The Global Environment
Needless to say the beauty of our planet is immensely important to me, but its beauty is only one measure of the health and the value of what we were given in this world. The Earth's living systems are intertwined with that beauty and are no less important. Our own futures and our prospects for liberty and the pursuit of happiness are likewise inescapably intertwined with the planet and its health.

Our species is ripping the world apart at a stunning rate, just by getting up and going about our business each day. Given that our numbers have become as vast as they have, and that we live nearly exclusively through systems which are not sustainable, it is simply inevitable that we would be ripping our world to shreds. Until we learn it and confront this terrible reality, we will be able to do little to stem the destruction.

During my lifetime, half of all the rainforest on Earth has been obliterated and the rest is going fast. Since 1980, half of the arctic sea ice has melted from human-induced climate change. The Caribbean Sea is largely dead. So is the Mediterranean. Most of the major fisheries of the world have either been destroyed or severely damaged by overfishing. A majority of the life forms of the planet have seen their habitats severely diminished by human activity, most of which is accelerating. Catastrophic climate change is well under way and threatens to ruin our agriculture, spread tropical disease dramatically, and drown coastal areas and river deltas around the world. And for what? So that we can live another day with our heads in the sand?

There is no excuse for our collective foolishness. For one thing, it runs completely counter to the Constitution of the United States, which exists to protect us from ourselves, yet is failing completely to protect us from this new way we've found to diminish our lives, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness. How can we secure the blessings of liberty for our posterity if we consume them all ourselves? Collective humanity will remain unworthy of the term civilization, until the day when we can really say that we have finally learned to live sustainably on the Earth. But by such time, we will, of course, have lost most of what was here in the first place.

In the meantime, we can all contribute to living less harmfully by the choices we make at the ballot box, by getting involved in writing letters to Congress and other public officials, by choosing to cut our waste of energy, and by reading. Here are some of my favorite news items, sources of superb reading, and hopeful bits of technology for diminishing our messes.

1) Burning gasoline (and other fossil fuels) is a sin, and always has been, but we all do it and take it for granted, so it seems OK. It's not. Especially now that it's been done so much by so many of us. Toyota has built an incredible power train for gasoline-powered cars which nearly doubles the actual efficiency (mileage), compared with an average, equivalent 2003 model year gasoline-powered car. It's called Hybrid Synergy Drive and it's far and away the biggest development in the history of internal combustion. You never have to plug it in because all of its electric power ultimately comes from the gasoline. It's not only far more efficient, but it drives better and I believe it will require vastly less expenditure on repairs over the lifetime of the car because a) it has no transmission (in the conventional sense), b) it has no clutch, c) it has no starter motor (in the conventional sense), d) it has no alternator, e) it has just one rubber belt on the engine, and like more and more new cars, it uses a timing chain instead of a timing belt. And then there are the brakes — when you step on the brakes, the big electric motor slows the car down, making power for the 88-pound NiMH battery, and the hydraulic brakes on the wheels don't even move unless you step on the brakes hard or when you are coming to a complete stop — so they last far longer between repairs. In fact, they may never need repair. This is a lot of stuff that can't wear out because it doesn't exist or because energy isn't being wasted. The first car to get this mature hybrid power train was the 2004 Toyota Prius, a revolutionary car that made all prior motor vehicles obsolete in my opinion. Toyota considers this power train technology to be their corporate crown jewels and plan to put it into every model they make by 2012. Toyota has 670 patents on the two generations of the Prius combined. They used 1000 engineers to create this second-generation Prius. The Prius is quieter than a regular car. It has the lowest coefficient of drag of any production car on the planet (the Honda Insight is lower, but it's built by hand). It has the first window glass in the world which is both heat and UV absorbing — both huge benefits. It has the world's first electric automotive air conditioner. It has a superior systems control interface for adjusting climate and other things without taking your eyes off the road. It has a very cool nav system option and available self-leveling HID headlights. And a smart entry system option that lets you unlock the car with no hands and start it without touching the key fob at all. It handles beautifully, has more leg room in the back than a Camry, has more flexible cargo hauling capabilities than a Camry or an Accord, has the same wheelbase as a Camry, yet is only as long as a Corolla overall, and has the same short turn radius as a Corolla or a Civic. It is the Motor Trend Car of the Year for 2004 and the North American Car of the Year for 2004, the industry's two highest honors. It is also essentially non-polluting, with respect to smog-forming emissions. And it's even beautiful to look at. And at 2890 pounds curb weight, with six airbags, including the side and side curtain option, the car is undoubtedly one of the safest on the road. One more thing — it sells for the same price range as a Camry, starting at $20,875 for 2005 including destination charge, well-equipped. Climate control, the seven-inch color LCD touch screen, heated outside mirrors, traction control, and a CD player are standard. EPA rating 60 city/51 highway. Did I mention I love this car? Keep in mind that I hate cars. It still burns the evil liquid, but a lot less. The next big thing will likely be fuel-cell powered cars that use hydrogen. The hydrogen will initially (we hope) be made by reforming natural gas in small reformers at gas stations. Eventually, we will be able to make enough cheap power from windmills, cheap solar cells and biomass conversion to make our hydrogen from the electricity with hydrolysis, then our cars and maybe even our aircraft can begin to enjoy nearly pollution-free perpetual motion. And by then our power generation systems will be free of our terrible dependence on fossil fuels and uranium. Here is my new Prius:

Use less energy. Pollute less. Reward the companies that make better products. Prove to other people and companies that it can be done, and feel really good about doing it. And when a politician votes against raising the CAFE standards to 42 miles per gallon, get mad, for they are hurting us as surely as our enemies did during WWII. They will lie to you about bigger, heavier cars being safer. Safer for whom? The gas guzzlers of America kill several times more Americans in other vehicles than the sedans do, per registered vehicle year, and they're not even safer for their own drivers because they roll over so easily. Read the definitive study here ("t021full.pdf" 268KB). Unnecessarily large cars are unpatriotic and antisocial. The H2 is the biggest insult of all. But then long commutes are terrible too...

Toyota USA Prius page: http://www.toyota.com/prius
How it Works: Visit the Special Reports page and select the PDF download for THS II (April 25, 2003).

2) Speaking of the hydrogen economy, here is how you can learn all about our future energy carrier (not an energy source) from the best source I know. Visit the Energy section of The Rocky Mountain Institute's Library and download a great PDF called "Twenty Hydrogen Myths" by Amory Lovins and other papers about hydrogen and why its use is vital to achieving a renewable and sustainable energy system. It turns out that it will work beautifully — if we make the right choices.

3) Another emerging great hope for affordable energy without the drawbacks of fossil fuels is the Thermal Conversion Process of Changing World Technologies, Inc. First revealed in an article in Discover magazine, this process promises to be able to convert any kind of organic matter into high-grade oil plus valuable chemicals economically and efficiently. If it were used to convert all of our agricultural plant waste into oil, it would produce as much as we import today — over 60 percent of our total petroleum usage.

4) The biggest thing most of us can do to stop wasting huge amounts of electricity, thus stemming our damage to the sky and our wallets, is to take any old refrigerators we may have out of operation and replace them with new ones. If you have one built in the 1970s or earlier, it has by now consumed roughly $8,000 to $15,000 worth of electricity, or more, causing horrific amounts of pollution from the power plants (and wasting gobs of your money). The new Energy Star model that you buy will not only be nicer and perhaps larger, but will also use one fifth as much power and pay for itself in power savings alone in about four years. Ours is a bottom-freezer, 21 cubic foot Amana, but there are lots of good ones. Our old frig was from the 1960s. Be sure to have the old one properly disposed of by an organization that will pick it up and take it away to have its ozone destroying refrigerant captured. Whatever you do, don't keep it as a spare. You'll likely be eligible for a rebate from your utility or state government too. The consensus is that you should replace any refrigerator built prior to 1990. Huge efficiency improvements were made during the '90s. If you spend much on air conditioning, you should look into that too. Department of Energy refrigerator information page and EPA's Energy Star page

5) Never throw out aluminum. About one third of our aluminum cans are still being thrown into landfill despite being by far the most valuable material in the waste stream. Each aluminum can requires about two kilowatt hours of electricity to make from aluminum ore, a stunning amount of power, and recycling it into a new can requires only one twentieth as much. As a rule, the can costs more to make than the beverage.

6) The greatest success story in the entire renewable energy field at the moment is windmills. Historically, electricity from wind was very expensive. Now it's cheaper than coal and will soon be cheaper than natural gas. Nuclear remains the super-expensive alternative and the biggest energy crime of all. We can power nearly our entire electrical grid with wind alone, and do it inexpensively, once we learn how to store power in inexpensive fuel cells, but diversity of renewable power supplies is vital and both cheap solar electric and biomass power are likely to become huge soon. All of the good methods need our strong political support. The oil, coal, gas and nuclear lobbies practically own Washington, D.C. Throw the bums out! They are stealing our future!

7) The most shocking and important recommended reading I can suggest is a pair of amazing articles. The first is an interview with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is, among other things, the senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), perhaps the most important environmental organization of all. The interview was published on November 19, 2003 by Salon.com on the occasion of the publication by Rolling Stone of a longer article written by RFK, Jr. titled "Crimes Against Nature", which details the systematic and devastating assault on the American environment and on free markets by the Bush administration and its supporting corporate allies.

Salon article (requires getting a quick day pass to read the entire article)
Link to copy of the Rolling Stone article

8) Al Gore made a stunning speech in New York on January 15, 2004 about climate. This is required listening. The Windows Media Player version is best. The video is better than the transcription because he uses many excellent graphics, although the video quality is poor.

9) I would like to suggest a number of ways to sign up for action alerts which will give you the chance to chime in to your elected representatives on a range of environmental matters as they come up for action, just by sending a quick email. I used to write a letter or two a year to congress. Now I send a lot more. Our voices matter, but without hearing from a lot of us, the choice will often go to the huge corporate lobbies. Here are some great lists you can sign up for:

NRDC's SaveBioGems.org

Environmental Defense Action Network

The League of Conservation Voters

The Sierra Club

The Union of Concerned Scientists

MoveOn.org

Oceana, a nice little organization devoted to saving the oceans

Earthjustice (used to be the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund)

10) Last but not least, I would like to suggest that we will never enjoy democracy until the day when the buying and selling of political influence is recognized in our law for the crime that it is. When your future is for sale to the highest bidders, you are unlikely to be the one to win the auction. Money really does corrupt our governance to a huge degree and we are the only ones who can stop it. Our future is being built one day at a time, and without honest government doing our bidding, we can't wind up where we want to be. Everything we have is the result of what we have built together, as well as of our individual effort. Without justice, nothing works right. And without honest government, justice is impossible.

From the environment to defense to education to research to health care to Wall Street to the nature of our workplaces, it all depends on government to work. So I propose that we amend the Constitution of the United States to ban the commerce in political influence, and create in its place a system of citizen lobbying as follows.

Individual citizens rightfully possess the sole authority to influence government policy. In order to provide for the efficient collective exercise of this right (in addition to the exercise of individual lobbying by telephone, mail and email), registered lobbying organizations will exist for the promotion of every purpose of the people. These organizations will obtain one hundred percent of their funding from lobby credits which they may receive from citizen lobbyists (a group possibly identical to registered voters, but in no case including any non-citizen entity of any kind) in the form of checks or electronic payments made against each citizen lobbyist's individual lobby credit checking account, held by the Federal Reserve. Lobby credits so received will be converted to dollars, one to one. Into each such citizen lobbyist account will be deposited two hundred lobby credits on January 1st of each year. Any unspent credits will disappear on November 15th of the same year. Payments by check or electronic debit may be made from the accounts according to the wishes and concerns of the citizen lobbyist, who will be informed by a Citizen Lobbying Guide, published by the federal government and mailed out and posted on the Net, which lists every registered lobbying organization, their purpose, their total lobby credit income for the previous years, and briefly how they spent their money the previous year.

Immediately, the entire of pattern of spending on lobbying in America will shift to one that roughly matches the actual concerns of the people, instead of matching the concerns of the large concentrations of money that occur in the form of corporations (which are not citizens at all, and yet are currently given of super-citizen legal rights), unions, trade organizations, and so on. The cost to us will equal a mere $200 per year, but the savings, in thefts of our assets prevented, would run into the many thousands of dollars per year. We would all be far better off before too many years had passed. We might even manage someday to achieve the aforementioned real civilization.