Business & Technology

Free to be E.U. and me

Uncertainty, the precautionary principle, and GMOs

Even if we had perfect information on the environmental impacts of industrial chemicals and processes, determining the appropriate levels of regulation would be extremely difficult. In our modern economy, all of us are willing to accept some level of risk, some health and environmental impacts, in order to elevate our material standard of living. In essence, there is no "zero impact" equilibrium, unless we envisage some type of pre-industrial age (and even then it is debatable). Determining the appropriate level of regulation is made exponentially more difficult in a world of tremendous uncertainty about the impacts of even the most ubiquitous industrial chemicals. Our current state of knowledge with respect to most chemicals is extremely low; even what we do know is taken mainly from questionable animal research and we know virtually nothing about the synergistic effects of hundreds of chemicals swimming around our bloodstreams and our ecosystems over decades. Faced with this great uncertainty, different types of regulatory schemes have developed. The U.S. model puts more of the onus on those who think a chemical or process poses a risk to prove that it does, while in the E.U. the onus is more on the producers to prove that compounds of processes are safe; the E.U. model is based more on the "precautionary principle." As Mark Schapiro's excellent work has demonstrated, the E.U. model seems to be paying dividends not only with respect to health and environmental safety, but also economically; as the E.U.'s market share grows, companies around the world are ratcheting up their environmental standards in order to meet stricter E.U. guidelines. In turn, the E.U. now is much more influential in setting world standards than the U.S., which used to be the leader. This is a great development that environmentalists and economists should take not of: high environmental standards can be compatible with increased trade, productivity, and market share.

Dell Inc. claims carbon neutrality

Dell Computer’s worldwide business operations are now carbon neutral, the company announced Wednesday. True carbon neutrality is, of course, a chimera for a giant IT company; notes business analyst Clive Longbottom, “You have to question whether they have taken all their workers’ commuting into consideration and the materials in making a computer, going all the way back to zinc mining.” Perhaps not, but Dell now sources one-fifth of its power from renewable sources, buys renewable-energy credits for the rest, and is paying for forest preservation in Madagascar in order to offset 475,000 tons of emissions. Dell, which aims to be …

For-profit, common good

Using the power of business for people and planet

There are two critiques of Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken's book on the enormous scope of the worldwide grassroots movements for change, that I'm interested in, one being the notion that the fact that there are millions of grassroots groups at work all over the world providing basic services, fighting for justice, and improving the lot of the planet is not necessarily something to celebrate. Rather, it signifies the failure of modern society to pursue the common good. Fair enough, but that's our reality at the moment. The other critique I've heard is that Hawken celebrates the contributions of the nonprofit and grassroots movements for change to the exclusion of for-profits also doing good.

Employers scramble to make commutes less costly

Recognizing the very real possibility of losing quality employees to jobs with shorter, cheaper commutes, employers across the country are scrambling to help their workers save on gas. Many companies have started to strongly encourage telecommuting, even paying for at-home workers’ laptops, Blackberrys, and/or wireless connections. Microsoft has leased extra office space miles from its Washington State headquarters, closer to where many employees live. Other businesses are trying out four-day work weeks, organizing vanpools, or doling out gas cards, bus passes, raises, and even bicycles. “We had 14 calls last week and nine of those named high gas prices as …

The (renewable) electron economy, part 1

The shape of the oil crisis

This is the first in a series on how we can build an energy future based on our best science and no longer critically dependent upon exhaustible and polluting fossil fuels. Lines formed at gas stations during the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. Too often, discussions of our future energy system simply reflect the current array of political forces in Washington or the novelty-hungry attention of the media and not the long-term viability of technologies and proposed solutions. As the price of oil is the most pressing issue from a short-term perspective, I am starting this series of policy briefs with how the energy used in transport on land can be transferred from liquid fossil fuels to cleanly generated electricity; in the second part I will address how we can create the conditions for powering the grid in the post-fossil fuel era. Oil supply: speculation and long-term trends We can all now agree that it has been the ultimate in shortsightedness to continue building a society founded upon burning ever increasing amounts of easily exhaustible resources. Not only is it highly visible, petroleum at the pump, but, behind the scenes, the vital energy for agriculture and freight transport that now depend upon the output of oil wells, mostly located abroad. In the U.S. in particular, we have had a 25 year hiatus in facing this reality through political, cultural, and corporate resistance to change, which means that Americans are starting the race far behind the starting line. In addition, as it turns out, the burning of these fossil resources alters the global climate and creates local pollution and health problems. There are other ills and challenges in our world but currently fossil fuel addiction is one of the most pressing but also, fortunately, soluble problems.

Big Auto backs off support for tighter fuel-economy standards

New fuel-economy rules coming down the pike are likely to displease pretty much everyone, if a public hearing held Monday is any indication. In the current proposal from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, auto manufacturers must achieve a fleet-wide average fuel economy of at least 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015 — a jump from 25 mpg today, and a step toward Congress’ target of at least 35 mpg by 2020. But Big Auto, shaken by the shaky economy, has backed off its previous support for the standards. Ford’s CEO laments a lack of “adequate resources or lead time”; …