Tipping Points

Many of you probably are familiar with the term “tipping point”, coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name. As he describes it,

“The word ‘Tipping Point’… comes from the world of epidemiology. It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic. Crime in New York City tipped in the mid 1990’s, when the murder rate suddenly plummeted.

“When I heard that phrase for the first time I remember thinking–wow. What if everything has a Tipping Point?”(From the website of Malcolm Gladwell)

If only it could be so. After exploring and writing my series on Water (here, here and here) I obsessed about the issues of plastic, plastic bottles, drinking water issues,plastic bags and on and on. Then it seemed that I kept reading about places where people were doing something about it–Devon, Ireland outlawing plastic bags, San Francisco banning water bottles for government offices and employees,fancy restaurants no longer serving imported sparkling waters but infusing their own filtered water with bubbles and now the bottled water industry is taking notice of the increasing number of cancelled contracts. And, is it my imagination, or are more people bringing their own bags into stores? The Trader Jo lines are full of people holding their previously purchased reusable (and branded) bags. Even the California legislature has introduced the “How Many Legislatures Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb” Act that proposes to phase out incandescents by 2012 and,in a first by a national government, Australia has a phaseout program to make the switch by 2010. Canada is phasing them out by 2012.

Well, maybe not yet a tipping point but it certainly looks like we are
on the uptick of a wave.

One would think so with all the businesses advertising how “green” they suddenly are. Responding sometimes to consumer demand, sometimes to the new public relations opportunities, sometimes to the simple fact of achieving ocassionally significant cost savings, corporations down to small business are rethinking some of their practices and coming up with “green” ones. Lots of them are great, some dubious. Another tipping point? Hardly, although they might as well be warming up for the real tough regulatory days to come.

Cynicism aside, I applaud all efforts to conduct our lives more consciously and if business saves money making changes, all the better. For the real tipping points manifesting themselves aren’t so good. While the bell curve of peak oil suggests a tipping point for some, I bet there are a lot of smug faces out there as oil approaches $100 a barrel (today it retreated to just below $90 I believe.) The report of accelerated ice melt in the Artic is unnerving scientists who have witnessed it themselves. Who would have thought even as early as last year that there would be US Coastguard ship movement into the un-iced waters to monitor new shipping lanes?

Have we reached that Tipping Point?

Carbon Offsets or …

Buying carbon offsets, or donating to alternative energy research has become a frequently suggested way to give “payback” for personal pollution. Say you want to fly to the east coast for a wedding–you can calculate what your carbon output is here then go here to decide where to purchase your favorite offset if you so choose. Obviously, there is a big market developing in this field.

I personally considered this as I struggled with the unavoidable fact of having to fly many family members to North Carolina for our daughter’s wedding. There was no way we were going to pass, but I was having difficulty reconciling this fact of life (in the year 2007) with my dedication to making and modeling a different conscious lifestyle.

It sounds a bit odd to me but I am sure that the concept of “offsets” relieves some guilt and may even be doing some good. A little bit like adopting an impoverished child from Africa–you get the pictures, the feel-good, it costs little comparatively speaking and requires minimal personal sacrifice. You are far enough away from it to have “deniability” about the overall effectiveness of your dollars.

My daughter, ever so rational, was the first to call me on this. Why spend the money there? For some of us, spending that extra bit of money is meaningful and a distant entity promising to do good in our name just doesn’t cut it. Can’t dedication to being “greener” develop closer to home? Think global, act local?

Let’s say you’ve determined through one system or another that you need to purchase the equivalent of $100 in carbon offsets…or whatever. What can that $100 (or its equivalent in your time and labor) do in your immediate environment?

  • Do you have all the CFLs you need? Have you replaced every last incandescent in your home or apartment? Give one to a neighbor or family member.
  • Arrange to set up a recyling bin at work or community center if there is not one yet.
  • If your home is a candidate for solar panels open a solar savings account.
  • Buy or save up for that new Energy Star appliance to bring down your overall carbon footprint.
  • Replace your gas guzzling machines–start small with your lawnmower
  • Plant a tree in your front yard.
  • Plan a vegetable garden in your lawn.
  • Find a new way to educate/inspire your kids, even your parents through some positive action–I hand out super-tough nylon shopping bags to family members.
  • Construct a compost bin in your backyard and redirect about 15% of your home garbage.

I could go on of course. Once your thinking develops this way, the implications and applications are everywhere. It becomes personal…an investment in home, family and community.

Let the big guys fund the energy research. Suggestions welcome!

7/7/07 Live Earth Pledge

Al Gore’s latest email request.

The 7.7.07 Live Earth Pledge:


1. To demand that my country join an international treaty within the next 2 years that cuts global warming pollution by 90% in developed countries and by more than half worldwide in time for the next generation to inherit a healthy earth;

2. To take personal action to help solve the climate crisis by reducing my own CO2 pollution as much as I can and offsetting the rest to become “carbon neutral;”

3. To fight for a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store the CO2;

4. To work for a dramatic increase in the energy efficiency of my home, workplace, school, place of worship, and means of transportation;

5. To fight for laws and policies that expand the use of renewable energy sources and reduce dependence on oil and coal;

6. To plant new trees and to join with others in preserving and protecting forests; and,

7. To buy from businesses and support leaders who share my commitment to solving the climate crisis and building a sustainable, just, and prosperous world for the 21st century.

The Larger Issue of Our Watery World

An image from the series showing divers sampling partially treated sewage flowing unimpeded off the coast of Florida
An image from the series showing divers sampling partially treated sewage flowing unimpeded off the coast of Florida

My earlier postings about plastics in the ocean have had family and friends alike question the extent to which this condition is real or am I just exaggerating. A plastic-filled area of the Pacific Ocean the size of the United States? That’s ridiculous! Nobody would let that happen. The oceans get some junk dropped into them now and again but…come on, now.

As individuals, and I include myself, we are simply unconscious of so many things.

Education transforms however, and without hubris I embrace this state of awakening that is the result of my studying these issues. I remember graduate school as a peeling away of layers of obscurity, reaching into the complexities of politics and international relations. There was an exhilaration in that newfound knowledge.

Today, my self-education brings a sense of awe, acute awareness and a heavy feeling of responsibility.

But back to our watery world. For the skeptics or for the interested, please visit this well-done special multimedia series on the declining health of our oceans. This award-winning piece, a 5-part series called “Altered Oceans”, was put together by Kenneth Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling of the Los Angeles Times. Just today the Metcalf Institute announced that the pair had won a $75,000 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment. The jurors claimed that the authors of the series:

“did more than simply research the literature and talk to the best minds. They went to the scene to make the case. This extraordinary series gives life to all those generalities about the decline of the oceans in a way that should grab the imaginations not only of politicians responsible for taking corrective steps
but also of ordinary readers.”

The format is powerful. The combination of video interviews, stunning photographs and informative charts and graphs works to reveal the complexities of the profound changes taking place just out of our view.

Let the education begin.

Personal Action

Personal action is a very satisfying thing. Yet it is frustrating as well.

When practiced it has the effect of making you hyper-aware of certain things. It may sound silly but I have a visceral reaction now when a store clerk starts bagging my groceries in plastic, then again in a paper and plastic bag. I nearly shriek out when I discover my son’s friend just threw his soda can into the trash. I resist chasing down that driver who just threw his wrapper out the window. I start pacing my bedroom floor in the early morning as I smell the fumes of the idling engine of my neighbor’s black hulking Denali (why does he think that it is okay to warm up your car for 20 minutes? In sunny LA? Not to mention the cost!) Any family members reading this will laugh and say “that’s Bonnie, alright.” Yeah, the Bonnie who raised her kids with a Recycle or Die sticker on the fridge for the past 20 years.

How can personal action translate into change? The larger issues of global warming completely dwarf my small efforts, why continue? Well, I continue because that is who I am now. That is how change happens. And when I whip out my own bags at the store and the clerk goes “Cool!” or the Macy’s cashier says “I never saw that before!” I get recharged and think I have made a miniscule dent in the prevailing unconscious mindset. When someone haltingly comes up to my car window to ask about my biodiesel VW bug (where did you get that? how does it work?) I am grateful for the time I took to order those silver letters spelling BIODIESEL glued under my VW button that make my ordinary turbo diesel car look as official as if it rolled out of the factory with every intention of only using biodiesel fuel.

There are numerous individuals taking on personal action, some to what might seem to be extreme degrees. You may have heard of No Impact Man, the NYC writer who, along with his wife and small daughter are living a year long experiment of a no carbon life. In other words, he has turned off his power, walks and bikes, eats local food; they buy nothing new, use only recycled materials and stomp their laundry in the bathtub. He chronicles the experiment in his blog. Then there are these women who have started a 90% emissions reduction diet and invited people to join in–they have more than 100 people signed up.

These individuals put my own small efforts to shame; however, I am gearing up for more, stay tuned.

Water on My Mind (Update I)

Charles Moore, the marine debris expert with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and the gentleman interviewed in the film excerpts available on www.messageinthewaves.com has produced updated findings on this “island” of plastics in the ocean. The North Pacific Gyre, an area northwest of Hawaii where two currents meet originally was composed of an eastern and a western lobe of plastic debris. It appears that the two lobes have merged into a 5 million square mile area, the size, not just of Texas, but of the entire United States.

Why isn’t this front page news?

Water on My Mind (reprise)


Author’s note: This post was originally written for our family blog in February 2006. Not much has changed since then, although I have added some additional information.

Bottle caps and other plastic objects are visible inside the decomposed carcass of this Laysan albatross on Kure Atoll. Photo from www.mindfully.org
Bottle caps and other plastic objects are visible inside the decomposed carcass of this Laysan albatross on Kure Atoll. Photo from www.mindfully.org

We have an ongoing debate here at home regarding the “taste” of tap vs. bottled water. I believe that our water is delicious and drink it constantly throughout the day. I am still required–rather it is requested of me–to bring home bottled water for those who have been, I think, brainwashed by Coca/PepsiCo Incs. into thinking that drinking bottled water is more “healthy” and of course, for some it is definitely “cool”. This I have tolerated with my occasional remark about how funny it is that we are both drinking from the tap. (I even once slipped tap water into a “smart water” bottle in the fridge and was rewarded with the response–Man, this is the best water!)

Consider this 2004 report on bottled water: The global consumption of bottled water reached 154 billion liters (41 billion gallons) in 2004, up 57 percent from the 98 billion liters consumed five years earlier. Even in areas where tap water is safe to drink, demand for bottled water is increasing—producing unnecessary garbage and consuming vast quantities of energy. Although in the industrial world bottled water is often no healthier than tap water, it can cost up to 10,000 times more. At as much as $2.50 per liter ($10 per gallon), bottled water costs more than gasoline.

And if none of the above is reason enough to question bottled water, picture this – a floating garbage phenomena whirling in our Pacific Northwest ocean where all the carried-by-the-wind, littered, lost, accidentally spilled and illegally dumped plastic trash swirls together where two currents meet. This devastating article tells the story of Rebecca Hosking who witnessed this plastic in the oceans, far away from land and only seen by a handful of sailors, fishermen and ocean researchers. An end product oil slick as it were, as big as Texas (not an exaggeration), full of bottles, bottle caps, car tires and bits of broken plastic that birds mistake for food. When this plastic breaks down to the size of a fish egg it’s consumed by jellyfish and plankton, the food staple of sea life. So guess who, at the top of the food chain, is not only creating plastic, “disposing” of it, but may be eating it, too. It just never really goes away. You can see parts of Rebecca’s film here where she captures what is happening in Hawaii.

What a bummer! I can’t even begin to think of how to fix this problem. But it is important to hold that image–floating in the ocean out of sight of land is colored plastic debris as far as the eye can see. It is those images that are so necessary to shake us up out of our complacency. Only then can your personal actions take on a sense of mission, moving beyond simple fad.

Personal action items:

  • Set up a home water filtration system if you are unhappy with the quality or taste of your tap water–or buy a Brita
  • Buy and use a personal drinking container. I use several Klean Kanteens–one by the computer, one in the car, etc.
  • Bring your own thermos or coffee mug when you go out to Starbucks and other coffee joints.
  • Refuse to use plastic bags when shopping; bring your own bag (BYOB). Check out the bags offered at www.reusablebags.com or let us know of any others you might know of.

Am I preaching too much?

Maybe. What I’m really inspired to do is what Rebecca Hosking did in her home town of Devon after she made the documentary film in Hawaii of the plastics in the oceans and the dead albatross chicks full of plastic bits that their mothers had flown in to regurgitate for them. She was able to get all the shopkeepers of the city to agree to ban plastic bags. The shopkeepers had reusable cotton bags delivered to every home in time for the ban. Plastic bag “amnesty” containers were put up throughout town to recycle the existing bags.

We can do this.

Life Envisioned in Keywords

I don’t want to tell anyone about global warming these days (I mean hardly anyone). Most of us know about it. Rupert Murdock, of all people, has recently pledged to make his company News Corp. carbon neutral by 2010! The behemoth Walmart Corp. is pushing CFL light bulbs (compact fluorescent bulbs, which use about 75 per cent less electricity than incandescent bulbs*).

Good Grief, Charlie Brown! There’s nothing to worry about!

Maybe not and maybe so.

What I would like to do, for myself and interested readers, is to track the information flow on these issues and try to understand what is really happening. Like the age of the internet, climate change as an idea, is creating social and cultural change. It is controversial, and we, the United States, are highly responsible and on the spot to create solutions. My intent is to try to distill this and present some concrete methods for making personal changes…maybe even some political action…who knows… to live a more enlightened life.

I should put in here too, that I feel a tremendous responsibility for the mess we appear to be leaving the kids who are being born today. Not to mention, the rest of the world.

This, the tracking of information, however, is not as simple as it seems. The information flow we have today is “mass media” and others. Information is not always pure; it is often propaganda, to speak very directly. Exxon/Mobil ,for instance, has spent millions to inject doubt into the nascent national debate on global warming. (More to come on this, I am prepared to back up all my accusations with documents and facts.)

It is not easy to get to the truth, to feel really informed. With this age of the internet there is so much information being thrown at us I sometimes feel like I am being deluged with the force of a fireman’s water hose. Yet, in an effort to remain sane, concerned and informed (as well as productive) I have pared down my reading habits, my email “news alerts”, my magazine subscriptions, my rss feeds and my newspaper scans.

What this amounts to, curiously enough, is coming up with just the right keywords to define my circle of awareness and interest.

So here they are: climate change, global warming, greenwashing, green business, deep economy, technology, peak oil, energy, biofuel, cradle to cradle, greenhouse gas emissions, carbon sequestration, plastics, organic,local food, architecture, agri-business, OPEC, Kyoto, wind power, solar, sustainability, LEED, , IPPC.

Have you thought of your life in keywords?

*Postscript: A CFL bulb uses only one fourth as much electricity as a regular incandescent, lasts 10 times as long, and easily saves $50 during its lifetime.