Wednesday, May 26, 2010

More T's, less A/C!

Lowering this country's energy bill and making buildings—especially office buildings—more sustainable will require a host of technological innovations, from smart meters to energy efficient lighting to onsite renewable energy production. But it will also require changes in human behavior, work rules, and company policies.

Take dress codes, for instance. Modern energy efficient buildings call for the installation of energy efficient air conditioners that can talk to other building systems, such as occupancy sensors and air quality sensors that allow for windows to be opened. But how many companies occupying these buildings are scrapping stuffy business attire and allowing workers to dress comfortably and appropriately for the climate or season—while maintaining a professional level of, um, couture.

It's 90 degrees in Syracuse today (yay!) and, because the staff is in a fairly relaxed mode, some of us have come to work dressed for the weather, both outside (where the heat island effect in downtown Syracuse makes it pretty steamy) and inside (so we don't have to crank up the a/c).

Sure, T-shirts and flip-flops may be too casual for most business, but on the other hand, do men really have to dress in a suit and tie (or women in hosiery) on very hot days?

My colleague Ana Fernandez comes from Puerto Rico. I asked about dress codes in offices there, and she mentioned that her father had a formal job at a water department but that he "refused to wear a suit" in such a tropical climate. Instead he wore guayabera, an elegant, customary shirt that is a sensible choice for hot weather. Ana noted that in Puerto Rican offices where suits are mandatory for men and women, air conditioning works overtime to keep people comfortable.

There's even been research on this subject. World-class indoor environmental quality scientist Shin-Ichi Tanabe —who spoke at Healthy Buildings 2009 in Syracuse—is an expert on dress codes and climate settings in office buildings, especially in Japan where business culture encourages people to dress formally. His recommendation? Relax dress codes and save on energy!

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

For the want of a nail...

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting sponsored by SUNY Oswego’s RSVP program on Bee Keeping. The presentation was conducted by two former staff members of SUNY Oswego, who in their retirement have turned to Bee Keeping as both a hobby and an educational endeavor. Although I thought I knew a bit about bees, the program was exceptionally informative and consistent with the permaculture thread I said that I would pursue in the next few installments of this blog.

Consider for example, the following: could anyone build a bee, let alone program thousands to act in harmony as a hive? These small creatures, like other social insects, live incredibly complex lives, with both genetically determined and socially prescribed roles. Through some mystery (pheromones?) they communicate complex information with each other, leading to the sustained, collaborative production of honey, their brood, and the perpetuation of their colony.

Without bees and other pollinators, many plants would be unable to reproduce. The “miracle” of agribusiness and large scale crop production would cease. No amount of GMOs, or mechanization can replace this small, but fundamental role:

Honeybees are predominantly responsible for the pollination (and thus reproduction) of nearly 100 commonly consumed crops — roughly one-third of the U.S.’ agricultural production. Honeybees pollinate all the heart-healthy and cancer-preventing foods that the USDA, physicians and our health-conscious friends have finally convinced us to eat and love.

‘The USDA recognizes that the honeybee is the backbone of America’s agricultural system,’ explains Gloria Degrandi-Hoffman, a leading bee researcher for the USDA.

Honeybees pollinate crops like almonds, berries, apples, cantaloupe and cucumbers. Oh yeah, and honeybees make honey!” (from

While pollination occurs for many farms only during the bloom of plants, at organic farms apiaries are often set up long term to be part of the gestalt of the enterprise—i.e. permaculture. However, in recent years nearly one third of hives have been hit by a mysterious disruption called Colony Collapse Disorder. For some reason, the worker bees leave the colony abandoning their queen, brood and food, never to return. The bees simply disappear without apparent cause, although a variety of stressors are indicated.

Last night, I had the chance finally to watch a film I’ve been waiting-dreading to see—Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, a father struggles to save his son as they trek through a nightmarish gauntlet of cannibalism, ecological destruction and the total collapse of civil society. There’s no food, nothing grows. A fine silt of ash covers everything, and at each turn one successive horror after another threatens to overtake them.

The book the film was based on has been declared by some reviewers as "the most important environmental book ever." I’m hopeful that post-decline of Peak Oil, our civil institutions and progressive ideas like permaculture will help bridge the terror this film conjures. I remain optimistic that we will seek and find solutions that will allow us to live harmoniously, like bees, each with an interconnected sustainable role.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Earth Is in the Balance—Someone Tell Lexmark!

You'd think that after contributing to the downfall of the American car industry, planned obsolescence as a design, engineering, and business strategy would be dead, but Lexmark—manufacturers of printers and desktop copiers—seem to be happily placing bets on this incredibly unsustainable idea.

Once upon a time, American car manufacturers thought it was an excellence notion to introduce a new model every year, so that customers would feel compelled to keep up with the Joneses and crave ever larger tail fins.

Planned obsolescence as a marketing strategy eventually was backed up with planned obsolescence as an engineering strategy. Who needs a car to last more than a few years when its body design will be outdated come August? American cars became notoriously unreliable (sabotage by disgruntled employees didn't help). When the likes of Subaru came along, selling reliable models year-in-year out with one basic body design, evolution took over. I had a friend in grad school who put 400,000 miles on his Subaru wagon.

To marketing and engineering obsolescence, add software obsolescence. Take my Lexmark desktop printer. Please. I hooked it up to my new Macintosh the other day and realized I needed to download the driver. The Mac didn't have one for my model. There didn't seem to be one at A phone call to the help desk revealed that my printer—functioning normally as it has done for about four years—is too out-dated to warrant a new driver for Mac OS 10.6.

Planned obsolescence and sustainability are obviously anathema. Luckily, my Lexmark was saved from becoming e-waste because we'd given my old computer to my son, and the driver still lives on that computer. But planned obsolescence will only become obsolete if consumers punish companies such as Lexmark for using this strategy. I'll be looking to another company for my next printer, and will definitely ask about their reliability, software updates, and recycling policies.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, May 7, 2010

Paradise Lost

The more exposure I gain to it, the more I’ve started to think that Permaculture has an image problem. It seems the brand suffers from an unclear message among possible adherents, leaving all but the early adopters (to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell) convinced that only those willing to allow their yards to become overgrown compost heaps, or purchase hemp clothing can join the priesthood. When I think permaculture—and I apologize for my shallowness—I think Old Testament, five foot long beards, the Twits (visuals only), and “Brother’s Keeper” the documentary (again visual context only). See this video for a comparison view: The message is ok-good, but the messenger needs a shave.

I know…I’m crass, and subject to first impressions, and probably am hypnotized by agribusiness. (Anyone got a Dorito?) I’m also immature enough to think that it’s remarkable someone hasn’t already done the “Spinal Tap” version of permaculture—or “Permaculture--the reality show”. See this: Can’t you just see Christopher Guest doing this guy?

But the truth is there is much sense in what he’s going on about, and if you’ll allow me to draw it, the link between peak oil and adaptations that human populations will need to make is a remarkable elephant in the living room that almost no one is addressing. I don’t know about you, but I’m scared to death that one day I will wake up and “the revolution will not [have] be(en) televised”—no countdown to zero oil, no alternative fuel vehicle fleet, no Gaia. With a slate of apocalyptic movies recently—“The Road,” “The Valley of Eli,” even “Zombieland”—a construction or near celebration of the dystopian has occurred, and this reflects an arguably collective unconscious concern with uncontrollable change.

Permaculture offers a pleasant, if somewhat gushing, alternative with a utopian vision of humans in balance with nature. But wherever I turn, I see and hear new age, sing-song, Kumbaya-loving versions of it. After taking a few books out of the library (including the definitive—“Permaculture: a designer’s manual”, reading online, and watching various media, I’m still not sure what it means. One guy says permaculture is about “relationship,” another “earth care, people care, fair share”…I’m not sure how I’d explain it to either my seventy year old father, or my twelve year old niece. I’ve heard it referred to as ecological gardening, and one of the most interesting, mind-blowing examples of its practical application can be found at this link:

But what I’m hoping to discover as I begin to read more, and try to educate myself more, is can permaculture be a sustainable solution to agribusiness? Can it stave off starvation for 7 billion people when the oil is all gone? Is it landscape architecture, design ecology, an “informal institution of social ideals”…?

And does it “…go better with Coke”?

Thad Mantaro--SUNY Oswego

(Part one in a series of three).

On Yer Bike!

A six-month survey of Syracuse streets has been launched by AARP and F.O.C.U.S. Greater Syracuse. It's aim is to tally the amount of "complete streets" in our city. A "complete street" has safe access for cars, pedestrians (sidewalks), and bicyclists (bike lanes).

Cyclists should be especially happy if the survey results in more/better bicycle lanes. Not many people cycle around this city, but there may be a chicken-and-egg situation behind this—at present, cycling around Syracuse and its near suburbs can be a dangerous and unpleasant experience.

I used to cycle to work occasionally when I live in Solvay and worked in Armory Square. On a nice Friday, when I could dress down and didn't have to worry about messing up work clothes, I'd bike down Milton Ave, then Erie Blvd, then Fayette and into work. The trip took about 40 minutes and was mostly flat expect for a few spots in Solvay—not a bad way to go to work, all things considered. (Although no radio on the bike, so no All Things Considered on the way home!)

BUT ... no bike lanes, so cars either did not share the road fairly, or worse, they simply did not know how to act around a bike. Sometimes a driver thought he or she shouldn't overtake me and instead would drive at my pace behind me till I stopped and "let them pass!" Plus, the roads and sidewalks were often in poor shape, making for a bone-shaking ride, and you were always in danger of a puncture—especially on Fayette in the Near Westside—because of the amazing amount of glass in the gutter!

Yes, more bike lanes might encourage folks to cycle around this town, which, at least off the SU hill, is flat enough that cycling could be an option. (Plus we have some great bike stores in town, including the newly opened Mello Velo!)

But at the same time, there'll need to be a shift in attitude by drivers, many of whom are never taught how to act around cyclists or have very little experience driving near them. In England, driving tests are very strict and lessons are a must, and I remember having to negotiate around cyclists constantly with my instructor patiently teaching me how to do it. Besides, I was a cyclist back then, so felt more inclined to share the road. On the other hand, in Amsterdam, where many folks cycle, it's the cars that have to watch out for the crazy cyclists!

So, bicycle lanes are a start, but driver awareness and education about sharing the road with bikes (and pedestrians) is a must—and, oh, regular street cleaning to mop up glass and nails and other gutter junk would be great too!

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence