Many sustainable development projects have a fatal flaw: they are unrealistically expensive. Sure, a stationary bike that purifies water as it is pedaled is a great innovation, but how much does the bike cost to build and implement? These technologies are often really pricey, which prevents them from being effective. Environmental innovations should be affordable to the people who need it most. Which is why I’m so excited about the hybrid tuk tuk contest!
A tuk tuk is basically a motorized rickshaw. It has three wheels, a seat up front for the driver, and a bench seat in the back for up to three passengers (and occasionally animals and/or the daily shopping). There are three million tuk tuks in India alone, but they are common all over Southern Asia and parts of Africa and Latin America. They are especially popular in areas where traffic congestion is an issue. The tuk tuks are also an environmental nightmare. They spew smoke. The drivers are often from lower socioeconomic classes, and therefore need to run their rickshaws on the cheapest, dirtiest fuel. Sometimes they even run on kerosene.
Major developing democracies face an interesting predicament these days. They have fought through decades of poverty and political irrelevance and have now landed on the world stage. Sure, a large percentage of their population may still live in shantytowns (India), or they may manufacture billions of inexpensive plastic items for export to America (China), but they have become socioeconomic forces to be reckoned with.
We hear the terms reduce, recycle and reuse a lot. The words have practically become battle cries in most elementary schools these days. One company, though, is applying a new phrase to its sustainable packaging efforts: re-imagine. Icebreaker, a New Zealand outdoor apparel company, is asking its younger customers not to throw away or even to recycle the wrapping in which their fleece arrived. Icebreaker is designing packaging that can be turned into objects of creativity: toys, jewelry boxes and pencil cases.
Chido Govero, a young woman from Zimbabwe, just won the Sustainability Award at the 2009 Specialty Coffee Association of America conference. The association celebrated her contributions to sustainability and innovation within the coffee industry. The award is not only a critical success for Chido and her partners at the ZERI Foundation, it is also a triumph for sustainable development.
The world is becoming a greener place. I see hybrids on the road more than any other car. Fortune 500 companies are totally rethinking their corporate operations in an attempt to be more sustainable. The movement is spreading! It’s exciting, undeniably. But with the increased awareness come calculated marketing crusades, questionable motives and high-profile smear campaigns. We all know the dangers of green-washing, but I’m starting to notice an even more manipulative hidden agenda: sustainability “advances” that totally ignore or exclude the human dimension and instead make showy moves in the environmental field. Allow me to explain.
I grew up in Southern California during the beginning of the worst multi-year drought in California’s history. We sang “If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down” at summer camp. My mother timed my showers and started screaming at the four-minute mark. We cringed at the sight of our azure swimming pool. We thought it couldn’t get any worse.
Last month, we ran a story on the debate over green building. We posed a simple question: which is more sustainable? To retrofit an old building in an effort to make efficiency improvements to something that already exists? Or to build a new, revolutionary and electrifying green building that gets people excited the world over?
“The negative impacts of climate change are already causing migration and displacement.” So begins “In Search of Shelter”, a new report on the human impacts of climate change, released recently by a team of NGOs, including the United Nations, CARE International and Columbia University.
A massively ambitious clean power project is underway in North Africa. The German insurance giant, Munich Re, announced last week that they are currently recruiting several European mega-investors to fund a project called Desertec. The project will build solar farms across North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt. Desertec will use a method called concentrating solar power, or C.S.P., which consists of huge mirrors that generate steam to power turbines. The turbines generate electricity, which will then be sent back to Europe via high-voltage direct current cables.
I am a strong believer in the fair trade business model. The notion that producers, especially those in developing countries, should be paid a fair price for their labor and expertise seems both obvious and necessary. By manufacturing and exporting products that are designed and made traditionally, fair trade suppliers are empowered to profit from their skills. LOHAS consumers in Europe and America love buying fair trade products, because it makes them feel good about their purchasing power.
It’s hard to believe that, until the 1990’s, Dubai was little more than a desert tent city. A brief history of what is perhaps the world’s least sustainable metropolis: electricity arrived in the 1950’s, oil was discovered in the 1960’s, the population tripled in the 1970’s, trade and labor laws loosened in the 1980’s, and petrodollars sponsored the building boom of the 1990’s. The Burj Al Arab, the world’s only “seven-star” resort, ushered Dubai onto the worldstage in 1994. An unbelievable amount of oil money (it is said the the United Arab Emirates sit on 10% of the world’s oil reserves) coupled with the desire to define Dubai as the “Mecca” of international tourism has quickly created a huge, sprawling, fantastical, over-the-top playground for the rich and powerful. Dubai was once famous for its architectural windcatchers, natural Persian ventilation systems from the 18th century that functioned as pre-industrial solar chimneys. Now it is famous for supertall skyscrapers, manmade islands and indoor ski resorts.
I love so many Indian exports, I barely know where to start: bollywood films, bhangra music, glass bangles, gold earrings, multicolored silk, chana masala, chai tea and mango lassi to name a few. Among these exotic indulgences, my favorite is Indian food. Basmati rice is perfectly sticky and light, the sauce on chicken tikka masala is completely delicious. But the true story behind these cultural and artisanal exports is rather dark and complicated.
You may remember when Triple Pundit ran a short article last month about the green transformation of New York City’s Empire State Building. To refresh your memory, the Empire State Building was built during the Great Depression in the 1930’s, and became an icon for progress, technology and American industry. Today the building is still iconic, but is has also become symbolic of New York City’s unbelievable consumption of energy and the fact that buildings contribute almost 80% towards the city’s total Greenhouse Gas emissions.
In April, the owners of the building announced a major undertaking: the Empire State Building is going green and earning back its previous reputation for modernity and technological progress. The project will cost $25 million, but the investment will be recouped by savings on energy bills within 5 years. The fifth floor of the building is being turned into an on-site “factory” where the original windows will be taken for thermal-resistant glazing. The radiators will all be altered to ensure that heat stays trapped in the building, rather than being released into NYC.
The most notable detail about the revamp plan is the fact that the city is investing in making efficiency improvements to an older building, rather than tearing it down and building something new and flashy. It begs the question- what makes a bigger impact? Erecting huge, inspirational and iconic buildings that scream “sustainable progress” from their living rooftops? Or investing time and money into existing buildings to make them more environmentally efficient?
San Francisco’s mayor Gavin Newsom might like to weigh in on this question.
If you’ve ever been to Israel, you might notice that it looks eerily like Central California. Back roads wind through dry golden hills, dotted with olive trees and oleander bushes. The countryside, however, has a major blight: a huge wall topped with barbed wire that delineates the Israel/Palestine border. Armed guards patrol the wall, ensuring that neither Arabs nor Israelis have the ability to antagonize each other. Conflict, hatred and violence have plagued this part of the world for a very long time. European and American interventions have not solved the conflict. Even so, President Obama is hoping to promote “democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion ” in the region with his current trip to the Middle East.
So what to do when politics, military strength and carefully-planned summits have all failed? Try creating peace and cooperation through business and profit-sharing. Or so says PeaceWorks, a “not-only-for-profit” company. You could say that PeaceWorks has a double-bottom-line business model; they pursue profit and peace in equal measure. They profit by selling healthy, natural food products that are produced by groups on traditionally opposing sides of a conflict. They pursue peace by “empowering the moderates” in the Middle East that hope for resolution to the ongoing conflict. The fundamental idea is simple: by working together to grow, harvest, produce and export a value-added food product, Arab and Israeli communities and business people can find common ground while earning a living wage.
Prisons have long held a reputation for being resource “black holes.” Incarcerated people fade away into obscurity, most without any true chance at rehabilitation. Yet inmates consume huge amounts of food, and even larger amounts of energy. In 2007, California taxpayers spent over $8 billion on their prison system, more than any other state in the nation. Recidivism rates are not improving, and the state is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Prisons have become an icon for waste and consumption.
One California prison, however, is determined to change the notion that a penal system can only consume resources without reusing them. Avenal State Prison is home to 6,500 inmates. It is located in the dry and somewhat desolate San Joaquin County. Beginning in June of 2000, Avenal State Prison initiated a revolutionary program: food scrap and green material collection. The facility entered into a partnership with San Joaquin Composting, a local and for-profit business that sells compost to the many agricultural wholesalers that exist in the San Joaquin valley. This collaboration between a state-run prison and a private enterprise has generated unbelievable financial, environmental and social benefits.