Friday, November 9, 2007

Thoughts on a browning planet


My wife and I are taking a year to ride around the world by motorcycle for our honeymoon ( One of the most disturbing and obvious
facts of the trip is how far behind much of the rest of the world the USA is when it comes to green living and energy independence. I would like to share some of our observations, and some suggestions as to how we might proceed to move forward.

Forget the empty promises of politicians to “be a leader” in Green Technologies. First we must play catch up. Virtually all of Central and South America use only fluorescent
light bulbs. Wind turbines are everywhere, from Costa Rica to Turkey, from the fertile fields of Luxembourg to the sacred green hills of Ireland. Go to a gas station in Rio de Janeiro and you can fill up with 5 types of fuel: diesel, bio-diesel, propane, natural gas and minimum 95 octane.

The SUV is virtually an ‘America only’ vehicle, which is seen only intermittently elsewhere, and even then the vast majority are of the BMW X-3 size, not the mammoth
Chevy Suburbans or Ford Excursions. We could count the number of Hummers we’ve seen on the toes of a foot of a two-toed sloth. Even on the German Autobahn, the BMWs and Mercedes are typically of the lower engine size classes. The vast majority of cars in the world are tinier 4 door Toyota Corola sized vehicles. The majority of motorcycles are 125cc types from Japan and China which approach triple digit miles per gallon.

Recycling is huge and mainstream in Europe. Kitchen cabinets come with drawers separated into 4 different compartments for green, brown, and clear glass and plastic.
Large recycling stations are on main streets in the cities and in parking lots of the Wal-Marts and other shopping centers. The mentality to conserve and recycle has clearly become standard, and people do it as naturally as we go to get a coffee in the morning. In fact, grocery stores actually charge a fee for bags and most people carry their shopping home in fold-out crates and re-usable sturdy sacks.

Public transportation is more prevalent, cheap, and easy to use in almost every corner of the world. Almost everyone knows about the trains and subways in Europe. But we also used the buses and subways in Mexico City, Istanbul, Buenos Aires and Caracas. They were all at least as clean, timely, and easy to navigate as the MBTA, and usually much better than that standard; and they were of course fully taken advantage of.

Toilets in Europe now come with two flush options. One option is for solid waste which uses the standard amount of water, and one for liquid waste which uses a reduced amount of water to do its job. Another way that resources are being saved around the world is with the prevalence of motion detectors in residential and commercial buildings which turn on and off not just lights, but also escalators and other electric appliances.

Hot water, which can account for up to 25% of a person’s energy use in the United States, is handled quite differently outside the USA. The typical solution, especially in poor regions and warm tropical climates, is, of course, cold water only. Obviously that won’t cut it in the developed world, but there are other options. In Turkey, there are hot water solar panels on virtually every roof, and this is common in many parts of the world. The most common solution is “on demand” systems which only heat water at the shower electrically, or by natural gas or propane for larger systems which provide hot water for a whole house.

The big box hardware stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot in Ireland and the UK carry wind powered electricity generators for a few hundred dollars for homeowners to install themselves. There are places as diverse as floating reed villages on Peru’s Lake Titicaca to Internet Caf├ęs in Nicaragua which power their electrical usage using only solar panels; and many highway signs and roadside warnings are solar powered throughout the world.

Bicycle paths are common in most European cities which are older than Boston, and often have just as jumbled of a road system. In Amsterdam, which is world bicycle central, there is a parking garage next to the main bus and railway terminal with room for 80,000 bicycles. The folks we met said they use them year around, even in the snow.

On the positive side, thanks to the Clean Air and Water acts and other measures, the United States clearly has some of the best quality air and water in the world. It has been shocking to see some of the permanent smog over places such as Vienna, Lima, Budapest, and Sao Paulo to name just a few. Just the sight of these brown hazes hanging over any city is enough for me to question what, if any, real progress mankind is making. Don’t even get me started about all the polluted water ways we’ve found in our

What can be done? As the saying goes: Think Globally, Act Locally. I’ve mentioned things we’ve seen to pique people’s imagination as to how they might be more energy efficient, and to encourage them to see different solutions to energy needs, as we have done as a result of our trip. Thomas Friedman recently wrote in the New York Times that one of the best things we can do for the environment is to elect environmentally conscious leaders. In Boston and Massachusetts we need leaders who might do the following things:

1) Mandate that all taxi cabs be hybrid vehicles within 5 years (as done by Mayor Bloomberg in NYC).
2) Mandate that all non-essential city or state vehicles also be hybrid.
3) Mandate dual use toilets in new housing developments; and, make a deadline of perhaps 10 or 15 years for subsidized housing and public buildings to be retrofitted to do the same.
4) All replacement lights in public buildings and subsidized housing to use fluorescent lighting. Within 5 years all lighting to be fluorescent or other high efficiency equivalents.
5) Increase gas taxes. with the money raised to go directly into public transportation projects, such as extending the Green Line and other rail projects in the State and the Region. Gas is $8 a gallon in Europe, $5 a gallon in Brazil, and almost $10 a gallon in Turkey. The cost has not stopped driving or traffic jams, we need to make public transportation a viable alternative to cars. Perhaps a group from New England and New York could get together to impose a similar tax across the region to invest into a real regional rail system. This will help in many ways to make the region a more competitive place economically.
6) Mandate that new hot waters systems, especially in public buildings and subsidized housing be more efficient.
7) Mandate that shopping centers and parking lots of a certain size provide recycling stations for the public use. Provide similar recycling stations on public property.
8) Make bicycling part of the solution, not just a way for bike messengers to earn a dangerous living.
9) Eliminate school busing in Boston for environmental reason and move to neighborhood schools. (I realize this is a much bigger issue, but the City of Boston spends around 90 million dollars a year on transportation. That is a lot of fossil fuel. We also need better and diverse schools but that is another subject). At the least, convert buses to bio-fuel as is being done in many municipalities.
10) Insist that the MBTA provide professional service. If Mexico City and Istanbul, let alone Europe, can provide fast, clean, reliable, and timely trains and buses then we can do it in Massachusetts as well.
11) Get Wind Power moving! We’ve seen wind turbines in the Oceans near the Netherlands, in farmer’s fields through the flatlands of Europe, on mountains in Scotland and South America. There is a lot of wind in New England, and our energy costs are high. We need to do this and do it Big!

I believe that by taking steps such as these we will foster a sense of being environmentally conscious, that will hopefully move us from just taking advantage of these tried and true methods to using our innate Yankee Ingenuity to refine these existing technologies, and coming up with new ones so that we can become world wide environmental leaders.

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