Of Pollution, Growing Up, General Motors, and Why I Miss the Bomb

June 16, 2009

 Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.
~Paul Graham

I am a little concern about reading all the news about the dead of the car. Fiat buying Chrysler and General Motors closing the Pontiac line and declaring bankruptcy is given enough stimulus and energy to some neohippie pundits to go all the month without food or water. A refreshing reading on the matter is the right-wing Driving Like Crazy from P. J. O’Rourke. He is a huge car lover, and the reading of his book’s subtitle can explain his points of view. I do not agree on half of what he says, but it is certainly a entretaining lecture.

A lot of people feel a natural hate for cars, which is as logical as hating a blender or a toaster, since car are mere appliance. This hate is even harder to understand since cars pollute so little today. 30 years ago you could smell the sunset, now the cars run so efficiently that the pollutants are going down every year:

Cars produced 1997- Hydrocarbons 0.26 grams/Km
  Carbon monoxide 2.1 grams/Km
  Oxides of nitrogen 0.63 gram/Km
Cars produced 96-86 Hydrocarbons 0.93 grams/Km
  Carbon monoxide 9.3 grams/Km
  Oxides of nitrogen 1.93 grams/Km

The problem is not only cars. Cows produce half a pound of methane a day, and methane traps 20 times more heat than CO2. Industry pollution, deforestation, the fact that some of us live in places that require a lot of energy just to keep us alive, all these factors are as important as cars when considering polluting and greenhouse gases emissions, but cars are an easy target because they are pervasive, because they are apparently politically incorrect, and because most car bashers do not own cars.

I do not blame the cars, I blame the cities.

Yes, the cities.

More specifically, city zoning in Residential, Commercial, and Industrial.

50 years ago everybody lived either in a farm or in a city. Not a city as we understand it today, but a close array of diverse buildings, neighbourhoods, and a mix use of soil. Farms were right outside the city, they fed the city, keep the air (somewhat) clean, and were an escape for the weekends. After World War II, in North America, and in a lesser extend in Europe, the city planners decided to create highways and suburbs. Gone were the neighbourhoods, the mix use of soil, and the liveable city. People of the likes of Robert Moses decided that cities must be divided in residential, commercial, and industrial areas, effectively separating people from the places they worked and shopped. The car became an appliance.

As the developers focused in Suburbia, the cities core languished. No main street could compete against the gigantic Shopping Centres from Suburbia. The price of downtown properties either plumbed and attracted the poorest people, or skyrocket and attracted banks and highly capitalized companies. There was not place for the middle class left in the city, and people moved to suburbs because they want to have their families in a better environment. Nowadays, people do not live in the cities, just students, bankers, very rich guys can afford live in the nice areas of the average North American city, while the rest is left to poor immigrants and commercial areas. Normal people live in suburbs, as much as they may hate it. Suburbs are designed to keep away people who do not live there, so everything is 40 kilometres of everything. You need to drive everywhere, and the windy roads keep public transit restricted to a few areas. Paul Graham makes an excellent read in Why Nerds are Unpopular, and the effect of suburbia and modern life in North American kids.

The car enables people to get out of the city and live in these places “as fake as a Twinkie”. If in a society you cannot get up, at least you can get out, and the car help you do so. We need to work in making our cities liveable again, but, contrary to Jane Jacobs who though that we all should live in high-raised buildings, I still think that you can live in a small house close to downtown and walk, bike, use the public transit, or why not, drive. To accomplish this, there are two major, major shifts on urban paradigms that need to happen:

1) Stop zoning. Houston is one example on how you can have certain urban restrictions (no slaughterhouse in a primary residential area) while keeping your neighbourhoods walkable. Midtown Toronto is also an example where residential areas all have a main street that can serve all the residents needs.

2) Decentralise. Megacities will be always problem-prone. Why so many people live in cities? Because they offer options that small towns do not; but a city does not need to be Tokio or Los Angeles to offer a reasonable amount of restaurant variety, theatre, festivals, and other cultural attractions. The middle city needs to be profit from. Places like Winnipeg, Austin, or Morelia are cities located in what could be boom areas in a future if we stop clustering all the services and companies in the same cities.

I understand that cluster happens and that they may be economically reasonable, but why we have clusters of clusters like in L.A. or Mexico City? A national policy should be created to populate areas outside the big cities to ease the impact on environment and the need of suburbs and one-hour commutes.

Suburbs have a negative impact on transit, on economy, on children development, and force us to live in our cars. They are boring places to live and to growth. Yes, they are safer for our children, but I remember growing up in a city, with all the excitement and the challenges, and still coming back to a small house with a backyard and a tower of tires that were used by a myriad of cats to sleep in. There is not need to chose between an apartment in downtown or a huge house, identical to the next huge house, 30 kilometres away from were your best friend lives.


Earth Day 2008

March 28, 2008

Nobody can be so amusingly arrogant as a young man who has just discovered an old idea and thinks it is his own.
~Sydney J. Harris

April 22th is Earth Day 2008, a day dedicated “to grow and diversify the environmental movement worldwide, and to mobilize it as the most effective vehicle for promoting a healthy, sustainable planet. We pursue these goals through education, politics, events, and consumer activism” (http://ww2.earthday.net/~earthday/about).

Similarly, tomorrow March 29th is Earth Hour, where we are invited to turn the lights off for one hour, between 20:00 and 21:00, with the sole objective of reducing greenhouse gases emissions and to have people talking about what to do to reduce people’s ecological footprint.

The event was born in Sidney, and it came from one of my favourites organizations, WWF. I have sponsored this organization since 1998 (http://mexicanphoto.tripod.com) and have always praise them to the point that I have solicited to work with them several times (they never called me, I sadly confess). In Talking With Perspective I elaborated about this organization and its efforts to make our world a better place. Having said that, I think that Earth Hour is just another feel-good ecological gimmicks.

The interviews of people promoting Earth Hour denote the “fun” part of being without electricity for one hour. They recognise the limited effect on greenhouse gases emissions but they mention that the real objective is having people talking about what can they do for the environment. The idea is amusing, but the problem I have with these events is that people often get a holier-than-thou feeling, talk about the problem, but do nothing more to address the issue.

The futility of such events derivates from the fact that real measures are really painful, no fun. To reduce greenhouse gases emissions we need to reduce consumption in our lives. We need to park the car, to reduce non-recyclable consumptions, to eat locally (no oranges in winter, unless you live in Spain), to stop spending our money in non-sense products. Lighting candles for an hour is fun, but in Canada, where almost our our electricity comes from hydroelectric power plants, lighting candles instead of a light bulb effectively increases greenhouse gases emissions.

What we can do to really have an impact? I propose some ideas in
Organic Versus Local, How to Eat Ethically?, My bulb is Burned, A Real Alternative to Ethanol? I, and A Real Alternative to Ethanol? II.

I will love to hear some of yours!

Seal Hunting. As we speak, several Quebecois seal hunters are heading to the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence for the annual harp seal hunt. Although the Government of Canada defends seal hunting, and despite my usual attitude towards commerce and the invisible hand that leads the markets, I can only regret that we are still pursuing such a barbaric custom, with no use whatsoever; seal products are non-sense idiotic luxury items that have perfectly substitutions. Going there and protest will do better than turning your light off for one hour, I will protest tomorrow in Montrèal, I hope you will too, wherever you are. I will trade you your one-hour with no electricity for one hour in front of a Canadian Embassy or Consulate, or if you live in Canada, write to your MP, or participate in one of the protests. Find more information in http://www.seashepherd.org/.

The neo-Malthusians and the Kuznets Curve

October 3, 2007

They say it is better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable, but how about a compromise like moderately rich and just moody?
~Lady Diana Spencer

The neo-Malthusians had their origins in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when books like The Population Bomb (Paul Ehrlich) and The Limits to Growth (the Club of Rome) were published. Their main premise was different than Malthus’s doomsday omen, it was more focused on environment degradation: The richer people get, the worse things become for the earth. When Goklany sees progress everywhere he looks, the neo-Malthusians see impending disaster: air pollution, the disappearance of habitats, the emptying of aquifers, the demolition of forest cover, and the proliferation of new diseases. Goklany sees us advancing toward progress, the neo-Malthusians see us advancing directly to the rift.

The neo-Malthusianism have consistently underestimated the beneficial effects of technological change. Three decades ago, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren invented the angular stone of the movement:

neomalthusian formula

Environmental impact (I) = population size (P) times level of affluence (A) times technological efficiency (T)

This means that technological change has a multiplier effect on population size and the wealthiness of the population, so we need to place strict limits on human behaviour. There is some logic on this theory: “As societies get richer and more populous, they do consume more resources, and, especially in the early phases of economic growth, they do so with a measure of indifference to the overall impact on the environment”(J. Surowiecki).

But the flaw in the equation is that technology can also reduce environmental impact. In the past 40 years, productivity gains have dramatically reduced the environmental burden of farming and shrunk the amount of land needed to feed the world. Technological improvements in the scrubbing of power-plant smokestacks have brought a sharp reduction in the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air. Improvements in the efficiency of wind and solar power have reduced (a least at some extent) the demand for fossil fuels.

Technological change is actually the result of increased affluence, which makes it likely that an economy will get cleaner even as it gets richer, Goklany explains that “developed countries do generally have cleaner air, cleaner water, more forest cover, and less cropland devoted to food production than developing countries do, even though the latter are much poorer”, with the exception of CO2.

United States is not less polluted than it was in 1787, but arguably less polluted today than at any time in the last 100 years or so. The same is true in the rest of the developed world. Why? Because technology first evolves to increase production output, and then evolves to efficient that output. This is called the environmental Kuznets curve (EKC)


When graphed, the relationship between prosperity and environmental degradation looks like an upside-down U. Initially, as countries grow, they trade off environmental well-being for economic growth; the richer they get, the more polluted. Then a wealth’s critical mass is reached, basic needs are met, and, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, the concern goes to non-basic needs, like a better environment. People have the time to form NGOs and to push for cleaner industry, and technology is serving efficiency instead of brute production. The economy becomes prosperous enough to shift their priorities and begin to seek out ways to grow more cleanly

Goklany even suggest that richer countries open the path to poorer ones, since the invention and spread of new technologies make it easier and more likely for countries to get on the right side of the U-curve quickly, even before they have become rich; the “green revolution,” for instance, allowed poor countries to reduce the environmental burden of farming.

So we can modify the neo-Malthusians formula distinguishing between technology for mass production (P1) and technology that efficients the production process, having less waste and yield (P2):


The turning point of the EKC will be when PAT1<T2. Different pollutants may have different EKC since some pollutant’s effect are more obvious, and that could explain why greenhouse gases emissions are not yet in decline: their long-term effect is less obvious that a chimney spewing coal.

A Real Alternative to Ethanol? II

August 3, 2007

Ask not what the government can do for you. Ask why it doesn’t.
~Gerhard Kocher

Now, for the second part of what I would suggest as real alternatives to ethanol and other feel good but not efficient solutions to pollutants…


1) Promote the use of smaller cars, tax the Hummer and the nine seats SUV, do something, stop the madness of bigger, gas guzzling transportation.

2) Get Real with Public Transit System. Do not promote it based on good intentions, people won’t wait 45 minutes for the bus, neither will pay big bucks for bad services. Control cost of public transit and maintenance, keep the transit affordable so people will really prefer it over using the car. I had to buy a car because it was taking me two hours each way from home to work, while with the car it took me 35 minutes.

3) Control Suburbia. I do not agree with politic leaders taking about making denser residential areas to reduce the size of the city. For some politics easy street means having everybody living in condos, and then they call it the city of the future. No thank you, if you want your house with a front yard, back yard, side paths and a river close-by, go for it, but stop making suburbia streets looking like a spiderweb. Public transit need straight streets to be viable, and private cars need them for having options when commuting. Suburbia is plagued with thousands of cul-de-sacs that feed over used main roads, that are always in traffic jam because you have one or two options for getting out of the neighbourhood: Can you drive a bus here?


What about his pattern?


Which pattern should we encourage?

4) Stop subsidizing easy solutions, like corn-based ethanol. Promote the use of smaller cars, build efficient roads, spend money in real public traffic needs, not in pleasing greedy unions.

5) Enforce traffic law for automobiles, but also for bicycles and pedestrians. Automobiles running yellow lights and making turns where they can’t create traffic jams, but bicycles running red lights and no making the four-way stop also create traffic jams. Pedestrians abusing the right of way, crossing on already stop-signals create a lot of traffic because the lights are designed to accommodate both pedestrian and automotive traffic; pedestrians abusing the right of way just cause more traffic jams by preventing vehicles’ left and right turns.

All these alternatives are going to affect our lives, but they for sure will create a more green environment where pedestrians, cyclist, and drivers will be better of.

A Real Alternative to Ethanol? I

July 27, 2007

No matter how dark the world becomes, the darkness can never extinguish the light.
~Reza Deghati

I had written two post trying to convince you that corn-based Ethanol will have a huge impact on the way third world people live and eat, and reading some of your comments in this blog and in several forums, I feel compelled to write a final exercise. I had to cut it in two parts because it was quite long, so this is the first part.

I do think that Biofuels may be an alternative to gasoline, but not by using corn-based ethanol, and not by mixing it with gasoline at a 10% ethanol content. Ethanol can come from grass, wood chips, sugar cane, and other non-staple foods; using non corn-based ethanol would not bind food prices to oil’s, and they produce Ethanol with a better energy conversion ratio (Ford Runge and Senauer)

Ethanol is a feel good solution because it allows us to keep our lifestyle. No need to park the Hummer, no need to move closer to work or use the public transit system, no need to carpooling…

The real measures are tougher and harder. It is not enough to save energy, it is necessarily to change our lifestyles. In this first part I present the suggestions for the citizens, and in the second part I will present the suggestions for the government


1) Consume Local Produce. If you live north of parallel 40°, getting all those tropical fruits to your table is burning gasoline and turbosine. Try to discover the local flavours, you do not need to give up your bananas and kiwis, but maybe try the local berries and apples. Buy local tomatoes and potatoes instead of organic, long-hauled products.

2) Park the Car. Enough of driving to the corner store, walk, bike, use public transit if possible. It is not always possible, but if you reduce your car use by merely 10% the effect in traffic and pollution, as well as in your budget, will be noticeable.

3) Recycle, Reuse, Reduce. I know it is wheat grinned, but say not to plastic bag; carry your own bag, c’mon, you know you want people see you carrying that big bag with a photo of Earth and the legend ‘Love it or Leave it’, they sell them in the hippies stores, go get one. If Subway is wrapping your sandwich in more than one layer, stop them and ask them to give you only one, or any, you are going to eat it now anyways.

4) Live Simple. There is a lot of goods and services that you do not need but you do want. That big plasma TV that you are not really watching, those toys for your kids that are having more fun with the box than with the toy, those battery-operated gadgets. Prefer electronics with rechargeable batteries to ones with disposable ones. Prefer manual can-openers to electrical ones. Cook at home from fresh products, reject frozen meats (a home made cheeseburger is delicious and nutritious)

5) You know better than anybody what can you do, so get informed about your situation. If you are already being provided with hydroelectricity, changing your bulbs may have zero impact on the environment. If your town does not provide recycle for metals, try to reuse them. Baby seat is old or in an accident and need to dispose of it? Take it apart, recycle the plastic bulk, reuse the metal parts if possible, and use the fabric as paddings for something, or make a cat toy with them. Almost all non recyclable goods have some recyclable parts.

6) Stop drinking bottled water. It is just silly to pay from $0.80 to $6.00 for a bottle of stalled water that, many times, comes from the municipal source, meaning, bottled tap water. Municipal tap water get tested many times during the day, your bottled water does once, when is bottled, and then let stall. If the flavor of tap water bothers you, get a filter. If the tap water of your town is not potable, buy purified water from those 20 lt, reusable containers, they are cheaper and they do not pollute. In Canada, 85% of water bottles end up in the land field. Bottled water, unless specified from Spring source, comes from municipal sources -tap water-, so you are paying several times for what you get from your sink. Pepsi’s Acuafina is just filtered tap water, as many others. Read Evian backwards, that is what it means to drink this expensive, unnecesary product.

Tomorrow, what should governments do…

He’s Back

May 4, 2007

I don’t know what the problem is, but I’m sure it can be solved without resorting to violence.
~Arnold Schwarzenegger

I really don’t like the guy too much. His positions against illegal immigrants are tougher than they should be, given the dependency of his state on illegal, cheap labour. He ducked all charges of sexual misconduct, and he is really a bad actor. But I have to give it to him, he is a good environmentalist.

When he took office in 2003, Schwarzenegger announced a plan for improving the state’s air, water, landscapes, energy supplies, and climate. He created the 25 million-acre Sierra Nevada Conservancy to preserve California’s iconic mountain range. He also established thousands of acres of ocean parks, and spend millions for habitat restoration, fisheries management, and pollution reduction.


He adopted the most aggressive greenhouse-gas-reduction policies on earth, including ordering the state government to slash its energy use 20% and providing $3.2 billion to put solar roofs on homes and small businesses. By 2020 one-third of California’s electricity will come from renewable sources like wind, biomass, and the sun.

What I like the most is how he has fought off the Bush Administration’s efforts to weaken California’s global-warming initiatives and drill for oil along the coast and in the state’s national forests.

The Governator regards environmental injury as deficit spending: loading the cost of this generation’s prosperity onto the backs of our children. Schwarzenegger believes that good economic policy, over the long term, is always the same as good environmental policy. He is quite the conservative, but he is doing more good to the environment that a lot of liberals.

And I have to agree with that.

(All data taken from http://www.time.com, caricature by Chris Rommel)

My bulb is Burned

April 26, 2007

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.
Maya Angelou

I turn the TV off, changed the incandescent bulbs for fluorescent lights (which I hate) and set the screen saver of my computer to turn off the monitor after being idle for two minutes. Other bloggers are doing similar efforts and I am sure you are at least thinking on one way to reduce your electrical consumption.

Then I though if this would have an impact on the greenhouse gases emissions and started a little research to find out. The TV does not emit greenhouse gas (the cat does sometime, but I won’t do anything about it), so the idea on reducing our electricity consumption to reduce greenhouse gasses emissions is based on the electricity being generated by coal, natural gas, or petroleum. Generating electricity by solar power, hydro plants, wind farms, or nuclear reactors does not emit greenhouse gases.

Another factor: Electricity production on a plant is constant, it does not adjust quickly to consumption patterns, the electricity is generated, it goes to the grid and whatever is not used is returned to the plant and resent again, this is a circuit. Out burns occur only when the consumption surpass the supply, so the grid burn out, but we don’t really stop generating energy because we turn down the TV, we just stop converting that electric energy in radiation (I know am oversimplifying the process).

I am writing all this because it is important to know how we are impacting the greenhouse gases emissions and knowing that turning a bulb off is not an ultimate solution. The convenience of reducing the house’s electricity consumption, besides having a lighter bill, is to delay the construction of more power plants that produce greenhouse gases. There is not immediate gain but there is a long term benefit.

There is another thing, in Canada, we call electricity ‘hydro’ because we generate the most of it using hydroelectric plants, which do not produce greenhouse gases. Less than a third of our electricity come from fossil burnings.

Canadian Generation

This changes in the United States, where coal and petroleum is used to generate 62% of their electricity.

USA Greenhouse Gas

Look at the commercial transportation, look at the industrial consumption. The residential consumption is only a third of the total electrical consumption and a fifth of greenhouse gases emissions. We may try and save all the energy we want, but every time I look at Toronto’s Downtown I see the same:

.Toronto at Night

All those skyscrapers are office buildings, they are empty, they are fully lit. The dark buildings are condominiums, people live there, but they are darker because people tend to turn the lights off when not in use.

So, in order to my effort of having those fluorescent lights instead of my nice lamps having any affect, we also need:

1. Generate more electricity with non-fossil plants

2. Have a conservation program for commercial buildings, I am sure they look nice all lit up, but I am also sure they are a big waste of money

3. Support alternate commercial transportation, like trains instead of trucks

4. Support companies that move towards energy efficient factories. Prefer hydro over coal when we can chose (usually we can’t)

5. Understand the impact of what we do. If the effort is not offset by the result then is better to do something else that will have a better result (like writing letters to the congress people urging them to turn off public buildings after-hours, even if we do so with a 100 KW bulb powered by hydroelectricity)

For the references and photo credits, click on the respective image.