Scales of Green

EPA’s Air Quality Index (AQI)

Dec 05

Posted: under Green Places.


After four posts about scales measuring the environmental performance of automobiles, auto companies, city transportation policies, and even our personal driving skills, we might think that if we do well on each of these measures, our environment should be doing okay.  But how would we know?  We also need measures of environmental quality — the current state of our environment — to assess whether our actions are making a difference; indeed, these are the “Scales of Green” that ultimately matter the most.

One measure that may be a good start is the Air Quality Index (AQI), which the federal government requires all metropolitan areas with populations greater than 350,000 to calculate and distribute to local media outlets.  The scale is from 0 to 500, with five levels and colors of increasing health concern, and highlights pollutant levels that may be particularly hazardous for at-risk groups (e.g. people with heart conditions, asthma, etc.).

Transparency: Air*

EPA’s website provides in-depth descriptions of the AQI and how it is calculated.  A particularly detailed document oriented towards state and local air quality monitoring agencies provides the methods, equations, and tables that should be used to generate the AQI.  The site discusses both what is measured and is not measured, and the limitations of the metric.

Governance: Republic

The AQI is calculated by government agencies based on data from approved air monitoring stations across the country. The EPA provides overall guidance and regulation of the process, while state and local agencies implement it.

Coverage: Hedgehog

While Air Quality Indexes can be calculated for as many as five air pollutants, it does not cover any of the 188 air toxics covered by the Clean Air Act nor any water and ground pollutants.  And often only ozone and particulate matter AQIs are calculated and distributed (if the others are generally shown to be below 50).  Therefore it is a relatively narrow measure of environmental performance, but it is also one of the most precise environmental quality measures available.

This Scale’s “Greenness:”

According to the EPA’s AirNow site, the AQI “tells you how clean or polluted your air is, and what associated health effects might be a concern for you.”  But let’s remember a few important points about this scale:

1. The AQI measures concentrations of five primary pollutants, not toxic pollutants that are more likely to result in longer-term, chronic health outcomes like cancer. An EPA study showed that in some areas these chronic risks may indeed be significant (click here for more info).

2. The AQI focuses on hourly and daily pollutant levels, not long-term trends. The EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are more relevant to evaluating our national air quality progress, and EPA’s most recent Trends Report shows that while air quality for the five primary pollutants discussed above has improved over the last 30 years, there are still 158.5 million Americans (more than half) who live in counties with air quality concentrations above the NAAQS.

3. The AQI is focused on human health effects of the air pollutants it measures, not their effects on visibility, either locally or in National Parks, or their effects on vegegation, crops, buildings, and wildlife. Such effects can be significant — see this site on crop damage from ozone as an example.  So while a low AQI may be good for your personal health, it may not necessarily mean the environment is not still being affected.

* For an explanation of the Transparency, Governance, and Coverage “ratings” above, please click here.

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GreenMeter I-Phone Application

Dec 03

Posted: under Green People.


You might own a car with great gas mileage and live in a super-sustainable city, but you still may not be getting around as sustainably as you could.  That’s because, in addition to your car’s fuel economy and your city’s road congestion, your own driving style can significantly impact the fuel mileage you actually get when you’re driving.  Lots of accelerating and braking wastes a lot of gas, by as much as 47% — check out these tips for more info on greener driving (  To help people drive more “greenly,” Hunter Research and Technology has released a “GreenMeter” that uses the I-Phone’s “internal accelerometer to measure forward acceleration and compute engine power, fuel economy, fuel cost, carbon footprint, and oil (barrels) consumption.” Drivers can monitor their acceleration and other indicators to improve their own personal fuel economy, regardless of what kind of car they ride in.

Transparency: *Brick

While the site describes how to setup and calibrate the application and users enter their own basic data (e.g. fuel prices, engine efficiency), very little if any information is provided as to how exactly the numbers are generated.  Without this information, the validity of the absolute numbers is questionable, although as measures of relative performance they may be useful (if they appear to generally respond the car’s acceleration, braking, etc.).

Governance: Monarchy (with Democratic Elements)

The application appears to be developed by a single individual, engineer and company owner Craig Hunter.  Some data must be entered by users, adding a democratic dynamic to the application, which allows for limited control over the application as well as creates the possibility of user-generated errors.

Coverage: Hedgehog

While relatively comprehensive in its coverage of fuel mileage factors, the application nevertheless has a narrow focus on only one environmental impact of automobiles — fuel use.  And from the perspective of the user, it does not assess other impacts of an individual’s lifestyle, such as use of public transportation, biking, etc.

This Scale’s “Greenness:”

The GreenMeter site claims it can “help evaluate your driving style to increase efficiency, reduce fuel consumption and cost, and lower your environmental impact.”  While all of this is true, it is important to remember:

1. The output data on fuel economy is highly questionable as accurate absolute measures of personal environmental impacts (e.g. carbon footprint) due to the lack of transparency into the methods behind the calculations.

2. The GreenMeter may nevertheless function well as a measurement of relative environmental performance over time, and may indeed help drivers reduce their environmental performance.

3. Driving efficiently is not the same as traveling sustainably – total miles driven, total miles travelled using alternative modes of transportation and total greenhouse gases emitted are still the most important measures of environmental performance.

* For an explanation of the Transparency, Governance, and Coverage “ratings” above, please click here.

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SustainLane’s Sustainable Cities

Dec 02

Posted: under Green Governments.


The environmental impact of transporting yourself around does not just depend on what car you drive, but also on what city you live in.  Cities that have affordable and convenient public transportation systems, for example, make it much easier for its citizens to drive and pollute less, regardless of whether they drive an hybrid or a Hummer.  Recognizing the relevance of municipal policies to the environment, SustainLane has published sustainability rankings of the 50 largest US cities over the last three years that cover not only transportation policies but also air quality, green building, and more. The results?  Portland, Oregon won the top spot in 2008, while Mesa, Arizona was in the cellar.

Transparency: *Plastic

The rankings are published on a well-designed website that displays both the overall ratings and the sub-scores that underlie them.  While it includes a general discussion of its methodology and sources,  some of its sources are private and not available to the public.  It is also not clear how the ratings are ultimately calculated, and they are therefore not reproduceable. SustainLane does provide useful bios of the people behind the rating, and engaging graphics illustrating the multiple dimensions of the ratings.

Governance: Oligarchy (with Republican Elements)

The rankings are published by SustainLane, a for-profit media company focused on delivering information to consumers about sustainable living.  The research team is directed by Kenneth Ott, and includes nine researchers, writers, and graphic designers.  The underlying data, however, often comes from government agencies and non-profit organizations.

Coverage: Fox

The issues covered by SustainLane are indeed extensive — air pollution, commuting, green building, energy and climate change, a green economy, housing and affordability, knowledge and communications, water quality, and more (a total of 16 sub-scores).  The comprehensiveness of each sub-score varies, and in many cases the scores appear to be quite robust, but without more information about how the ratings are actually calculated, it is not possible to know for sure.

This Scale’s “Greenness:”

The SustainLane rankings states that it “is the nation’s most complete report card on urban sustainability.”  But how complete, and how green?

1. The scores are indeed quite comprehensive, and appear to be more so than other similar rankings, such as those by Popular Science and Country Home.

2. The rankings are not, however, the most “extensive,” in that they only rate the 50 most populous cities — Country Home, for example, covers 379.  Such a focus on large cities lends the impression that only large cities are sustainable, and undervalues the efforts made by medium-sized and smaller communities.

2. The sub-scores weightings are explained but not fully justified — why are 11 of the 16 equally weighted, while five are adjusted?  Including multiple criteria related on transportation policies rewards cities that have focused on those policies more than others.

* For an explanation of the Transparency, Governance, and Coverage “ratings” above, please click here.

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Union of Concerned Scientists Automaker Rankings (2007)

Nov 26

Posted: under Green Companies.


In recent weeks, the Big Three automakers — GM, Ford, and Chrysler — have been under fire for asking for a bailout from Congress after spending years ignoring consumer interest in more fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly cars.  Nearly a year ago, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released its fourth assessment of the top automobile manufacturers’ environmental performance, and for the fourth time since 1999 the three American companies had the three worst scores given.  But what about the UCS report itself?  How does it come out in terms of its transparency, governance, and coverage of environmental issues?

Transparency: Glass*

The 49 page report includes an extensive Appendix detailing the methods used to calculate its scores. While the data and calculations themselves are not provided, clear source references and explanations are.  It includes a discussion of both what is and is not covered by the scores, although the implications of the specific scoring method used are not discussed.

Governance: Oligarchy (with Monarchic, Republican, and Aristocratic Elements)

While the report is attributed to a single individual, Don MacKenzie, the acknowledgements state that UCS is solely reponsible for its contents.  Given that Mr. MacKenzie is a vehicles engineer and not a senior staff member at UCS, it is likely a group of people reviewed, edited, and approved the document.  Nevertheless, Mr. MacKenzie clearly played a key role in its publication, and furthermore, the report’s results are based on data gathered from government websites, which in turn include data gathered from the companies themselves.  Thus, while the report’s design was ostensibly controlled by a non-profit oligarchy, it was also indirectly affected by decisions made by other types of governance as well.

Coverage: Hedgehog

While more extensive in its coverage than’s data, the UCS rankings are still limited in their assessment of environmental performance.  Their global warming scores only take into account carbon dioxide emissions due to fuel use, transportation, and production, and ignore other greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and HFC-134a and the climate impacts of automobile production.  The smog scores are limited in the fact that they are indeed smog scores, and only include smog-forming NOx and non-methane organic gases, while ignoring other pollutants such as ozone, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide.  Nevertheless, as individual measures of specific impacts, these scores are relatively robust.  And the fleet-wide assessments do provide a broader perspective on each company’s overall environmental performance than any other assessment currently in existence.

This Scale’s “Greenness:”

The UCS Report claims that its “analyses provide objective measures of each manufacturer’s true environmental performance,” but some important points should be remembered:

1. These rankings are based on proxy measures of each fleet’s climate and smog impacts, and have a high degree of uncertainty to them.

2.  The scores weight climate and smog equally – if we consider climate to be significantly more urgent than smog, for example, Volkswagen might be more highly ranked than Hyundai (or, if we weighted smog higher than climate, Nissan might do better than Hyundai).

3. The ratings are based on 2005 data (the most recent available), and each company’s performance may have shifted significantly since then.

4. The rating method looks at the average performance of each company’s models, rather than at the number of models above or below a certain performance threshold (e.g. GM frequently claims it has more models that get 30 MPG or more).  As a measure of overall performance, UCS’s model appears to be the correct choice, while the latter approach would be a better measure of “greener choices” provided to consumers.

5. Despite these caveats, UCS does provide the most comprehensive assessment of these automaker’s environmental performance, and its limitations reflect a general lack of data rather than an institutional emphasis.

* For an explanation of the Transparency, Governance, and Coverage “ratings” above, please click here.

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Auto Impacts:

Oct 23

Posted: under Green Products.


Last week, on October 15, the Environmental Protection Agency released its 2009 Fuel Economy Guide.  The Guide lists the city and highway fuel economies of models released in 2009, which are the second set of figures based on the EPA’s new testing requirements.  The new tests factor in the effects of higher speeds, acceleration, air conditioning, and cold outside temperatures, and aim to more accurately reflect our cars’ fuel economies.

Criteria Analysis (What’s Being Measured):

Industry Sector/Product Category: Automobiles

Criteria Scope (Product/Company): Product

Attribute(s) Being Measured: Technological Innovation

Life Cycle(s) Under Consideration: Use Phase

Environmental Values Affected: Climate

A definite improvement over earlier tests, the EPA’s new fuel economy score is a relatively narrow and specific measure of environmental performance.  It measures the gas mileage of car models under a variety of conditions, and as such is a good estimate of a car’s greenhouse gas emissions when it is being driven.  It does not, however, take into account the atmospheric pollutants released by these cars, such as particulates and carbon monoxide, and does not cover impacts from other parts of the car’s life cycle, such as its production or its end-of-life.  And it doesn’t factor in differences in the environmental performance of the companies making these cars, the countries they are made in, or the individuals driving them, all of which can have a significant effect on the car’s overall environmental impact.

Methods Analysis (How It’s Being Measured):

Transparency: High

Independent Verification: Limited (10%)

Peer Review: Yes

Data Updates: No (each car model tested only once)

Data Presentation: Data Averages

Criteria Updates: Infrequent (last change was in 1985)

A relatively detailed explanation of the tests, including a slide show and video, is provided, as is the raw data from the tests and manufacturers. Users of the website can also log their own gas mileages, which are then presented along with the government data.

Governance Analysis (Who’s Doing the Measuring):

Involvement of Government Agencies: Extensive (Funding, Leadership, and Decision-Making)

Involvement of Advocacy Group(s): Limited (Comment Period)

Involvement of Citizens: Limited (Comment Period and Data Provision)

Involvement of Academic Researchers: Limited (Comment Period)

Involvement of Companies Being Rated: Limited (Comment Period and Data Provision)

Involvement of Independent Organization(s): Limited (Comment Period)

The Environmental Protection Agency is primarily responsible for the funding and implementation of this program.  However, while the tests were designed and the data is published by the government, they are actually performed by the car manfacturers themselves.  10-15% of the tests are checked by the EPA, but those results do not appear to be made public, and certainly are not well-publicized.  While the “people’s voice” is heard through the posting of user data, the manufacturer’s data is privileged on the site, with no attempt to highlight or reconcile any differences.

This Scale’s “Greenness:”

While the EPA Administrator said that with this Guide, “Americans now have the information they need to buy greener and cleaner cars and trucks,” it is important to keep in mind several points:

The Green: does provide the best measure of a car’s gas mileage, and by extension, its climate impacts during driving.

The Not Green:

It does not, however, measure the overall “cleanness” or “greenness” of a car, if you consider limiting air pollution from exhaust and environmental impacts from manufacturing part of being green.  The EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide, Yahoo and Environmental Defense’s Green Car Center, the Union of Concerned Scientists Automaker Ratings, and CNW’s controversial but interesting Dust to Dust life cycle report are starting places for a more comprehensive perspective.  It also relies on tests by manufacturers, with limited verification, and does not require testing and has no data or many larger pickup trucks and SUVs (over 8500 lbs).

* For a more detailed explanation of the Criteria, Governance, and Methods reviews above, please click here.

Image above is from

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Setting the Scales

Oct 21

Posted: under Overview.

“What gets measured, gets managed.”

Peter Drucker

My general plan for this site is to add posts about different efforts to measure environmental performance.  I hope to cover a range of scales of such efforts on an equal basis, from the most personal to the most global.

For each post, I’ll provide a very brief description of the measure in focus, with links to the source if you want to learn more.  Then I’ll look at the “performance” of these measures across three criteria:

1. Transparency: How transparent are the measures?  How open are they about their data sources?  How clear are they about their methods of rating and certification?  In order to assess these assessments, the first and most fundamental criteria is transparency.  I rate the ratings on a 5 point scale, as outlined below:

  • “Air:” Most transparency possible. Sources and methods are clearly described, with references and
  • explanations that enable easy replication.
  • “Glass:” High transparency. All sources and methods are described, but not in enough detail to enable easy replication.
  • “Plastic:” Translucence. Some sources and methods are described, in varying levels of detail, while others are left unclear.
  • “Brick:” Opaqueness. Very few, if any, sources and methods are described, and with very few details.
  • “Lead:” Least transparency possible. Just as lead walls indicate an active effort to avoid prying eyes (even those of Superman), these measures describe no sources and methods, and may even mislead audiences about the nature of the rating.

2. Governance: How is the creation and maintenance of these measures governed and managed?  Who makes the decisions about what criteria gets included and what things get rated?  Understanding these decision-making processes is critical to understanding the nature of the measures themselves.  I therefore identify the the governance style of each measure, on the following 5 point scale:

  • “Monarchy:” A single individual makes the decisions about the measure. The benevolent dictator model, unencumbered by special interests and the ignorant mob.
  • “Oligarchy:” A small number of wise but unelected organizations or individuals run the show. They are brave humanitarians or treehuggers, unmotivated by lowly profit or electoral considerations.
  • “Aristocracy:” The landed class, or in our age, the “industrialists,” hold the cards in this model. They are the ones running production, the reasoning goes, so they should be the ones measuring it.
  • Republic:” Elected or appointed representatives of the people are at the controls in this model, either directly by passing laws or indirectly through the bureaucracies at their command.  While accountable to the demos, they have some latitude in using their “expert judgment.”
  • “Democracy:” Anyone motivated to express their opinion contributes to decision-making. The people speak, and their will is followed, without regard to class, status, expertise, and sometimes even basic facts.

3. Coverage: What issues are covered by the measure?  How well, or how deeply, are they covered?  Once we know something about the transparency and governance of the measure, we probably would like to understand something about its quality, or coverage.  I use the scale below to assess both the “breadth” and “depth” of the ratings covered on this site:

  • “Owl:” The owl is known for its wisdom, and so its ratings are both broad and deep. They cover a wide range of environmental issues in a high level of detail. A rare feat, indeed.
  • “Hedgehog:” As Aesop once said, the hedgehog knows one thing very well. And so do its ratings–they cover one issue in great detail, to the exclusion of other, perhaps equally important ones.
  • “Fox:” The fox, also according to Aesop, is the opposite of the hedgehog, and knows many things, but not in much depth. The fox’s measures, have broad coverage, but do not go into much detail.
  • “Grasshopper:” In Aesop’s tales, the grasshopper is eaten by the owl because of its simplemindedness, falling for the owl’s simple flattery. Grasshopper ratings are similarly neither broad nor deep in their coverage, but cover few issues with limited details.
Narrow Focus Broad Focus
Shallow Focus Grasshopper


Deep Focus Hedgehog


Of course other criteria are relevant to measures of environmental performance, and I will bring them up when they seem appropriate.  But I feel these three — transparency, governance, and coverage — are particularly important, useful, and interesting, and so I want to make sure I cover them, at least for the time being.

I should also note that we should not immediately apply value judgments to these different conditions — glass or lead, republic or aristocracy, owl or grasshopper — as each has their strengths and weaknesses, their costs and benefits.  As we explore different examples, we can discuss these tradeoffs, and how they should be made in different contexts.

A final point is that you may disagree with some of my assessments, and by no means do I believe them to be final or definitive, but merely as a means to begin a discussion on these topics.  I hope you will find this framework and these starting points helpful and insightful — let me know what you think…!

Window photo is from

Hedgehog photo is from

All other photos are from Microsoft Office ClipArt.

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Our Green Home

Oct 14

Posted: under Green Places.

When a house is tottering to its fall,
The strain lies heaviest on the weakest part,
One tiny crack throughout the structure spreads,
And its own weight soon brings it toppling down.

Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17/18), Roman poet. Tristia, 2. 83-86.

We expect our homes to provide us with a few basic but key services — shelter, running water, ventilation, heat, air conditioning, etc.  If we’re lucky, our homes may even have a garden that provides us with food as well.  They also provide us with more intangible and sentimental benefits — as Phillip Moffitt states, “A house is a home when it shelters the body and comforts the soul.”  This may be why Martha Stewart makes a similar differentiation: “What we’ve been trying to do is keep our homes — we’re trying to make our houses homes in the first place and then once they are homes, how to take care of them.”

Our planet is in many ways both our house and our home.  It provides both tangible benefits to us, including the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink, as well as intangible ones, from the awesomeness of the highest Himalayas to the mysteries of the ocean’s darkest depths.  All of this, for free and with no interest, amazingly –even better than a sub-prime loan, and without the following financial implosion.  Indeed, a study published in Nature 10 years ago estimated the total value of these services to be $33 trillion a year — nearly double the value of global GNP at the time (Costanza et al 1997).

Yet despite its incredible value to us, scientists around the world have been claiming for years that humanity is undermining and even destroying the systems that provide us with these natural benefits. A recent EU-commissioned study calculated the annual cost of forest loss around the world to be between $2 trillion and $5 trillion, which is more than double this year’s $1-$1.5 trillion losses in the financial sector.  Armed with such evidence that our great green house of Nature is, in the words of Ovid, “tottering to its fall,” they point to cracks in its foundation, in its frames and walls, in its pipes and wires.  But where is the heaviest strain, the “weakest part?”  What is causing the toppling, if indeed it is happening?  Where and how should we focus our energies to keep our house and home standing?

Scientists, engineers, and politicians all have different answers to these questions.  The climatologists argue the climate is our greatest environmental challenge, biologists claim species extinction is our most urgent and irreversible ecological issue, hydrologists believe water quantity and quality is the greatest environmental threat to human health.  Skeptics disagree with all of them, citing evidence of the resiliency and adaptivity of both the Earth and human beings over time.  And then there are disagreements within each of these groups as well, about which places, which species, which cycles are most at risk.  What is an average but concerned citizen and consumer to do with all this discord?

This section of the website will explore some of these questions about the state of our planet — who is measuring it and how, and what they are finding and saying.  An increasing number of relatively legitimate and robust efforts to assess “environmental quality” are underway, at a range of ecological scales.  While they still leave much to be desired, they are critical efforts, as ultimately all other measures of environmental performance — of products, companies, governments, and individuals — depends on an understanding of their environmental impact.  Such an understanding requires a baseline and snapshots of  ecological health over time, so we can assess the effects of environmental efforts at each different scale of human activity.

So how green is our home?  As green as it’s inhabitants, and as green as its inhabitants allow it to be.  We’ll see just how green that is in the posts to come…

Photo credit:…/eco-house-from-willa-nordic/.

Ovid quote:

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The Green Jedi

Oct 12

Posted: under Green People.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: For over a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice…The Force is what gives a Jedi his power.

Luke Skywalker: I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi…

Star Wars I: The New Hope

So you want to save the world, huh?  Well, you’re not alone.  As claims of environmental destruction, species extinction, and climate change have incrased over the last several decades, people around the world have become increasingly less content with waiting for governments and corporations to take action on these issues.  Instead, motivated by either guilt or hero complexes, or perhaps just a simple desire to “make a difference,” they have sought out ways to “act locally” while “thinking globally.”

Whether by protesting on picket lines and sitting in trees, supporting and voting for “green” candidates and ballot initiatives, giving money to and volunteering for environmental organizations, or changing their lifestyle habits and consumption patterns, these “Green Jedi” have sought to change the world through their own actions, one step at a time.

But like the original Jedi, one must be trained in the ways of the Force.  How do we know what actions to take?  How do we know how to wield our considerable power as citizens and consumers?  How do we know when to resist the Dark Side of environmentalism, by either becoming too radicalized or too complacent?  Who do we turn to train us, to answer these questions, to guide us in our quests to find our grails, to green our icebergs, to tame our Leviathans?

Many of us are, in effect, self-taught Green Jedi, learning from a wide range of sources that are difficult for us to identify and admittedly have varying levels of value.  We trust very few, but are still strongly committed to the general cause of environmental protection, and make our commitments on a case-by-case basis.

Some of us do not think of ourselves so much as environmentalists (much less Green Jedi), but nevertheless believe there is something fundamentally wrong about despoiling Creation and its waters and forests and creatures, and try to avoid actively contributing to such destruction where we can.

Still others of us do proudly wear the label, “Treehugger,” and take our cues from individuals or organizations that have met some bar of credibility and authority for us.   They appear to have at least some of the answers we seek, and can serve, as least imperfectly, as our Yodas and our Obi-Wan’s.

But we all, deep down, are often skeptical of these sources of our knowledge and inspiration, and are aware of their biases and weaknesses, and we wonder and fear whether anyone ultimately knows the right path.

This section of the website will look at a variety of efforts to provide guidance to individuals as we work to “green” our lives.  An increasing number of initiatives, from informative books and websites to personal eco-audits, are trying to help us find our way through the complexity of environmental issues at the personal and household level, a scale that is at once both clearly insufficient and obviously necessary for any meaningful change to occur.  We will explore how “greenness” is being measured at this scale, who is doing this measuring, and why.  We will look at these efforts in a historical context, both to the past for lessons learned and to the future for opportunities awaiting us, because the desire to improve the world, to personally contribute in some way, even infintessimally, to some concept of “progress,” is an old one, and one that will not go away anytime soon.

May the Force be with us…!

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Greening the Leviathan

Oct 11

Posted: under Green Governments.

“The only way to erect such a [common power to keep the people in awe, and to direct their actions to the common benefit] is to confer all their power and strength upon one man, or upon one assembly of men, that may reduce all their wills, by plurality of voices, unto one will…This is the generation of that great Leviathan to which we owe our peace and defence.”

From Leviathan, or The Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical and Civil, by Thomas Hobbes, 1651

Real green progress, some might argue, can not, in the long term, be accomplished through corporate actions, innovative products, or individual virtue, but only through public laws and regulations.  As Thomas Hobbes explains in the Leviathan, only the government can legitimately direct and command the actions of its citizens to a common benefit, and it may be that the use of such sovereign power is necessary to enact any meaningful change in society.  For “niche” issues, it is fine for individuals and organizations to try to change the world, but when real emergencies emerge — military, financial, environmental, etc. — it is to presidents, kings, and legislatures to whom we turn.

And turn to them we have, to protect our most beautiful landscapes, our air and water quality, our endangered species, and increasingly our climate.  But those government efforts, whether they are the be-all and end-all or not, vary greatly in terms of their content, orientation, and effectiveness.  Some governments may emphasize keeping waterways clean, while others may focus on protecting open spaces.  And they may pursue different means to reach the same green end, and have dramatically different results.

While they may operate directly on environmental problems, governments can also fundamentally affect the environmental performance of both corporations and individuals within their borders.  Strong laws that are well-enforced can incentivize better compliance and greener behavior, while weak or non-existing laws can encourage a “race to the bottom.”  Voluntary programs may have a greater effect on environmental performance when government agencies support them, lending them a sense of legitimacy and authority.  The regulatory environment is a key determinant in environmental performance across a range of scales.

But just as with the iceberg and the grail, with corporate and product performance, how is the greenness of these regulations being measured?  Who is assessing how green the clothes of the Emperor are?  Or does he have any green clothes at all?  A growing number of initiatives have begun to look at how environmentally responsible various levels of governments are, from cities to states to nations to elected officials themselves.  This section of the website will look at these efforts, their methods, and their conclusions, and discuss their implications for the “greening of government” and orienting the power of the Leviathan to build a sustainable society.

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Green Icebergs

Oct 09

Posted: under Green Companies.
Tags: ,

Nice living on top, but what about the bottom?

Nice living on top, but what about the bottom?

Since the density of pure water ice is ca. 920 kg/m3, and that of sea water ca.1025 kg/m3, typically, around 90% of the volume of an iceberg is under water, and that portion’s shape can be difficult to surmise from looking at what is visible above the surface.

So-called “green products,” from “eco-pencils” to “hybrid SUVs,” have been proliferating in recent years, and the “Green Products” section of this site will be exploring this growth and their measurement in detail.  These products, however, usually only represent a very small portion of any one company’s total production — they are, in effect, only the tip of the iceberg.  It is the tip that remains out of water, the public face of the company that offers green solutions to “saving the world,” while most of the company’s products and processes remain submerged and out of sight, their environmental performance unseen and unknown.

If we want to know how the private sector is really affecting the planet, we must understand the overall impacts of corporations rather than just focus on their most innovative (but usually niche) products.  Many organizations, including companies themselves, recognize this basic fact, and regularly issue reports and ratings assessing corporate environmental performance. Companies issue Sustainability Reports, government agencies reward or punish companies for their levels of emissions, and non-profit organizations grade companies on their overall policies and programs.

But more often than not, these activities often have only a limited view of the iceberg’s underside, and fail to take a holistic view of its size, dimensions, and direction.  It is similar to the problem of the blind men and the elephant; each man is correct in describing the part he is touching, but all are radically wrong in describing the whole elephant.  We need to bring together these perspectives so we can accurately understand how green these icebergs, elephants, and companies really are.

So in this section, I will explore different efforts to measure the environmental performance of corporations, rather than single products.  I will look into who is doing this measuring, what they are measuring, and what they are not measuring.  Are environmental inputs, outputs and impacts being asssessed, as opposed to just policies and programs?  Are effects on air, water, and wildlife being evaluated, as opposed to only those on the most popular issue of the day, the climate?  For that matter, are all policies relevant to climate change being investigated, or only the most obvious (but perhaps not the most important)?

The state of the whole iceberg, and not just the one the penguins are frolicking on, must be known if we want to know how “green” it is, and how green it may become.  Ultimately it is more the trends of the mainstream market and not the “green products” market that drive corporate decisions and the private sector’s environmental impacts.  Since 90% of its mass is underwater, it is the currents of the ocean, and not the wind, that determine the iceberg’s direction.

Images: Iceberg is from and Elephant is from

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