Choosing The Right Stuff

American Apparel
Image via Wikipedia

More on the choices that flummox us: I was glad to see that apparel makers are going to start rating their products, because it’s pretty impossible for your average consumer (if they care) to have any idea what impact clothing choices have. So the Sustainable Apparel Coalition seems like the kind of innovation that is at least pointed in the right direction.

That made me wish it was easy to dig into the sustainability and environmental impact of lots more products, and–poof–I immediately stumbled across this outfit: The Good Guide (maybe it’s time to play the lottery). The Good Guide is basically a bunch of science geeks who are doing us all the favor of analyzing thousands of products, and the companies that make them (for the final rating they also take into account any conglomerates that might own the producer, as well, which is smart).

I was glad to discover that Levis gets a pretty green score (so I don’t have to figure out what else to wear).

Now it’s very unlikely that this sort of thing will drive the spending habits (for now) of anyone but eco-obsessed yuppies, but it is important that the idea of evaluating the things we buy according to how they impact the world is taking root. Even better would be if stores (I’m talking to you Walmart) committed to displaying this sort of score along with the products on their shelves. And I am sure that there will soon be an app that can scan a bar good and ping you a rating, which would make it even easier.

But nothing will really change unless sustainability and environmental and health impact are reflected in the price of a good (and not just the cost of labor and production, where all manner of abuses are hidden within an ultra-low price). You can’t fault people for wanting to save money. So the real revolution that awaits, the real revolution that is a prerequisite for the sort of change that will make a difference, is the adoption of an economic philosophy and approach that includes the external costs of making a good (impact on the environment, health of the workers, etc) in the purchase price of the good.

That is a world of $200 hamburgers, which is one way to make clear the massive shift in culture and economics that is at the logical end of this movement to start caring about how what we buy affects the earth and the future. Unfortunately, I don’t see that shift happening anytime soon. Listen to Raj Patel on this, and imagine how crazy he would sound to most Americans (and Glenn Beck’s head would explode). But Raj Patel is right.

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Save The World? Get A Bike

San Francisco Critical Mass, April 29, 2005.
Image via Wikipedia

Figuring out how to save the world can be a complicated process. Paper versus plastic. Glass milk bottle versus carton. Car versus bike.


Oh wait, that last one is not at all complicated. It’s pretty obvious that transporting our human selves more frequently, when possible, by bicycle, is good for the planet and good for us (though apparently it is tragically annoying to some drivers; and I should mention that some guy in a car, for some inexplicable (really) reason, gave me the finger yesterday while I was riding).

Here in traffic-locked DC, it’s nice to see that this conclusion is starting to change the way people get around, and that bikesharing is taking off.

These kids in Nairobi agree, and they made a pretty good rap ode to how bikes can save the world (backstory is here):


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Apps For Mac. Finally.

I always wondered why my wife got to have all the fun on her iPad and iPhone, and why Apple didn’t create an App Store for the Mac (I am still waiting for the Verizon iPhone while trying to sneak time with said wife’s iPad, so my MacBook is about all I have when it comes to App Amusement).

Well, now they have, and you can start downloading lots of distracting, time-wasting, yet ingenious and amusing apps to your Mac. You need to upgrade to Mac OS X v10.6.6, and the Mac App Store, in Austin Powers, anti-climactic fashion, grandly declares “More than one thousand apps.”

But it’s a start. Thanks, Apple. Now, can you please tell me when the Verizon iPhone will be out? My Blackberry is totally dying.

The Meat Maze

It seems pretty clear that factory-farmed meat is an abomination: both for the animal and for your health. So pushing that off your plate shouldn’t be that hard.

The real conundrum comes with the choice between no meat or organic, free-range meat (with its image of happy, frolicking, four-footers gamboling across a green nirvana–before the axe cleaves swiftly and painlessly).

Professor James McWilliams has been trying to make the case for vegetarianism, and he is growing weary with the toil. He has long been arguing that organic, free-range meat is not the panacea that morally-conscious meat-lovers believe. He has troubled himself to point out the environmental and health costs of this sort of meat as well (they are an order of magnitude less than the costs of factory-farmed meat, but still…). And he finds that instead of putting aside their steak knives, most people are more likely to stab him with them.

Where I break from most conscientious consumers is in my decision to avoid meat from free-range animals and other alternative sources. This position hasn’t won any popularity contests for me. My occasional critiques of free-range animal farming have led to, among other things, threats by a butcher to separate me from a particularly valued appendage as well as frequent charges that I’m a hired gun for agribusiness. Both concepts are equally difficult to contemplate.

My typical line of attack on free-range systems has been to illuminate hidden or unpublicized environmental and health-related pitfalls—some minor, others not so—in an attempt to persuade ethically-minded consumers that although free-range might be better than factory-farmed, it is not the panacea so many make it out to be. But this approach, for a wide variety of reasons (many of them my own fault), has been a bust.

Turns out every study has a counter-study; every assumption a counter-assumption; every bold statement an angry butcher waiting on the other end to castrate, well, my argument. It took me a while to figure this out, but drawing on scientific literature to tarnish the supposed purity of free-range farming is, when you get right down to it, counterproductive. Paradoxically, by critiquing free-range animal products with the weapons of science, I’ve possibly inspired more consumers to eat more free-range meat than to give it up. It’s a dispiriting thought at best.

Prof. McWilliams is not happy with this result. So he’s giving up. Or at least trying a new line of argument. That line is that even though free-range animals live happier lives, we are still, in the end, taking their lives.

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it’s more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn’t killing an animal we don’t need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm?

"You plan to do WHAT?!"

This is a fine argument for anyone who stopped eating meat after they saw Babe. They are morally opposed to killing animals when other foods, like rice and beans, are abundantly available (or at least that is my story). The problem is that I don’t think Professor McWilliams is going to win many new converts with it. No one who happily tucks into free-range meat these days is unaware that the animal on their plate has been, um, killed. And they are okay with that.

Sadly, Professor McWilliams will have to go back to slogging away in the trenches of environmental and health-based argument. If people really understood the true cost of a hamburger (even a delicious, happy, free-range hamburger), that would affect their choices.

Or, maybe Professor McWilliams should just skip that part and instead turn his energies to getting the market to price hamburger according to its full ($200) cost. That would lead to a real revolution in meat-eating.

For those who are morally uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals for meat, but haven’t yet been able to stop eating it, I highly recommend listening to the views of Jonathan Safran Foer.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
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The Prince Of Wales Seeks “Harmony”

Okay, he also seeks relevance. But in an age where we know the way we live is completely out of synch with the world we live in, you have to take answers (or suggestions) where you can find them. So while it would be easy to dismiss the plummy tones of this latest jeremiad from HRH, The Prince Of Wales, it’s more important to consider the fact that he is, well, right.

Here is the trailer for what he is on about.
Vodpod videos no longer available.


Charles, Prince of Wales outside the White Hou...
Image via Wikipedia

The full Harmony website is here, and thanks to NBC you can watch the whole Harmony program on Hulu. If it moves you, there is some cool social media to play with, and lots of action to take.

The scale of change required, of course, is far beyond what most people–even those who like what HRH has to say–are willing to contemplate. More on that later.

But it doesn’t hurt to be talking about it, especially in such an interesting voice.

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Chart Of The Day

Americans like things BIG: cars, serving portions, houses.

So how much more space per capita does the average American new home have compared to the rest of the world? Plenty.

(Chart via

Next it would be interesting to know how much more energy per capita our large houses consume, but you get the picture.

We are entering an age in which we need to scale back. A lot. Good to know that there is plenty of excess to trim.

Check out the world’s smallest house, which measures in at 96 square feet.

How low can you go?

Here, take a tour:

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We Have Slow Food. Are You Ready For Slow Driving?

55 mph speed limit being erected in response t...
Image via Wikipedia

When President Carter called for a 55 mph national speed limit in response to the 1970s Arab oil embargo there was a national outcry, and car manufacturers were not far from a decades-long binge on massive cars with powerful engines that could propel them nicely at speeds far in excess of the pokey 55 mph (recent research indicates that given an open road, Americans choose to cruise at 70 mph).

But with oil saturating the Gulf of Mexico, billions of American dollars a year going to nasty, hostile, dictatorships, and climate change slowly throttling the planet, I’ve been waiting for someone, somewhere, to make the case again for slowing down. And according to WIRED, someone has. And the new number is–drumroll–50 mph!

Everyone knows easing up on the accelerator can improve your fuel economy and reduce your emissions. But what kind of impact would it have on the environment if everyone had to slow down?

A potentially big one, as it turns out.

Dutch researchers say lowering the speed limit to 80 km/h (50 mph) would cut transportation-related CO2 emissions by 30 percent. Less drastic cuts in maximum speed would yield reductions of 8 to 21 percent, according to the study by CE Delft.


Beyond significantly reducing the amount of fuel vehicles burn, a strictly enforced 50 mph speed limit would increase the time required to cover a given distance. That would lead many people facing long commutes to ditch cars in favor of other modes of transport, like rail. Longer term, the impact could prompt people to move closer to urban centers.

Okay, I’ll give it a shot. There’s no reason to rush anymore, anyhow, because we are still fully plugged in via our smartphones, even when we are stuck in a car (kidding, cyclists, kidding. Sort of…).

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