Tag: climate change

Why Winning Slowly May be the Same as Setting the Stage for Derailment

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Considering the current political climate and state of affairs (like increasing inequality and a drive to pull out social safety nets for…everyone) in the United States, I thought I’d revisit Ecology of Commerce (revised edition) by Paul Hawken. The scenario playing out right now in our government perfectly embodies his statement that, “You cannot protect a system that is rigid and entrenched without sacrificing the interests of the people it intends to serve.” Our government and the corporate interests it loyally serves is sacrificing away. The gulf between “what might be” and “what is” seems wider than ever. Perhaps that is because we are at the precipice of a new age.

I’ve been experiencing cognitive dissonance between my privileged existence and the realities of an accelerating deterioration of our local ecosystems and climate and communities. As Hawken says, “We have reached a point where the value we add to our economy is now being outweighed by the value we are removing, not only from future generations in terms of diminished resources but from ourselves in terms of unsustainable sprawl, deadening jobs, deteriorating health, and rising crime.” I hear the warning sirens from experts like Bill McKibben (Winning Slowly is the Same as Losing) and see the unreal have to be pulled into the norm. It feels like a downward spiral, with a hope for the future based on something increasingly unattainable. The reality is that way I live, despite my attempts at minimizing impact, is part of the problem. But I’m not sure where to go with that knowledge. To a large degree (as evidenced by my lack of posts on my blog over the last several months), I feel paralyzed.

I can see why Hawken focused his efforts on Project Drawdown, as the solutions he posits in Ecology of Commerce are pie in the sky, while Project Drawdown focuses on making it real. There are concrete (for lack of a better word) steps to take to address climate change. They are right there – 100 of them – researched, served up and ready to be acted upon. One of Hawken’s hopes in Ecology of Commerce is that small businesses will pick up the charge should a “revitalization and revisioning of incentives…liberate the imagination, courage and commitment that reside within individuals who truly want to make a difference – ‘ecopreneurs’ dedicated to restoring the world around them for the world that comes after them.”

My worry, similar to experts like McKibben and Hawken, is that it just can’t happen fast enough. That the massive brakes needed to stop this freight train traveling at full speed with cars full of oil and coal as far as the eye can see just don’t exist and will never exist. Perhaps it’s just not possible to slow it down.

Of course, there is another option – destroy the tracks and derail the train.

While the US government seems to lack any ability to “revision” anything other than how to consolidate power and defend the status quo for the indefensible, it’s the small efforts by individuals, non-profits and small businesses – and many of them – that perhaps are my greatest hope. This hope actually emerges from biomimicry research I started in my graduate program and plan to pick back up in 2018 – research focused on how invasive species disrupt systems quickly.

In researching invasive species, I’ve learned that invasive species aren’t considered invasive until seemingly all of a sudden they have widespread economic and environmental impact (“impact”, of course, being largely defined through the lens of human enterprise). At that point, you might say the ecosystem goes off the rails – ecosystem interconnections  and resource flows are changed, sometimes irreparably so. In some cases, the eventual result is a state shift to an alternative stable state, never to shift back.

But at the point of perceived sudden widespread impact it’s not that they came out of nowhere, it’s that their small, dispersed populations went undetected or seemed insignificant (to us) AND the ecosystems in which they got established had their weaknesses. Our current systems, while being shored up by governments and increasingly walled off from the masses by corporations driven by perverse economic incentives, have clear weaknesses. The increasing number of efforts around the world to establish a different kind of system based on different criteria with different goals perhaps will eventually emerge at a large overlapping scale and shift us into a new age, the “alternative stable state” Paul Hawken and others have been talking about for decades.

This shift will derail that freight train relatively suddenly, and as with the real thing, it probably won’t be pretty. I don’t know what will emerge on the other side, but it does give me hope that the groundswell of efforts around the world, while seemingly insignificant at the moment, do actually have the potential for widespread, fast impact. When that will happen is anyone’s guess. But I hope together we can lay the groundwork to make sure that what emerges on the other side is restorative and generous. As Hawken writes, “Industrialism is over, in fact; the question remains how we will organize the economy that follows.” So let’s get on with it. Let’s change our story.

My Climate Action List, LP Style

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Sonoran Desert, Arizona

On this day of Climate Action, and in light of the fact that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s “pages relating to climate change, climate science, the impacts of climate change and what readers can do about climate change are all gone from the live site” to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt” (read: Koch brothers)…

[A direction, I would argue, that can only be described as dragging our collective heads into the proverbial sand – but actually literally Middle East sand, Canadian tar sands, sand at the bottom of the ocean – until we decide to bang our heads against the proverbial wall – that wall of oil shale rock that blankets the United States – anywhere where that black gold can be found and extracted at whatever cost (and let’s not forget to manipulate markets to make it profitable to extract no matter where it lies)…But, I’m getting sidetracked…]

I thought I’d post a list of quickly brainstormed ideas around climate-related actions I can take in line with Life’s Principles so I have less of, and in some cases a regenerative impact on the planet (because remember, it’s not about just doing less bad, it’s about finding ways to be a regenerative participant in life’s systems!). We will change our story through our actions, so paying specific attention to how we live our lives (walk the talk) makes a difference. Perhaps my ideas will inspire you to do something you hadn’t thought of, and I’m sure there are umpteen more things I could be doing – I’d love to know what actions you are taking!

So let me dive right in. (btw, this is the Biomimicry 3.8 Life’s Principles list and definitions, used with permission)

Be Locally Attuned and Responsive

Fit into and integrate with the surrounding environment.
  • Pay attention to the wildlife around me and do not get complacent about the changes I see.
  • Respond with actions to mitigate the climate change that is precipitating the changes I see.
  • Find ways to take action here at home and in my community.
  • Collect, pay attention and respond to feedback when community climate action proposals don’t pass, and adjust proposals accordingly.
  • Notice if plants in my yard aren’t attracting and supporting a diversity of animals throughout the year and insects and adjust plantings accordingly.
  • Identify challenges I have with material goods and see if these are opportunities for neighborhood community-scale responses (like finding second-hand sports equipment, sharing power and garden tools, etc.). (to reduce the amount of material goods needed and all the climate implications of those goods). Love the idea of a community tool library! And we have some email & online platforms for second-hand goods, but some things are more challenging than others to find.

Leverage Cyclic Processes

Take Advantage of phenomena that repeat themselves
  • Leverage my own cycles of purchasing and actions so that I can make myself successful in trying to change my behaviors (like remembering to take bags to the grocery store, remembering to think first about using materials around the house before going to buy new materials, etc.).

Use Readily Available Materials and Energy

Build with abundant, accessible materials while harnessing freely available energy.
  • Don’t simply buy things when a need arises – think about it first and use what’s available before heading to a store!
  • Reuse unused materials in our house for new project when possible.
  • Investigate the possibility of a solar water heater system, or even solar panels.
  • Use materials from our garden (like sticks) to built a trellis for our vegetables.
  • When we have to head to the store, find local second-hand goods where possible.
  • Bike or walk whenever possible. (I need to do better at this, but I try!)
  • Use scrap paper for grocery lists, kids drawings, etc.
  • Use reusable bags.

Use Feedback Loops

Engage in cyclic information flows to modify a reaction appropriately.
  • Participate in local community climate action discussions.
  • Understand and “speak the language” when trying to bring on board potential partners who aren’t necessarily thinking about these issues. What makes them tick, and how can that make a solution even better?
  • Learn more about how to most effectively participate in and use social media to effectively achieve goals.
  • A clear feedback loop is that the old guard is worried about losing its power as we transition to a non-fossil fuel based economy. NOW is the time to step up our actions exponentially.
  • And in line with that, clear indications of the crazy future we will face are everywhere along the coasts as cities are being inundated with sea water, and evidence points to climate chaos nearing at an alarming rate according to scientists. NOW is the time to act.

Cultivate Cooperative Relationships

Find value through win-win interactions.
  • Identify synergies between friends, businesses and communities for opportunities to work together on any of these ideas!
  • Join the Oak Park Environment & Energy Commission.

Use Life-Friendly Chemistry

Use chemistry that supports life processes.
  • Use non-toxic cleaning chemicals in my house.
  • Use methods in my garden that boost resilience against pests, and where needed don’t use chemicals to solve pest problems (use elbow grease!)
  • Buy goods that are responsibly sourced and manufactured (we try our best).
  • Buy organic everything.
  • Never buy anything with a chrome finish.
  • Drive my gasoline car as little as possible.
  • Reduce use of fossil fuel-based plastics (which are so insidious…sigh).

Break Down Materials into Benign Constituents

Use chemistry in which decomposition results in no harmful by-products.
  • See above. I’m not manufacturing anything, so my hope is that by adhering to keeping the use of toxic chemicals to a minimum in what I buy, when they break down they are benign in the environment. This is a hard one to control on an individual level with the exception of controlling what I purchase and use on a daily basis.

Build Selectively with a Small Subset of Elements

Assemble relatively few elements in elegant ways.
  • Hmmm…being creative with what I have and using my stuff in different configurations to achieve different results depending on needs (functions) without buying new stuff.

Do Chemistry in Water

Use water as a solvent.
  • Again, for me this is probably limited to my purchasing power and buying water-based products, such as the oil wax finish I just purchased to stain my reclaimed wood.

Use Low Energy Processes

Minimize energy consumption by reducing requisite temperatures, pressures and/or time for reactions.
  • All those energy efficiency things we are told to do – daylighting, LED light bulbs, turning off and unplugging electronics when not in use, energy efficient appliances, etc.
  • Buy renewable energy from the utility (we don’t have on-site renewables).
  • Walk and bike whenever possible.
  • Combine many errands into one trip to minimize mileage in car.

Use Multi-Functional Design

Meet Multiple Needs with one elegant solution.
  • Learn permaculture.
  • Use furniture that serves multiple purposes.
  • Buy kitchen appliances or furniture that do multiple things, not just one (the number of single-function kitchen appliances is astounding, and you pretty much don’t need 90% of them)
  • Design spaces for multiple functions (like our playroom that is also a guest bedroom that is also a music studio that is also a…)

Recycle All Materials

Keep all materials in a closed loop.
  • Recycle all the materials I can – first in my home through reuse, and if we have no use for them, through our community recycling program.
  • Buy products with recycled content wherever possible.
  • Keep garden clippings in the yard, compost.
  • Incorporate circular economy thinking into any action I try to get done in my community!

Fit Form to Function

Select for shape or pattern based on need.
  • I think the key to this is “based on need.” Hardly anything in our consumer society is based on “need”, but rather “want.” I’ll continue to make sure whatever I buy is based on need and that it effectively and efficiently performs the function, and preferably more than one function.

Integrate Development with Growth

Invest optimally in strategies that promote both development and growth.
  • Keep my actions and learning opportunities aligned. Don’t go off in multiple directions! Make sure everything I do is rooted in my core goals.
  • Teach my kids age-appropriate lessons about climate change (and other related topics) to inform their actions and opinions, and continually add more complex information as they get older to further develop their understanding and actions.

Self-Organize

Create conditions to allow components to interact in concert to move toward an enriched system.
  • I wish I could do this better personally. Haha!
  • Find groups that are interested in climate action and find common ground between them, so they can leverage each other to create better solutions.

Build from the Bottom Up

Assemble components one unit at a time.
  • Choose my battles/opportunities one at a time, and pick the next one to build momentum from the previous.

Combine Modular and Nested Components

Fit multiple units within each other progressively from simple to complex.
  • Hmm…I’m stumped.

Evolve to Survive

Continually incorporate and embody information to ensure enduring performance.
  • Make sure to keep up-to-date on the latest science and actions to learn from others and incorporate their lessons learned in my own actions.

Replicate Strategies that Work

Repeat successful approaches.
  • Try to get community to use Project Drawdown strategies!
  • Learn from others and repeat successful approaches.
  • Take better stock of what does and doesn’t work for me and try to repeat those that do (like
  • how to trick myself into bringing reusable bags to the grocery store)

Integrate the Unexpected

  • Incorporate mistakes in ways that lead to new forms and functions.
Take the time to see my failures as opportunities for positive change.

Reshuffle Information

Exchange and alter information to create new options.
  • Always think about the information I have through different lenses, and exchange ideas with others, to identify new opportunities for action and change.

Adapt to Changing Conditions

Appropriately respond to dynamic contexts.
  • Don’t bury my head in the sand! Grr.
  • Change my approach/actions with respect to climate change when the context demands it. Which means that because it is clear that the Trump administration is waging a war on science and actions to mitigate climate change, and because evidence of the acceleration of climate change is increasingly alarming, we need to step up our response NOW.

Incorporate Diversity

Include multiple forms, processes or systems to meet a functional need.
  • Try to engage people and organizations at all different scales (whether that’s at the individual, community, regional, national, global scales), taking different actions, responding to the problem differently, as it makes sense with respect to local actions.

Maintain Integrity Through Self-Renewal

Persist by constantly adding energy and matter to heal and improve the system.
  • I also need to work on this personally! Find ways to self-renew (through getting outside, exercise, hobbies, etc.)
  • Find out what makes people tick about this challenge – their energy will improve the effort
  • Always reach out to new people to bring into the effort

Embody Resilience Through Variation, Redundancy and Decentralization

Maintain function following disturbance by incorporating a variety of duplicate forms, processes or systems that are not located exclusively together.
  • The fight against climate change will take local actions across the globe. Help to make the local response more robust by creating programs that are diverse, redundant and decentralized, while finding ways to leverage our successes in the global movement (to share and help make other efforts also resilient).

Inspiration to Brainstorming: Biomimcry Global Design Challenge – Climate Change

Following up on something I have been thinking about since my post on inspiration for the Global Biomimicry Design Challenge on climate change, I thought I’d share an example of my thought process on using natural models for initial brainstorming. This is my first pass and I haven’t dug deep into the science, but am testing the waters on a high-level idea. So bear with me as I try to wrap my head around this one – energy and associated system cycles. I have more questions than answers as my thoughts are only (maybe not even) half-baked – maybe you can help me out. Or feel free to use my ideas to add to yours!

Last week I was talking with my colleague about various major categories of ecosystem functions. Her diagram had five categories, including “energy” and “carbon”. In looking at the diagram however, I realized that this perspective separates out two components that are fundamentally part of, but not even all of, one system. Does combining the conversations of carbon sequestration and energy efficiency into a comprehensive discussion about the entire system around energy beyond just the carbon cycle, with a comparison to the natural model, provide an avenue to identify missed opportunities to balance things out?

When we talk about energy it is almost always purely in the mindset of procurement/consumption. Energy flow is one way – we dig it up/suck it up/soak it up/stick a turbine in it and gobble it up. What’s the result? We put that energy to work for us in various ways that fuel our activities – cooking, transporting, building, farming, etc. The end result is that that energy once used is gone, but the benefits we reap from consuming it might live on in the form of something made (cooked food, a product, a house, a road…). Doing more with one unit of energy is how we improve efficiency. In the sustainability realm the conversation about “energy efficiency” is sometimes shifted to “carbon management” in recognition of energy consumption (specifically when it’s carbon-based) as a component in the larger carbon cycle.

When we talk about carbon sequestration it’s often a kind of nebulous, unseen phenomenon that most people don’t understand. We know it’s part of the carbon cycle and is a component we have increasingly realized we need to address because there’s this vast amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in our atmosphere and changing our climate. So we also relate carbon sequestration to energy in the realm of the need to pull back out the carbon dioxide emitted during the burning of fossil fuels and organic matter to help balance the carbon cycle. But this discussion is not often expanded to be related to a comprehensive picture of energy beyond a discussion of carbon dioxide. And while carbon dioxide is our main concern, maybe an analysis of the whole system could identify opportunities we might otherwise miss.

In nature, energy procurement and consumption is fed by the sun, but the story of energy is not just about carbon dioxide. It involves an intricate dance of several inputs and outputs in the system enable it to stay balanced in perpetuity – everything is used and recycled with the exception of heat. Not true of our current human system. Even when we look to understand photosynthesis for the conversion of radiant heat to energy to try to replicate that natural model (solar panels), we choose to basically ignore the whole sequestering of carbon dioxide, use of water and releasing of vast amounts of oxygen, water and carbon dioxide thing that occurs in photosynthesis too – we’re just interested in the conversion of energy from one form to another. Are we missing vast components of a balanced system and thus opportunities to greatly improve our design? What if we tried to mimic the functions of the entire natural system of inputs and outputs to restore balance?  

I’ve already talked about how our energy systems have knocked the carbon cycle out of balance. So, using biomimicry, if we want to use the plant energy cycles – complete with the inputs and outputs – as a model for our energy systems, we need to understand nature’s energy system first and then draw metaphors. Easiest thing to do is to draw a picture!

The following diagram shows an overall simplified cycle of inputs and outputs involved in photosynthesis, plant growth and energy flows supporting the food web (that’s us in the “animal” block). (Photosynthesis is the process in which radiant energy is turned into chemical energy in the form of sugars, which are the building blocks for plant structure (starches) as well as immediate energy for plant growth. That stored energy in plants is the energy that gets passed up the food chain from herbivores to carnivores and everything in between.)

Nature's model

The above diagram shows how the byproducts of each step contribute to critical resources for other steps in the process, creating a closed loop with the exception of the renewable energy input of the sun and outputs of heat. It’s brilliant.

Contrast that with examples of our energy systems. The following diagrams also show simplified energy flows in human-designed systems.

Human model

Okay, so now we have an overall idea of how these both work. Notably for me, neither of the human-designed energy systems result in closed loop cycles of inputs and outputs. The solar obviously resembles more closely the procurement and conversion of radiant energy at a site, similar to a plant. I don’t know enough about energy systems to know how to wrap my head around the conversion of radiant energy to electricity vs. chemical energy – that’s above my pay grade for this blog post! So let’s keep it simple for now (but if you know, let me know a good resource to find out more!).

In looking at the coal-fired power plant example, you’ll notice that the inputs include coal, oxygen (O2) (oxygen needed for combustion of coal) and water. In looking at the energy cycle of the food web, you’ll notice that the inputs and outputs are similar to that of an animal – animals consume glucose (stored energy) from plants or other animals that have eaten plants. Animals also consume oxygen which is needed for chemical reactions that result in growth (for the metabolic process). So we might draw the following metaphors included in the above diagram:

  • Oxygen = oxygen (needed for a chemical reaction
  • Coal = stored chemical energy (sugars) (this is the fuel)
  • Power plant = animal
  • Use of electricity to build structures = metabolism (growth)
  • Battery storage = maybe ATP? (adenosine triphosphate, or “the ‘molecular unit of currency’ of intracellular energy transfer”)

(Since I have not spent more than today on this, my metaphors might be off. What do you think?)

If you agree for now that we might draw a metaphor between animals and our human-made power plants, what does that mean for our overall cycle? To me it means our current design is missing a plan for the majority of the system needed to maintain the required balance for stable system functioning (as evidenced through climate change). The question is, how can we think about our energy systems more holistically and model them after the original power plants and energy webs?

If we go with the above, and our current energy system design only includes the “animal” component of the larger system, what if we expand our discussion of “energy” to include the entire cycle of inputs and outputs to understand how we can design an energy system that fits within the natural balance to maintain climate stability? Who uses energy in the system and how? What do they produce as a byproduct of using that energy? What questions does that raise about our systems?

  • Need for balance of inputs & outputs: the consumption and sequestration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) with the release of oxygen (O2), carbon dioxide and water. If fossil fuels and other biomaterials aren’t burned for energy at all, obviously this changes the equation and reduces the burden on the system to sequester carbon dioxide (once restored to a balance from the current state, and this of course ignores whatever inputs and outputs for making the product (e.g., a solar panel)). But since we aren’t flipping the switch on fossil fuels any day soon, we need to find ways to bring the carbon cycle back into balance. And what about the release of oxygen in the process – what part of our system might generate oxygen as a byproduct?
  • Forms of energy: What would a system look like that relies on local real-time renewable conversion of radiant energy to, and storage of, chemical energy that is in a form readily accessible for use (as opposed to use of non-renewable storage of radiant energy captured in fossil fuels and turned to electricity)? Lots of solar cells (produced with solar energy sources!) and batteries? Any other options?
  • If plants (real plants, not human power plants!) are the consumers of carbon dioxide in our natural model, what would be the equivalent of a plant in human energy systems? Manufacturers creating raw materials? Does that reveal the missing link in our system – manufacturers who convert radiant energy on site to fuel their own manufacturing processes (core needs) as well as build raw materials (which form the basis of structures) from carbon dioxide? If so, we clearly need to rethink the potential of a hugely (over) abundant (free!) resource – carbon dioxide – as a building block for materials. Some materials manufacturers are already thinking this way, but if this is the key to balancing the cycle, we need some serious widespread innovation using carbon as a fundamental building block of many more our materials.
  • Can we use the energy flow of a food web to think more about how the supply chain beyond materials manufacturers plays a role – what’s the equivalent of a herbivore (e.g., a manufacturer turning materials into some form of product?), omnivore or carnivore in human systems? Do they exist in the same type of balance we see in land-based food systems (i.e., does it turn out we have an overabundance of “carnivores” requiring high energy inputs?)? If so, by increasing energy efficiency are we creating more “herbivores” ??
  • We’ve cut down a lot of plants – trees to be more exact. Whenever you see green, you are looking at the sequestration of carbon dioxide in materials. It would be foolish to think we shouldn’t also be restoring natural systems to leverage their ability to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. But to what extent? This thinking is reflected in E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth initiative.

Oh, so many more questions than answers! 🙂

My brain is spinning so we’ll have to leave additional pondering for another day. Next steps for me if I were to pursue this further would be to do a deep dive into the science to find out more specifically how this works each step of the way. Next I would then recheck my metaphors and make sure that everything actually makes sense – for every single part of the system. This is where the fun happens – you never know what you’ll find out.

What flaws do you see in my thinking? If any, how would you rewrite those metaphors in line with your thinking? What can you add? How can we build on this? How might you go deeper? What are the right metaphors? What is the natural model equivalent to “electricity”? Or am I totally off base? I’m excited to see what comes out in the Project Drawdown initiative to see if/how their recommendations line up (or not) with this thinking.