sustainability research at Morningstar. Per his data, 30% of sustainable stock funds finished in the top quartile of their category, compared with the 14% that ended in their group’s bottom quartile.

‘Sustainable’ funds outperformed the broad market in the recent correction - MarketWatch

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Going Tubeless for the Environment

by Lin Ennis, SNAP Fitness in Sedona

In 2015, three Snap Fitness locations in the Verde Valley switched to coreless toilet paper, i.e., there is no brown tube in the center of the roll. Each year, more than 17 billion toilet paper tubes are thrown away, mostly ending up in landfills. That amount of waste is enough to fill the Empire State Building’s 37 million cubic feet two times.

Removing the core allows the roll to hold 15 percent more tissue. That means fewer cardboard boxes, and fewer semis on the highways delivering tissue. The brand Snap uses is 50 percent post-consumer content and 65 percent total recycled content. It is ECOLOGO certified, meaning not only the end product, but also its origin and manufacture have been audited to prove its compliance with stringent, third-party, environmental performance standards.

Based on the three R’s, we recommend you Reduce your use of tissue tubes:
If that doesn’t work for you right now, Reuse, as there are hundreds of ways to do so:
And finally, Recycle:

Additional resources:

7th grader invents test for lead in water

At the Alliance, we believe that STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) should be linked to sustainability. Here’s an example of what can happen when you share world problems with kids and let them run with it. This 7th grader was horrified by the Flint water crisis. She’s now working with water authorities in her own town to get her simple testing device to market within a year.

A prize-winning solution for polluted water - CNN

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Invest in companies that are doing good for our society

This TEDTalk includes some recent research on how business emphasis on "Total Societal Impact" improves their margin, and how investors are increasing focusing on these social and environmental impact.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Food deserts: it takes more than plunking down a grocery there

A food desert is an area that has no easy access to healthy food, often the case in disadvantaged communities. Definitions vary, but we’ve all seen them: places where Circle K and fast food joints are the only sources of food for miles.

You’d think that fixing the problem would be as simple as building a grocery store. But it’s apparently not. At least one study shows that people purchase similar low-nutrition foods.  This article reveals some of the complementary strategies that work.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Litterati: Get credit for picking up litter, get data, put pressure on sources

Interesting TedTalk about Litterati, an app that gets people to first take a picture of the litter and then pick it up. A school got kids to do it and got data that most of the trash were straw wrappers from their own school, so they asked the school to stop providing straws. A community figured out that most of their trash was unopened packets of hot sauce from a taco franchise. Data helped another community fight for a tax on tobacco products that were a source of litter, beating Big Tobacco.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Just say straws

I’m not sure when it became popular to put straws in glasses of water and everything else for grown-ups. Woe to the waitstaff who brings me water with a straw. On those occasions when I forget to blurt out “No straw” with my beverage order, the waiter is likely to get a lecture: Why are you putting plastic garbage in my drink? Do you know where these end up? How much money do you think your company spends each month on straws? Can’t you make them available only on request?

Fed up, California is considering a plastic straw ban. But if enough of us complain, we might be able to change restaurant behavior. Instead of restaurants buying cases of plastic straws to use in every water glass, they could instead buy a box of stainless steel straws to offer to any customer who asks for one.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Shared mobility principles for livable cities

Technology is changing options for getting around urban areas. Will self-driving cars and Uber make traffic better or worse?

Fifteen companies are proposing these principles for shared mobility. What do you think?

Here's a link to the announcement:

And a link to the principles themselves:

Coming soon? PET plastic from corncobs

A team at University of Wisconsin at Madison has come up with a process to make PET plastic (think water bottles, Coke bottles, polyester fabrics) out of renewable materials, including sugar and corncobs. The feedstock only costs about 3% more than the fossil fuel version.

The new method solves three problems for plastics production, says University of Wisconsin chemical engineer Ali Hussain Motagamwala, a co-author of the paper. First, it uses a renewable carbon source instead of fossil fuels. Second, previous attempts to make FDCA from renewables required using corrosive acids, and therefore expensive reactors, which aren’t needed in the new approach. Finally, scientists can use the end product, FDCA, as a catalyst in the reaction and recycle the GVL solvent, which lowers the cost and uses less energy than current methods. “It makes the process much more green,” he says.

If we stopped feeding corn to animals, and cut back on corn syrup in our foods, this could make a dent in the market. But more research is needed.

We teach a social moral code to kids, why not an environmental one?

How do we ensure our kids grow up learning to care for the environment upon which their lives depend? The best thing we can do is let them play in nature, developing their sense of wonder and empathy for other creatures. This article provides some advice for parents and teachers.

As this article reminds us of Aldo Leopold’s insights back in 1949, that we have pretty clear moral codes that we teach kids about how to treat one another but no shared code for how we treat other living things. Certainly Schools do a better job now, but we need to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from Nature.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Oregon stops fossil fuel expansion; courts say its constitutional

When I graduated from college in the 1970’s, my parents didn’t quite understand why I wanted to move clear across the country to Oregon where it “rained all the time.” But I wanted to live where it wasn’t considered weird to care about the environment. I grew up in Cleveland when the Cuyahagua River burned and we almost killed Lake Erie. Back then, environmentalists were considered anti-business, unclean, off-base. I didn’t share those values.

Since then, the West Coast has shown the rest of the country that taking care of the environment doesn’t have to be anti-business, that clean air is a good thing, that forests matter.

And recently Oregon showed the rest of the world that communities can fight back against the expansion of fossil fuels, to protect themselves. And the courts will affirm them. Other states are watching.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Half public buses will be electric by 2025

According to a recent report, roughly half public buses will be electric within 7 years, tripling the number on the road, letting urban residents breath a lot easier. The first cost for an electric bus is more but it saves more than that in its lifetime.

However, the 2016 Columbia University report stated that, while electric buses typical cost $300,000 more than diesel buses, that cost is made-up over the electric buses’ lifetimes. Aber estimated that annual savings for an electric bus — thanks to reduced fuel costs — is $39,000, which would compound over the bus’ 12-year lifetime.

Monday, February 5, 2018

How a business can align with the Sustainable Development Goals

The world came together to establish 17 goals for our collective future. The hope is that businesses, as well as governments and NGOs, will put their muscle behind bringing these goals to fruition.

This SDG Compass provides a straight-forward process for figuring out your priorities and making a difference.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Nutrition for first 1000 days sets babies on right path

Over half of American young kids are at risk of malnourishment. The most common vegetable for American toddlers is the French fry. A majority of kids are on WIC food assistance but that doesn’t ensure they get good nutrition what will affect their development for the rest of their lives.

A quarter of toddlers don’t receive enough iron, 1 in 5 children are obese, 1 in 6 households with children are food-insecure, and over half of infants participate in the federal Women, Infants, and Children program for supplemental nutrition.
But a couple nonprofits are working to raise awareness, makingThe First 1000 Days a household term.

 More Than Half Of American Babies Are At Risk For Malnourishment - HuffPost

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Coming soon: Arizona hydrogen fuel cell truck factory

Arizona apparently won the battle for a new Nikola factory that will build long-haul trucks powered by fuel cells.

Fuel cell vehicles emit water rather than noxious diesel fumes. But it matters how the hydrogen is produced. Think of hydrogen as a battery. It takes energy to extract the hydrogen which then goes into a tank (vs a battery) later to be used by the truck. The type energy used to extract the hydrogen is critical to how sustainable this whole process is: renewable energy or fossil fuel energy. To make this work, Arizona needs to ramp up its renewable energy standard, the amount of electricity that has to come from renewables, which unless it’s been updated, stands at a pitiful 20% by 2020, established 12 years ago 2005. A lot has changed since then.

Friday, February 2, 2018

10 Principles for a sustainable transportation system

Creating a sustainable transportation infrastructure is going to take some work, including integration of technology and transportation planning, if we are to have livable cities. Here are principles that should guide us:

Here’s a recent article about the partnership between technology and transportation.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

What's the relationship between world conflicts and the environment

This video is actually a trailer for an online course but if you just watch the first couple minutes, you'll get an understanding of how environmental/natural resource issues are driving and funding conflicts around the world. Sustainability is about seeing how things are interconnected: economic gain tied to natural resources has been undermining human societies. The course should cover how to turn this terrible cycle around.

Link to video:

Link to SDG Academy resources:

What does China do with an old coal mine?

China has built a huge solar array on a lake that used to be an old coal mine, the world's largest floating solar farm. The water helps to keep the panels from overheating.

This article doesn't talk about water quality. A lot of old mine pit lakes are horribly toxic. So the panels might help keep waterbirds from using the lake. But if the water is clean, and if the lake is used by wildlife, I hope they took that into consideration in the design.