Clark Williams-Derry is research director at Northwest Environment Watch, a nonprofit research and communication center that promotes sustainability in the Pacific Northwest.

Monday, 6 Oct 2003

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

SEATTLE, Wash.

I am in a completely foul mood. What on God’s so-far-still-green earth was I thinking when I agreed to do this stupid diary?

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Oh, that’s right, here’s what I was thinking, or should I say “thinking”: There’s an old managerial adage that, if you really want something done, you shouldn’t give it to an employee with time on her hands. You give it to your busiest employee: They’re the ones who tend to be the most productive. And since it’s crunch time at work — I really, really, really need to get a lot of stuff done, and fast — I guess I figured that the best strategy to improve my productivity was to make myself even busier. Duh.

The crunch at work is this: I’m supposed to be writing a book. Or, at least, coordinating the research for a book, which is the culmination of three years of research for my organization. And the deadline’s drawing nearer even as I write; with every second I spend on this diary, I plumb new depths of procrastination. But at least I’m keeping busy.

I’m the director of research for Northwest Environment Watch (NEW), based in Seattle. In marketing speak, NEW is a “research and communication center,” but I describe it to my friends as a think tank. The organization’s mission (more marketing speak, but this time a little more serious) is to promote an environmentally sound economy and way of life in the Pacific Northwest, an area that includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and parts of Alaska, Montana, and California. It’s a region defined not by politics but by ecology: It contains all of the watersheds that flow through the temperate rainforests of the Pacific coast.

The project I’m working on is simultaneously simple to explain and maddening in its hubris: We’re attempting to assess the well-being and sustainability of the people and ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest. But rather than try to capture everything, we’re just going to measure seven key trends — a sustainability scorecard, of sorts. In fact, that’s what we’re going to call it: the Cascadia Scorecard: Seven Key Trends Shaping the Future of the Northwest.

The maddening part is this: We have a staff of just three researchers, plus a handful of interns and volunteers. And together, we’re supposed to be tracking the health of a bioregion with 16 million people, give or take a few, and a land area exceeding 600,000 square miles. A tall order, indeed. It’s hard enough for me to keep track of my wallet and keys, let alone a bioregion nearly as large as Western Europe. Sheesh.

When I agreed to write this diary, I had intended to talk about all of the fascinating details (irony intended) of working on an environmental indicators project: the difficulties in selecting just a few indicators from hundreds of candidates; the pitfalls in finding reliable data; and the problems of communicating our results effectively, especially when the results are, well, kinda boring.

And I will talk about that some. But what I really want to talk about are my neuroses. I work for an environmental nonprofit, so I can’t afford a pricey psychiatrist. So perhaps you, dear reader, will do in a pinch.

So can I sit on your couch tomorrow?

Tuesday, 7 Oct 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

So, Dr. Reader, I confess: Most of the time I am a tangle of nerves. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been prone to anxieties, both social and ontological. As in, why do I exist? And, will anyone laugh at me if I don’t know which one’s the salad fork?

So this makes you human, right?

Um, I guess. I’ve never been anything else, so I wouldn’t know. Anyway, after minutes of thought, I’ve managed to classify my various neuroses into three categories: guilt, obsessive worry, and misanthropy.

Which one troubles you most?

What troubles me most is that I’m alone in my room, pretending to have a conversation with a shrink.

But really now, are your neuroses all that bad?

Sort of. Take the guilt thing. If someone bumps into me on the street, I apologize. Not out of courtesy; I really mean it: I’m sorry I was standing in their way. And I hate it when a cashier hands me a receipt — trees, no, entire forests are felled just so I can have a paper record of my overconsumption. And eating a hamburger, don’t get me started, what with the water and the pesticides and the overgrazing and the erosion … whoops, I got myself started.

Please go on.

And the obsessive worry — wait, am I boring you?

[Awkward silence.]

Anyway, the things I worry about most are the really big, awful ones that I absolutely can’t control, like, what happens if an asteroid hits the planet? Or what’ll I do if global warming makes ocean temperatures rise just enough that frozen methane on the ocean floor starts melting, triggering a vicious, out-of-control cascade of greenhouse emissions? (Somebody once mentioned the possibility to me in a casual conversation, and years later I still go to bed thinking about methane hydrates.)

So I’ve happened upon a tactic that, while it doesn’t cure my neuroses, at least makes them manageable: From my neurological lemons, I try to make environmental lemonade.

Hmmm.

Ok, I’ll explain. Start with guilt. I decided about six years ago to become vegan. Now, I never have to feel bad about eating a hamburger: I just don’t eat them. I’m, like, totally Nancy Reagan about it. I just say no.

And that decision has made everything else easier. The cashier hands me a receipt; I think nothing of it, because even though entire boreal ecosystems were ruined to make that receipt for me, hey, at least I don’t eat meat.

So that’s how you deal with guilt.

Right, I just made one wrenching, pro-Earth life change, and lots of lesser environmental worries receded into the background. It was like buying a papal dispensation for my sins.

Now, obsessive worry is another matter entirely. I haven’t figured out how to make that go away. So instead, I chose a career where obsessive worry isn’t just an advantage, it’s more or less a necessity.

All day long, five days a week, I have to think about the loss of native forests, the incessant spread of sprawl across the landscape, the fragmentation of habitats, the decline of civic engagement. Invasive species? Last summer I got to read about that for three straight days. The seemingly inexorable division of America into haves and have-nots? Why, I’ve spent weeks reading the literature and crunching numbers about it.

Working at a think tank lets me wallow in my worry: I don’t just get to ponder these things in the abstract, I get to quantify them, put precise numbers to my inchoate fears. Not that this makes me feel better. But if I’m going to worry anyway, I might as well do it right.

At the beginning of this, uh, session, you mentioned misanthropy.

That’s right. I’ve found as I’ve gotten older that I have much less patience with people, and much more affection for … well, for my computer. Computers are so predictable; spreadsheets will never make me feel guilty by bumping into me on the street or handing me a receipt.

And over the past several years I’ve become best friends with Excel, the spreadsheet program. It’s an exciting relationship: I’ve been palling around with Excel for years, and I’m still learning new things about it. Just last week, I discovered that the F2 key lets you edit a spreadsheet formula without clicking your mouse. What an unexpected delight! It’s sort of like my marriage: I’m always finding new and exciting things to love about Excel.

So, basically, by substituting relationships with computer programs for relationships with people, I get to do my job protecting the planet (or perhaps just chronicling its demise) without all that pesky, anxiety-inducing human interaction.

I think our time is up.

Why so soon? Was I that boring?

[Awkward silence.]

Wednesday, 8 Oct 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

On Monday — before I got sidetracked by my neuroses — I promised that I’d write about working on an environmental indicators project. (Think of this as the “blatant shilling for my own group” diary entry.)

And what, many of you are no doubt asking yourselves, is an indicator? Why, it’s simple: An indicator tells you something important about people, or the economy, or nature, or anything else, that you wouldn’t necessarily know — or, at least, know with precision — just by looking out the window.

In America, the most influential indicators all measure different facets of the economy. The daily tics of the stock market; the monthly updates of consumer confidence and consumer sentiment (they’re not the same thing, I’ve learned); the purchasing activity of big businesses; the most recent unemployment figures: they’re all covered relentlessly, even droningly, by the press. It seems as if I can’t even go to the corner coffee shop without some newspaper headline or TV show (sadly, my corner coffee shop has a TV) blaring news on the latest hiccup in the Dow Jones or Nasdaq.

Gross Domestic Product — GDP — is the granddaddy of all of these economic weathervanes. The GDP figure represents the dollar value of the final economic output in a country in a given time period. GDP is the fundamental determinant of recession and recovery, of boom and bust: When economists say that the economy grew or shrank by such and such amount, they’re talking about GDP.

But GDP isn’t a tangible thing. It’s really just an accounting convention — a fiction, if you like. Government statisticians collect data on spending, investing, prices, you name it, throughout the U.S. Then they pour those raw ingredients into a black box — really, statistical models of near-mystical complexity — that spits out a single number that, allegedly, captures the essence of an entire country’s economy.

Now, I won’t say that GDP accounting is crooked. But the GDP methods certainly have quirks. An example is the treatment of software. Prior to the late 1990s, spending on software was considered “consumption.” When businesses bought software, this “consumption” was subtracted from final GDP. But in 1998, government economists started treating software as “investment” — meaning, in effect, that it could be written off over time, rather than all in one chunk. And this one accounting change has increased, slightly but measurably, the growth rate of GDP.

So maybe the change was valid; maybe software really should be treated as investment. But my point is simply that GDP — our society’s most important and influential gauge –was measurably influenced by a mere accounting change. Deep in the bowels of the government’s statistical apparatus, a few people made an unheralded decision to change an arcane rule or two. And — poof! — GDP grew by an extra 10th of a percent. Software isn’t the only such quirk: Specialists point to others that may have influenced GDP even more.

At heart, though, the accounting rules aren’t the real problem. The real problem is that, as a society, we read too much into GDP. The conventional wisdom holds that rising GDP means rising well-being. But at best, GDP tells us what we’re spending, not how we’re really doing. GDP math only adds, it never subtracts. So a dollar spent on prisons, cancer treatments, or divorce lawyers counts as much toward GDP as a dollar spent on a picnic lunch. We can be spending at a record pace, even as our quality of life and the integrity of the natural systems that support and nourish us degrade.

GDP isn’t even a good proxy for how well ordinary people are faring. Recent figures, for example, show that GDP has “recovered” from its recessionary dip — even as unemployment and poverty rates have continued to rise. In an increasingly stratified economy, GDP seems to have less and less to do with the conditions of people’s actual lives.

I see I’m nearing the limits of my daily word count, and of my patience — and perhaps of yours. So now that I’ve trashed the prevailing economic indicators, what do we at Northwest Environment Watch propose? Stay tuned.

Thursday, 9 Oct 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

An excerpt from Merriam-Webster.com:

diary (n) — … a daily record of personal activities, reflections, or feelings

I’ve never been good at keeping a diary. I think I was seven the first time I tried to start one. I got through two entries, both of which described what I’d had for breakfast (Cheerios). And I distinctly remember reading over my second entry, and thinking that the details of my morning diet would be, without doubt, of even less interest to posterity than they were to me.

True at age seven; even truer at age 35.

But this is the diary section of Grist. And I think the readership deserves a proper accounting of a typical day at an environmental think tank:

8:55 a.m. — Turn on computer. (Hello, old buddy!) Bask in warmth of eerie blue glow.

9:00 — Procrastinate. Do anything that’s tangentially related to work, but isn’t actually work. Some examples: Scan national and regional newspapers for important environmental news concerning … whatever! Or, hone math skills by converting calories in a Milky Way bar to petroleum equivalent. (Fascinating factoid — two Milky Ways contain as much energy as a stick of dynamite!) Or, edit lame, self-serving diary entry written at midnight on previous night.

10:30 — TOP SECRET. I’ll tell you about it later.

10:45 — Consume self with guilt over lost morning. Resolve to procrastinate for no more than 15 more minutes.

11:00 — Make tea.

11:05 — Get to work. Stare at computer monitor. Occasionally make clicky-click noises with mouse, or tappy-tap noises with keyboard.

1:00 — Eat lunch at desk. Procrastinate.

1:25 — Congratulate self on not wasting full half-hour for lunch. Make tea.

1:30 — Agitated frenzy of clicky-clicks, tappy-taps, and monitor staring.

5:15 — Go home. Bask in warmth of non-eerie glow of daughter’s smile; or, alternatively, hand her over to her mother while she has a tantrum.

Pretty dull stuff: The day of the typical office drone, post-computer era. I can only hope that all of the mouse clicks and keyboard taps — even the backspaces — eventually become spreadsheets of incomparable clarity and accuracy, or crystalline prose that inspires Northwesterners to cherish and protect their place on the planet.

I’ll let you make up your mind when you read tomorrow’s entry.


In my daily routine there’s a slot labeled “Top Secret.” But I’m ready to let the cat out of the bag: For 15 or so minutes of each workday, I write headlines for Daily Grist. I’ve been doing it since the very beginning of the magazine, back in 1999, when I worked for Grist’s erstwhile parent organization, Earth Day Network.

They roped me into doing headlines because, well, I’m a compulsive punster. I used to pun uncontrollably; I’ve driven away friends, shortened romances, driven my wife to the end of her wits with lame attempts at wordplay. (Whoever said that punning is the lowest form of humor was, I freely admit, right on the mark. I don’t really appreciate puns, I just make them.) But now that I have a defined time of the day when I know I’m allowed, even encouraged, to make puns, I’ve reduced my compulsive punning in casual conversations. Which is a big help on those rare occasions when I actually interact with humans, rather than my computer.

There are two other side benefits of writing Daily Grist headlines. First, I get fan mail. Not a lot, but enough to make me feel that my compulsion is, if not universally welcomed, at least not universally scorned. And second, in the course of working with the wonderful folks at Grist, I’ve actually met the elusive Umbra Fisk, in person, in one of her rare forays from the library stacks in the basement. And she’s every bit as charming in real life as she is on your monitor.

I have to admit that, lately, I’ve been running on fumes. There are only so many ways you can make a pun on, say, the word “owl.” Owl be back. Owl be seeing you. Owl in a day’s work. Owl’s fair in love and war. Owl in the family. After four-and-a-half years of stories about owls, my reservoir of owl puns is drying up. Same for whales, and GM foods, and mines, and practically any other type of story that regularly appears in the news. In a way, I’m looking forward to the day when I look at the day’s news stories and draw a complete blank. That’ll be the end of one compulsion — and time, I suppose, to pick up another.

Tomorrow, I’ll yammer less about myself, and more about NEW’s work. I promise.

Friday, 10 Oct 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

Two days ago, I made the not-particularly-controversial claim that GDP and the Dow Jones Industrial Average don’t do a good job of representing people’s well-being and have virtually no bearing on the integrity of nature.

“Hold on, fancy boy,” you may be saying to yourself, “do you think you can do a better job?”

Maybe so. Lots of people have in the past. Among government agencies and nonprofit institutions there is an entire cottage industry devoted to creating indicators that are more revealing than GDP. At Northwest Environment Watch, we spent a few months combing through many of these reports, compiling lists of all the different indicators that have been used so effectively by others. We were looking for: <![CDATA[

  • Data that was reliable, and available for free or at reasonable cost
  • Trends that covered most of the Pacific Northwest, including Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and British Columbia
  • Trends that were reflective, in a broad sense, of some critical facet of human or natural well-being
  • Trends that varied significantly enough that it was possible to detect change every year or two
  • Trends that were interesting and intuitively compelling

Many alternative-indicators projects, for all their strengths, have failed to catch on because they overreach. They’ve tried to track so many trends that the intended audience — the media, political leaders, or the general public — get overwhelmed by the swirl of information.

So we committed ourselves to finding just five to 10 indicators that really worked. The question was, which ones?

We listed nearly a thousand indicators, settled on about 100 that were promising candidates, and then narrowed the field to about 40 that we felt were most likely to meet our criteria. That list covered a wide gamut of social and environmental issues. For one reason or another, we had to eliminate most of them: high-school graduation rates (school districts tend to lose track of kids); crime rates (police reports don’t match crime victimization surveys); indicators based on public surveys (margins of error are too wide); and a whole array of promising ecological indicators (simply not enough data).

Eventually, we settled on seven indicators: life expectancy, an excellent proxy for overall human health, and one that’s both statistically robust and based on reliable data; toxics in our bodies, as measured by original research on human breast milk; deforestation rates as captured by satellite imagery (clearcuts, essentially); sprawl, as measured by census and housing-permit data; energy use, as measured by consumption of gasoline, diesel, and electricity, which are the best-tracked forms of energy; population, which turns out to be a good proxy for human impacts on nature; and economic security, a mini-index of poverty rates, unemployment, and income trends for the middle class.

There you have it: the seven trends that make up the Cascadia Scorecard.

Now, we’re not claiming that this is the perfect list. There are things we’d rather measure if the data were available. But in filling in some of the gaps that GDP simply doesn’t cover, these do pretty well.

Now that our research on these trends is nearing completion, our toughest task will be convincing the media that they should pay attention to them. You see, these trends change slowly — sometimes by just a percentage point or two a year. But the media, particularly in the Internet age, is addicted to a fast news cycle: Yesterday’s news is too old to cover, and last year’s is all too often seen as irrelevant.

But as it turns out, it’s the slow news that counts most. Though our seven indicators move slowly, their changes tend to be cumulative. They are the tortoise in the proverbial race. Slowly and steadily, changes in lifespan, pollution, sprawl, population growth, energy, and the economy have radically altered our lifestyles and landscapes over the course of just a few generations. And these trends will have far more influence on the future of our place than the economic burps (Buy! Sell!) and personality stories (J.Lo! Ben!) that dominate our daily information diet.

Ultimately, measurement does matter. To a surprising degree, we gauge the success of the entire human enterprise from just a handful of economic metrics. And we organize our lives and institutions to mete out those things that make those yardsticks improve — to deliver rising stock prices, confident consumers, the grossest domestic product we can muster. But conversely, we do not get what we don’t count: thriving, secure communities living amid vibrant, healthy nature.

Let’s change that.