Jennifer's Inner Green

BRIC Was It, Now EMIC Is the Thing

Saturday, July 12, 2014 by

"Daring for Big Impact" was held at the Greifenstein Castle in Switzerland.

So you've probably heard of the BRIC countries as discussion of the economic growth potential of Brazil, Russia, India and China has been all the rage, especially during the recession. While still critical to world economic growth, those countries are no longer the cutting edge of investment and sustainable opportunity.

Who knows what the EMICS are? How about Ethiopia, Myanmar, Iran and Colombia? I recently was invited to attend a very special conference held at this picturesque Swiss castle nestled among idyllic gardens near the Swiss-Austrian border. "Daring for Big Impact" was a most compelling and unusual confab, featuring a carefully curated group of international experts from industry, finance, government and philanthropy. Organized by Swiss-based global impact investment and strategy firm Impact Economy, the conference looked at several significant but seemingly unrelated topics, all of which are on the cutting edge of business innovation and investing for the 21st century.

"Our challenge going forward is twofold," explained the conference's host, Christian Kruger, who serves as Chairman of Krüger & Co., and owns and maintains Greifenstein Castle in his spare time.

First, to accelerate the pace of progress so we move from pilot to mainstream, and begin achieving demonstrable results on a massive scale. Second, we need to return to holistic thinking and consider what the good life means in the 21st century, and reflect upon what each of us can do individually to ground ourselves and contribute -- so the good life is not just for the privileged few.


The conference, nestled among idyllic gardens near the Swiss-Austrian border, brought together international experts to attend sessions like "The Pursuit of 21st Century Happiness."

While covering topics ranging from how to meet the crushing demand for clothing and apparel throughout the developing world in a safe and sustainable way, to climate change and its ramifications, to the relatively new science of impact investing, the conference attempted to meld these seemingly diverse topics into a central theme: if we can work together productively and strategically, we can overcome the seemingly insurmountable challenges threatening our future. Overpopulation, water scarcity, fracking, electronic waste, rising temperatures and oceans, unstable and totalitarian governments... none of these externalities seemed to deter the enthusiasm for utilizing strategic investment not only for profit but to help deal with these threats to our very existence.

This seeming juxtaposition is perhaps best illustrated by Bangladesh: the apparel industry is growing by leaps and bounds there, accounting for 20 percent of its GDP. But this emerging country is also responsible for one of the worst industrial disasters in modern history, the April 2013 collapse of a large garment factory building in Dhaka, which killed over 1,100 workers. And herein lies the problem, and the opportunity which the fourth annual iteration of "Daring for Big Impact" addressed.

"Beyond catalytic countries that can drive wider progress, there are also countries whose success in modernizing could have wider geostrategic implications," said Dr. Maximilian Martin, co-host of the conference as well as founder and CEO of Impact Economy. I had met Dr. Martin at a previous professional gathering and was taken with his keen insight and ability to analyze and translate the world's sustainability problems into business innovations.

Dr. Martin explained why he believes the EMICs to be where the action will be going forward.

Ethiopia has been the fastest growing economy in Africa with a GDP growth rate of 10.7 percent in the past decade, which made it the 12th fastest growing economy worldwide. Myanmar has undergone important industrial reforms to allow more foreign investment to flow into the country. Iran is the largest economy in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia in terms of GDP (although sanctions make it off limit for investments at the moment). And Colombia's vision to become one of the top three most competitive countries in Latin America by 2030 is supported by an expected GDP growth of 4.5 percent in 2014.

Indeed, the seventh World Urban Forum was recently held in Medellin, best known of course as world headquarters of the infamous drug cartels. However, as proof of Dr. Martin's assessment, the murder rate there has dropped by 80 percent since its peak, and was rated the number one innovative city in the world by none other than the Wall Street Journal.

A critical message imparted by Dr. Martin throughout the conference is the need to integrate sustainable practices into key industries to enable their long-term competitiveness, especially fashion, retail and electronics -- none of which, according to him, are on a sustainable track currently. This is an example of an area that business and investment leaders must work with NGOs and philanthropists to correct. The ramifications of the waste generated by these industries without proper forethought to using recyclable materials and getting those materials back into the recycling/remanufacturing supply chain will be disastrous otherwise. But if reused, they become a business opportunity.

This critical issue was looked into more closely by Carlos Criado-Perez, former CEO of British retailer Safeway and before that operations director for Walmart International. Perez's presentation made much of data points coming from Impact Economy and Ellen MacArthur Foundation research, for example that over $700 billion -- yes with a "b" -- could be saved if just half of what is sold annually by the apparel industry could be recycled for future use after its useful life, instead of ending up in landfill. Not to mention, the production of clothing is extremely water-intensive and Impact Economy estimates that up to 50 percent of the zillions of gallons required could be saved by use of sustainable manufacturing practices.

An interesting twist that separated "Daring for Big Impact" from the dozens of other "future-look" conferences was the inclusion of sessions like "The Pursuit of 21st Century Happiness" which featured Swami Nitya, spiritual guide from the UK, and Han Shan, a "guru" from Thailand, which related opportunities in global change to the personal level.

A violinist set the evening atmosphere at the conference dinner.

One other aspect of the conference that is close to my heart was remarks by David Gelber, formerly producer for Harry Bradley of 60 Minutes fame but more recently, creator of the important documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, which is airing on Showtime (perhaps they think it offsets the soft-core porn one usually finds there?). This production is one of the best ever made at illustrating the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. We screened an episode and a very lively discussion followed, although not surprisingly, there is not much disagreement among this group about how critical it is to proactively respond immediately if civilization as we know it is to continue.

Suffice it to say that this conference stood out from the crowd. The firm Impact Economy and Dr. Martin in particular are to be commended for having the vision to show how different topics add up to a comprehensive picture and three days of intensive and provocative thought about where we go from here and how to do it in a way that will benefit all, not just investors.

Read more from Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.

Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop to Drink....

Saturday, July 12, 2014 by

Californians hope to avoid a desolate future with the development of desalination systems across the state. Photo by Bruce Rolff.

SANTA BARBARA, CA -- And so goes the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, the iconic tome by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Of course, it refers to a seaman who is adrift with no supplies. How fitting, then, that we apply this life lesson to the current situation in Santa Barbara, if not the entire Southwestern U.S.

The media has finally awakened to what many of us have been banging the drum about for months - to borrow from the 1972 Albert Hammond pop tune, "It Never Rains In Southern California." In essence, this has caused a drought we have not seen in decades, as detailed in my previous articles, Red, White, and Waterless andSqueezing Water From a Rock. So let's look at Santa Barbara as a microcosm of what could happen in many cities throughout the country if we don't do something about it, and quickly.

From a variety of research and interviews I conducted with experts on weather patterns and climate trends, one central theme emerges: we as a society need to prepare now for the possibility that this drought will continue indefinitely. While not probable, at least we hope not, it is most definitely a possibility. Life must go on, and to sustain it we need clean water for everyone. Regardless of whether it rains.

"I have been here since 1964, and the climate today is very different than it was in those days," explained Tom Mosby, General Manager of the Montecito Water District. "The succession used to be two weeks of fog, then four or five days of warm, sunny conditions. Now, it seems that the inverse is true. No rain is a huge problem for us." Montecito is the tiny, toney town that lies adjacent to Santa Barbara, populated mostly by wealthy retirees and those escaping L.A. in search of solitude and open space. Oprah's famous $50 million estate lies within the Montecito city limits. "Our water conservation plan now includes water rationing which has been very successful. We believe the majority of our customers are checking their water meters daily to track allocation," Mosby said.

Montecito has very limited groundwater, equivalent to less than 7% of its annual water supply which has compounded its water shortage problem. The District's reliance on surface water reservoirs, coupled with below average rainfall led to the declaration of a water shortage emergency on February 11. If it doesn't rain during fall/winter 2014-15, a stage 4 (they are currently in stage 3) state of emergency could be declared which would mean little to no water for outdoor landscaping.

The Santa Barbara area has been a leader in water conservation, as its residents have been very responsible about decreasing water consumption in recent years. So much so, in fact, that in an ironic twist, the local water districts may have to raise their rates again -- this time by 100 percent -- because revenues are down dramatically. A vicious cycle? Perhaps yes, and one that could be repeated in any geographic area that is short on water but successful in persuading homeowners to cut usage. Thus, we face yet another quandary in going green which only frustrates the consumer trying to do the right thing.

The City of Santa Barbara did have the foresight to plan, design and break ground on a desalination plant back in 1991. Fortunately or unfortunately, plans to complete the plant were scrapped as the 1986-91 drought came to a dramatic end. Just recently, the City Council initiated reactivation proceedings to get the plant construction going once again. This will cost just under $30 million, and will provide enough clean water for about half of the Santa Barbara Water District's customers.

The Carlsbad Desalination Project, seen here, is set to deliver clean drinking water to 300,000 San Diego county residents by 2016.

While the City of Santa Barbara wants to cooperate with Montecito to allow its residents to purchase water produced by the plant, a complicated situation related to approval and permitting process due to the infamous Coastal Commission may well prevent this. "We have to get desal now," declared Darlene Bierig, President of the Montecito Water Board. Recycling wastewater is also an option but realistically, this is more suited for agricultural, landscape, golf course and cemetery water than for drinking. The conventional wisdom seems to be moving toward desal and rapidly. This, in my opinion, is one of the better arrows in our quiver if we no longer enjoy the benefits of consistent, bountiful rainfall.

With the challenges Santa Barbara's original desalination plant faces, setting up a small-scale desalination plant is an alternative possibility in Montecito. I consulted an Israeli expert in water management, Clive Lipchin, to see if it is possible to enable Montecito to provide water for its citizens in a stand alone, self-sufficient manner. As with all new desal development, Lipchin notes, "There are infrastructure questions such as the state of the water grid and the possibility of easily inserting the desalination plant into the grid. Other issues include the best site for such a plant and its proximity to the coast, the location of the brine outfall, the current cost of water and electricity, and environmental regulations." Considering the factors, Lipchin suggests a small-scale desalination plant could be built faster and cheaper than waiting for City of Santa Barbara. "There are options to build a desal plant in a modular configuration with construction costs ranging from $5-10 million. Israel has done this successfully for small communities in Cyprus and Malta."

The Carlsbad, CA desalination plant will closely resemble Ashkelon, Israel's 3rd generation desalination plant, seen here.

"Water banking" is another idea that Santa Barbara has cooked up to deal with the current shortages, according to Santa Barbara Acting Water Resources Manager, Joshua Haggmark. "Water banking is the practice of foregoing water deliveries during certain periods, and banking either the right to use the unused water in the future, or saving it for someone else to use in exchange for a fee or delivery in-kind," explains Jasper Womach, Agricultural Policy Specialist for the Congressional Research Service. "It is best used where there is significant storage capacity to facilitate such transfers of water."

In my view, that could be helpful but will not solve the water shortage. A massive, ongoing source of clean water to replace Mother Nature's downpours is desperately needed. Just last month, the L.A. Times and USC's Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences conducted a poll of 1,500 registered voters. Results showed that 89 percent of respondents agree that the drought is a major problem or even a crisis. An encouraging 75 percent believe the state should invest in desalination of ocean water for household use. This support was consistent across demographic groups, with 48 percent strongly in favor and 26 percent somewhat in favor.

Let's head about 200 miles south, to the beach town of Carlsbad which is located in North County San Diego. As we speak, SoCal's only large desal plant is being constructed. The plant will create enough fresh water to serve 300,000 area residents. "We are developers and owners of the project," said Peter MacLaggan, Senior VP of Poseidon Water, the contractor who is building the plant which is projected to come online in 2016. "The project has been in development for 12 years, as the approval process began in 2003 and ended in 2009. Six long years. After the permits, we worked with the San Diego County Water Authority to get the contracts in place, and then we raised $734 million through a bond issue, along with $167 million in private equity," explained MacLaggan. This is probably typical of what a large desal plant would require -- about a billion dollars, and about 10 years if not longer.

The Carlsbad desalination plant will be able to produce 1 gallon of freshwater for every 2 gallons of seawater it intakes.

Key environmental issues associated with desal plants are first and foremost, the intake portion of the process and its effect upon larval fish eggs, and secondly, expulsion of the brine or salt back into the ocean. While larger fish will be able to swim away from the intake ducts, microscopic fish and plankton that are vital to the underwater food chain can be damaged by the desal process. In addition, a tremendous amount of power is required to run the plant, thus use of fossil fuels vs. renewable energy is a critical discussion. Oceana's California Campaign Director, Dr. Geoff Shester, stresses, "Turning seawater into drinking water requires massive amounts of energy and poses risks to an already stressed ocean ecosystem, as the salty brine byproducts fundamentally disrupt the ocean's delicate chemical balance. Relying on desalination as an alternative water source fails to solve the underlying problem that California's inefficient use of water is outstripping our water supply, while creating a wide suite of new risks to our ocean which we don't yet fully comprehend."

Desal plants cannot be built offshore because the efficiency of production becomes significantly lower. Another issue is this: land, extremely valuable coastal land at that, will be needed to build more desal plants. Thus years of lawsuits and ultimately, use of eminent domain by the state may be required to secure key sites for a network of desal plants that can produce enough water to support highly populated Southern California. "The next desalination project will be easier because decisions and precedents are already set," added MacLaggan. Hopefully he is right about this.

As you can probably tell, I am a huge proponent of desalination as part of the answer to our water problems. As I sit here in my hotel room in Tel Aviv, I quaff a tasty glass of desal water. Not to mention, I washed my hair this morning and noticed the sheen and texture is actually better than washing my hair with Nevada or SoCal water. While admittedly there are environmental issues to deal with, this reminds me of the debate about wind power generated by turbines located in the desert. Some of our leading environmental watchdog NGOs are constantly banging the drum about the need for renewable energy, but then they question wind farms because they are visually unattractive and might affect the mating patterns of the snail darter. Similarly, ocean preservation advocates need to get real about the need for desal plants as a partial fix for inadequate rainfall. Fortunately, we're quickly witnessing an advancement of technology to minimize environmental impacts, as showcased in Damian Palin's TED Talk, Mining Minerals From Seawater. Palin proposes an innovative solution using bacteria to extract heavy metals from the toxic brine, thus minimizing pollutants that reenter the seawater and creating what Palin describes as "a new mining industry that is in harmony with nature."

Given the lead time required to plan, approve, design and build these plants, we are already way behind and crisis may occur before enough of them come on stream - not only in Southern California but anywhere with a coastline that is short of fresh water. Let's take a cue from Israel, which has developed a network of desal plants that produce enough water to keep the admittedly tiny desert nation supplied indefinitely with zero rainfall. It is time right now to move past the conversation, debates and wishful thinking. Oceans make up 71 percent of the earth's surface, so we know there IS enough salt water to meet our desal needs. We need to be building desal plants yesterday, throughout the world, to ensure fresh drinking water for all. Please help the cause by explaining this to your family, friends, legislators, and the media.

As always, thanks for reading and considering My Inner Green viewpoint.

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A New Champion at the Weather Channel Answers All You Want to Know About the Weather, But Were Afraid to Ask

Wednesday, June 4, 2014 by

No, Sam Champion is not just another handsome talking head. To prove it, he has taken the bold step of leaving perhaps the number one weatherperson position in the world at ABC's Good Morning America to become Managing Editor at The Weather Channel. His new show is called AMHQ, for America's Morning Headquarters. It is an amalgam of news, sports, lifestyle and, of course, weather forecasting and reporting, running each weekday from 7-10 a.m. ET.

From a journalistic integrity standpoint, I should say upfront that I am a Sam Champion fan. I appeared on his "Just One Thing" environmental segment on GMA several times in previous years. A new executive producer did away not only with that segment, but essentially all reporting on environmental subjects. While he won't comment on that, I suspect this is one of a number of reasons that Sam elected to move on from GMA.


Sam Champion at the 40th Annual Daytime Emmy Awards.

Champion is an Emmy and Peabody award winner who is a serious weatherman and proud of it.

I'm going to be a hypocrite here. I want to wake up every morning with my feet on the sand, 20 steps from the ocean. If I am not by the beach, I am not a whole person. But I realize it's not a safe place to build or locate a community. We have allowed people to make incredible amounts of money off of our desire to live on the beach. Unfortunately, we've not thought about how (beaches) are the natural protectors for everything behind them.

This is Sam Champion, admitting his own preferences but trying to educate us on the power of weather patterns and how they can endanger our lives. In this case, he refers to rebuilding on the same spot after natural disasters, be it Hurricane Sandy or the Asian tsunami.

Here's what Champion has to say about the Southern California/Southwestern U.S. drought, and its ramifications, such as last week's San Diego wildfires:

We have to stop being surprised. I am so [redacted] tired of people being surprised. We should not be surprised when areas that have seen drought before experience it again. We should not be surprised that towns previously leveled by hurricanes will be leveled again. I'm so tired of us being surprised. While I understand that (the beach is) one of the most desirable places for people to feel connected to the world and at peace, we should not allow people to rebuild after a disaster. I understand why we are torn on this, but we have to think ahead for others. We have to make sure people are safe...


Destroyed homes line the coast in Lavallette, New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Indeed, Sam Champion is passionate about climate change and its ramifications. He is very concerned about water shortages in coming decades. He has the courage to say what we are just now beginning to understand about where we should be vs. where we are on alternate water sources.

We are horribly prepared (for drought in the Southwest). If we were, we would have several options available to get people water. We are still relying on watersheds, snow melts, and rain. If you live in a coastal area and have not made desalination options available to your community because of money, energy requirements or other factors...if you don't have a "B" choice for water, that is just wrong. That is not politics, either, that is reality.

I explained to Sam that I recently visited Israel, where they have perfected the art of providing desalinized drinking water for all at a fair price point. His comment: "California, and many other parts of the world, could learn a lot from the Israelis when it comes to preparing for perpetual drought conditions."

The 52-year-old Kentucky native faces the reality that the Southwest could be in for an ongoing drought unlike anything we are used to.

We are just now beginning to understand global weather patterns. We used to think of weather locally, but it is truly anything but -- it's a global thing. We are still trying to figure out El Nino and La Ninas. If an El Nino occurs, it can mean X for this region and Y for that one. You are not looking just at warming water temperatures. To say California will be in a period of ongoing drought, I don't know that anyone can say for certain. But I don't see a lot of help coming to change this situation. If we have not figured out a way to handle the drought over the past 25 years, we have a problem.

About Sam's new show. How was it going from GMA to AMHQ?

We created a show that is hyper informative because I saw there was a different audience. The new audience is 24-hour informed. They are following stories, news, websites, they have alerts on their smartphones. The Weather Channel is built to work on a 24-hour news cycle. We are adjusting to the new pace of information. Facebook, Twitter, we are dealing with a news cycle being right now, this minute. AMHQ is sequenced to this pace. We have the most live shots of tornadoes. We were in Pensacola, Florida for the floods, California for the fires, Minnesota for cold air and snow, and those are just the live shots.


We now witness tornados year round, signaling a change in climate patterns.

Champion, who married his partner, Rubem Robierb, in 2012, does not see it as his responsibility to convince the climate change deniers of their shortsightedness.

It's not my job to change minds. Growing up as a journalist and being in the news business for 30 years, it's only my job to talk about the facts as they are presented. When scientists present facts, we report them. When disasters happen, we deal in statistics and stories about the people who are affected, and follow it all the way through recovery. I don't need to be political and don't want to push anyone's agenda. There are people who want to mitigate climate change and others who want to make money on the topic. I am here to do neither. My goal is to help people understand their environment, and get to a safe place as needed. If you move to the tornado belt, you need to know the risks. If you live in California, you need to know about the drought and the potential dangers because of it. I try to help people understand this so they can take necessary steps to protect themselves from weather-related disasters. Many people assume that if you encounter a tornado and you are in a car, you should jump out and lay down in a ditch.

According to Champion, this is really an old wive's tale. He says being inside your car is far safer than lying in a ditch.

Not surprisingly, Champion likes the focus on weather as opposed to all types of news.

It was a pleasant surprise to have people approach me to say this is a show they are proud to have their children watch while getting ready for school. It's a smart show. The kids are learning about weather and other important news but not murders and beatings. That stuff is eye candy designed to keep you glued to your TV, but it is not necessarily information you truly need to know. I certainly did not design a kids show, but it's nice to have moms tell us they feel great about having our show on with the kids in the room.

Champion enjoys scuba diving as a hobby, and not surprisingly, relates what he sees back to weather and climate change. "When you dive for the first time and see coral reefs, come back again three years later and they are gone or bleached due to ocean acidification, you become concerned and want to share that with people. I'm tired of the pushback because I'm not a part of the conspiracy. I'm just sharing with you what I observe." (Some of you may recall my earlier column entitled "Diving With The Dream Team" in which I report the exact same phenomenon.) 


As a result of climate change, ocean acidification is causing coral bleaching across the globe.

Sam's recommendation for what we do going forward to combat the adverse effects of climate change and their impact upon our weather personifies his practical, no-nonsense approach to climate change and how the weather is reported. "Here are things we can do together to deal with issues that are very real. You can debate the cause, but let's come together for the solution."

Read more from Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.

Developing a Lexicon for Ocean Preservation

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 by
Water covers more than 71 percent of the earth's surface, yet we have no international ocean police. (Photo, Kevin M. Gill, flickr)
Water covers more than 71 percent of the earth's surface, yet we have no international ocean police. (Photo, Kevin M. Gill, flickr)
Almost a year ago to the day, I found myself diving in the Cook Islands with Conservation International’s Sylvia Earle, Greg Stone and Peter Seligmann.  Perhaps you recall my article “Diving with the Dream Team”?  This was my first immersion, literally and figuratively, into the recently raised – and critically important – issues surrounding ocean conservation.   A lot has happened in the last year to make this a topline agenda item for NGOs, members of the business elite, and conservation societies alike.   To use an appropriate metaphor, ocean policy and preservation is the next big wave of environmental consideration and concern.
Think back to Teddy Roosevelt’s initiatives to promote nature and encourage land conservation in the 1920s – we are at that same point in time with regard to the oceans.  As in, the first inning.  No, make that top of the first inning.  It is an exciting field to study but one that resembles the Wild Wild West.  I hope to shed some light on what important new and existing preservation projects mean to the public, the fish, the coral reefs, and our future.  We are past the point of prevention but rather, we must undo some of the damage we have done – caused mainly by ocean acidification, overfishing, and bottom trawling.  There are many new and vague terms that leave the average swimmer, diver, and/or surfer, palms up.  This will serve as an introduction to the vernacular being used to describe these projects.
Let’s start with ocean acidification.  Basically, this refers to the increased carbon dioxide that is now in our atmosphere.  Thus there is more carbon, and less oxygen, directly contacting the oceans at sea level than in the past.  This is negatively affecting the health of coral reefs and other flora and fauna underwater.
Now about overfishing.  Think about this in a different way: On terra firma, vehicles are generally limited to paved roads.  And we have a huge infrastructure of local, state and federal police who patrol our roadways.  Now think of the skies, which are carefully supervised by the FAA, designated airspace, and a large network of control towers in major cities throughout the globe.  Both on land and in the air, penalties for not following the rules of the road can be quite punitive.  Simple enough.
Currently, without a network of satellite monitoring AND collection of significant fines in place, there is essentially no punitive way to stop overfishing and other detrimental activities. (Photo, wikimedia)
Currently, without a network of satellite monitoring AND collection of significant fines in place, there is essentially no punitive way to stop overfishing and other detrimental activities. (Photo, wikimedia)
Now, think about the oceans.  Water covers more than 71% of the earth’s surface.  Yet we have no international ocean police, no “ocean FAA” if you will…only a relatively infinitesimal handful of Coast Guard and related non-military vessels, worldwide, to guard the seas.  So what’s a mother to do about less-than-trustworthy fishing boats – mostly carrying the flags of European and Asian nations – that are overfishing, bottom-trawling, shark-fin-hunting and other extremely damaging activities?
Over 100 million sharks are killed every year -- mostly for their fins, as in shark fin soup. Unconscionable. (Photo, fastcompany)
For this answer, I sought out a few of the world’s leading experts, including none other than Sir Richard Branson.  He is a member of a group called the OceanElders, which consists of 14 dignitaries who are committed to protecting and preserving the world’s oceans and the wildlife therein.  Other members include Queen Noor, Ted Turner, Neil Young, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jackson Browne, and Dr. Sylvia Earle, among other luminaries.  Anyway, I asked Branson if by using technology, is there any way to successfully monitor the oceans for commercial fishing vessels, polluters and other maritime villains?  His comments:
OceanElders, a group of 14 dignitaries who are committed to protecting and preserving the world's oceans and the wildlife therein. (Photo, oneworldocean)
“Remote sensing of shipping from satellites is already a reality. Vessels that carry the required transponders can be tracked and identified in real time. The flaws in the present systems are that vessels can turn off the transponders and that they are not mandatory for all vessels. International agreements and treaties can fix that. The UN’s International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the best agency to organize and execute an improved ship location program.”
Out of the UN’s 193 member states, 170 are currently members of the IMO – including both large and small players alike, such as China, Japan, US, UK, Thailand, Madagascar, and Mozambique.  “This means that once an action is approved by the [IMO], that action has force of domestic law in the member states. So a more vigorous ship tracking program can have teeth,” Branson explained.  But what about enforcement?
“One option that is technically feasible today is unmanned vehicles (AUVs) that are constantly on patrol and prepared to call for assistance when needed. Another enforcement idea that really appeals to me is to develop a global directory of fishing vessels which habitually fish in distant waters from their home ports.  As trespassers are identified, they go into the database and are flagged.  A similar scheme is used by many of the major maritime nations to identify problem vessels. Those in the database that have poor safety and/or operating records can be denied entrance to seaports or will not be allowed to depart unless certain remedial steps are taken.”
Map of Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) in the Galapagos.
Branson provides a realistic and honest appraisal here of where we are on this pressing issue.  And clearly, we are indeed in the first inning.  What happens when a less-than-honest fishing vessel enters a protected zone and dredges the area for sharks, killing everything else in the net’s wake and disturbing the coral to boot?  If the ship’s transponder is turned off before committing the crime…nothing.  And currently, without a network of satellite monitoring AND collection of significant fines in place, there is essentially no punitive way to stop this activity.  Which is why 100 million sharks are killed every year – mostly for their fins, as in shark fin soup.  Unconscionable.
So are there any parts of the ocean that are being protected?  There are a number of marine protected areas (MPA) throughout the world.  One small but significant example lies in a remote part of the Pacific Ocean, called PIPA for (Phoenix Island Protected Area).   PIPA is located in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-BAS), an ocean nation in the central Pacific approximately midway between Australia and Hawaii. PIPA constitutes 11.34 percent of Kiribati’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and with a size of over 150,000 square miles, it is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPA) in the Pacific Ocean.  (For more info on PIPA, listen to this TED Talk.)
Conservation International’s Senior Vice President and Chief Scientist, Gregory Stone, was the driving force in conception and creation of PIPA.  Kiribati has declared that three percent of this EEZ is a “no catch zone” and fishing is strictly prohibited.  Three percent may not sound like much, but this is still a large area – 4,500 square miles – and it is home to high value reefs, bird nesting islands, and tuna fishing grounds.  There is a sensitivity here because poor countries such as Kiribati derive significant income from taxing the fishing vessels. Thus they must be compensated from other sources to make up for the lost revenue in return for their cooperation.
Covering over 150,000 square miles, PIPA is one of the largest marine protected areas (MPA) in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo, Conservation International)
I had an opportunity to catch up with Dr. Stone on how Conservation International (CI) is trying to craft a way to monitor the PIPA area, among other protected waters. “We are talking to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) about how we can use satellites to monitor the waters.  Extremely sophisticated aerial cameras are available, and these could be used for ocean surveillance and enforcement.  If we can create a way to document the presence of a vessel and, through licensing and electronic observation, obtain the name and home base of the boat, we would then be able to track and ultimately enforce severe fines and other penalties,” he explained.
Indeed, enforcement is easier when there is a government that has rights to the water space in question.  What happens when this is not the case, for example, in the Sargasso Sea?  The Sargasso Sea is the earth’s only sea or ocean without a land boundary. This extraordinary open-ocean ecosystem is bounded by currents circulating around the North Atlantic sub-tropical gyre.  The Sargasso Sea provides habitats, spawning areas, migration pathways and feeding grounds to a diverse ecosystem, including a number of endangered yet commercially important species.  Dr. Earle has called it “the golden rainforest of the ocean.”
I consulted Sargasso Sea expert David Shaw, a respected business and social entrepreneur who is also a National Park Trustee. Shaw put into proper perspective the challenges the environmental world faces when trying to educate the public on the threats to ocean health. “A big issue is trying to create a consciousness about the world’s largest habitat.  Unlike the terrestrial world, ocean health is often not part of our daily thoughts in the same way that unhealthy air, rivers or land may be. We need to understand that world oceans are not infinitely forgiving…we cannot see all the damage. And we are best served if debate about ocean health and other environmental issues is based on fact-based science versus emotional arguments,” Shaw explained.
Shaw is founding chair of an alliance formed to study the ecology of the Sargasso Sea and to create a range of stewardship measures to conserve its health.  The Sargasso Sea Alliance is led by the government of Bermuda, working with other nations as well as NGOs.  So far, among other results, the Alliance has developed a robust “Summary Science and Evidence Case for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea” with over 74 collaborators.  Under executive director Dr David Freestone, the Alliance is planning to bring the governments of the countries around the Sargasso Sea – including the US, Dominican Republic and Portugal – together with the European Union Commission to Bermuda in 2014 to sign an international declaration on Collaboration for the Conservation of the Sargasso Sea and to establish a permanent Sargasso Sea Commission, based in Bermuda, to oversee the health of this unique high seas ecosystem.
Dr. Sylvia Earle has called the Saragasso Sea "the golden rainforest of the ocean." (Photo,
The urgency to protect ocean wildlife is not strictly the fantasy of environmentalists and watermen.  We are talking about a far more serious question: How will we feed the world 20 years from now? Indeed, if we do not stop the systematic destruction of our ocean resources, we could have a serious seafood shortfall; this is on a collision course with simultaneous population growth.  It would seem the key is to create a way to monitor overfishing, and soon.  The concepts that Branson and Stone talk of, using GPS and related technology for this purpose, would seem to be our best chance for monitoring the oceans successfully.  Question is, who will organize the nations of the world in this effort, and how do we effectively police two thirds of the earth’s surface?  If we don’t collectively address and solve this pressing issue, the phrase “plenty of fish in the sea” may turn into a deadly falsehood.
Read more by Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.

Mother Nature: The Omnipotent

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 by

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

 Doesn't everyone have childhood memories, most of them very personal, about raging thunderstorms, especially when they are happening at night?

Camille Seaman's breathtaking photographs of what happens when the heavens announce, "Something Wicked This Way Comes" take me back to my nursery school years, hunkered down in my little bed, terrified of the banging, flashing and rushing noises that precede a major storm. About then, my parents would be counting down the seconds until they heard the pitter-patter of little feet charging down the hallway. It would be off with the covers, run down the hall, and reach for the doorknob of mom and dad's bedroom. I'd instantly be snuggled between them, no longer fearful but intrigued by Mother Nature's wrath. Not until my dad explained that these noises were actually caused by God practicing his bowling, could I accept the ferociousness of strong winds, earth-shaking claps of thunder and flashes of blindingly bright lightning.

You would have thought I'd get over this phobia by the time I was in grammar school. I thought I had, until I happened to see a summer camp application that mom had filled out. Under the "Special Considerations" section, my mother had written, "Jennifer is afraid of loud thunder and lightning." Gulp. How embarrassing. I was 9 at the time.

Well finally, I can enjoy a good thunderstorm as well as the next guy or girl. Thus I am rather fascinated by the storm chasing hobby, and as a photography collector, in awe of Camille Seaman's work. Looking at the ominous, grand, dominating, overwhelming skies in her stills makes me think a little deeper about Mother Nature. And realize once again, the score will always be, Mother Nature 1, us zero.

Given my frame of reference, I guess it won't surprise you to hear that Seaman's photos make me reflect upon the onslaught of climate-related disasters over the past 5 years, both in the U.S. and abroad... and say to me both on a scientific and spiritual level, that there is an underlying message here. We need to stay in sync with nature, preserve our valuable resources, stop destroying the oceans, lower our carbon footprints, or the frequency and severity of these storms will continue.

I know this is opening a Pandora's box, and I expect that many pure scientists and even a few climatologists out there will comment about how my conclusion is assumptive, unscientific, unproven and biased. These types of weather-related disasters have happened in clumps throughout history and are "cyclical." I have heard it before, but sorry, I'm not buying. Yes my presumptions are on some level anecdotal, but I feel strongly that in not so many years from now, scientific studies will prove the veracity of my position.

This is the real value of Seaman's work. Beyond the physical beauty and technical craftsmanship of her photography, these images stimulate the debate about climate change -- or not?

As always, I encourage you to comment and share your opinions. Thanks!



Red, White, & Waterless

Monday, July 15, 2013 by

PARK CITY, UTAH -- Over July 4th, I was hiking in the breathtaking mountains of Park City, clipping along at a steady pace at 8,000-plus feet with the Blind Melon song "No Rain" providing musical backup. I came upon a near-empty snowmaking reservoir that is usually full at this time of year. Realizing I never paid much attention to the lyrics since the song's hook is so unique, I suddenly thought, "No rain, indeed." The small puddle in the center of this receptacle won't provide much fuel for snowmaking unless the rains come a lot more frequently, and for long showers.


Not much fuel for snowmaking in Park City.  

I had a very disturbing thought at that instant: Throughout the Southwestern U.S., for several years ongoing, we continue to suffer through a prolonged drought. In addition to Park City, my recent experiences in Las Vegas and Southern California, which I'll get to shortly, bear this out. No matter what strides we make with solar power, natural gas, electric vehicles, cleaner vehicle emissions and the like, if it just stops raining, we are all in trouble -- and sooner than later. According to a June Yale Environment 360 article by Caroline Fraser, climatologists are studying this phenomenon, mega-forest fires are now the norm, and New Mexico is even worse off than SoCal and Nevada. Fraser writes:

Looking back in time through the tree rings, [climatologist Park] Williams determined that the current Southwest drought, beginning in 2000, is the fifth most severe since AD 1000, set against similarly devastating mega-droughts that have occurred regularly in the region. One struck during the latter 1200s (probably driving people from the region) and another in 1572-1587, a drought that stretched across the continent to Virginia and the Carolinas. Few conifers abundant in the Southwest -- including piñon, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir -- survived that latter event, despite lifespans approaching 800 years; those species have since regrown. Critics and climate-change deniers can read data like this and say, well, look, the human race is still here, and so are the conifers... these are normal cyclical weather patterns and not reason to think carbon can cause these problems. I for one am not buying this. Our lack of rain since 2000 has become more of a dirty little secret than Aaron Hernandez's alleged habit of handgun discipline. Just drive down Interstate 15 north of San Diego, where glimpses of used-to-be-full Lake Hodges now reveal what looks more like a dry riverbed in some spots than a reservoir that supports the water needs of thousands of families. Or how about a small, admittedly anecdotal but nevertheless devastating, example of the increasing dryness. Look at the photo of the ground at what used to be a small lake adjoining a development called "Skylake Estates" in Fallbrook, also located in North County San Diego. This looks more like the Mojave Desert in the middle of a scorching summer than temperate San Diego. As a friend recently commented, "Pretty soon we will be like the animals in the Serengeti sucking the last ounce of water from mud puddles.


As for Las Vegas, our home in still-beautiful but increasingly hot and dry Lake Las Vegas sits at the water's edge... and that edge continues to be lower and lower. Indeed, a number of studies show that Lake Mead, the source of water for the Lake, has lost more than half of its volume over the past three decades.

So what do we do about this? Traditional Native American rain dances perhaps? Cloud seeding? Praying to the rain gods? Importation of glaciers via Airbus? The answer is, there is not a whole lot we can do to make it rain, and the horrific results of this situation are already starting to accumulate. As in thousands and thousands of dead forests and the ramifications thereof in loss of oxygen, food and shelter for animals, this wreaks havoc on the food chain and Mother Nature in general.

Here is what you can do. These things may seem small, but when they are multiplied by millions of people worldwide, the savings of millions of gallons of water per year can and will affect the shortage that we are headed for. I ask you to begin practicing these simple but cost-saving and valuable water conservation tips:

Turn off the water while you brush your teeth. Simply wet your brush, turn off the tap, brush (your dentist would like you to brush for at least a full minute, preferably longer) and then turn the water back on to rinse. This will save you hundreds of gallons per year, especially if all of your family members join in. Install low-flow showerheads and faucets throughout your home and office.

Research your diet on the web, you can learn about how much water is required to process and deliver certain foods to your table. For example, meat requires unusually high water consumption because of the cattle feeding and drinking prior to slaughter. Eating less meat will cut your indirect water consumption by a lot.

Give up taking baths; short showers only. Admittedly a sacrifice, but a great way to save water. Turn your sprinklers down as low as possible during the hot summer. Yes, your lawn won't look its best, but you will save hundreds or depending upon the size of your yard, thousands of gallons annually. Not to mention, hundreds of dollars worth of water bills.

Thank you all for taking time to think about this critical issue. Talk it up with your friends, family, neighbors and co-workers. Again, if we all do our part, we can assist Mother Nature in the daunting task ahead. Join me in cutting water consumption and praying to the rain gods!

Read more from Jennifer Schwab on her Inner Green.

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Slipping Green Through the Back Door

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 by

Laguna Niguel, CA — America is going green, but not the way environmentalists had planned it. The unlikely hero is none other than Corporate America, which is giving consumers the green whether they realize it or not. Why? Because it’s good for the customer, it’s good business, and let’s face it, as MGM Senior Vice President of Environment and Energy Cindy Ortega articulates, “It is also good for employee morale and retention — people want to work for companies who care about the world around them.”


"Over 70 percent of the wood we now sell is certified. But you won't find us advertising or promoting that fact," said Ron Jarvis, senior vice president of Environmental Innovation for The Home Depot. Photo by Mathew Wilson (Courtesy of Flickr).

Here’s a great example of this sales strategy as employed by The Home Depot: “Over 70 percent of the wood we now sell is certified. But you won’t find us advertising or promoting that fact,” said Ron Jarvis, senior vice president of Environmental Innovation for The Home Depot at its Atlanta headquarters. Jarvis was in Laguna Niguel recently to attend “Fortune Brainstorm Green,” a high level conference attended by many prominent green industry corporate and NGO executives.

“Our data shows that most customers will not pay extra for sustainable wood, and in some cases, they consider “green” wood a negative. We believe that FSC wood is the best way to go for both quality and sustainability reasons, so, most of the wood we sell in developing countries is FSC certified. We do believe in educating our customers and employees about sustainability, but at the same time the voice of the customer is always our top priority. Thus including FSC wood without charging a price premium is the right thing to do, and thankfully, due to our enormous volume and purchasing power, we can make this equation work business-wise,” Jarvis explained.

Jarvis’ competitors at Lowe’s also have a couple examples of this same premise. “There are multiple variations of a “green” consumer. In fact, according to the 2011 US LOHAS Consumers Trends poll, 83 percent of consumers identify with “green” at some level. However, the greenness of consumers changes with multiple factors, including the economy and available income, as well as age and generations,” said Michael Chenard, Director of Corporate Sustainability for Lowe’s at its Mooresville, NC headquarters. “Today, 100 percent of the bathroom faucets Lowe’s carries are WaterSense (low flow) certified, and that’s been the case for more than three years. Lowe’s also has more in-stock Energy Star-qualified appliances and lighting fixtures than any other major home improvement retailer.”


According to the 2011 US LOHAS Consumers Trends poll, 83 percent of consumers identify with "green" at some level. Graph by Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), 2009 LOHAS Consumer Trends Database.

Keeping with the theme of “going green through the back door,” shipping giant UPS is using sophisticated software and data to develop the cheapest, most fuel efficient way to move packages from point A to point B. These savings are passed along to the consumer, according to Scott Wicker, UPS’ chief sustainability officer at its Atlanta headquarters. Also in attendance at Fortune Brainstorm Green, Wicker said UPS is testing all types of fuel efficient vehicles in its massive fleet, including full electric, hybrid, compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas, among others. Vehicles that operate out of central depots in large urban areas are the best prospect for going full greenfleet because of the range limitations of electric and other nascent technologies. “We also use telematics to monitor over 200 data points via satellite from our trucks, which helps us train the drivers in maximum fuel efficient driving techniques and ensure they are taking the shortest routes, not letting the engines idle excessively, among other factors,” Wicker said. Alas, out of over 100,000 vehicles, only about 2,600 are truly alt-fuel at this time. Wicker says that number will grow over time, but not surprisingly, cost will ultimately trump all other considerations.



UPS is testing all types of fuel efficient vehicles in its massive fleet, including full electric, hybrid, compressed natural gas and liquefied natural gas, among others. Photo by Schnaars (Courtesy of Flickr).

How about the clothes we wear? Levi’s is also employing the “going green through the back door” technique. “We are committed to the Better Cotton Initiative because we believe it can change the way cotton is grown around the world, positively impacting the environment and supporting 300 million people engaged in cotton farming around the world — without creating higher prices for consumers,” said Brianna Wolf, Manager of Environmental Sustainability at Levi Strauss & Co. “Last fall, we started blending the first Better Cotton harvest into Levi and Denizen products. To date, we’ve produced more than five million garments containing a Better Cotton blend.” However, you won’t find a label identifying clothing made with Better Cotton quite yet. “Participating brands are holding off on direct product labeling during this start-up phase, to allow supply to scale to meet demand. For now, we encourage consumers to learn more about Better Cotton and support brands who are integrating it into their product lines at,” explained Wolf.

And what about that all-important cup of morning Joe? While many consumers are frustrated by Starbucks’ lack of recyclable cups, the company does take good care of its key suppliers — the coffee growers toiling in the fields of faraway places. “When someone buys a cup of our coffee, they probably don’t know that the beans are produced with social, environmental and economic best practices in mind. Our C.A.F.E. Practices coffee-buying program includes rigorous sourcing standards covering: fair wages and benefits; access to medical care and education; specific high standards for conservation and biodiversity; amongst other criteria.” said Kelly Goodejohn, Director of Ethical Sourcing for Starbucks. “For the past ten years we have partnered with Conservation International on C.A.F.E. Practices. Currently, 84% of our coffee is ethically sourced through this model. By 2015, 100% of our coffee will be third party verified or certified, ensuring that all the coffee we purchase has been grown and processed responsibly.”



By 2015, Starbucks vows to have 100% of their coffee be third party verified or certified, ensuring that all the coffee they purchase has been grown and processed responsibly. Photo Courtesy of Starbucks. 

Indeed, there are some case histories that bear out the thesis that mostly due to the economy, consumers simply have not embraced going green over the past several years. This is a bitter pill to swallow for green opinion leaders, but may explain why products like Clorox Green Works home cleaning products have gone straight up, then plunged back to earth with a resounding thud. Recall that Green Works was launched in 2008 with great fanfare, and zoomed to over $100 million in sales within two years. Inexplicably, sales started to drop off, and even a price reduction to parity with non-green competitive products could not revive Green Works. Adding insult to injury, general opinion of experts was that the Green Works products performed very well, and backed up the claims made by Clorox. This is worthy of mention because a number of green products have been rushed to market without proper testing, bringing a black eye to the movement when consumers felt snake bit by paying premium prices for products that did not live up to their hype.

“In the past, consumers have felt that purchasing green products would require some form of sacrifice — spending more money or an inferior design. Today, that has changed,” declared Joel Babbit, CEO and co-founder of online daily green news magazine Mother Nature Network (MNN). “Not only have prices become more comparable — but the associated savings in lower energy bills, water usage, and using lesser quantities that come with green products often result in a cost advantage. On the design side — as opposed to the clunky or boring approach so common just a few years ago — many of the most innovative and attractive products now entering the market are green.”

You can read more by Jennifer Schwab by following her blog, Inner Green.




Tuesday, February 7, 2012 by
SUMBA, INDONESIA—When I bid on an “Eco Resort Experience” last March at the : Christie’s Green Auction, I thought we were probably headed to a typically exotic deluxe vacation spot on the other side of the world.  It turns out that I was in store for one of the most memorable experiences of my life, reminiscent of Marty McFLy traveling in his “Back To The Future” DeLorean car.  A visit to Nihiwatu in Sumba, Indonesia is truly a trip back in time.

Private Pool from Nihiwatu Deluxe VillaNihiwatu is an exclusive resort but not in the traditional sense.  It is built into the raw, previously uninhabited beach of West Sumba.  This ain’t Bali, folks, far from it.  Bali is New York City compared to Sumba, which is located about 400 miles east of Bali.  The area in Indonesia is truly a time warp, one of the last animist societies remaining in the world.  It was discovered by one of Magellan’s companions,  in the 16th century on a spice gathering voyage.  Overall, not much has changed on this island of 600,000 natives since those days, with the exception of the Nihiwatu compound brought to you by visionaries Claude and Petra Graves. Intimate and personal, the resort holds about 32 guests maximum in a series of tastefully outfitted villas and bungalows.
In case you’re wondering, yes, the Sumbanese still hunt heads.  While this is illegal according to the Indonesian government, there were four beheadings in the past few months.  It’s not dangerous for tourists, however, as this type of island justice is strictly reserved for tribal disputes.  Apparently, centuries of headhunting is a hard habit to break.  Each village used to feature a “skull tree” at its gate, with examples of recent battle victories for all to see.
When I arrived, there was really nothing here,” recalled Claude Graves, a New Jersey native who with his elegant German wife, Petra, founded and began building out Nihiwatu in 1989.  “As a surfer, we looked out at perfect 20 foot waves on an absolutely pristine beach, and after a lengthy search, we knew we’d found our piece of paradise.”  As Petra described it, “We didn’t even say a word, we just started setting up camp”.

Rocky Beach Morning RunFrom an environmental standpoint, the Graves were committed to remaining true to the three-pronged agenda of  economy, environment, and social equity.  This made things even more difficult, as the environment is raw, breathtakingly beautiful, but equally harsh and unforgiving.  Winds, torrential rains, blazing sun, dangerous ocean currents, lack of any infrastructure or built environment, much less availability of building materials on the island, all conspired to make the construction of Nihiwatu a multi-year project filled with challenges and disappointments.
Despite these obstacles, locally sourced sustainable woods were used throughout the facility.  Locals sell coconuts to the resort, which has an on-site processing capability to turn the coconut oil into which powers all vehicles, generators, air conditioners, boats, jet skis, and the kitchen.  A large  pile absorbs all food waste (and miraculously, does not give off any foul fumes, unlike my  home composter.
Most of the
is locally sourced, organically grown, harvested and  prepared Fruits are predicably exotic and wonderful, as in mangosteens, dragonfruit, lycee, mangoes and coconuts, all right off the stem.   Coffees  and teas give Starbucks a run for their money, which is good since Sumba is one of few places on earth that will never qualify for Starbucks-ization.  Best are the Sumbanese, Sumatran and Balinese beans which made my morning Joe especially memorable.  It’s probably best to bring your own wines, as Nihiwatu’s cellar is not geared for the connoisseur.  It’s a little tricky getting your own bottles through customs in Bali, so, be prepared for a “discussion” with the agents as a bit of “negotiation” may be required.

Nihiwatu  could double as a training ground for the Survivor or The Great Race television series – its athletic offerings will especially be appreciated by amateur adventure athletes.  To that end,  Nihiwatu  offers the best athletic equipment we have used at any resort.  Dive gear is first rate (bring your own mask, that’s all you need), the mountain bikes are pricey and well maintained, surfboards are properly waxed, the list goes on.

Rough Waters at Nihiwatu BeachThe mountain biking offers plenty of climbs and downhills, overall the terrain is rugged but scenic;  the hiking is literally bushwhacking, crossing narrow, muddy trails and creaky bamboo bridges in driving rains to reach thundering 100+-foot waterfalls (how I wish I had thought to put my camera in a Ziplock bag…); the surfing and standup paddle boarding are great but not for the inexperienced as strong currents and riptides are found all along the beach;  horseback riding is best reserved for accomplished cowboys and cowgirls as the small, super-cute but untamed Sumbanese Sandalwood horses are exciting to ride but tend to be unruly.  Scuba diving is decent but don’t expect the crystal clear waters and visual delights of Grand Cayman or Belize.  The coral in particular is varied and vibrant, but currents even at 60-100 feet can be strong.  The jet-ski is Yamaha’s newest high horsepower model, don’t twist the throttle unless you are ready for instant-on acceleration from this heavyweight, blazing fast craft.  Even the three+ mile out and back run along one of the world’s most scenic beaches, while not to be missed, isn’t just a casual jog.  The sand, wind and high humidity made this inspiring route feel longer and more difficult than expected.  I encountered not one human, only water buffalo that had grazed down from the foothills.  In the morning, the sand is less soft and running barefoot was especially satisfying.

Mosquitoes can be a problem at  Nihiwatu $nbsp; You’re in a true jungle, and malaria is a common ailment.  We bathed in Off spray twice a day, which was an effective deterrant for the most part.  We also took anti-malaria medicine, which is recommended.  One pill a day for 12 days and you’re good to go.

Sumba Foundation, which has provided schools, water wells, medical and anti-malaria clinics and other critical services to over 20,000 villagers in West Sumba.  The Graves have made this their life’s work, sacrificing profits from Nihiwatu to fund these projects for the impoverished natives.  The Graves were in Bali in the 70s, and could have devoted their resources to building hotels and restaurants there and enjoyed the benefits that would have undoubtedly followed.  So why would a young, attractive, successful couple give up such opportunity, all to go to a primitive island and help people living as they did 1,000 years ago?

Visit to Typical Sumbanese VillageWe employ these people, we have taught them English, how to hold a job, how to fish and cook with modern equipment, how to take better care of their families, and showed them why they need running water and cleaner conditions.  Many of them still don’t really get it, but some of them do, and that has been very rewarding to us,” Claude Graves explained.  “The mortality rate of their children has decreased nearly 50 percent since we brought the malaria and medical clinics on stream.  And our better local employees have gone on to purchase land, build improved houses and take care of their entire extended families through what they have learned at Nihiwatu.  This is the work of the Sumba Foundation, and we have a lot more to do.
One thing I didn’t get to see was the Pasola, a traditional contest among tribes that features warriors atop the miniature sandalwood horses, armed with spears (the Indonesian government has required the spear tips to be dulled).  It is basically organized chaos, very colorful and exciting, and inevitably, there are deaths.  In fact, the Pasola is not considered successful unless there is bloodshed, the more the better as blood on the earth symbolizes a bountiful harvest in the coming year.

Welcome DancePerhaps the most fascinating thing about Sumba is seeing the Graves work with the natives.  They have mastered the art of transitioning people out of poverty, without infringing on their cultural values.  Governments could learn a lot from studying the Sumba Foundation.  Be sure to view the Sumba Foundation video and tour one of the Sumbanese villages, it’s a trip back in time that is not to be missed.  Be prepared, however, for the primitive conditions, which can be a little disarming – Gilligan’s Island it ain’t.  People, dogs, cats, swine, horses, monkeys and other family “possessions” share the same living quarters.
You will also meet some interesting people as  Nihiwatu  attracts the cultural and physical elite.  Film producers and directors, philanthropists, designers, CEOs – most of whom appear to be in great athletic shape – populate the place on a regular basis. Oh, one more thing.  Not much nightlife on Sumba, but Sumba tends to attract eco-conscious movers and shakers from all over the world as its guests.  Thus we managed to make our own New Year’s Eve party, and as the saying goes, what happens in  Nihiwatu, stays in  Nihiwatu

Typical Sunset at Nihiwatu Beach
Typical Sunset at Nihiwatu Beach

 Fly out of LAX or JFK to Denpasar, Bali, usually via Taipei or Singapore.  Overnight in Denpasar, then catch a surprisingly large jet for the 50 minute flight to Sumba.  SUVs from  Nihiwatu will be waiting to take you on the 90 minute drive across the island to reach the resort, located at the extreme edge of West Sumba.

COST AND AVAILABILITY:  Variable according to season.  Most packages include room, three meals per day, welcome massage, all non-alcoholic beverages and other extras end up at between $730 and $3500 per night, depending upon accommodation.  Surfers should pay special attention to timing, as during prime surfing season management only allows 10 surfing guests.  You won’t have to compete for the best waves here. Read more by Jennifer Schwab on her  Inner Green

Netflix Subscribers See Red, But Video Streaming Is All Green

Monday, September 26, 2011 by
When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings raised prices dramatically to discourage use of mail-in DVD service in favor of internet streaming, all holy hell broke loose with both customers and investors. The company has lost nearly half its market value since July and nearly one million customers have abandoned ship. 

Netflix Envelopes

Amidst this fury, I began thinking about Netflix as a customer and as a environmental advocate. My conclusion is that while Mr. Hastings probably needs some brushing up on his bedside manner or maybe should attend charm school, his edict is a blessing for the green world. Alas, Blockbuster, R.I.P., and as much as I like popping a couple of those little red envelopes filled with my favorite films into my brief case so I can view them anytime or anyplace, this practice as well needs to end.

Logic prevails when analyzing the Netflix situation. Think about the amount of fossil fuels burned by thousands upon thousands of SUVs with well-meaning suburban mom and 60 pound kid aboard, driving in traffic to the video store to grab the latest new release of Twilight or Justin Bieber's Never Say Never. Or more recently, the U.S. Postal Service trucks and vans, filled with hundreds of thousands of those red envelopes, transporting them across the nation to the mailboxes of America -- and back. It is impossible to estimate the amount of fuel needed for this logistic. 

Enter video streaming. From a green perspective, this is a brilliant way to save gazillions of gallons of fuel, and deliver movies to Netflix customers in real time. And while I feel badly for our continually shrinking U.S. Postal Service, the elimination of the red envelopes will save untold amounts of fuel and emissions since delivery and pickup is no longer part of the equation. Admittedly, the tens of thousands of computers, servers and televisions that will be used to view the streaming movies still create quite a bit of ambient heat. However, from a sustainability standpoint, the score is streaming one, delivery/pickup zero. Not to mention, Netflix will increase its profit margin by saving many millions on packaging, postage and handling.

A United States Postal Service truck seen in Carson City, Nevada. Photographed by Coolcaesar on December 24, 2005.
A United States Postal Service truck seen in Carson City, Nevada. Photographed by Coolcaesar on December 24, 2005.

A recent story on Gigaom quoted an NRDC study showing that streaming is vastly more energy efficient than other forms of movie watching. Netflix believes in this so deeply that it is splitting the company into two separate entities, probably in secret hopes that the DVD delivery side will be phased out. (The new "hard copy" DVD delivery and return side will be called Quickster.) 

There will be some losses of jobs at both the Netflix warehouses and USPS, which again, I feel badly about. The overall result however speaks for itself: streaming video is way, way greener than any other way to watch a film. So, my sustainable friends, our recommendation is that you forget about the Great Netflix Controversy, cancel your Quickster subscriptions, and take the streaming-only portion of the subscription service. Here is another case where going green is not only the smart and environmentally conscious choice, but also good for the company. We like it, and Netflix will, too.

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Monday, July 18, 2011 by
ORANGE COUNTY, CA - I spent Saturday morning at one of the world's best car museums, viewing a mind-blowing collection of classic automobiles from the 1930s--arguably the modern era's high point of car design as art.  These cars are owned by General William Lyon, an octogenarian renaissance man who has accumulated dozens of one-of-a-kind classics that are the automotive equivalent of Renoir, Pissaro, de Kooning, Rothko , you get the idea.  

Rolls Royce Owners Club
Photo Credits: Jennifer Schwab, SCGH

So what was a Clean Tech girl like me doing looking at some of the world's greatest Mercedes, Packard, Rolls Royce, Bugattis, Lincolns, Cadillacs, among many others?  After all, aren't cars the antithesis of green?

Believe it or not, I don't buy into that at all.  I studied at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, probably the world's number one institution for training car designers.  Looking at classic cars can be likened to viewing art in a museum.  If you appreciate fine art, you can understand the appeal of legendary car design, especially the "French curves," mascots (otherwise known as hood ornaments), exotic materials, colors, shapes, angles, brightwork, not to mention the engines and their industrial chic.  

On some level, preserving these rolling masterpieces IS Ecological Thinking at a high level.  Instead of finding their way to landfills, these cars have been restored, refurbished, repaired, recycled and reused over the years to keep them in the mostly pristine condition they are found in today.  Admittedly, they are polluters of the worst kind since they pre-date catalytic converters and computerized fuel injection.  They also usually get lousy fuel economy, as gas was a nickel a gallon when these cars prowled the few roads of America, which was before the modern national highway system was constructed.   However, most collector cars of this ilk are driven less than 500 miles per year, if at all.  Mostly they sit in public or private museums, starting up occasionally to be loaded onto a transporter to participate in "concours d'elegance" which are venues where they compete for prizes and give the general public a chance to view these treasures.

I will also admit to owning classic cars and participating in this hobby with my husband.  In fact, we drove our 1936 Rolls Royce Phantom III Barker Coupe (see photos) to see the Lyon Collection.  It was a meeting of the Rolls Royce Owners Club, and seeing a parking lot filled with 40 Rolls and Bentley automobiles (referred to by the cognoscenti as PMCs, or, "Proper Motor Cars")  was visually pleasing indeed.  Don't get the idea this hobby is only for the elite.  While overall it is rather expensive, there are newer models of Rolls and Bentley, for example, that can be had for anywhere from twenty to forty thousand dollars and are considered collectible.  And unlike some stocks, mutual funds and the like, they will most likely hold their value as proven over the past several years.

1936 Rolls Royce Phantom III Barker Coupe. Photo Credit: Jennifer Schwab, SCGH
1936 Rolls Royce Phantom III Barker Coupe. Photo Credit: Jennifer Schwab, SCGH

So if you're looking for a hobby that combines sustainability's basic tenets, "reuse, repair, and recycle" with compelling aesthetics and plenty of interesting people and elegant events, you might want to think about the classic car world, as opposed to dismissing this as "anti-green."

I'd love to hear from any other green car collectors out there.  As always, thanks for reading!

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Downsizing -- A Thousand Square Feet Per Person, A New American Standard

Monday, June 20, 2011 by

Let's face it, the Great Recession has not been a plus for the green movement overall. Most ordinary Americans are still sympathetic to the cause, but their willingness to spend even a penny extra for environmentally friendly products has been dampened by four dollar gas, five dollar cereal and loss of equity in their homes.

On the other hand, a positive by-product of all this is a lot less enthusiasm for what used to be part of the American dream: a McMansion of your very own, and the extra cars, boats and even planes that went along with this be-careful-what-you-wish-for icon. I know many successful boomers who are now moping around their 8 to 12,000-foot monuments to capitalism (many of them rendered in classic McMansionesque Tuscan style architecture) wondering what to do with the unused acres of space. "The Brady Bunch house seems like a shack compared to the dream of the typical middle class homebuyer/builder," said New York copywriter Jenny Lazar in an email to me on this subject. Indeed, her point is well taken, what used to be considered a large house is of modest dimensions by today's standards.

This is not meant to pass judgment on a long-standing tradition and part of the American Dream as we used to know it: a large, spacious home featuring huge foyer, high ceilings, many bedrooms and bathrooms, giant dining room and eat-in kitchen, multi-car garage, and more. Instead, this is to point out that perhaps America's long-standing love affair with this type of -- not very green -- home has finally run its course?

I can think of a number of successful friends who live in houses of this description. Surprisingly, many of them are empty-nesters or have only one or two children, which is hardly enough to fill a home with six to ten bedrooms. Other than the several times per year that they host major parties, community events and/or charity functions, they just aren't getting the value out of their super sized abodes. And a lot more often than you'd think, these homeowners are saying, "boy, if I could get out of this place whole, I'd like to sell it and downsize to a smaller house..."

Why do they want out? Usually, it's not only the unused space, but the carrying costs. Heating, cooling, cleaning and maintaining huge homes is an expensive proposition. Not to mention, the property taxes. The care and feeding of a large home is a big responsibility that seemingly never ends.

Indeed, magazines like DWELL, and websites such as -- both leaders of architectural style and design - showcase smaller homes for families of up to four members. Usually these are in the 1,000 to 3,000 square foot range, built with fully sustainable materials and state-of-the-art energy efficient HVAC systems. Real ecological living spaces. Upon considering this trend versus the longer-standing bigger is better, Sierra Club Green proposes a new industry standard that balances our longtime desire for lots of space with the current and future need to downsize: one thousand square feet per inhabitant, max. So, a family of four would get up to 4,000 square feet, a childless couple would have 2,000 feet or less, and so on. Sorry, pets don't count as people (although my personal bias is that having a large dog in a very small space is not healthy for the animal).

No doubt hardcore environmentalists will think this plan is too liberal, but I believe we have to start somewhere and we have to be realistic about the ability to change long-standing philosophies overnight. Perhaps ultimately downsizing should mean 750 or even 500 square feet per inhabitant? For now, however, in this first incantation, I think the 1,000 feet per person proposed by Sierra Club Green Home makes sense.

One small problem presents itself in all this: what do we do with the multitude of huge homes that are on the market now and will be even more plentiful once the downsizing trend catches fire? Indeed, McMansions in most major cities can be bought for hundreds of thousands if not millions less today than at the peak of conspicuous consumption, 2007. This probably won't change given the dynamics of the market. Think about it, the older empty nesters increasingly want to voluntarily downsize, for sustainability among other reasons. And to their credit, the new, younger generation of successful people don't seem to want the huge homes. They are gravitating toward the smaller, hipper, more sustainable structures featured in DWELL and Which is great for sustainability in general, as these younger opinion leaders are setting a new standard for what is considered "making it" in American business.

Overall, too many McMansions on the market could be viewed as a positive. How they will be absorbed by the marketplace overall is an issue, but in general, we see a very real possibility that downsizing may become "the new black" in terms of what's considered chic, hip, cool AND sustainable. And that's a good thing overall.

Does your current living arrangement meet the measuring stick? We want to know, let us hear from you, thanks!


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Twitter: @SCGreen_Home

New York Times, Take This!

Thursday, May 26, 2011 by

A recent New York Times article, in classic "all the news that's fit to print" fashion, declared that the bevy of green consumer products introduced over the past five years is going the way of the buffalo and Circuit City, i.e. headed for extinction. It should be noted that normally, I consider the New York Times to be the best journalism around (along with ProPublica) so much so that I am happy to pay over three dollars a week to read it via iPhone.

Not surprisingly, this got a number of folks from the green movement -- including yours truly -- up in arms. Not only do I strongly disagree, but, to borrow not quite literally from Mark Twain, reports of the premature demise of green products have been greatly exaggerated.

In the story, the dramatic rise then decrease in sales of Clorox Green Works is cited as the most overwhelming proof of the Times' assertion. It is true that GreenWorks home products took off like a Roman candle when initially launched in 2008, and sales were down nearly 40 percent from that peak as of last year. (I should note here that Green Works has an endorsement from Sierra Club). Being very close to this subject at Sierra Club Green, I can tell you that indeed, consumers are spending less on elective premium priced green products as a result of the recession. If a green product does not offer marginal utility vs. a non-green competitive product that sells for less, odds are it will be second choice for a general public that is struggling with $4 gasoline and skyrocketing grocery prices.

That said, just this week I saw a brand new launch ad for a green motor oil, of all things. Valvoline introduced its NextGen motor oil made with 50 percent recycled content. It will be sold right next to comparable Valvoline and competitive products, and at the same price! This is great news because our research at Sierra Club Green shows that over 70 percent of consumers are sympathetic and supportive of using green products -- so long they perform the same as "regular" products as it does not cost them a premium. Valvoline seems to really understand this with the pricing and positioning of their new recycled product.

"Making An Impact" by Valvoline

Another potentially important new product introduction is from Alcoa; it's an aluminum architectural panel with special titanium dioxide coating that literally "eats" smog when sunlight contacts the surface. In sunny weather, the chemical reaction with the panel actually cleanses the air, says Alcoa. Then when it rains, harmless matter collecting on the panels is washed away. Alcoa is not often accused of being green, but it should be noted that they were one of the very first major corporations to promote recycling. The Pittsburgh-based aluminum giant ran programs in support of aluminum can recycling as early as 1980. Remember Armstrong floor and ceiling tiles? They just announced a new formaldehyde-free ceiling tile, which improves indoor air quality. Admittedly these products would most likely be found in office buildings where consumers work as opposed to your home.

Back to consumer "everyday" products. Pentel sells its RSVP retractable pens, made from 59% recycled plastic. This product is doing well in sales, as are Earth by Staples notebooks made from 80 percent sugar-cane based recycled waste. They are offered in a variety of earth tone colors and interestingly, are made in Egypt. At a $2.49 price point, they are cost competitive with comparable items. In fact, they are cheaper than fashion notebooks which are made with coated plastic over cardboard.

The Times used Clorox Green Works as an example of green products costing a lot more; the Staples Sustain Earth brand is actually less expensive than non-green national brands at $1.99 for their multi-purpose cleaner. I could go on -- and on. The point is, these are not "fringe" products from tiny mom and pop green firms. These are all important product launches from major national companies.

The Times story was based upon a study which concluded that green products sold by major national marketers are on a serious downward trend. We would submit that the examples cited above are but a few of dozens and dozens of current and planned introductions of new green products by national marketers. If they didn't think these products can be profitable and grow market share, they would not spend the time and effort to introduce them. To paraphrase leading green industry researcher Suzanne Shelton in a recent blog, the key is for marketers to research, position and price their green products carefully and strategically. Finding that sweet spot of all these variables can be a challenge, but we are confident that ultimately, there will be many more success stories about green products that consumers can't live without in coming years.

What is your experience with green consumables? Are you willing to pay more for them? Please comment to let us know your thoughts, and as always, thanks for reading!


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Cautiously Optimistic at Laguna Niguel

Tuesday, April 26, 2011 by

LAGUNA BEACH, CA – “FORTUNE Brainstorm Green” is probably the number one environmental business conference in the world. A host of top CEOs, heads of NGOs, and a variety of consultants, private equity investors, venture capitalists and journalists descend upon the spectacular Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel each April — this was my third annual event — to examine the state of green biz.

Fortune Brainstorm Green 2011

There was still optimism in the room on April 4-6, but with a strong dash of reality check. As in, many of these guys are not making the returns they expected by now, and a lot of them have tens if not hundreds of millions invested in “Greentech” companies. That said, they still seem confident that their investments will ultimately pan out, even without federal energy legislation.

Many of the firms represented are major, well-established corporations who seem to be making sincere and in many cases effective efforts to operate sustainably. It is impressive that more and more major companies are adding the title “Chief Sustainability Officer” to the C-Suite, as CSOs from dozens of firms were on the attendee roster.

Not surprisingly, a dominant underlying theme was that unless they’re good business, sustainable policies won’t pass muster with management or shareholders. “The key is cheaper. Sustainability is nice but it’s not the driver,” observed Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, now a partner and leading greentech investor with the ubiquitous Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins. This sentiment was echoed throughout the conference by various speakers in sessions ranging from “The Future of Climate Policy,” with Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp and James Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy; to “Sustainable Seafood, It’s Not A Fish Story” featuring Greenpeace USA Executive Director Phil Radford and Bumble Bee Foods CEO Chris Lischewski, among many more over two and a half days of speeches, round table discussions, networking and even entertainment.

None other than the Allman Brothers and Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell performed with his band, although he was not just the musical interlude. Leavell has written no less than four significant books about the environment, his latest being Growing A Better America, which examines how we can balance population and business growth with the need to offer everybody clean air, water, plentiful food and adequate natural, open land.

A session of particular interest to me was “Urban Green,” which aired out the tremendous population explosion expected in major cities by 2050 and what we can do to keep some semblance of green in the face of crowding and gridlock. “We expect 80 percent of the world’s population to be city dwellers by 2050,” said legendary architect, urban planner and sustainability expert William McDonough. “Beijing will double in size within five years from 20 to 40 million. How do we provide sewage plants? How do we give everyone the basics of clean air, fresh water and adequate food?”

Laura Turner Seydel, Trustee of the Turner Foundation and yes, daughter of Ted, said Atlanta has become a model of the sustainable city. “It takes a concerted effort from government, business and non-profits. Atlanta received matching funds from Coca-Cola and the Turner Foundation, got Atlanta airport to recycle, now the whole city recycles.” This was echoed by Cindy Ortega, Senior Vice President of Energy and Environmental Services for MGM Resorts, developer of Las Vegas’ City Center, the country’s largest LEED-certified development. “Green is being embraced by corporate America, because waste of natural resources is not good for the bottom line.” The overall thrust was that with skyrocketing urban population growth, only a true partnership of city government, NGOs and local corporations will be able to maintain a sustainable way of life.

Security was tight at this green conference, and rightly so, as luminaries such as Richard Branson, former Siebel Systems founder/CEO Tom Siebel (who is now doing a green startup, C3), Wal-Mart EVP Leslie Dach and NRDC President Frances Beinecke, among many others, appeared as speakers and panelists. Even Theodore Roosevelt IV (yes he does look like his great great grandfather) was on hand, he is Chairman of Barclays Capital Cleantech Initiative.

The conference closed with motivational words from pro surfer, fitness expert and all-around-athlete Laird Hamilton, who is otherwise known as the “Force of Nature,” also the title of his book, which chronicles the way to a truly healthy lifestyle (no you won’t look like Laird even if you follow the diet and exercise plan). When asked how the average person can follow his program and achieve true fitness, Hamilton reminded us that the old tenet, “no pain, no gain” is really the answer. “My food often tastes like crap, the workouts are hard, they hurt. But you have to push yourself to the next level if you want to improve your results. Potato chips in, potato chips out … you need to eat jet fuel to do these workouts.”

Indeed, our path to a truly sustainable future will also follow his edict: no pain, no gain. It won’t be easy, it won’t be cheap, and it will take sacrifice on everyone’s part. The conference left me with a feeling that we do have the talent, capital, entrepreneurship, science and dedication necessary to make our society — and the developing world — a sustainable environment with adequate natural resources and energy to meet the needs of all citizens.

Here’s hoping I’m right…

Sundance Explores The Last Mountain

Thursday, March 3, 2011 by

PARK CITY, UTAH -- Sundance to the film industry is like the NCAA championship in collegiate basketball: the best of the best in what is designed to be a purist format. It's about the film makers and directors and actors, the writing and the plots, not unlike the two best amateur teams in the world playing on a neutral court, for all the marbles.

It's an ultimate experience for movie buffs. The vibe is so low key that you truly don't notice the famous Hollywood types since everyone wears jeans and a sweater. No paparazzi, no limos, no swanky parties with designer duds. The awards ceremony was held not at the super elite St. Regis or Montage hotels, but at the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse at Kimball Junction. That pretty much says it all about the atmosphere at Sundance. It's about the movies, not the money or the glitz. Of course, commerce is still done, films are picked up for distribution, directors are scouted, and new stars are discovered. Robert Redford sightings are very rare so I didn't get to ask him in person, but he's got to be happy with what he has created: a full-on minor league development system for the film industry.

I came to Park City specifically to view environmental documentaries, as Sundance is well known for its role in premiering important films about social and environmental issues. One of this year's most important movies of this genre is The Last Mountain. This riveting film examines one of Sierra Club's least favorite subjects: coal mining (in this case, coal blasting, literally blowing off the top of a mountain to access its motherlode of coal) and its effect on the environment and the people who live near the mining site.

Here is the quick "official" synopsis of The Last Mountain: "Focusing on the devastating effects of mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia's Coal River Valley, filmmaker Bill Haney illustrates the way residents and activists are standing up to the industry and major employer that is so deeply embedded in the region. With strong support from Bobby Kennedy Jr. and grassroots organizations, awareness is rising in the battle over Appalachian mountaintop mining." You can view the trailer at

Yes, The Last Mountain is another Fight The Power flick. But it's also much more than that. This film reminds us that we are all indirectly supporting the coal mining industry, every time we turn on the lights. It also shows us how important grassroots movements can be. And Robert Kennedy Jr.'s role as champion for the townspeople is depicted for what it is: a sincere, non-grandstanding example of pure volunteerism that lends some celebrity credibility to a legitimate cause.

Mountaintop coal removal is not only destructive, but until recently, it violated the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Unfortunately, industry-friendly federal and state agencies mostly looked the other way when it came to enforcing these laws. When the courts and local communities attempted to make the mining companies comply, the Bush administration changed the laws to allow mining companies to continue to dump rock and rubble into the valleys and streams below. Communities throughout Appalachia are fighting back against this blight on the earth that harms the environment, health and quality of life of local citizens. Bank of America even pledged to curtail commercial lending to companies that blow the tops off of mountains.

I'm no film reviewer, so you can search other sites if you'd like to know how the critics rated The Last Mountain. I do have some additional thoughts about this subject, no disrespect to the movie, that need to be brought out. First, it appears that the big bad coal company (none other than Massey Energy, yes the same guys who had the terrible explosion and fatalities last year, and just last week was acquired for $7 billion by Alpha Natural Resources) wins the battle and blows up the mountain anyway. Thanks a lot, George Bush. I say that because the film brings to light the fact that those regulating the coal industry were largely energy industry cronies of Mr. Bush, previously lobbyists and coal company executives hired by the Bush administration. And while the Obama administration has been sympathetic to the cause, they have yet to overturn any important legislation that will keep the mountains intact, prevent coal companies from dumping their waste, and protect the inhabitants of Appalachia. Not sure what they are waiting for?

The Last Mountain provided wake-up call for the general public and those of us who do not live in Appalachia. Actually, there has been a lot of activity in this area for many years. By the end of 2010, Sierra Club lobbying and legal efforts helped stop the construction of 149 coal mines throughout the country with its "Beyond Coal" campaign. NRDC and other leading environmental organizations have also made huge contributions toward stopping this incredibly damaging and dangerous activity. One nitpick I had was at the end of the film there is a call to action to visit The Last Mountain website, i.e. soliciting donations. I found several smaller organizations that need assistance to stop coal mining. Although I am a proponent of grassroots efforts, dollars will go much farther if given directly to existing programs such as Sierra Club or NRDC which have full legal staffs, specialized expertise and years of experience. Why create yet another non-profit to do the same thing when some of the best are already in place?

In case you are a coal mining supporter, right now asking, "so what will we use to turn on the lights if we don't have coal mining?" the answer is, renewable energy. Some combination of wind, solar, fuel cells, petro algae, natural gas and other technologies will ultimately take the place of foreign oil and domestic (and imported) coal to power our country. This will happen, it's just a matter of when. Stopping coal mining will help expedite this process, and anybody who sees The Last Mountain will most likely become a zealot for ending the madness that is mountaintop coal removal.

Photo obtained via a Creative Commons license


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I'll Have the Can, Hold the Cups

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 by

Somewhere over the Grand Canyon at 30,000 feet -- I was sipping from a plastic cup of cool water. The flight attendant swept by in short order with a plastic bag to collect the "trash." Not an hour later, along comes the metal cart (keep your knees and elbows in if you're on the aisle) with another drink service, and another hard plastic cup, including the funky-smelling, sandpaper-like logoed napkin. So what was wrong with the previous ones? I'd sipped from the cup which was completely unscathed, and never touched the napkin. I would have been happy to hold onto both for an hour to re-use for the refill. Even if I switched to soda, so what?

Soda in an airline plastic cup. Photo courtesy of Russell J. Smith via Creative Commons license.

Apparently this nonsensical system is so ingrained in the flight attendant's routine that my request to NOT use a new plastic cup and just give me the can of cranberry juice upset the apple cart, so to speak. With a look of mild disdain, she slammed a fresh cup onto my little tray along with the full can. Well excuuuse me for trying to be green!?

This scenario is played out millions of times per day throughout the world. The net effect is untold tonnage of plastic and waste paper, some that will be recycled and probably even more that will end up in landfill. Some finding their way into waterways and oceans. As we know, clear hard plastics can last seemingly for decades as they just don't degrade. What an unnecessary tragedy of anti-sustainability. One that seemingly would be so easy to fix.

I have given this a lot of thought and attempted to speak with the airlines to find out why a better system is not in place. Such as, give people the aluminum cans, wipe off the tops, and allow them to drink directly from the easily recyclable can. No napkin unless the customer asks. Thus NO plastic would be needed. For those who don't want a full can of beverage, why not paper cups? And if it's a longer flight with two or more drink services, why not ask passengers to keep their first cup and simply re-use it. This alone would save literally millions of plastic cups and napkins per year. Not to mention, save the airlines sizable costs. Sounds rational, right?

Stacks of plastic cups. Photo courtesy of John Loo via Creative Commons license.

Our staff at Sierra Club Green Home contacted several leading airline PR departments, seeking an answer to this seemingly simple question: why use so many plastic cups, and what happens to them when the plane lands? To our surprise, it was difficult to obtain a straight answer to this question, and even more difficult to figure out why. Most of the responses we received from the major carriers talked about recycling programs in varying degrees, as well as their commitments to reduce carbon footprint and save energy. Most of these initiatives target reducing volume of jet fuel consumed, an appropriate goal indeed. Yet not one carrier would specifically answer us about why they are compelled to use two or three cups and napkins per passenger instead of one on most flights? Maybe the cup and napkin manufacturers are the brother-in-laws of major airline CEOs?

There was only one airline that responded to our queries with a professional, well researched series of answers. That was Liz Landau of US Airways, Corporate Communications. Here are excerpts from our dialog with Landau:

Does US Airways compost food waste, recycle cans, plastics, etc.?

  • Two thirds of our 104 domestic stations have a recycling program; US Airways participates in 80 percent of these programs.

  • Aluminum cans consumed in-flight are recycled in many locations. All trash collected off flights within New York state is recycled.

  • Waste oil, tools, equipment batteries, battery cores, aluminum and other scrap metals from all Maintenance and Ground Service Equipment (GSE) locations (several dumpsters for collection are readily available) are sent to recycling centers. Radio, phone, and all miscellaneous batteries are collected and recycled; money generated goes to the US Airways Education Foundation.

  • US Airways has a computer recycling program that recycles beyond economic repair hardware including computers, monitors, printers, keyboards, fax machines, phones, and other accessory equipment (e.g. mice, external hard drives, etc.).

How many plastic cups are thrown away on an average, full capacity, longer distance domestic flight?

  • On a longer 757/A321 segment, we use an average of 350 cups for a full flight (includes two beverage services).

Why aren't customers asked to reuse their cups or better yet, just take the cans on long flights?

  • We don't usually ask customers to reuse cups due to hygienic/health risks associated with flight attendants handling the cups a second time. Additionally, if customers choose to switch beverages, they might not want to mix their leftover tomato juice with a soft drink.

  • As it relates to cans, pouring allows another opportunity for our flight attendants to provide excellent customer service. From a cost perspective, pouring into the cup does save money as we can generally provide two customers with beverages from one can.

We appreciated US Airways' thoughtful and detailed replies. Their admirable list of sustainable activities -- and there are many that we are not listing here -- is impressive. However, as you can read above, when it comes to plastic cups, there is still a long way to go. Just yesterday I asked a Southwest flight attendant for just the can, no cup, and I ended up with not one but two cups in addition to a can of sparkling water. Not sure how that happened?

Perhaps the most nonsensical response came from United Airlines. "We have looked at the questions and our challenge is one of timing. I trust you know that United and Continental merged effective Oct. 1, 2010... there are elements of our two operations that we can harmonize now in advance of the FAA approval. Our approach to recycling and sustainability is one of those areas we begin to harmonize... Bottomline: I do not have answers for you and the answers are likely to evolve as we harmonize the approaches of our two airlines. My fear is that the answers will be misinterpreted by readers and they may assume the approach indicated is for both United and Continental, especially since the Continental brand name is going away," explained Michael Trevino, PR representative for United's Chicago headquarters. In fairness, United's Corporate Responsibility Report tells an impressive story of what the airline is doing to cut its carbon footprint and consumption of jet fuel. And they do claim to have a recycling program for on-board waste. That said, what am I missing here? How about an answer as to how United itself, pre-merger, handled the tons of plastic cup waste? We did ask for this but got more of the same as a reply.

What about Delta, which with its acquisition of Northwest is a dominant international airline? When our team asked "why don't you force customers to reuse their cups or better yet, just take the cans on long flights?" Our answer from their Corporate Communications representative, Trebor Banstetter, consisted of, "We're swamped with winter weather issues today so I haven't been able to find answers yet to most of your questions. We do, however, have robust in-flight and on-the-ground recycling programs. I'll let you know ASAP if I can find anything else." ... "Sorry we couldn't do more right now. Maybe in the future we'll have an opportunity to revisit the issue." To be fair, I dug into their corporate responsibility report and found detailed statistics about the success of their recycling program. The report states, "We instituted the first comprehensive in-flight recycling program in the industry in June 2007. ..."our in-flight recycling program has diverted 4.1 million pounds (2,053 tons) of aluminum, plastic and paper products from community landfills between June 2007 and June 2009." ... "We currently collect passenger recyclables on domestic flights into 25 cities."

Attention airline CEOs and Sustainability Directors: why not do something right now that doesn't require expensive R&D, or teams of engineers and prototype fuselages and engines? Not to mention, one that cuts costs and increases profitability? I'm sure your Boards and shareholders would love this idea.

If anybody out there is a flight attendant and can explain why this lunacy continues, please explain, we'd love to hear from you. In the meantime, tell the flight attendants you want just the can, no napkin, next time you need a shot of carbonated caffeine while in the air. This is how we will make the world more sustainable -- one small, but in this case significant step, at a time.


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The Detroit Auto Show: Sure Looks Green to Me

Friday, January 21, 2011 by
I'll bet many of you have heard rumblings from friends and relatives or colleagues at work about the premature death of the green movement, and how the economic recovery must first occur before we even address climate change.  This rhetoric is a groundswell among otherwise rational people, not just climate change deniers.

I just returned from the Detroit Auto Show (courtesy of Ford Motor Company, I should disclose) and there was one overwhelming, over-arching headline that was in your face, anywhere you looked:  the green movement in personal transportation is just beginning.  Virtually every automaker showcased green cars above all else.  Doubting Thomas's claim that electrics and hybrids combined won't amount to more than five percent of the total car market.  It's hard to fathom that almost all the car companies would devote this relentless effort to R&D and marketing launch publicity in return for only a token slice of sales.  Indeed, some analysts seriously question the numbers behind the auto industry going green.  Thankfully, the companies themselves seem rather committed at this point and there appears to be no turning back.

Now, skeptics might say that four or five years ago, when the green movement appeared to be The Next Big Thing times ten, the automakers had to decide to go green and we are just now seeing the real results of those decisions.  (It takes anywhere from two to five years for a new model to make it from concept to production.)  I would humbly submit that the incredible onslaught of hybrid, electric and other alternative fuel vehicles seen at the 2011 North American International Auto Show demonstrates that those who really know - the car makers themselves - believe Gen Y and Net Gen are being raised to be environmentally conscious as part of their DNA and will default to buying green vehicles.

Highlights of this commitment include everything from the new small car line from Ford (Fiesta, Focus and C-Max) to two new models of Prius from Toyota, to the best of show-winning Chevrolet Volt hybrid electric, the all electric Nissan Leaf, and unbelievable electric/hybrid race cars for the street from Mercedes Benz (the E-Cell, an electric version of the new SLS Gullwing which only come in a retina piercing electric yellow hue) and Porsche (the 918 hybrid street exotic and track version, both of which are absolutely stunning).  The only automakers who seemingly didn't have much to boast about green-wise were Ferrari and Maserati.  Even Bentley claims its new GT, all 5,000+ pounds and almost 600 horsepower's worth, is significantly lighter and more fuel-efficient than its predecessor. 

Ford Press Conference 2011

Critics claim that hybrids make great publicity and image, but consumers won't pay thousands more for them.  Even if that turns out to be true, there seems to be a trickle-down effect that benefits everyone.  That is, even good old fashioned gasoline automobiles now get anywhere from good to stunningly great fuel economy.  You don't have to go hybrid or electric to go fuel efficient.  For example, most gas models of the Fiesta, Focus and C-Max from Ford will get 30-45+ mpg.  Those are numbers that even three years ago were almost unachievable.  Clearly, the emphasis on going green has affected the designers and engineers, as has the Federal fuel economy fleet requirement to average 35 mpg by 2020.  They say you cannot mandate technology, and that the free enterprise system won't allow for products that consumers don't want to buy.  What's happening right now with fuel efficient vehicles may prove otherwise.  How great is that for the environment, and consumer pocketbooks?

Another example worthy of mention is why Ford invited me and several other green bloggers to the Detroit show in the first place.  Ford Digital Communications Director Scott Monty brought these greenies in mostly to show off its commitment to open communications with the environmental media.  Participants came from as far away as India, South Africa, Australia, China and Italy, all of which are important international markets for Ford and most major automakers.  Many of these writers were not car people, and for that matter, some didn't even have driver's licenses.  Ford wanted to show off its environmentally responsible activities such as the clean and green River Rouge plant, previously a classic "Allentown" style hot, dirty and polluting facility which now boasts a green roof, grey water systems, green packaging and recycling top to bottom, and cool, well lit working conditions.  For years I wondered about Executive Chairman Bill Ford's grandiose claims from the green soapbox.  The rebuilt Rouge plant is truly a great example of a Rust Belt industrial nightmare turned green showpiece.  Ford also demonstrated its in-car "Sync" system which is directed at Gen Y and Net Gen with everything from full voice activation to internet hot spot, inputs for all forms of digital music, state-of-the-art NAV systems, and more, all at a price point that younger drivers can afford.  All of these features will be offered in the lower priced car lines, not only the upscale models. 

Ford Factory Assembly Line

Most major automakers can point to many green product claims and internal practices that were just a pipedream a few short years ago.  For this, a green blogger such as I, one who admits to liking cars as part of Americana and the freedom of personal transportation, can feel a lot better about where this industry is headed and what it is doing to address climate change.  If the green movement is more hype than reality, this industry ain't buying it and for that we should be grateful.

TEDx: Plastic Is the New Smoking

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 by

Think of the Gulf oil spill only a couple thousand miles longer.  A loosely formed mass of plastic paraphernalia stretches from the beaches of Santa Monica, all the way across the Pacific Ocean, the other end of this unwieldy but deadly man made monster reaching the eastern Chinese coast.  Thus the subject of a one-day conference at the Annenberg House entitled "The TED Great Pacific Garbage Patch" put on by the folks at the Plastic Pollution Coalition. 

You may have heard of the TED conference, as in, Technology Entertainment and Design.  This was an offshoot of the main TED event, limited to only 80 participants but available free online, as thousands of visitors watched at least part of the proceedings.

A variety of speakers and presentations were all geared around answering the critical question, "how can we live the same lives of convenience without plastics?"  Makes you think of the old joke from <em>The Graduate</em> when Mrs. Robinson's husband is counseling Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) about his future.  "Plastics my boy" was at the time a visionary recommendation.  And how the worldwide manufacturing industry has embraced those words:  over four decades of plastics addiction has caused a true unnatural disaster in our oceans.  That's what this conference tried to address. 

Suja Lowenthal, vice mayor of Long Beach, allocates millions of dollars annually to clear junk -- mostly plastic -- from the city's beaches.  She also documented the tens of millions that must be spent annually by Long Beach and Los Angeles to just pick up the plastic trash discarded by citizens.  Loventhal thinks plastics abuse is indicative of a deeper societal problem.   "We have convinced emerging societies that a sign of wealth, progress and their becoming truly middle class is usage of disposables, bottles, utensils and packaging."   We need to teach the masses to be eco-responsible, not just consumers.  Obvious perhaps, but a challenge that will probably take decades to achieve.

Monica Wilson wants to end the use of incinerators to dispose of trash.  When you think about it, incinerators seem on the surface to be a good idea as a huge pile of waste is reduced to a handful of ash.  Unfortunately, the process releases dioxins, PCBs and other chemicals into the air.  Just think about melting all that plastic, surely there are dangerous fumes released in the process.  Wilson's Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives is trying to spread the word about the dangers of incineration worldwide.

Ken Cook heads Environmental Working Group,  which believes that plastic pollution begins in the womb.  They found BPA in nine of ten newborns tested per year, among other birth defects they claim are affected by the plastics waste we passively ingest.

Andy Keller is otherwise known as The Plastic Bag Monster. His company, ChicoBag, creates sustainable bags you can carry in your pocket.  He also showed up in costume to spoof the pervasiveness of plastic bags in our daily life.  The point was made:  we can get by without, and the only way to do so will be to end single-use plastics.

<img alt="2010-11-10-BagMonsterTedx.jpg" src="" width="333" height="500" />
Photo taken by Nels Israelson November 4-7 2010

To that end, a sea change (if I may use a bad pun) will never happen without getting business on board.  Patrick McKenney has a plan for this:  bioplastics, which use biopolymers instead of polymers.  Industrial composting is another idea that needs critical mass to make an impact.  "Plastic product owners don't want to invest in R&D to retool their manufacturing," explained McKenney. The only way we can make this happen is consumer pull-through, which will occur only if end use customers complain about plastic packaging and products and vote with their pocketbooks.  Andy Behar is also encouraging business to move away from plastics through his "As You Sow" organization, which consults with corporations to increase their accountability.  They serve as a policing body to ensure companies are in compliance with water and toxins regulations.  They also use shareholder advocacy and the financial markets to catalyze positive change within publicly held companies.

To incentivize all this, TED XPrize honcho Ferris Thompson proposed a $10 million prize to the inventor who creates a commercial solution to cleaning up plastic polymer pollution and basically reinvents plastic as we know it.  Although the TED XPrize qualifications are extensive, this appears to be a working model to spur innovation.

Van Jones, former environmental adviser to the Obama administration, suggests this is more of a socio-economic problem than we'd like to admit.  "Higher income levels allow choices," he explained.  "Cheaper products are often the most dangerous.  Poor people suffer the most both in production and usage of plastic packaging and products."

<img alt="2010-11-10-VanJones.jpg" src="" width="500" height="375" />
Photo taken by Nels Israelson November 4-7 2010

Indeed, one of the best goody bags ever included non-plastic lip balm from Organic Essence; a resuable bamboo utensils set that can replace plastic ones from To-Go Ware;  a reusable sandwich bag from Graze Organic, and a glass straw from Glass Dharma.  All packaged in a very handy lightweight fold-up shopping bag/backpack provided by ChicoBag.   I call out the names of these products for a reason:  we need to buy them to support the plastics reduction concept.  If we don't go out of our way to eliminate unnecessary plastics from our daily lives, we sure can't expect the general public to do so. Also noteworthy is a new juice vending kiosk machine by Ecowell.  I  guzzled some super healthy, stunningly tasty fruit juice from this totally sustainable, no-waste system.  Even Ecowell's press kit is made from all recycled material.

We heard from David de Rothschild, who built the Plastiki, an ocean-going boat made from plastic water bottles and spent four months sailing it across the Pacific.  He did this to raise awareness about the plastic pollution problem, quite effectively I might add.

Beth Terry is one of the most genuine "do not only as I say, but as I do" activists out there.  She is living a life without plastic, and going to extreme lengths to do so.  She literally laid out all of her plastics for the year on stage.   This included mostly items for her cat, packaging from a gift, and prescription bottles.    As an ex-accountant, when she mentioned she quantified her plastic consumption on a spreadsheet, it struck a chord.  If we all took these extreme measures, maybe we'd understand just how much plastic we go through annually.   Check out this all-important resource at <a href="" target="_hplink"></a> to gain insight on plastic alternatives.
Other important speakers too numerous to mention all gave moving accounts of their work to help save the Pacific Ocean.  Also noteworthy were performances by artists and musicians, tied into the subject matter.  Several photographers and mixed media artists have done great works including photography of sea debris entitled "Drifters" by Georgia State professor Pam Longobardi  -- dedicated to cleaning up the plastic waste in our oceans.
Any negatives about The TED Great Pacific Garbage Patch?  Only that sometimes I feel we are preaching to a large choir.  I have seen the pilgrims and they are us.  That's well and good, but somehow we have to sell the general public on what we are doing.  Otherwise, even if all of the participants in this conference never use a shred of plastic for the remainder of their lives, not much will be gained to clean up the Pacific Ocean.  We've got to get the trickle-down effect to make this all worthwhile.


The Cutting Edge in Green Home Power Is Here

Friday, December 17, 2010 by

I have been anxiously awaiting an alternative to conventional electric power and the economic benefits that follow. Of course solar comes to mind, and while I love solar power, it can be expensive and because of the space requirements for panel installation, it is not for everybody.

My prayers were finally answered, as ClearEdge Power of Portland, OR, has rolled out the first home fuel cell. Initially available only in California, the ClearEdge5 self-contained fuel cell was actually announced last year but that was somewhat of a well-kept secret. The availability of this product marks the first time in America that fuel cell technology has become available to individual consumers. The ClearEdge5 can create energy that can power, heat and cool your home, and swimming pool, without using electric power from the utility company. You'll reduce the power you pull from the grid while using natural gas - the cheapest power source available at least for now.


"After significant private equity investment and seven years of research by our 50+ R & D team, ClearEdge Power is proud to be the first to offer this groundbreaking technology to California's homeowners," said Russell Ford, CEO of ClearEdge Power. "This is a major development in America's push to become energy independent. We hope to roll this product out to other states, beginning with New York in the early part of 2011. But California is the first, and homeowners can receive federal and local incentives up to $17,500 by installing a ClearEdge5 kilowatt fuel cell."

Fuel cells provide an alternative to solar, wind and other types of renewable energy. They can also work in concert with solar, wind and other renewable energy sources to power a home or commercial structure. Fuel cells were once considered the technology of the future, but have finally become a clean energy solution for today.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device which converts a source fuel into electrical current. The electricity generated inside the cell is a reaction between the fuel and an oxidant. Fuel cells can operate indefinitely, so long as the necessary reactants and oxidants are replenished. A hydrogen fuel cell uses hydrogen as its fuel and oxygen as an oxidant. Fuel cells can also use hydrocarbons or alcohol as fuel and chlorine or chlorine dioxide as oxidants.

Unlike petroleum-based fossil fuels, fuel cells are a clean energy source creating virtually no toxins or pollutants. The main byproducts are water, heat, and carbon dioxide. The CO2 emissions are substantially less than those produced by conventional power systems.

I contacted a real-world customer of ClearEdge Power to find out more about how the home fuel cell actually works. Gary Dillabough, of Atherton, CA, is a green industry professional who wanted to find an energy alternative with a smaller footprint than solar panels. "The payback is just over three years," Dillabough explained. "I think several of my friends will also adopt this technology after seeing how well it works." Admittedly, Dillabough is a sophisticated investor and early adopter of advanced technology, and the ClearEdge5 penciled nicely for his larger home. As should be the case for a pioneer, he is among the first people in the country, if not the world, to try a home fuel cell. But hopefully his favorable experience is a precursor to much more volume, and lower prices as the technology progresses.


You may have heard of the other significant fuel cell provider, Bloom Energy. Unlike ClearEdge Power, Bloom has received tons of publicity. While Bloom focuses on commercial applications - their initial deliveries to corporate headquarters buildings for Google, E-Bay and FedEx among others, attracted lots of attention - I think ClearEdge Power can potentially be even a bigger player in this space because of its suitability for single family homes and small commercial applications. The hype surrounding Bloom has yet to be proven, as the cost to install and run those commercial applications still exceeds the savings by a significant margin. (I should disclose here that I personally have a small investment in Bloom Energy).

Billions of dollars have been invested in alternative and renewable energy technologies. Bloom is rumored to have spent over $450 million to date, and its product is still in the developmental stages. ClearEdge Power is a true pioneer in America's vision to create energy independence. You can now power your home while reducing your energy bills by as much as 50% and reducing your carbon footprint by as much as 40%.

I should note that initially, the ClearEdge5 makes most sense for homes with a larger footprint and power needs, but as the technology is further developed and power costs continue to rise, future CEP models will become accessible to homeowners with smaller homes. We urge you to visit the Sierra Club Green Home website to learn more about this stunning new technology.


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Green Your Caffeine

Wednesday, November 3, 2010 by

Can you believe that every day, citizens of our planet down 2.5 billion cups of coffee? And that in America alone, more than 450 million servings of "joe" are quaffed daily?

By any measure that's a lot of caffeine. And as we are prone to do at SCGH, think about the stunning amounts of waste those Herculean numbers create. All those coffee filters and grounds, and all those paper cups, enough yearly to circle the globe 55 times when placed end to end!



Thus "Green Your Caffeine" is here, inspired by a story from our sister publication, Sierra Magazine. Thankfully, there are several things you can do to have less impact on the ecosystem while still getting your morning fix of java. Here they are:

* First, use a French coffee press instead of a traditional coffee pot. The coffee press does not require a paper filter, as it has a built in metal filtration system. It is very simple to use, you don't need to be trying out for Iron Chef to pour in the ground coffee and hot water, then slowly squeeze the plunger and presto! A cup of coffee that can taste even better than a filtered cup, minus the yucchy coffee grinds and stained paper filter - which usually go directly to the landfill.

* Second, buy the right kinds of coffee. There are several labeling systems that tell you what you are buying is indeed environmentally friendly. "USDA Organic" assures you that no pesticides or chemicals were used to grow the beans. "Fair Trade Certified" means that the farmers and workers who grow the coffee were treated humanely and paid a fair day's wage in safe working conditions. "Shade Grown" means the coffee was grown according to Smithsonian Institution guidelines to protect migrating birds. And finally, "Rainforest Alliance Certified" is yet another assurance that the beans were grown according to proper "green" standards. Any or all of these labels are emblazoned on the packaging of the coffees you should be buying.


* Next, abandon paper cups in favor of reuseable mugs. These insulated mugs are usually made of aluminum, stainless steel, ceramic, rubber and in some cases BPA-free plastic. They are durable, keep your drink hot, and offer spill-proof tops. Bring your own if you are buying your morning brew from a coffee shop. In case you think they get stained and are hard to clean, not so. Simply soak them a bit with a little vinegar and lemon with water, they'll be good as new with a little bit of scrubbing. And you'll be saving many pounds of paper per year.

* I happen to like both coffee and tea. Nothing against the coffee industry, but tea is significantly better for our planet. Why? Because for every seven gallons of water needed in the manufacturing process for tea, coffee requires 36 gallons to yield the same amount of final product. That is an enormous water savings that can be recognized by crossing over to become a tea-only person.


* Use an electric heating pot or mug to heat your water, for either coffee or tea. This is more energy efficient than heating it on the stove. If you don't have one available, use the microwave it's second best for energy efficiency.

* Finally, compost your used coffee grounds, even with the filter if you don't have a coffee press. In a short time, you will have high quality fertilizer that can be used in your garden. How's that for closing the circle on "greening your caffeine"?



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Soaking Up the Sun

Thursday, October 21, 2010 by

LOS ANGELES -- Shades of '99-'00, it feels like the Tech Boom Act II. Otherwise known as the Solar Power International show, held Oct. 12-14 at the L.A. Convention Center.

A feeling of seemingly limitless optimism filled the hallways and auditorium, as 1000s of senior executives from top renewable energy and solar companies participated in SPI. For those who think the solar business is a fringe industry, think again. Many of the world's top venture capitalists have plowed hundreds of millions if not billions into solar power, much less the governments of China and Germany to name a few. If any naysayers don't believe in the power of green jobs and the positive impact the solar industry can have on the U.S. economy, I sincerely wish they could have been in attendance to see and feel the continued momentum of the solar industry.

The lack of a federal energy policy has hurt the U.S. solar business to be sure, but federal, state and local subsidies have been what's needed to overcome this problem in the interim. Did you know that about 80 percent of the world's solar panel production goes to supply Europe, as the Continent is way ahead of us in creating consumer acceptance for home solar and subsidies to match. Germany has the world's best incentives, which has fueled the growth of the European solar market. This was reflected in attendance at the SPI show, as a hefty percentage of the exhibitors were European.


After exploring booth after booth of traditional, clunky solar panels, one thing caught my eye -- the prominence of CPV development. CPV stands for Concentrated Photovoltaics, and it represents a new technology that generates significantly more power and efficiency per square inch of solar panel. The benefits of this are obvious: fewer and smaller panels can make and store even more power than their conventional photovoltaic panel counterparts. According to SolFocus VP of Sales and Marketing Nancy Hartsoch, CPV is a nascent technology that will work best in desert-like conditions, as in very hot, sunny, dry climates like Nevada, Arizona, or inland Southern California. Product has been deployed commercially as we speak. I was particularly impressed with examples being developed by SolFocus of Mountain View, CA. SolFocus has raised over $200 million, and is being hotly pursued by Aminox, another CPV startup with backing from Kleiner Perkins. Another promising CPV cell developer is EPIR of Naperville, IL, outside of Chicago. (I should mention in the spirit of journalistic integrity that I have done some consulting for EPIR.) By 2011 we will hopefully see 150 MW of CPV deployed and by 2012, up to 515 MW. If these figures are correct, CPV could be a huge step forward in finding a tipping point for both the consumer and utility markets. Continued improvements in technology and price cuts are essential for solar to go en masse.

Speaking of which, one of the most interesting characters I met at SPI was Lyndon Rive, the South African-born CEO of consumer solar provider SolarCity. Foster City, CA-based Solar City is essentially a full-service provider of home solar panels and installation, providing the key additional services of leasing packages and assistance filing all the necessary forms to obtain federal, state and local incentives and rebates. SolarCity uses panels made by leading solar companies such as Yingli Green Energy, First Solar, Kyocera and Sharp, among others. Currently operating only in California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona and Texas, Solar City has aggressive expansion plans and employment is scheduled to grow from around 1,000 to over 2,000 by the end of 2011. Like many green businesses, profitablility is not happening quite yet because of the sizable investment required for a startup of this magnitude. However, Rive says that SolarCity is cash flow positive, they just have to recognize revenue according to GAAP accounting procedures so this occurs over a 20 year period on each lease. As the company expands into other states, profitability should dramatically increase.


I hope you can feel the excitement that continues to build around home (and commercial) solar electricity that permeated the L.A. Convention Center's Solar Power International. Next time, I'll tell you more about this compelling conference and the companies that participated. Amidst the uncertainty of our economy and rampant unemployment, this is a bright spot -- one that you should be thinking about when you cast your votes for various candidates and state propositions on November 2nd.


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