The Wrapper Riddle

May 17, 2010

An Everyday Mystery


“This sleeve is made from 60% post-consumer fiber,” it says on the obligatory cardboard sleeve around a Starbucks coffee mug. That is an agreeable environmental effort and the company initially put a considerable effort in designing mug and sleeve from an ecological (and of course economical) standpoint. But is it also agreeable if you saw that sleeve somewhere in China? That would most likely mean, it was imported from the US and shipped or flown over to China. Could it be that a sleeve without recycled components but made and used in China would actually have a smaller environmental footprint than the imported, recycled one and wouldn’t that nullify all virtuous recycling efforts?

Admittedly, this example is a little extreme. Even the most ardent environmentalist would probably not engage in such strenuous thought, but the sleeve shows that even when products contain information about their environmental benefits, it can sometimes remain difficult to assess their impact or performance accurately.

Compiling data on product’s environmental performance is increasingly important as a marketing tool. The market has become a lot more transparent for the consumer with the introduction of energy and rating systems like the EPA’s Energy Star Programs for home appliances, USGBC’s LEED rating system or “Der Blaue Punkt” (the blue dot), the world’s first labeling system denoting environmentally sound products in Germany dating from as early as 1978. These big rating agencies and organizations help in their specific areas of expertise to further the consumer’s understanding by quantifying and verifying information.

However, often there is a lot of conflicting information about the environmental impact of products or services depending on the information source or simply the approach to ecological thinking. Popular examples of controversy include the purchase of local produce (Al Gore is an advocate for it, David Owen, the author of Green Metropolis, is opposed to this idea – both for environmental reasons) or the question if flying really is as bad for the environment as some data suggests. Unanswered is also the question, if HOV lanes (High Occupancy Vehicle) are favorable because they encourage carpooling and the use of hybrid vehicles and therefore reduce emissions or if they ultimately just free space on the remaining lanes for even more conventional cars to take to the roads.

In addition, with the environmental sector still going through considerate knowledge expansions in scientific research and practical application (more so than other, more mature technical fields), often what is state of the art nowadays might become a despicable culprit in the near future. An example is the use of ethanol as a highly advertised and politically supported gasoline ersatz, made mainly from sugar cane. The focus of satisfying the increased demand for planting sugar cane ultimately reduced farmland formerly used for food production and also contributed to cutting down peat forests to make way for new sugar cane fields in countries like Brazil. – Potentially, technical novelties, even those with ecological ambitions, bear the danger of backfiring and might ultimately have to question or adjust their own goals.

So there is room for doubt about purchasing decisions, especially with smaller products or byproducts. Which makes for a grey zone that cannot be accessed, a lack of data, as with the sleeve. At least in China it will remain mysterious.


Black and White on “Green”

April 29, 2010

A Review of Current Books on Sustainable Issues

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability (David Owen, Riverhead Books, New York, 2009), hardcover, 357 pages, $25.95

This book by American journalist David Owen is a quintessential must read for everybody interested in a more sustainable way of life. Generally Green Metropolis is a plea for living in cities as their compactness ultimately leads to many environmental benefits over the often idealized concept of living remotely outside of cities and in pseudo harmony with nature. Owen’s main argument is that city populations have inherently smaller energy and carbon footprints, since shorter distances for commuting to work and for leisure require less driving, and since living in stacked and rather small apartments is more energy efficient than living in big suburban homes. Touching on many aspects of everyday life and also focusing on architecture, urban planning, and questions of mobility, the author designs a blueprint for sustainable living that as brilliantly as it is merciless exposes many eco-myths and features diametrical positions to generally accepted sustainable beliefs: a true, much needed challenge to conventional thinking.

– Highly recommended.

Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (Al Gore, Rondale Press, New York, 2009), paperback, 416 pages, $26.99

Sequel to the award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, the newest book of Nobel laureate Al Gore is not only a detailed, well-illustrated compendium of causes and effects of climate change, it also features current and future alternative energy technologies and most importantly offers detailed solutions for the current problems at hand. Although not always quite able to escape his political past and language, Gore manages to balance the book between the amplitude of two currents: the desperation over the current lack of action in the face of dire climate consequences and the elevating hope of being able to retool our current life and economy using knowledge we already possess.

– Recommended.

Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value, and Build Competitive Advantage (Daniel Esty/Andrew Winston, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, 2009), paperback, $19.95

Slowly but surely companies learn to understand that sustainable practices must not impede economic growth, but can actually yield competitive advantage and financial gain. Green to Gold lays out how business can fair well in an increasingly environmentally sensible market, and how companies can create what Esty and Winston coin “Eco-Advantage:” drawing positive economic impulses and strengthened PR by looking at business through an environmental lens. The authors outline general strategies, tools, and plans to reduce costs and risks of sustainable practices and drive revenues and overall value. The book features numerous case studies of companies of varying sizes that in many areas of their operations have discovered the positive financial side effects of actual sustainable measures or the striving for better efficiencies.

– Recommended.

The Clean Tech Revolution: The Next Big Growth and Investment Opportunity (Ron Pernick/Clint Wilder, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2007), hardcover, 308 pages, $12.99

This book understands the current focus on sustainable technologies as the start of a new industrial revolution. It systematically explains and records all current technologies that contribute to a shrinking carbon footprint (including solar energy, wind power, the smart grid, biofuels, and also sustainable architecture among others), evaluates their current technological status quo, market situation and future potential and relates these findings to general investment opportunities. The book furthermore introduces individual companies that show promising use of innovative technologies, have hidden potential or are market leaders in their field. The Clean Tech Revolution is written in a crisp and informative way and provides a great overview of many technological, economical, social, and political aspects involved in the still growing field of “clean tech” companies.

– Recommended

Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change: A 21st Century Survival Guide (Sue Roaf/David Crichton/Fergus Nicol, Architectural Press, Oxford, UK, 2009), paperback, 385 pages, $57.95

Unfortunately the content of this book has nothing to do with its title. This book is not about adapting buildings and cities; it is a one-sided, narrow-minded treatise of causes and effects of climate change. More than half of the book covers the future consequences of climate change, from changing temperatures, sea levels, and precipitation patterns, to the climate’s impact on living conditions of populations and the built environment. The book continues to romanticize traditional building typologies in developing nations like Pakistan in terms of their thermal comfort and praises the absence of air-conditioning as a model to follow or at least learn from. It condemns high-profile architects, cities and high-rises in general as places of immense energy waste, and attacks modernism as the architectural epoch that for the five authors represents a step back in terms of a sustainable approach to architecture. Loaded with quotes and references the authors try to give their book credibility; nevertheless, regrettably a lot of the information is simply too biased and lopsided for establishing a sincere research effort that could be taken seriously. While the book is quick at assigning blame and pointing out our current lack of sensibility and action, it does not deliver concrete advise on designing buildings and cities. Its final, very brief chapter that at last addresses what according to the book’s title should have been a much more important section, is confined to a very general, abstract language. With often uncoordinated or doubled information between authors and graphically poorly designed, it is books like this one that in their lecturing and morally oppressing attitude create resistance to the urgent need of dealing with climate change and the transformation necessary in the design profession; it therefore pathetically fails its most important purpose – to actually do the opposite: inspire and propel along a path to more sustainable design.

– Aggravating.


April 10, 2010

The Malaise of Modern Dubai

Normally long stopovers make flights cheaper; not so flying via Dubai. Tickets with a 24-hour layover in the business hub of the United Arabic Emirates are usually more expensive than a typical 3-hour transit; this could count as an indication that the small emirate is still a sought-after destination, despite the 2008 economic meltdown. Dubai’s unbroken allurement might be owed to the city’s relentless and highly successful PR-machinery and its glossy, promising prospects that tout Dubai as one of the must-see financial and touristic hotspots in the global arena of mushrooming cities. Colossal scale is Dubai’s ticket to this world stage: the 800 plus meter high Burj Khalifa, the city’s three artificial palm islands currently under construction or Emirates Airlines as first flyer of the Superjumbo Airbus 380 are the city’s testimony to bigness. Although Dubai is currently littered with half-finished high-rise ruins, what has been built so far could be inspired from Thousand and One Nights. It is impressive, fascinating, and: profoundly scary. Whether Dubai achieves its self-proclaimed transformation into a shining, modern post-oil Arabia or if it remains a sprawling everyday strip city deliberately purging its past, historians can decide later. – At any rate, Dubai at present is an ecological debacle, founded and built on yesterday’s mistakes and principles. When Dubai embarked in the mid 1980’s on its new path of finding an economic future after the end of fossil fuels, sustainable city planning principles were only in the beginning stages of development. Still, Dubai’s refocus missed the chance of real change.

Modern Dubai is built on the obsolete concept of cheap energy. It is a 70-kilometer long thin sliver along its main thoroughfare, the Sheikh Zayed Road, a 14-lane, high-rise spawning highway parallel to the turquoise Persian Gulf.  Modern Dubai is a car-dependent city, based on the idea of individual mobility at a time when planners elsewhere had already come to understand the negative effects of the automobile to civic life and the environment. Public transport has played a less important role for the city’s progress so far; a fact that Dubai’s current emphasis on developing an adequate public transport infrastructure will not significantly change in the near future since most metro stations do not connect to anything without further use of the automobile and because of the great distances between buildings (one metro line is in operation since early 2010, another is presently under construction). In addition, the existing bus network is mostly used by the legion of workers who built/build Dubai and is therefore not a commonly accepted transportation means for all social classes.

Dubai’s modern office buildings are mostly composed of default, autopilot designs that look like imported from elsewhere, and show little connection to local building traditions and Dubai’s climate. They feature standard, expansive, tinted glass facades that lack sun control systems despite the city’s desert local. Lower residential buildings tend to feature more Arabic style elements and for example often include stylized versions of traditional wind towers, which used to naturally ventilate buildings before the arrival of air conditioning. Stripped of their original purpose, however, they have become defunct, meaningless ornamentation. It seems that low energy costs and ample use of air conditioning are the liberating excuse for all building crimes committed. The calamitous alliance of these two saviors of the heavily fossil fuel depended status quo has created exclusive environments that are completely insensible to the environment and their urban surroundings.

wind towers as mere formal citations of past times

Dubai’s water usage is one of the world’s highest, although water is scarce and has to be produced by high energy-consuming desalination of seawater. As if negating its location, the city is green, celebrates its new highways and intersections with lush, colorful flowerbeds and palm trees, has parks, golf courses, and hotel water landscapes. Dubai’s citizens have the highest carbon footprint in the world and electricity usage. An insatiable appetite for resources and energy is also known from other prospering regions in the world. However, situated in the Arabian Desert, Dubai is especially prone to the ensuing environmental problems and will hopefully become increasingly aware of the fragile balance it is in. Whereas environmental signature projects like the Masdar City, a 6.4 km2 planned sustainable community for up to 50000 inhabitants in the Abu Dhabi emirate are good publicity, only broad-based, long-term efforts can help stir the whole of the United Arab Emirates into a more sustainable direction.

highway landscapes negating the desert

Regardless of Dubai’s efforts to create a destination from desert sands and its striving for Guinness book status symbols, at hindsight the city remains a confused fusion and fragment of other, older places and their environmental and economic legacies: Los Angeles’s car-dependency, Phoenix’s suburban sprawl, Las Vegas’s ad-hoc urbanism, and Hong Kong’s land reclamation. Despite Dubai’s insisting credo for the opposite: what is really new about it?

for the UAE, sustainable still (only) means greening everything (image from UAE’s shanghai EXPO website)