Category Archives: environment

Social scientist help needed for ‘commuting together’ proposal

(photo by cantmilla)

(photo by cantmilla)

James H. Morris, Professor of the Practice of Software and Dean, Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley is working on a ridesharing proposal to stop ‘driving alone’.  His web-based proposal aims to harness all available technology and reduce global warming and increase social capital built up while commuting.  If successful, it would reduce solo commuting by 50%.

Social scientists reading this blog are encouraged to be in touch with James Morris about SafeRide.  His e-mail is jim DOT morris AT sv DOT cmu DOT edu to offer their pro bono help on evaluating the idea from a sociological or cultural perspective.

Wonderful 21st c. equivalent of barn-raising: building solar hot water systems together

In the 18th and 19th century, frontiers townspeople worked together to build neighbors’ barns, either for the first time, or for those who had the bad fortune of their barn burning down. Accounts here.


In a 21st century equivalent, townspeople in New England towns are scheduling energy raisers for the summer where volunteers come together to erect solar hot water systems for residents so they can save 80% on their fuel bills and help the environment at the same time.

“By eliminating labor costs, the New Hampshire group has been able to reduce the price from more than $10,000 for a conventionally installed system to as little as $3,000, organizers of the group say. Federal tax credits and local company rebates – such as those available in New Hampshire – can reduce the price even further, to as low as about $1,500, they say.”

In a nice variant on microcredit lending schemes, and building reciprocity into the approach, “…[n]eighbors who donated their labor at three energy raisers were eligible to have the technology installed at their own homes. Afterward, the neighbors would be expected to provide labor at additional energy raisers, to repay the favor.

Read Boston Globe story *Many hands make light work (groan!) of saving energy.*

The amazing sacrifice and solidarity of WWII Americans

I attach this PDF chart, thanks to Todd Washburn at Harvard, from Hadley Cantril, The Human Dimension: Experiences in Policy Research (1967, p. 48). It is based on Cantril’s polling for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during WWII. (Apologies that PDF runs vertical rather than horizontal)  Note: The methodology may not quite be up to 21st century standards, but results are amazing and powerful nonetheless.

My colleague, Robert Putnam, has noted that as late as 1945 (after years of the draft; gas rubber, and food rationing; Victory gardens; Bond drives; Civilian Defense Corps; battle casualties; wage and price controls; etc.) that all required untold sacrifice on the part of the Americans, 40% still thought “the Government hasn’t asked people to make enough sacrifices,” down from 65% of Americans in late 1942.

It shows an incredible ability of Americans to rally behind calls to sacrifice for the good of the country and the world. And it makes one long for American leadership that effectively could have called for such sacrifice immediately in the wake of 9-11 or now in asking for energy consumption to forestall the inevitable global warming if we don’t take concerted action.

[If you want to learn more about the sacrifice of Americans during WWII, read Bowling Alone (By Robert D. Putnam), pp. 268-272.]

Rewarding utilities for saving electricity

Thomas Friedman has an interesting column in the Times called “Go Green And Save Money” (8/22/07).

Reminiscent of the upside-down thinking of perspicacious Charles Handy in the Age of Unreason [1989] (where for example, he proposed paying doctors an annual fixed amount per patient of theirs so they had an incentive to keep them well since it necessitated fewer office visits and less investment on their part, thus making them more money. By aligning the doctors’ interests and the patients, one could better encourage wellness.).  Description of such thinking here.

Friedman discusses a proposal by Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy (in Charlotte, NC) called ”save-a-watt.”

The program is based on the fact that saving energy (conservation) is a cheaper and greener way of increasing energy capacity than building more power plants. 

Thus Save-A-Watt would get Duke Power to invest heavily in ways to save energy consumption among customers; their efforts would be evaluated by an independent commission, and rates would increase by their savings.  Although rates per kilowatt would increase, they would increase more slowly than if new power plants were built, and given that most customers would be using less energy through Duke Power’s efforts, their actual utility bills should decrease.

Rogers says ‘”we need to make energy efficiency something that is as ‘back of mind’ as energy usage. If energy efficiency depends on people remembering to do 20 things on a checklist, it’s not going to happen at scale.”

Friedman writes:

“[T]he only institutions that have the infrastructure, capital and customer base to empower lots of people to become energy efficient are the utilities, so they are the ones who need to be incentivized to make big investments in efficiency that can be accessed by every customer.”  But the utilites will only invest in this efficiency if they are financially rewarded for it.

“”The way it would work is that the utility would spend the money and take the risk to make its customers as energy efficient as possible,’ he explained. That would include installing devices in your home that would allow the utility to adjust your air-conditioners or refrigerators at peak usage times. It would include plans to incentivize contractors to build more efficient homes with more efficient boilers, heaters, appliances and insulation. It could even include partnering with a factory to buy the most energy-efficient equipment or with a family to winterize their house.

“‘Energy efficiency is the ‘fifth fuel’ — after coal, gas, renewables and nuclear,’ said Mr. Rogers. ”Today, it is the lowest-cost alternative and is emissions-free. It should be our first choice in meeting our growing demand for electricity, as well as in solving the climate challenge.”  Since creating more capacity through conservation in essence is a new energy resource, Rogers advocates treating it like a production cost of energy (in the same way as building new power plants).

“‘Once such a system is in place’, Mr. Rogers added, ‘our engineers would wake up every day thinking about how to squeeze more productivity gains out of new technology for energy efficiency — rather than just how to build a bigger transmission or distribution network to meet the growing demands of customers.’ (Why don’t we think about incentivizing U.S. automakers the same way — give them tax rebates for save-a-miles?)”

Full article available here.

Conserving Energy: My Friends Make Me Do It

Clive Thompson (8/15/07, Wired magazine, “Desktop Orbs Could Reform Energy Hogs“) suggests that we could effectively reduce energy consumption if our daily energy consumption was apparent to all of our friends on a site like MySpace or Facebook or sent it to our friends through an RSS feed.

Friends might compete to be more eco-friendly.

Thompson notes that such of eco-feedback mechanisms already work: hybrid-car owners try to maximize their energy efficiency through on-board real time dashboard displays showing instantanteous gas mileage.  Electricity company NStar notes that when customers have monitors that display real time energy use across their appliances, they change their behaviors and average 15-25% less energy consumption.

This suggested approach marries the use of feedback mechanisms with the power of social norms, and threatens to ostracize people who drive hummers or fail to replace their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent ones.

Thompson writes:  “it could spawn a cascade of conservation. It’s fun seeing your personal energy tab go down by kilowatts — but just imagine watching the world’s usage plunge by terawatts or petawatts. It would be like a global Prius, with millions worldwide tweaking the Earth for maximum mileage. Now that’s fun.”

Eco-burials: burying our dead, uniting our families, preserving our open space

I met some months ago Nigel Lowthrop, a British social entrepreneur, who started Hill Holt Wood with his wife.  It’s a fascinating story.  Hill Holt Wood is basically a way to make sure that environmental land in England can sustain itself; They bought beautiful rural land in Lincolnshire, and then developed on the site a school that helps turn around kids at risk.  It both keeps kids-at-risk from falling through the educational system, and also financed the 34 acre woods that they have now turned back over to the town. (There is much less undeveloped land in England than in the U.S.)

One of his latest ideas is to purchase a really large parkland and enable families to have eco-burials (the body wrapped in a shroud that decomposes); families would plant tree seedlings on the burial site instead of having tombstones. The idea is that the body relatively quickly decomposes, but the tree grows. People are buried with computer chips in them, so one can tell who is/was buried where by scanning the earth. Future family members can be buried around that *family tree*. They envision that the family trees might be places for future family gatherings honoring their ancestors. And each family only gets a space for 150 or 200 years, at which point the wood is harvested and turned into high quality furniture that family members can buy. And the park becomes a place that anyone can use for their enjoyment. It’s a really cool idea.  It is really well thought out, long-term vision for how to sustain honoring the dead, not use up too much cemetery space, provide a center for future family get-togethers (i.e. social capital) and reunions and produce wonderful environmental space for others to enjoy.