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Living green involves values, not just Hollywood hype

Original post made by Nancy McGaraghan, Palo Alto Weekly contributor, on Aug 2, 2006

Living green is not a new idea, it has just become more pressing ... and more confusing.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we in Palo Alto and surrounding communities recycled, put in bike paths and preserved thousands of acres of open space.

School kids sang along to "Dirt Made My Lunch" at Webb Ranch, and "communed" with their favorite trees thanks to one tree-hugging fourth-grade teacher, Miss Bruce. They brought their peanut butter sandwiches to school wrapped in lettuce leaves.

Living green involved a few simple choices, it seemed, even though the big global issues were certainly there in the background. The byword was "Think globally, act locally."

Now the environment is eroding right before our eyes, and "local" has taken on a more global hue when one thinks of rising sea levels and more violent storms.

When Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," came to town, I was among those who turned out. Gore offered shocking visuals and historic climate trends -- all confirming global warming.

Then came the equally shocking projections, but without the weight of hard facts. For a skeptic like me -- even a committed tree-hugger -- hearing only one side of this story raises a red flag. Is Gore's data defensible? Are his predictions oversimplifications or overstatements?

As one eco-enthusiast said: "I'd rather have the opposition make the overstatements. They're so easy to refute."

Moreover, Gore didn't simplify the choices. Green might be the world's only reasonable future, as Gore says, but the complexity of the solutions can be reason enough to give up trying.

Green is today's buzzword. Eco-prophets have replaced tree-huggers. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger traded in his Hummer, or one of them, for a hybrid. Vanity Fair magazine featured Julia Roberts and other glitterati, including Al Gore, on the cover of a special green issue this month. Hollywood can dress up anything and make it a fad.

Palo Alto is stepping up to the plate (Weekly, June 21), extending its early pioneering of recycling in the 1970s. City officials have implemented fuel efficiency practices and supplemented natural gas with renewable energy contracts. All are concrete steps toward reducing carbon emissions.

The word is getting out. Yet the hard reality is that the overall success of efforts to turn back the tide of global warming relies on the cooperation of ordinary people, like you and me. Green needs to be more than Hollywood hype or a fad for the technically savvy and the elite.

If green lives beyond its fashionable, politically correct status, I believe it will be because it is rooted in a sound respect for the environment, a respect that will motivate people to live with some inconvenience.

The concept of living a more restrained lifestyle is not new, nor is it an idea that knows age boundaries, as the following underscores:

A green lifestyle involves values, "... values that lead to a more simplified and perhaps more enduring style of life in a world of change. There must be a voluntary simplicity of ecology in our economic system. Someone has said that 200 years has been just long enough to have one big materialistic splurge on a new continent.

"We have now the chance to settle down for the long haul, which will involve our learning some frugality and some judgment with respect to the use of our surroundings."

These were the sentiments of Gladys Chute Mears, one of the early settlers in San Mateo County. It was 1978 and she was celebrating her 87th birthday. Silicon Valley was looming in the shadows of the golden hills she called home.

Today there are environmentalists like her who are lobbying for sustainable living practices, spurred by a real pressure from escalating gas prices and the growing conviction that continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil filtered through American oil interests is unacceptable.

Quick and potentially disastrous fixes for these problems would be to produce greater levels of nuclear energy or tap into the Alaskan oil fields. Both options have grave, irreversible consequences for the environment.

If we try to "go green" without a primary commitment to the environment we can easily be derailed. What's more, eco-friendly solutions are often impractical or unaffordable.

I believe Gore when he says, "The need to make big changes is inescapable." But trying to sort out the science of big changes is confusing. What will be a "more enduring style of life" for us?

The boiled-frog syndrome, a gradual build up of greenhouse gasses, got us into this mess. We are told that a gradual reduction in carbon emissions will get us out. That means we can go green one step at a time.

Drive less. Buy local. Recycle, or better yet re-use and use less. Join the groundswell of support for green legislation. Not because it is politically correct, but because our world depends on it.

We don't have to wait until the tides are up around our ankles before we believe that the glaciers are melting. What will happen to Palo Alto's high land values if our lowland city is underwater?

We don't have to calculate our "carbon footprint" before we decide to tread gently across the planet. There have always been reasons to be energy conscious. Those reasons just got more compelling.

We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by opting out of the "one big materialistic splurge."

It's a matter of values, personally, as a community and as a society -- values strong enough to transcend the politics of power, money and left versus right.

Published 8/2/2006 in the Palo Alto Weekly. Web Link

Comments (17)

Posted by Richard
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 2, 2006 at 11:55 am

The most expedient fix for a significant reduction in carbon emissions is no secret. The path has already been exposed by Brazil who is on the verge of total independence from fossil fuel burning autos. We simply have to follow in their footsteps and I would like to think that since the U.S. has never liked to be just a follower we would strive for new innovations along the way to improve on the example already set. Brazil has shown that it is possible to convert to Sugar Cane Ethanol in a relatively short period of time. If we could get our law makers and big business people to get behind the effort I'm sure that our country could do at least as well.
We'll see.

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 3, 2006 at 6:52 pm

Ethanol is a carbon-based fuel. It produces CO2! This is not the answer. Think nuclear energy. It produce NO CO2. Nuclear also takes all of us off the foreign dependence for oil (think replacing war with peace!).

Why doesn't Palo Alto City Council support nuclear energy? It is a no-brainer!

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 3, 2006 at 6:54 pm

Ethanol is a carbon-based fuel. It produces CO2! This is not the answer. Think nuclear energy. It produce NO CO2. Nuclear also takes all of us off the foreign dependence for oil (think replacing war with peace!).

Why doesn't Palo Alto City Council support nuclear energy? It is a no-brainer!

Posted by David
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 3, 2006 at 8:58 pm

John: Ethanol, if produced from plants in an appropriate manner, removes as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during production as is emitted during production and consumption. This doesn't mean that all ethanol production is done in this manner, or that the United States will actually be able to produce enough ethanol to power our entire vehicle fleet. It does mean that done right, ethanol has the potential to be a part of an overall solution, even if it won't be the whole solution.

As to your claim that there is no carbon dioxide emitted by nuclear power, that's only partially true. The actual end electrical generating facilities don't emit carbon dioxide, but the mining of uranium to produce the fuel used for nuclear energy is done using equipment which is powered by fossil fuels. My understanding is that total lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power is something like 1/3 that of coal fired electrical generation. A big improvement (and every improvement helps) but decidedly not bringing carbon dioxide emissions down to zero.

Furthermore, as a source of electical energy, nuclear power plants aren't at the moment an effctive replacement for oil, which we primarially use as a transportation fuel. The electrical cars on the market right now are either far too expensive for general use, or have a too limited range to be somebody's primary car. Instead, nuclear power plants serve as an alternative to coal and natural gas fired electrical generating facilities.

The problem people generally have with nuclear power plants are their high up-front cost, the consequences of catastrophic failure, and the problem of disposing of long-lived radioactive waste.

Posted by Nancy McGaraghan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 3, 2006 at 10:05 pm

For a good analysis of ethanol production and how it measures up as a biofuel, see: Navigating the Ethanol "Maize," at

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2006 at 1:00 pm


Nuclear power plants are sprouting like weeds in China and India. They make economic sense. In this country, there was a huge overreaction after Three Mile Island. Start up costs for nuclear plants are unnecessarily multiplied by unnecessary regulations. There seems to be some type of "belief" system at work, that prevents a practical (and VERY green) solution. Nuclear power plants offer the possibility of energy independence and low-cost electricity. Nuclear also will have the biggest impact on CO2 reduction.

The energy model of the future will probably be nuclear-generated base load electricity (supplemented with photvoltaics and wind and increased efficiencies/conservation). Vehicles will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The hydrogen will come, primarily, from cheap, nuclear-generated electricity (through electrolysis).

Nuclear wastes will be stored in Yucca Mountain, or injected into the subduction zone. This is not a real issue.

The beauty of nuclear power is that it has the potential to take us off foreign dependence for our energy needs. Think PEACE!

Having said this, I want to emphasize that I fully support solar and wind and conservation efforts. Unfortunately, these modalities will not provide base load (like nuclear does).

One ohter small item: You say that nuclear requires CO2 release, due to extraction processes. You are correct, but you fail to consider the same equation when talking about corn (starch) production/harvesting/distillation. Nuclear is a clear winner on this score. When big machines eventually get to the hydrogen fuel cell stage, there will be next to zero CO2 from nuclear.

Nuclear is the future, and we are currently avoiding the future.

Posted by David
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 4, 2006 at 2:52 pm

John: China is also building huge numbers of coal-fired electrical generating facilities. That doesn't make it the right decision for the US. We need to look at our own circumstances, and what makes sense in our own country, not to blindly imitate others.

As to putting all the waste from new power plants into Yucca Mountain, forget it. That facility will will barely have enough room to store all the waste from our existing crop of nuclear power plants, and won't be able to fit the additional waste produced by new ones. Lets come up with a definite solution to the waste problem before we build new reactors.

I also hate to break it to you, but we'll probably never see a large-scale rollout of hydrogen fuel cells. The cells require a platinum catalyst, making anything resembling the current technology prohibitively expensive for a large-scale rollout. Eliminating carbon dioxide emissions in the nuclear fuel cycle isn't about to happen any time soon.

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 4, 2006 at 4:10 pm


The nuclear "waste" issue is hyped too much. Besides Yucca mountain (and as many other holes in the ground, as necessary), there is a final soluton: Subduction zones. Basically, the nuclear residue is put inside a stainless stell cylinder, and buried in a subduction zone (under the ocean). The radioactive material may eventually emerge (tens of thousands of years from now), perhaps as a volcanic eruption.

The waste issue is not a real issue, unless those who oppose nuclear want to hype it up as one. It has been a very sorry story so far, but the future is nuclear in this country. The longer we wait, the more we will suffer.

Hydrogen fuel cells are around the corner. Your argument about the cost of catalysts remind me of the same basic argument about catalytic converters that are on every car today, in this country. It will be overcome, David.

Posted by Anna
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 5, 2006 at 10:11 am

I'm surprised no one has brought up the issues of health and environmental justice with regards to the nuclear power suggestion? Can anyone who wants to live next a nuclear power plant please reply? Some have suggested that our existing nuclear power plants are the most unsecured terrorist targets in our country. And a plant in Sweden just came close to meltdown (Web Link I am an ardent environmentalist, but would never advocate for nuclear power--it represents too many environmental, social, and economic threats. See Worldwatch Institute's latest magazine for more: Web Link

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 5, 2006 at 12:12 pm

I would have no problem living next to a nuclear power plant. In the nighborhoods surrounding Three Mile Island, the property values went up (not down), probably because the plant provided relatively high paying jobs, and the workers wanted to live close to work. Nuclear plants are a financial and social benefit to those communities that allow them.

Nuclear plants have very high security, especially after 9/11.

What health effects?

Sorry to be so direct, but your facts are wrong.

Posted by Scott
a resident of Menlo Park
on Aug 7, 2006 at 8:07 am

In my view, no single technology holds the answer to all of our energy problems. Clearly, nuclear will NOT meet our transportion needs until everyone has electric cars, so at the very least we need a mix of electrical energy and transportation energy sources.

With respect to electrical energy, I'm sceptical of the "bury it somewhere and it won't be a problem for 10,000 years" arguments regarding nuclear waste, which sound to me like we're sweeping the waste under the rug. Also, I haven't heard anyone here mention the threats of increased proliferation of nuclear weapons as nuclear power production increases (although maybe I skimmed the postings too quickly).

The bottom line is that our electric grid needs a mix of technologies. Power plants have different operating characteristics (overal capacity, start up time, waste generated, # of people required for operation, etc.), and no single type of power plant will meet all of our needs. There probably IS a place in our overall mix for nuclear, but until we can find a better solution for the waste issues, we should be continuing our push into energy efficiency, renewables, and carbon sequestration from coal plants.

Posted by David
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 7, 2006 at 2:24 pm

John: I think you've overestimating the value of subduction zones for disposing of nuclear waste. The available subduction zone in North America, the cascadia subduction zone, has a plate movement rate of only 3-4 cm per year. In addition, the cascadia subduction zone (like most subduction zones) is underwater, assuring a fairly rapid corrosion rate for metal waste containers, as well as major engineering difficulties in properly burying the containers.

Until we've done a series of technical feasability tests using non-radioactive tracer compounds, I'd be VERY uncomfortable trusting subduction zones as a choice for burying nuclear waste.

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 7, 2006 at 6:22 pm


That's fair, I suppose. I offer up the following website, describing possible subduction zone disposal. I am open to your specific criticisms.

Web Link

Posted by David
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 8, 2006 at 10:07 am

John: Assuming that the web site in question is accurate (which I have some serious doubts about) burying nuclear waste in a subduction zone doesn't gain you very much. Notice how the diagram shows the waste becoming harmless due to radioactive decay before it enters the mantle and well before it is carried down to some great depth. This means that still need a containment system around the waste which is sufficient to contain it for as long as you would if you were burying it outside a subduction zone.

Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 8, 2006 at 1:28 pm

David, Once injected into the subduction zone, it should never be a problem (millions of years in this cycle, well beyond the 1/2 life decay issues). If buried at Yucca mountain, it will need a few thousands of years. This is probably a safe thing, but it is still accessable to future generations (both a good, and a potentially bad, thing).

The link on subduction zone disposal is just one guy's patent proposal - but something that should be studied by the Dept. of Energy.

In he meantime, here is a link that summarizes the nuclear disposal issue:

Web Link

The bottom line is that nuclear waste disposal it is not really a major issue.

Posted by Walter E. Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 24, 2006 at 4:35 pm

And of course breeder reactors cut down the waste storage requirement by several orders of magnitude. We might even use most of the waste to sterilize foodstuffs, thus sparing us the million or so deaths every decade from spoiled food. I would far prefer a nuclear reactor next door than a Greenpeace Pirate.

Posted by Borat
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 24, 2006 at 5:37 pm

being environmentally friendly is all well and good but once you go the route of not flushing the toilet for days just to save a few gallons of water you've entered the realm of filthy, disgusting hippies.

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